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Communicating Scientific Uncertainty: 2016 Workshop

April 21-22, 2016, Washington, DC 

With a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program, the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) organized and convened a multidisciplinary workshop entitled Scientific Uncertainty and Professional Ethics in Science, Law, and Journalism. Nearly fifty participants working in these fields explored how they communicate scientific uncertainty on environmental and public health issues, subject to their respective professions’ norms and ethical standards, and discussed what improvements can and should be made. Twenty of these participants had participated in an earlier (Fall 2014) ELI-NSF workshop on the same subject. The workshop agenda is available here and the workshop proceedings document is available here.

The workshop’s stated goals were: (1) to facilitate more effective cross-discipline communications by deepening participants’ understanding of the approaches their peers take to address scientific uncertainty, and the ethical and normative reasons underlying these approaches; (2) to promote more transparent and constructive debate on major environmental and public health issues by deepening understanding of the ethical and disciplinary constraints on scientific, legal, and media professionals charged with communicating scientific uncertainty; and (3) to bring the challenges in understanding and ethically communicating scientific uncertainty and potential solutions to the forefront through technical and non-technical presentations, peer-reviewed publication, and outputs for lay audiences. This event was the first of two workshops to be delivered pursuant to this grant.

Steering Committee. In October 2015, ELI staff convened a steering committee drawn from all three fields to advise on workshop design and help develop the invitation list. The committee included:

  • Mona Behl, Associate Director, Georgia Sea Grant, University of Georgia;
  • Leslie Carothers, former ELI President and a Visiting Scholar at ELI;
  • Chad English, Science Program Officer, David and Lucile Packard Foundation;
  • Jim Hilbert, Associate Professor, Mitchell Hamline School of Law;
  • Jay Odenbaugh, Professor of Philosophy, Lewis & Clark College;
  • Dave Poulson, Senior Associate Director, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University; and
  • Bud Ward, Editor, Yale Climate Connections.

Participants. With guidance from the steering committee, ELI issued workshop invitations to a broad cross-section of scientists, lawyers, and journalists representing different sectors, perspectives, and regions of the country, with participants drawn roughly equally from each of the three professions. Participant biographies are available here.

Webinar. On April 15, 2016, ELI hosted an online webinar, “Issues in Communicating Scientific Uncertainty,” in which three panelists examined the different roles that scientists, lawyers, and media professionals play in addressing scientific uncertainty. Moderated by ELI Senior Attorney Jay Austin, the webinar featured presentations from: Sunshine Menezes, Executive Director, Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, University of Rhode Island; Jason Samenow, Weather Editor, Washington Post; and Margaret Davidson, Senior Leader, Coastal Inundation and Resilience, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They shared their perspectives on, respectively: effectively communicating scientific information, practicing climate and weather journalism in a shifting media environment, and translating uncertainty into policy.

The webinar was open to the public, and all workshop participants were encouraged to attend or listen to a recording. The webinar has been archived and is available, together with participant presentations and bios, here.