Missing from the scientific message

Dot Earth comment 2/12/09 regarding misreading short term trends:

Too Much Hot and Cool Hype? – A leading British climate expert berates climate campaigners of all stripes for overstatements.”

There’s an interesting add-on to how people are often confused by statistics and trends being interepreted without any actual causal mechanism identified. I’ve seen that in lots of “whacko conspiracy theory” kind of science discussion that is all over the blogs these days.

The confusion seems to be between scientific answers and questions.

How often the error is clearly visible in the work of rather distiniguished scientists too, points to how we are all rather inept at “public science” discussion.   If science is to lead the world it can’t be done in a closet where sloppy reasoning gets sorted out in private.

It’s not that one should ignore short term trends with no apparent cause, even ones that hint at enormous error some broad general consensus on the whole body of evidence like the severe consequences that climate change is about to have. Sometimes unexpected contradictions are really important hints about other processes in disguise.

Science even seems to do best when it can find a real conflict and contradiction in things. What’s a real mistake is to interpret them without identifying *the range of processes* they might reflect.

It’s hopelessly confusing to everyone if we give the public the impression that trends are causes, using them as shorthand and keeping silent about the mechanisms we imagine.   Trends are really just unattached information if you can’t strongly associate them with a real confirmable process, and it’s the processes the public needs to understand every bit as much as the sciences.

The public is getting a mass dose of science and little or no guidance on the scientific method.   Here’s a glowing opportunity, to communicate the difference between questions and answers.

Many scientists deal with such narrow issues where every detail is critical, they don’t quite realize that mentioning the trends by themselves or the statistics by themselves has no causal implication whatever, and really just confuses people to avoid mentioning the processes involved.

Trends are just hints, a cause to explore and “look around” for what kinds of processes to look for.  It means developing a better public language for science, especially for the many processes with multiplying rebounds, reversal effects and diminishing returns, like many of the environmental impacts have.

It would mark a huge advance in science as well as public appreciation of what we do, if we could get that point across, even to ourselves!

Phil Henshaw             ¸¸¸¸.·´ ¯ `·.¸¸¸¸



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