Climate, Science, and Perception

This morning I received a simple email from a high school student requesting information about climate change, the experiments we use to prove or disprove warming, and the public’s perception.

Apparently this touched a nerve with me. Apologies to this poor student who got a ranting and rambling message back.

But since it did touch a nerve, I thought I should share my response. Here it is:

“I don’t know that I’d call myself an ‘expert’ on modern climate change. I’ve done some work with approximating past climate, but generally not in the context of modern, human-caused global warming.
“Your research topic could easily expand to be someone’s Ph.D. dissertation. It’s pretty broad,  and a lot of very technical science is involved – which is probably the number-one problem causing the rift between how the scientific community and the public at large perceive the issue of climate change.

“There is something to the stereotype that scientists lack social skills, though it’s not as extreme as one might see portrayed in movies or on TV. I mean, most folks don’t realize I have a Ph.D. until I specifically tell them, though they can usually tell that I’ve had a college education. A bigger challenge is that academics are used to talking to other academics. We use our technical jargon so much that we actually forget that not everyone knows those words. We’re used to dealing with students and colleagues who will stop you and ask questions if they’ve misunderstood. Most non-academics don’t have the basic knowledge to participate in discussions of topics like the science of climate change, but are also unwilling to ask questions because academics are intimidating plus academics aren’t always very good at stepping back and explaining things well to non-specialists in their field. Thus develops the notion that scientists think themselves superior (we don’t) and therefore are not being honest.

“Truth be told, my husband (an engineer) and I have been accused of intentionally having a jargon-laden discussion over the dinner table to exclude certain members of the family. This wasn’t the case. We were just talking like we always do. Now expand this to the ‘scientific community’ versus ‘the rest of humanity,’ and you can see how conflict can develop. Conflict that has absolutely nothing to do with the science itself.

“In terms of the science involved, and experiments, there are lots of means by which scientists measure modern global temperature and past global temperature. The measurement of modern temperature involves first a global network or reliable and accurate thermometers. This is a bit of a problem, of course. Most thermometers are in the Northern Hemisphere, but not in the high Arctic where the most drastic changes seem to be occurring. Then we have to come up with a way to take all these measurements from all over the world and come up with a single global average. You can imagine there are lots of ways to do this. Every scientist has his or her own preferred method, which is then (or should be) described in great detail in any professional paper written. These ways of estimation have to take into account the know accuracy and precision of each thermometer, and the interval at which each was checked. All of these differences introduce some potential variability. A plus or minus amount we can add to the measurement. We call this ‘error’ but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. We use ‘error’ to make sure we are more correct. We can’t know the exact number, but we can be pretty sure it’s within this range. The plus-or-minus value that we refer to as ‘error.’

“There have been more and more thermometers over time. There are thermometers on land and at sea. There are thermometers at high altitude and low altitude. All of this has to be taken into account and often gets worked into this concept of ‘error.’

“And this is only for ‘modern’ times during which we had thermometers.

“Then we have to decide what to compare the present-day global average to. So we calculate past averages, and make all of our comparisons to past global averages over a certain period of time, like from 1950 to 1970. And there’s more error involved with that. The thermometers used in the 1950’s might not have been as good as the ones used today. There certainly weren’t as many.

“And what if we want to go back and compare with temperature measurements taken in the 1800’s? There were thermometers then, but we can’t be sure if they were sufficiently accurate or precise to make good comparisons with today’s measurements.

“And what if we want to go back further? You’ve heard of using ice core measurements to look at ancient temperature. We can look at the water itself to estimate temperature. We can look as gasses trapped in the ice to estimate levels of carbon dioxide. This science is well beyond a simple explanation here. To fully understand this work requires a lot of coursework. This is the realm of Master’s and Ph.D. students, though it’s becoming more commonplace for undergraduates to do some study at the upper-division level these days.

“Here’s a little article I posted a while ago about one of these methods, looking at isotopes from water. In this particular study, I was looking at the sources of water and the change of water in a storm over time.  (The results of the study are here.) Temperature also has an effect on water chemistry. I noticed it here, in this little study of lake effect snow. In glaciers, because all of the snow comes from the ocean the same distance away, the difference in water chemistry can be attributed to temperature. This gets (pun intended) frozen into the ice, and can be extracted and read later.”

I stopped there, because I realized I might have been ranting a bit. Maybe it is a rant. Maybe not.

What I’m trying to stress is that there exists a communications barrier. A language barrier. Between science and the public that science serves. Because of the communications failure, along with the necessary expertise needed to understand the science, there is a perceived conflict, where there really is none.

What we need to do is embrace this, sit down, and actually talk, no matter how long it takes.

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