This is what I know, maybe. Trust me.

A feature article published in Nature this week chronicles how public opinion about climate change has changed and what climate scientists are considering as a response to the recent controversies – chiefly, strategies for better communication and consideration of public input. A Nature editorial also published this week argues that for scientists, building a trustful relationship with the public is just as essential as clear communication of the evidence; to that end it suggests over-playing rather than under-playing uncertainties as good practice.

My first reaction to this recommendation was to nod in agreement. But it was followed by a mental double-take: what makes sense for building trust is honesty, I thought – saying things like they are. So neither playing up nor playing down fits the bill. Putting across the uncertainties as they are, as the scientists have conceived them in their work, is surely the way to go.

A slight difference from the suggestion put across in the editorial but an important one, in my opinion. If under-playing uncertainties was a mistake in light of the recent events, then over-playing may become a mistake in some other future scenario we can’t predict…

I think that being upfront about the unknowns is good practice even if the uncertainties weaken the ‘message’ of the research. Even if it sounds like “This is what I know – maybe”. Saying nothing more and nothing less is bound to pay off in the long run in terms of trust. For scientists, trust is more important, more appropriate than persuasive power; fundamentally, science is about the pursuit of knowledge, not spin.

But, to end where I began, a simple ‘trust me’ is no longer enough – it also takes better, two-way communication.