In parts 1 and 2, we talked about how the relative newness of arctic and climate change science, combined with a serious lack of public understanding of the nature of science itself, contribute to confusion and ambivalence about important issues of the day. In this final post in the Arctic Ambivalence series, we’ll examine another important factor: The way western science studies and describes the world does not fit well with the tools we use to communicate about it.
The It Depends factor
The most accurate scientific answer to almost any question inevitably starts with, “Well, it depends.” But that’s probably the least palatable answer for both reporters and readers of science-based news. In fact, if you want to kill an interview real fast, try answering questions this way:
Q: Is this winter’s weird weather due to climate change?
A: Well, it depends on whether the trend continues. We won’t really know until we look back on it in a decade or so…
Q: Are all the polar bears going to die?
A: Well, it depends on which populations you’re referring to, and what happens with the ice over the next decade, and whether they can behaviourally adapt…
Q: Is increased shipping in the Arctic a good thing or bad thing?
A: Well, it depends on what we find out about potential impacts and benefits over the next decade of research, and whether you value the environmental, economic, political, social or cultural impacts more…
Now, there are some questions that if asked just the right way can result in a “yes” or “no” answer but you’re not likely to ever hear them. For example:
Q: Based on most of the existing measurement tools and the 30 years of satellite data, combined with other historical records, corrected for various errors and inconsistencies in methods and geography, that allow us to look back far enough, is the global temperature trending upward?
But even that’s not likely to last:
Q: By how much?
A: Well, that depends on whether you’re looking at the lower troposphere, sea surface or…
As communicators and consumers of the news, we want the answer, not some long-winded explanation of why you can’t just say “yes” or “no”. But that’s not what science produces, and especially in relatively new areas of study such as the Arctic and climate change.
There is a misalignment between the way science works and the way we communicate about it. In order to fit stories into the mainstream machine, the media filters science’s gray scale image into a black and white picture. In the case of Arctic and climate science, where so many shades of gray exist, much gets caught in the filter.
A second misalignment between science and the way we communicate it is that news media are generally obliged, whether by policy or common practice, to seek and give equal treatment to two sides of every story. The fact that science continues to challenge its own findings means that there will almost always be someone available to interview who has a different view of the prevailing scientific opinion. This can result in a drastic misrepresentation of scientific opinion, leading to the classic (and often convenient) fallback, “The jury is still out.” This phenomenon is well represented by the continued use of the term “climate change debate” in reference to the existence of climate change, even though there is an overwhelming scientific acknowledgement that climate change is a reality. (There are still many true debates raging regarding causes, ultimate consequences and means of adaptation and mitigation, etc.) In science, the jury never stops deliberating even as it nears complete consensus.
So who can I blame for all this?
It’s not the media’s fault; while we’d love to see better science reporting, on the whole they do the best they can with the tools available and the expectations of their publishers and readers. It’s not the scientists’ fault; scientists’ jobs depend on their ability to effectively communicate their work within the scientific community, and they generally do it well. There will always to be a lot at stake with Arctic and climate issues and a corresponding agenda for each stakeholder. And we have a long way to go before we truly understand the complex phenomena at play in Arctic and climate issues.
So if you don’t like what we’re cooking here, there’s really only one ingredient that we ultimately have the power to change: the public understanding of what science actually is and the context in which it is conducted and communicated.
We all need to do a better job teaching and learning about the nature of science—not just its findings. Because understanding how science works allows us to recognize that what is often portrayed as black and white is more likely made of several shades of gray. And that, in turn, is one key to becoming a well-informed, critical consumer of science news.
Becoming science literate also means developing an understanding that science does not occur in a vacuum. The process that occurs from the time a researcher interprets their data to the time the news lands in our living room is complex and influenced by several factors–only a few of which are addressed in this series. Some influences are intentional as those with a stake in the results look for the appropriate spin, but often it’s just a function of the limitations of the machine that we’ve built to digest, interpret and communicate science issues.
Regardless, without this basic scientific literacy, the public will continue to become discouraged as they try their best to navigate the confusing sea of Arctic and climate science sound bites and headlines.