Thursday, April 08, 2010

Tongue-tied on global warming

A few days ago, I waded into the old "global warming" vs. "climate change" debate to demonstrate a simple point about public communication.

The issue at hand is not which term is most appropriate. Of course, there is a legitimate argument to be had on that question. Michael Tobis intelligently advocates for climate change, as do most scientists. Others argue that the two terms describe different phenomena and should not be used interchangeably.

These arguments highlight the very disconnect between scientists and the public that I was getting at in the initial post. I'll obnoxiously quote myself:

Rights and wrongs of the different labels aside, the fact is that there is a disconnect here. We use a term that means less to people. And it puts scientists and others communicating the real scientific consensus at a disadvantage.

Too often, we are oblivious to the way the public perceives science. And if we do see the disconnect between scientific and public language (or style), we tend to stubbornly insist that our language (or style) is the only correct option. This only exacerbates the problem. High-minded debates about semantics like the phrase-ology certainly won't diminish the common view that academics and scientists are disconnected from reality.

Should we suspend those debates? Of course not. But let's save our energy for the more critical issues. We also shouldn't allow semantic debate to get in the way of public communication, as the Google search history I showed suggests may be the case. Like many scientists, I not wild about the terms global warming or ocean acidification or ozone hole; but if the price of increasing public understanding of the science is occassionally having to say one term instead of another, well, that's a pretty good deal.


Michael Tobis said...

I'm not exactly disagreeing.

The two words mean at least three different things, arguably more. "Global warming" as correctly used in the literature (and I have seen some unfortunate slippage there) is simply a physical quantity, and not a very complex one. "Global warming" as used by the public is an issue, and a very complex one.

When a nonscientist refers to "global warming" we must fiorst endeavor to understand which of the many shades of meaning they ascribe to that concept, and then reply to THAT, not to the literal technical meaning of the phrase.

When I hear someone say "In the bright sunshine, a lot of extra temperature is coming in through the passenger side window", (as I in fact did recently) I do not quibble; I turn on the car AC.

It's foolish to quibble, but that doesn't mean I have to use "temperature" when I mean "radiant energy" from then on either.

I'm suggesting that we must choose our words much more carefully than our questioners. If they aren't aware of the complexity of the problem we face in public communication, more's the pity, but we still have to be as accessible as possible and as correct as possible at all times. Since those goals are often at odds, sometimes there are compromises to be made, but if you learn how they are not that difficult.

For instance, "I'm cutting some corners here but for practical purposes you can think of it like..." is a good line, which sophisticated listeners will understand to mean "to first order".

Simon D said...

That's a good breakdown. Sometimes for practical purposes, or in the interests of time and space, scientists need to use simpler or suboptimal explanations.

We should just be careful in doing so. "Ozone hole" has been a very handy term. Unfortunately it has led many to conclude the planet is warming because there's a big hole up there allowing in more, uh, to use MT's term, temperature. But I'll save the old ozone depletion vs. climate change confusion for a another day.