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The dangers of misinterpreting climate change data

  • Date

    Wed 14 Feb 18

Dr Marie Juanchich

People’s perception of climate change is rarely based on reality with most people either under-estimating or greatly exaggerating its impact according to new research.

Dr Marie Juanchich, from the Department of Psychology, believes at one end of the scale this could lead to complacency and a lack of action to combat its effects, while at the other people could be left fearing the situation is far worse than it is.

An expert in judgement and decision making, Marie, explained: “There is sound scientific evidence for climate change, but measuring its effects is not an exact science, it is based on a range of possible outcomes, with each having a given probablility of occurring.

“In my research I have found that when faced with this range, most people show a preference for the extreme values at either the upper or lower end of the scale and they talk about outcomes as if they are likely to happen, when in fact they are extremely unlikely. They believe in the most extreme outcomes.”

Marie believes part of the problem lies in the language used to express uncertainty. If you say to someone there is a ‘small chance’ something will happen – one person may interpret this as there being a 5% chance of it happening, while another may think there is a 20% chance.

Similarly the expression ‘likely’ to happen can mean vastly different things to different people, with some interpreting that to mean a 50-75% chance of it happening, while others believe it means a 70-80% chance.

“These commonly-used phrases, which can so easily be misinterpreted, can subsequently affect decisions taken, for example, on whether or not to build a flood barrier. We need to find a better way of talking about climate change to make sure the right action is taken.

“Words which express the inner uncertainty surrounding climate change are good but if they were supplemented with numerical probability ranges it would give us a better understanding of the way the climate is changing,” she added.

She has written a paper on improving climate change predictions and how they are communicated, which has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.