I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in grade school about science.

It wasn’t easy but it was worth the effort.

I’d like to think today’s science teachers are more enlightened about the nature of science than mine were. But much of what we learned in school about science still echoes loudly in the general public understanding of what science is and our expectations for how it works.

We learned that science is the ultimate pursuit of Truth. Only those smart enough to go through a rigorous weeding and training process can be trusted to learn the complex mysterious magic known as the “Scientific Process”. Once entrusted with this great power, we are uniquely capable of determining The Truth. As long as the Scientific Process is followed, Truth will be demonstrated in the form of Proof and can be formally declared as Fact by Scientists. Scientists do research and make Discoveries that then are added to our collective library of Truths. There’s no argument because it’s been proven. Of course if we believe the popular media, a white lab coat, messy hair, pocket protector, tape on the glasses and a Y chromosome are also apparently quite helpful.

So is it any wonder, then, that we are confused when we see conflicting headlines like these one month apart in the same newspaper?

June 15, 2010: Scan of Arctic ice dispels melting gloom
July 12, 2010: Rate of Arctic sea ice melt heats up (original link no longer available)

So which is it—are we doomed or not? If science is about unassailable fact, then clearly one set of scientists is right, the other wrong, lying or just incompetent…right?

Not so fast.

It’s explainable, just not in a 30-second sound bite or headline, which are unfortunately our primary methods of consuming science information.

The problem lies with our (mis)understanding of what science actually is. Science is a process, not a collection of facts. Science is about what we don’t know and our continual work toward gaining a better understanding. The actual strength of western science is that everything is expected to be challenged and no “answer” is ever final and free from critical review. And, importantly, science rarely achieves unity of opinion among the scientific community. It’s more like a game of king-of-the-hill: the prevailing scientific opinion is the one that has convinced enough scientists to be considered the best we’ve got for now. That means that there will almost always be some scientists that challenge or disagree with the generally accepted current scientific opinions. And thank goodness for that, because the continual challenge of what we think we know ensures that we always think as critically as possible about our research.

Most of the time, the scientific debate occurs in the journals and at conferences that are far too boring for anyone to pay attention to—unless the stakes are really high. In the case of Arctic and climate science, the stakes are so high and the stakeholders so numerous that our collective eyes and ears—the news media—are following the science at every step of the process. We’re watching Arctic Science Reality Television and what we’re seeing doesn’t align with our expectations of science as an unassailable fact-generating Certifier of Truth. And just like all the other reality TV, what begins as a simple disagreement becomes, with selective editing, cat fight and controversy. As a result, the public is losing faith in science as a solution to the important issues of the day.

So what does all this mean for how the rest of us make sense of Arctic and climate science reporting?

Debate is a critical part of the scientific process. Knowing how science functions allows us to ask some key questions when a headline or sound bite lands in our living room:

Is the finding being discussed the scientist’s interpretation of their research, or the journalist’s interpretation? One is a scientific opinion; the other is an interpretation of that opinion

Is there a strong prevailing scientific opinion or consensus on this subject? If so, is the scientist’s opinion consistent with or contrary to current opinion? If it is contrary, is it likely to change prevailing opinion, or is more work required?

If there is no scientific consensus or prevailing opinion, is the subject area too new (as in some aspects of Arctic science) or are there some key unresolved disagreements?

Either way, be prepared to read something different tomorrow as more research strengthens or challenges the prevailing scientific opinion. The consensus or prevailing view can and does change as new findings are introduced. But the decisions, policies and actions that we take today must be made on the best available science of the day, otherwise known as the prevailing scientific opinion.

This post was revised March 9, 2011.

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