The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Headlines wagging science?

This was buried in the third paragraph of a Fox News story on climate change and the questions about some of the results reported by the British MET office and used in IPCC reports [1]:

Although the errors did not alter the bigger picture on climate change, they were seized upon as a further sign that scientific institutions were not sufficiently transparent.

I agree with both statements: these mistakes don’t change the big picture, and science always needs to be more transparent. Too bad this was buried under a headline, “Key Climate Change Data Laden With Errors,” and under phrases like ” . . . catalogue of errors . . . ”

While the next few paragraphs struggle to “show both sides,” the article as a whole illustrates nicely the general problem in the public discourse on climate change.

First, it forgets that science is a process (mistakes get found, caught, and fixed – all of which happened in this case). That oversight means we as scientists are not communicating very well that reality of science. Second, the opening of the article mistakes science for a chain and not a web is another thing for which we have ourselves to blame – we are not communicating science well.  This latter issue is tied to mistaking wrong results for the collapse of the overall picture; when a field is as extensive as climate research, physics, evolution, math, etc. it’s difficult for single wrong results to bring the whole history of the field crashing down. It’s not impossible, but it doesn’t just happen the way that people might like it to.

After all the sensationalism of the opening of the article, the conclusion finds footing:

When all of the errors identified were corrected, the temperature trend remained well within the 95 percent confidence range of the original plot, meaning that the difference would not be considered scientifically significant.

I am left to wonder about science writing in newspapers in this country. From headlines about the CDMS dark matter result, which got way ahead of the actual science, to this headline about climate change mistakes and the real impact on the results, who writes headlines and opening paragraphs? It seems like the writers at the end and in the middle are not the same as those at the top of the story.

“Key Climate Change Data Laden With Errors” should have been “Climate Change Conclusions Unchanged by Errors.” Stick with the science. It will steer you right.