Relative confidence in scientific theories

One of the challenges of dealing with climate change is that it’s difficult to communicate to the public how much confidence the scientific community has in a particular theory. Here’s a hypothesis: people have a better intuitive grasp of relative comparisons (A is bigger than B) than they do with absolutes (we are 90% confident that “A” is big).

Assuming this hypothesis is true, we could do a broad survey of scientists and use them to rank-order confidence in various scientific theories that the general public is familiar with. Possible examples of theories:

  • Plate tectonics
  • Childhood vaccinations cause autism
  • Germ theory of disease
  • Theory of relativity
  • Cigarette smoking cause lung cancer
  • Diets rich in saturated fats cause heart disease
  • AIDS is caused by HIV
  • The death penalty reduces violent crime
  • Evolution by natural selection
  • Exposure to electromagnetic radiation from high-voltage power lines cause cancer
  • Intelligence is inherited biologically
  • Government stimulus spending reduces unemployment in a recession

Assuming the survey produced a (relatively) stable rank-ordering across these theories, the end goal would be to communicate confidence in a scientific theory by saying: “Scientists are more confident in theory X than they are in theories Y,Z, but not as confident as they are in theories P,Q”.

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