Sunday, August 8, 2010

Climate controversy (Letter 1)

With the East Anglia climate controversy (hopefully) behind us, Sir Muir Russell urges scientists to use plain language to communicate to the public. While I agree, I would suggest a parallel track to pursue would be to examine the use of language in media. Scientists use the language they do for very good reason: clarity of communication among peers. Language in the ‘real’ world is changing day by day and from context to context; in science, definite, unambiguous meanings are essential, leading to the development of a jargon that can be intimidating to non-scientists.

This is a gap that the media is capable of filling. When the awfully-named ‘Climategate’ broke, the scientific language was reported straight, without attempts to discover what was meant by the words they were using. In doing so, many media outlets ended up misinforming the public. If the job of the media is to inform, then the plain-English publicity Sir Muir is calling for can be achieved in part by the media itself.

With all the misinformation about climate science abounding in popular culture and media, it would be refreshing to see an approach designed to reduce confusion and promote knowledge and understanding.


  1. The problem is that the risk from climate change is given as the statistical chance of something happening. If it is high, we should act, even if it is not absolutely 100%. There is uncertainty but it is too low to take into account.

  2. Exactly. Saying that 'we should wait until we are 100% certain' is (as the late Steven Schneider said) akin to saying 'we should do nothing about anything ever'. Science is never 100% certain, but it has a damn good track record and so is worth listening to.