Sceptism is admirable, if it’s informed

19Jun08

Mark Lynas has written a book on climate change, called Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment on its content (though from the title, I would speculate that Lynas is not a climate change sceptic).

He’s also written an article on the Guardian website about writing about science for the layperson. It’s an interesting look at how best to attempt to do something that is very difficult – to take complex scientific results and write about them in a way that’s comprehensible to the general public.

Lynas, it seems, is a “science communicator”, doing just this. His area of specialisation is climate change, which isn’t a field that is short of sceptics. It’s also a multi-disciplinary field – all sorts of scientists, from oceanographers to meteorologists to glaciologists and all sorts of other -ists produce work that can fall somewhere within his remit. And Lynas himself isn’t a scientist, he’s a journalist. It seems to be an almost impossible task.

Because, you see, science isn’t about certainties. It’s not even close to that. It’s about looking at the evidence, and looking again, and saying “with all the limitations of our analysis, all the factors that could be taken into account, all the caveats we can think of, it looks like ___ happens because of ___”. At the end of the day, it comes down to “___ is more likely than the other alternatives.”

That’s what science is about. It’s about looking at the data, looking at the evidence, and trying to read a little deeper into how things work. And then looking at more data, and more evidence, and tweaking the explanation of “how things work”. Again and again and again. That’s how you get from Aristotle to Einstein.

The theory of gravity is just that – a theory. It’s got a lot of experimental evidence and some very clever deductions behind it, but it could still be wrong. Few people would advocate throwing thousands upon thousands of apples into the air on the offchance that one might not come down, though.

The theory that smoking causes lung cancer is just that – a theory. There’s a lot of experimental evidence behind that too, but then of course there are the non-smokers with lung tumours, and the forty-a-day people with none. In this day and age, there aren’t many people who would disagree with the assertion that smoking is bad for your health. But people still take up the habit, every day.

And the theory of climate change is just that – a theory. It’s a younger theory, because in many cases the scientific methods to test predictions has only existed for a short time. It may, after all, be true that the earth is not getting hotter. Or that it is, but entirely independent of any actions we might make. But – and this is the crucial part – it doesn’t seem to most scientists that either of these alternatives are true. The evidence doesn’t point that way. It really doesn’t.

But of course this can’t be proved, shown to be one hundred percent true beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s why there are caveats, why no scientific papers are entirely conclusive, and scientists know this. But it’s not immediately clear to the layperson, who may not want to be convinced of global warming or similar effects anyway. The layperson picks up on the ‘perhaps’ and the ‘may be’ and the ‘evidence suggests’ as support for a sceptical point of view.

So someone needs to sift through the scientific reports and present them in an understandable manner, without distorting the findings, and make them readable at the same time. So of course some of the scientific rigour has to go, and some emotion has to enter the picture. Which makes most scientists unsuited for the task. The nature of their job does not make them good at this, and even the ones who can write

But finding the balance between accuracy and readability is staggeringly difficult. And for someone who may not be a scientist, who is not inclined to believe the research in the first place, or who simply isn’t sure, it can be hard to assimilate that while the results of good scientific research aren’t fact, they’re likely to be less wrong than the results of less good scientific result.

The science writer’s job is to showcase the good and find flaws in the bad. But it’s hard enough to do this for theories that are already widely accepted (if you don’t believe me, just look at how many people view ‘intelligent design’ as a credible alternative to the theory of evolution). Richard Feymann on physics, Stephen Jay Gould on biology, and Carl Sagan on astronomy were all examples of excellent science writers, but there are still many people who don’t believe the theories they advocated. And they understood what they were writing about, from being at the cutting edge of their fields. Science journalists are almost never in this position, which makes their job even more difficult.

For a young, rapidly evolving, not to mention newsworthy science like that of climate change, explaining it to the general public difficult. But it has to be done. There will always be people who cannot be convinced of something (it’s a truism that you cannot reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into). But for all those who just aren’t sure (and I suspect that’s a majority of the climate change sceptics), good science writing (even if it’s called “science communication”) can make a big difference.

There are two types of sceptic, the informed and uninformed. The uninformed sceptic says “I don’t believe you”. The informed sceptic says “I don’t believe you, because I believe your argument is flawed. Fix the flaw and convince me.” And that makes all the difference.

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2 Responses to “Sceptism is admirable, if it’s informed”

  1. As a layperson who has never had an aptitude for science of any kind, I can say I generally take on faith whatever scientists decide or have a general consensus on. I just don’t have a leg to stand on to battle with them on their theories (young, old; mostly supported, unanimously supported).

    Frankly, of all the things to be skeptical about, I don’t see why people are raising such a big fuss about climate change. Even if the human factors involved in global warming are minimal or non-existent, is it such a terrible thing to ask people to pollute a little less? What would be the negative ramifications of such a request?

  2. 2 Laura

    I suppose it usually comes down to two things: money, and convenience. I would imagine that people would be really quite happy to consume less of everything if it cost them nothing and had no appreciable effect on quality of life. But of course you can’t ever get something for nothing. There are of course people who are willing to make sacrifices for what they see as the greater good, but at the moment the benefits they produce are minimal.

    And of course you have the problems of industry. Most major companies will resist efforts to reduce their own profit margin. In the absence of executives with principles (in short supply, sadly) high-polluting companies will only make radical changes in the way they operate as a result of pressure from outside – from shareholders, from the governments, or from customers. Shareholders also have the profit motive to consider, customers often do not have the power to make collective efforts, and governments are vulnerable to lobbying pressures. So less pollution will only result when the benefits are seen to outweigh the losses caused by complying – and it’s very difficult to persuade people that this is the case, sadly. But that’s not a reason to stop trying.


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