Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Warming vs. heating

In his recent book "The Revenge of Gaia", the scientist James Lovelock of Gaia hypothesis fame uses the term global heating rather than the more common global warming. In an interview with the NY Times, Lovelock argued:

"Warming is something that’s kind of cozy and comfortable. You think of a nice duvet on a cold winter’s day. Heating is something you want to get away from."

The use of the word heating has caused debate among the sort of people who like to debate these things. Here are a few thoughts on the issue.

Is heating a more ominous word? I suppose it sounds more severe, more like something that you actively force, or is imposed upon you, than warming. Linguists can argue over that. Either way, Lovelock is advocating the use of the word because of the values he believes it communicates, namely that global warming / global heating / climate change is scary and dangerous. That may very well be true. But should such a conclusion be enshrined in the language used by scientists?

Yes, scientists are lousy marketers. You don't need to remind me of that. I work in a field called biogeochemistry. The only people that would voluntarily assume such a horrific label are scientists. Oh, scientifically, it makes senses. Geochemistry is the chemistry of the earth, so biogeochemistry is simply saying if you want to understand the chemistry of the earth, you have to take the "bio" - life - into account. But it sure ain't pretty.

The thing is, maybe we should be lousy marketers. Our objective is not supposed to be selling our results. Thanks to press releases, news articles, blogs and the like, the marketing of your science is often exactly what happens. It is with exactly that trend in mind that we need to be sensitive about using value-less terms to label our disciplines and our results.

I don't know whether people will respond differently to global heating or global warming or climate change. But I know we should not choose the language based on how people will respond, but which is most accurate (within reason, otherwise scientists will drone on for hours with caveats and confidence intervals).

If the media or activists want to take what by all rights should be called global climate change and call it global warming or heating, they can do so. Scientists? We should stick with the dull explanatory labels, whether it is climate change, or biogeochemistry.


Anonymous said...

Simon, you are of course assuming that scientists and activists are mutually exclusive beings. I would, on the contrary, suppose that most scientists became such becauase of an active interest in what it is we study. Being true to both is a slippery slope at best, but one, I would argue, that we need to negotiate. If we don't then we run the risk of our results being interpretted incorrectly at best and maliciously at worst.

Although I am certianly not sure of the best way to do that.

Jeff Hollister (just so you know I actually read this thing on occasion!)

Unknown said...

Very true, the line between science and activism has blurred in many subject, especially climate change. My concern is the effect of activism or overemphasising certain results on the credibility of the scientific community. I'd hope that the people who enter environmental science because they care about the issues learn that to do good science, you need to openly state your assumptions, in other words, declare your subjectivity.

It is one thing for scientists to promote a policy or social change because of well-founded scientific conclusions, which much of the climate science community is doing, it is another to be purposely provactive by adopting some scarier language.