Communicating Scientific Uncertainty: September 2014 Workshop

September 22-23, 2014, Washington, DC 

With funding from the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program, ELI organized and convened a multidisciplinary workshop entitled The Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty: Understanding How Scientists, Environmental Lawyers, and Journalists Treat Uncertainty.  Around fifty participants from the fields of science, law, and journalism gathered in Washington to explore how they address scientific uncertainty in environmental and public health issues, subject to their respective professions’ norms and ethical standards. The workshop agenda is available here

The workshop’s goals were: (1) to facilitate effective cross-discipline communications by having participants better understand how their peers approach scientific uncertainty, and the ethical reasons underlying these approaches; and (2) to promote more transparent and constructive debate on major environmental and public health issues by highlighting normative constraints on the scientific, legal, and media professionals charged with communicating scientific uncertainty.

Ethics Uncertainty

Seth Borenstein of AP discusses how the field of journalism handles scientific uncertainty.

Steering Committee. ELI convened a steering committee drawn from all three fields to advise on workshop design. The committee included:

  • Leslie Carothers, former ELI President and a Visiting Scholar at ELI;
  • Neil Hawkins, Corporate Vice President of Environment, Health and Safety and Sustainability, Dow Chemical Company;
  • Kenneth Olden, Director of the National Center for Environmental Assessment, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency;
  • Scott Schang, Executive Vice President, ELI; and 
  • Bud Ward, Editor, Yale Climate Connections

Participants. The workshop was attended by a broad cross-section of scientists, lawyers, and journalists representing different sectors, perspectives, and regions of the country. Participant biographies are available here

Webinar. In advance of the workshop, ELI hosted an online webinar, "How Professional Standards Shape Scientists', Lawyers', and Journalists' Approaches to Uncertainty." Featuring presentations by David Poulson of Michigan State University, Jim Hilbert of William Mitchell College of Law, and George Gray of George Washington University, this webinar examined how the fields of science, law, and journalism each address scientific uncertainty, and how core professional norms shape the way they communicate it. A recording of the webinar is available here.