Journalists and scientists have been said not to be trusted. There is a view that journalists would fabricate stories or to ‘sex them up’ to gain more readers/hits. Scientist’s integrity to find the truth has been muddied by things especially ‘climategate’. If I was one to be easily offended, I would be deeply hurt.
I studied climate change as part of my dissertation at university. I had to understand that there are so many variables and connections that must be made to bring a more complete image of how this process works. We had to look at the wider picture. For example, most people don’t realise is that climate change is an umbrella term. Most people associate climate change with global warming. Most people have to realise that there is more to it than what is reported in the media.
Climate change for example is a product of hundreds of individual processes working together to create an outcome. My dissertation was based on modelling the Eocene’s sea level and seeing how that affected global air temperature. It was taking one variable out of a huge system and seeing how it would behave as a standalone, closed system. The main reasoning for this was the fact that there was no real research into the direct link between the ocean depth and climate before this study. At the time where this project was still in the proposal stage, we couldn’t make any predictions as this was a part of science that hadn’t been explored in depth before.
The theory behind this research was that it was that we knew that if we changed the depth of the ocean, this would have an impact on ocean currents. We didn’t however how much impact there would be on climate (if there was any) and how the currents would behave. The results can be summarised as this; ‘changes in ocean bathymetry do not appear to have a major influence on the air temperature’. Yes, there were changes. There were radical changes made to the ocean bathymetry but the subsequent change in air temperature was often less than 0.2°. The interpretation that we could draw from this was that either that the ocean bathymetry did not have a huge impact on climate by itself or that the ocean currents had a way of dispersing the heat gained more effectively than what we thought. We really didn’t know what to think about it.
This leaves us with a problem. I have stated that there were no other external variables other than a change in ocean bathymetry. This study did not take into account the cloud cover that would have been affected by a the change in ocean currents; it did not take into account the changes in volcanic activity that may have been affected by the changing bathymetry and of course it didn’t take into account whether there would have been a change in climate patterns that would have caused the rate of erosion to be altered. If these variables had been included into the study, we may have got completely different results, or we may have had very similar effects. We will never know until someone looks into it.
The issue of taking one variable out of its system is that it can never be used to prove a whole idea or theory. Using an analogy of a car, if all the parts are there, the car will be fully operational. It will be usable and safe. But let’s say if we take one part out, say the driveshaft, the engine will be turning over but it will not be able to turn the wheels as it is not connected to anything. You then could ask whether that car can really be called a ‘car’ as it cannot move under its own power.
The main problem with conveying science to the public is that often the research has to be cut into piece that grab the audience (this method is favoured by editors to grasp more reading figures) or watered down so much so the true findings of the study are lost somewhat. It is hard to cut down a whole study (that can often exceed 60 pages) to say 1000 words. It is also therefore hard to try and communicate what may be cutting edge research into something that a lay man could understand. Of course there is also the major problem that whoever may be reporting on the topic may misinterpret what the study actually shows but that’s a whole different kettle of fish.
The thing with science is that in areas, there are some things that we accept as fact that are still in essence theory. Most people would expect evidence to be something that they could hold in their hands. In reality, it’s a different matter.
Take the Earth for example. Scientists tell us that it has a solid inner core, a liquid outer core, a mainly solid mantle, a plastic aesthenosphere and a solid crust. We cannot venture to the inner core as the pressure and the heat would kill us before we even reach the mantle but we accept that this configuration of a solid inner core, liquid outer core, etc is probably true. Our evidence comes from predominately seismic waves. We can measure those, we can make calculations to try and work out the depth of the aesthenosphere from them but we cannot drill down to that exact point to check out calculations. Science can still be theory, but those theories are the best explanation of things using the data that we can actually collect. As time goes on, we will develop better instruments and technologies which would help us make better measurements and in turn let us have a better understanding. Then we can probably put a lot of theories to rest and say, ‘yes, they are fact’.
The crux of the matter is; science is only as accurate as the accuracy of the data we collect is. Especially with this Earth, we cannot be completely sure on how every process behaves and how they all affect one another. Most of the time can only say what we think is happening.
I am aware that there is a lot things I have glossed over many topics and that may people reading this may disagree with me on certain items but I am only outlining the facts that I believe in
So in conclusion, not everything in the media is the full story. There will always be points that have to be cut to make the article more readable; there will always be grey areas where something is not fill understood but if you want to get the full picture of what is being reported, you have to look at the original documentation. By this I mean the scientific journals that cover the topic. Only then can you start getting a much broader view.
- Texas A&M prof says study shows that clouds don’t cause climate change (eurekalert.org)
- Climate Change Provokes Worries in World’s Breadbasket (scientificamerican.com)
- Kelly Rigg: Climate Change and Extreme Weather: We’re Asking the Wrong Question (huffingtonpost.com)
- Journal Editor Quits Over Climate Change Hullabaloo (newser.com)