The Incomprehensible Jargon of Science

We blogged recently about the challenges of communicating scientific uncertainty to the public, especially when it comes to climate science. The October 2011 issue of Physics Today contains yet another article addressing the very same concept. From the article:

Scientists typically fail to craft simple, clear messages and repeat them often. They commonly overdo the level of detail, and people can have difficulty sorting out what is important. In short, the more you say, the less they hear. And scientists tend to speak in code. We encourage them to speak in plain language and choose their words with care. Many words that seem perfectly normal to scientists are incomprehensible jargon to the wider world. And there are usually simpler substitutes.

We particularly like the table provided at the end of the article, titled "Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public." For example, the scientific term "uncertainty" translates to "ignorance" for the general public; the article suggests scientists use the word "range" instead. Error, which the general public reads as "mistake, wrong, incorrect," might be better replaced by "difference from exact true number."

The Downside of Research: How Small Uncertainties Can Lead to Big Differences

Contrary to popular perception, most research yields very few conclusions with 100 percent certainty. That's why you'll often hear economists state their conclusions with "95 percent certainty." It means they're pretty sure, but there's still a small margin for error. The science of climate change is no different, and, according to a Washington Post blog post, scientists are currently struggling with how to explain that uncertainty to the public. "What do you do when there’s a small but real chance that global warming could lead to a catastrophe?" asks Brad Plumer. "How do you talk about that in a way that’s useful to policymakers?"

Study Shows Animals Starting to Move to Higher Latitudes, Elevations

A new study out of the University of York shows that animals are moving to higher latitudes and elevations as a result of global warming. The research, which is a meta-analysis of previous individual studies, finds that about 1,300 species are shifting habitat faster than had previously been assumed. But they're not all moving toward cooler temperatures. The data are mostly skewed toward Europe and North America. Here's the abstract:

The distributions of many terrestrial organisms are currently shifting in latitude or elevation in response to changing climate. Using a meta-analysis, we estimated that the distributions of species have recently shifted to higher elevations at a median rate of 11.0 meters per decade, and to higher latitudes at a median rate of 16.9 kilometers per decade. These rates are approximately two and three times faster than previously reported. The distances moved by species are greatest in studies showing the highest levels of warming, with average latitudinal shifts being generally sufficient to track temperature changes. However, individual species vary greatly in their rates of change, suggesting that the range shift of each species depends on multiple internal species traits and external drivers of change. Rapid average shifts derive from a wide diversity of responses by individual species.

Carbon Taxes in Canada, Solar Shutdown in Massachusetts: Climate Lessons For California

Recent news delivered two different verdicts on two different climate policy experiments, both of which carry lessons for California and its delayed carbon reduction plan. The first, a revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia is “a winner.” So says The Economist. But the second, the Massachusetts front of President Obama’s green jobs initiative, is a failure. What else to conclude from this week’s bankruptcy filing by Evergreen Solar, a recipient of millions in federal stimulus dollars and state subsidies?

There are lessons in both stories for lawmakers in the U.S., especially our environmental policy frontiersmen in California, who in 2013 will impose the only carbon policy outside Europe to rival that of our northern neighbor in its seriousness and aggressiveness.

Surprise, Surprise: The Future Remains Hard to Predict

"There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts."

In what realm do you think this "huge discrepancy" exists? The financial markets? Politics? Pharmaceutical research?

Given how bad humans are at predicting the future, this discrepancy could exist just about anywhere. But the above quote, from the University of Alabama-Huntsville climate scientist Roy Spencer, is talking about computer models that predict global warming:

Scientific Literacy Does Not Increase Concern Over Climate Change; Now Go Shout About It

A new study by the Cultural Cognition Project, a team headed up by Yale law professor Dan Kahan, shows that people who are more science- and math-literate tend to be more skeptical about the consequences of climate change. Increased scientific literacy also leads to higher polarization on climate-change issues:

The conventional explanation for controversy over climate change emphasizes impediments to public understanding: Limited popular knowledge of science, the inability of ordinary citizens to assess technical information, and the resulting widespread use of unreliable cognitive heuristics to assess risk. A large survey of U.S. adults (N = 1540) found little support for this account. On the whole, the most scientifically literate and numerate subjects were slightly less likely, not more, to see climate change as a serious threat than the least scientifically literate and numerate ones. More importantly, greater scientific literacy and numeracy were associated with greater cultural polarization: Respondents predisposed by their values to dismiss climate change evidence became more dismissive, and those predisposed by their values to credit such evidence more concerned, as science literacy and numeracy increased. We suggest that this evidence reflects a conflict between two levels of rationality: The individual level, which is characterized by citizens’ effective use of their knowledge and reasoning capacities to form risk perceptions that express their cultural commitments; and the collective level, which is characterized by citizens’ failure to converge on the best available scientific evidence on how to promote their common welfare. Dispelling this, “tragedy of the risk-perception commons,” we argue, should be understood as the central aim of the science of science communication.

Cholera: More Complicated Than You Think?

Cholera, long considered "a disease of filth carried in sewage," is a little more complicated than that, writes the science journalist Sonia Shah. "[R]esearch on cholera's natural habitat and links to the climate have revealed a revolutionary new understanding of the disease as one shaped just as much by environment, hydrology, and weather patterns as by poor sanitation," writes Shah. "And as temperatures continue to rise this century, cholera outbreaks may become increasingly common, with the bacteria growing more rapidly in warmer waters."

Is Climate-Change Hysteria Bad for the Environment?

A new study called "Apocalypse Soon?" by the psychologists Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (summarized by the BPS Research Digest) finds that, for people who implicitly believe the world is fair, dire warnings about climate change may make them more skeptical about the concept.

Beware the Melting Permafrost

What happens if and when Siberia's permafrost melts away? Behold the release of methane.

The Biggest Bang for the Climate-Change Buck?

The world is full of efforts and estimates toward reducing carbon emissions. A new paper by David Wheeler and Dan Hammer argues that the best bang for the climate change buck may lie in family planning and girls' education: $1 million spent could save 250,000 tons of CO2.