Scientists are from Mars, the public is from Earth

By Phil Plait | October 19, 2011 7:00 am

The American Geophysical Union blog has a link up to a very interesting table, and I feel strongly enough about this topic that I want to share it with you. It’s a list of words scientists use when writing or otherwise communicating science, what the scientists mean when they use that word, and most importantly what the public hears.

[Click to enverbumnate.]

I’ll admit, when I read it I laughed. But then my chuckle dried up when I realized just how dead accurate this is. And the smile pretty much left my face when I read that this table is from an article called "Communicating the Science of Climate Change," by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, from the October 2011 issue of Physics Today.

Yup. I think they have a pretty good point.

My career at the moment could pretty much be called "Science Communicator". I do it here on this blog, I do it on Blastr and in Discover magazine, and when I give talks. Before that (and I guess it’s an occupation that never really leaves you) I was a professional scientist for many years. My training ran deep: 4 years undergrad, 6-7 in grad school, then a decade or so of research after that. I could toss around the phrase "Don’t over-iterate the Lucy-Richardson deconvolution algorithm or else you’ll amplify the noise and get spurious data spikes" with the best of ‘em.

As a science writer, though, I can’t use that! I have to say, "Cleaning up a digital image means using sophisticated mathematical techniques that can sometimes mess the image up and fool you into thinking something’s there that really isn’t."

I hope you can appreciate the difference.

So when I write, I try pretty hard to make the science topic accessible without "dumbing it down". I assume my reader is intelligent, but unfamiliar with the concepts I might be discussing. I try to define words if a reader might not know them, or link to someplace they can get more info if they need it.

But as that table shows, there are plenty of words I use all the time that someone else might know, and think means something else. And this is incredibly important, especially if a science writer — as happens more and more often these days — needs to defuse some sort of political spin thrust upon a topic. A classic example in the wholly-manufactured Climategate "controversy". A lot of hot air was generated over the use of the word "trick" in the stolen emails — which most people interpreted as meaning the scientists did something underhanded and sneaky to hide something important. In reality, we use that word to just mean a method of doing something that’s clever. It’s like saying, "The trick in never losing your car keys is to always hang them on a hook by the door that leads outside." See the difference?

But over that, political battles are won or lost.

There are times I fret over a word in a post. It took me a while to start using the word "denier" instead of "skeptic", for example, but the difference is important. I’ve fought for years to teach people that skepticism is not cynicism or denial; it’s asking for and looking at evidence logically and rationally (in a nutshell). What’s funny is that now the media uses phrases like "climate skeptic" when talking about some people who are not skeptics, in that they are not looking at the evidence logically and rationally. They look at evidence so they can figure out how to spin it, cast doubt in the mind of the public over something that is actually a fact.

That’s why I call it "denial". The word fits, and I intend to continue using it when it does.

I could go on and on.

But here’s the point: communication isn’t simply casting out information from atop a tower. There are two parts to it: presenting an idea to someone, and them understanding it. Sometimes we have to change the way we word things to make that second half happen. Otherwise we’re shouting all the facts in the Universe to an empty room.

Tip o’ the thesaurus to Joanne Manaster.

Comments (150)

  1. Chris

    Yes, people are stupid.

  2. I have to be super-careful when writing to clearly define things like “Work”, “force,” and “energy.” Also, in the public mind, all too often “quantum” = “magic.” :)

    This chart is even more of an eye-opener. I just realized that even though I know what “positive trend” and “positive feedback” mean scientifically, there’s a part of my brain that still sees “positive” and thinks “good.” I’m always having to consciously self-correct for that.

  3. Childermass

    That meaning of “trick” is hardly jargon. That was not people not knowing technical jargon, but rather people with poor English vocabularies or more likely: people who let their ideology trump their vocabulary.

  4. Anonymosity

    I’ll throw in “Experiment”. The public sees “tinker with, mess around with, or try it out”. Better word: “Investigation”

  5. Christian Ready

    I think the use of the word “trick” is a perfect example. While it may not be jargon, it’s a simple use of the term that applies in every day life as well as in research, as Phil illustrates. But even recognizing that scientists have several data analysis tricks up their sleeve, just saying that even makes me feel that there’s something underhanded going on :)

  6. Jay

    @Chris (#1): It isn’t necessarily that people are stupid. In some cases it’s just different backgrounds and training. An oversimplified example: As a mathematician and engineer, I read “vector” and think “quantity with amplitude and direction” or “arrow”, but my mother-in-law was a nurse and thought “disease-carrying organism”. Most of the population has probably never even heard of the word.

    In other cases, like the “trick” controversy, it’s deliberate distortion. It plays on general ignorance, which isn’t the same as stupidity.

  7. Curt

    I think this falls under: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

  8. Pete Jackson

    Scientific term: Bad Astronomy

    Public Meaning: Giant asteroid demolishes the Earth

    Better Choice: Director’s License

  9. Infinite123Lifer

    You know what Phil? I am extremely pleased that you ventured across this list and pointed out some of your reconciliations with the art of communication. And this subject is vastly larger than that list. I truly think that the only reason I post is to show some academically inclined folks out there that a person like me, who absolutely loves the sciences, has an almost impossible time understanding them but that I care to learn as much as possible so that I may share what I know to be true or at least what I think to be correct with another. I don’t believe I am that stupid either, I am just not that smart in that way.

    I think its probably a little tough to dumb-down most of the nasty math or physics or what have you but I think it is highly important to keep it in mind especially in the position of being an advocate for good fundamental science. This exact subject had been nagging in my mind and I wanted to present the idea but alas, patience & you hit it right on the nose with this article. It is an incredibly impossible job Phil. We are only human in the end and can only “do” so much (thats what you remember when the going gets tough).

    Collectively our skill sets lie in various spectrums and building a solid definable bridge between the number crunching big boys and girls and the inquisitive less informed, under-educated and probably vastly larger populace is a monumental and most needed and ongoing task, not to mention all the varying levels of. . . awareness (?) in between the opposite ends of said spectrum.

    For I am truly interested but just cant grasp the totality of the power of deduction. I thank you for teaching us with patience and a steady wording and more importantly a steady resolve to get to the bottom and share that experience. This is very important. Each parent will deal with this exact same thing throughout their child’s Life. Each person will be forced to embrace this understanding at some point in there Life with somebody. In fact Phil, I think this might be the most important post I have ever read. But I am partial to the idea . . . I have toiled over how to understand vast amounts of the worlds information for 20 years, and have fallen short always of my desired goals in learning and have always sought to make that gap more bridgeable.

    @1. I cannot argue that. But really? Anybody out there wanna take all their knowledge to the grave? People are a lot of things and as any teacher can tell you. . . lead the horse to water, it might not be smart enough to drink, but thats no reason to stop trying. Everybody can learn “something” from anybody. The task with science education is daunting, but keep bringing the horses to the water and perhaps one day, one horse will drink, and that horse can teach another and so on and so forth. They key as you mentioned is really. . . how do you explain some things which require calculating analytical critical thinking to those who do not “currently” possess those skills.

    I do not think there are any easy answers. It is something the teachers and the learners deal with individually. It takes effort, understanding and dedication from both sides. We never stop learning, but when some are so so so far behind I don’t blame some prof’s for getting a little testy or impatient with a trailing student persay.

    You have worded it wonderfully. It is deeply important. Its one of those functions that just has to happen underneath all the daily events if you know what I mean. Its that patience and dedication from both which keeps the sparks alive I believe and the process growing. For you may teach me just enough to get the next genius started on an idea.

    Also, for those of you who do not know . . . teaching is a wonderful way to really grasp what you already think you know :) I wish I could get to the heart of my feelings about this bridge between those in the “know” and those in the “want to know” and those in the “don’t have a clue to know”. It is not something really to be discussed I think but rather just for each individual to understand within themselves whatever side of the fence they should happen to be on that we all have to strive to really help each other be interested to partake and understand what is really important in this Life.

    I think you have arrived at fantastically powerful conclusions Phil.

    I only wish I could touche as formidably.

  10. What I think a lot of people are missing about this table, and the discussion going on about it all over the internet, is that it’s not that “the public doesn’t understand science terms” or that one group is using a word incorrectly, but rather that these words have more than one meaning. A perfect example of this is the term “cosmopolitan”. A New York Socialite would be just as correct describing him or herself as cosmopolitan as an ecologist would be describing the distribution of cockroaches as cosmopolitan. In this case, context is key, but when you’re writing for a non-specialist audience, it’s your responsibility to adapt to that context.

  11. Ron1

    Phil said, “I’ll admit, when I read it I laughed. But then my chuckle dried up when I realized just how dead accurate thiss. And the smile pretty much left my face … ”

    …………………………….

    Well, duh.

    I saw this starting to happen as a science loving, geeky kid of about 10 or 11 when science based discussions came up in class. It became obvious to me that the words I was using did not mean the same thing as the words my less science-obsessed classmates were using and I’ve continued to notice a differences throughout my life, the classic being, “it’s just a theory”.

    Keep in mind, when I was a kid, all students (in my province) used pretty much the same textbooks, our teachers used the same curriculum, and they used a film projector to show us the same educational films. In short, we learned a common language of science (although it wasn’t always, as I’ve indicated reflected as the same language, thereafter.) Compare and contrast that with today where anyone can present as an expert with their own message and they can do so on a multitude of media platforms.

    This is a discussion that should have taken place in classroom decades ago. Unfortunately, we are now paying the price for that oversight.

    So, how about it teachers? It’s your job to ensure that these terms are used appropriately.

    Cheers

  12. Jake

    I think I’m going to hang this in my cubical. It drives me nuts how often scientific terms (especially theory) are blatantly misused by people.

  13. CreidS

    Unsurprisingly, all of the abused words are of Latin (or Greek) origin.

    A pro tip from Orwell:

    “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” (from Politics and the English Language, which every scientist should now read).

    Scientists (usually) use Latinate words correctly: to talk about precisely defined things. You mean them sincerly. You have been trained to do so for many, many years.

    This is not how it passes in the general language, because most English speakers are not trained in their use. We learn: “See the dog run” not “View the coursing canine”. We’re more comfortable with English words, because their meaning is solid. Notice how “aerosol” turns into “spray can”. Their ‘better choices’ could be improved as well; “small /air/ particle”, for instance.

  14. Pete

    @Jay (#6…I am the new #2) – the general public, when it hears “vector” thinks, “Roger, Roger, this is Oveur, over.”

  15. CreidS

    @Southern Fried Scientist:

    “A New York Socialite would be just as correct describing him or herself as cosmopolitan as an ecologist would be describing the distribution of cockroaches as cosmopolitan.”

    Please don’t use that example in public!

  16. So when I write, I try pretty hard to make the science topic accessible without “dumbing it down”. I assume my reader is intelligent, but unfamiliar with the concepts I might be discussing.

    And I appreciate that.

    There are two parts to it: presenting an idea to someone, and them understanding it. Sometimes we have to change the way we word things to make that second half happen.

    Unfortunately, “The Scientific Understanding (Based on All Currently Available Evidence) of Evolution” doesn’t quite have that “roll off the tongue” sound to it. :-)

    Remember, “Gravity is Just a Theory”.

  17. She

    Kudos! Great work. Keep going!

  18. Jay (#6):

    As a mathematician and engineer, I read “vector” and think “quantity with amplitude and direction” or “arrow”, but my mother-in-law was a nurse and thought “disease-carrying organism”. Most of the population has probably never even heard of the word.

    And thereby missed the jokes in “Airplane”.

  19. Alexa K.

    I really question the wisdom of saying that “vicious cycle” is a better choice than “positive feedback.” I mean, “self-reinforcing cycle” is clearly the best choice, but recommending the use of the word “vicious” in an inherently scientific context seems to invite a strong (and unnecessary) emotional response.

  20. Physicalist

    It’s an important point and a good chart. Worth discussing in classes, I’d say. I’ll mention it in mine.

  21. Rhett Allain

    To replace “theory”, I suggest the word “model” rather than “scientific understanding”.

  22. Melissa

    I teach undergraduate introductory science classes for non-science major students – the students are generally taking the courses to fulfil general education requirements. The use of words in a science vs. non-science context is a huge problem. I work very hard in my class to minimize the amount of specific astronomical jargon I use (think “spectral type” and “eccentricity”), and when I run into words that have different general-public and scientific meanings, I try to be clear about MY meaning.

    This can be frustrating, because some of the problems are due to poor understanding of vocabulary on the part of the students, i.e. many of them say “rotate around” when they mean “orbit around”. I tackle the meaning of “rotation” several times throughout the semester, and some of them never get it.

    Other terms, such as those on the list, just have very different meanings based on context. But if the students are not science majors, why should we expect them to know the different meanings? I try to see this as an opportunity to show how words can be used in different contexts, and that certainly happens in other contexts besides just “science vs. non-science”. This is part of their education, whether they realize it or not.

    When communicating with the general public outside of a classroom (where they feel no obligation to try to understand it if they don’t want to), it’s extra important to be clear. Many scientists don’t realize that they are being so confusing to their students and/or the public. An article like this, and the original list and website, are very useful, and hopefully they will be an eye-opener for some scientists.

    Melissa

  23. Grad Student

    And don’t forget the word “normal”!

  24. Techskeptic

    Consensus

    Tiny fraction of population took a vote.

    Available scientific literature leads in this direction

  25. John EB Good

    Phil, though I don’t post often here, rest assured I read you regularly. You do a great scientific popularization job and I get everything even though English is not my daily and native language. I’ll go as far as saying you may do a better service to science than when looking at those dots in pictures taken in space.

    I know, making a great discovery is the most exiting thing that can happen to a scientist, and it’s not by writing this blog you’ll make one, but sharing the science with all people who dare to read you, in these days more than ever, if far more helpfull to universal science than figuring out a clue to what may be dark matter. I have this strong opinion that a good scientist knows well his stuff, but great ones can explain it well to the first «clueless about science» person met in the street.

    Who would be God without His priests? Well, I often go in pelerinage by reading Hawking, Susskind, Greene, Weinberg, deGrasse-Tyson and others, but more than once a week, I come here to see what my pastor has to say! ;)

    Science keeps alive thanks to people like you.

  26. Techskeptic

    Trick

    Devious plot to fool the public

    Refreshingly simple method to accomplish something

  27. Mapnut

    What to you get when you cross a mosquito with a rock climber?

    You can’t cross a mosquito with a rock climber; one’s a vector and the other is a scaler.

    We had an interesting discussion of public vs. scientific understanding of “skeptic” here: http://www.bautforum.com/showthread.php/86873-Why-quot-Skeptics-quot?highlight=why+skeptics

  28. lunchstealer

    I like using the word ‘conjecture’ for Intelligent Design, since in Scientific terms, it arguably doesn’t even rise to the level of a hypothesis, much less theory.

    Also, I was amused to sit next to a pair of twentysomethongs on the train last night espousing all manner if 9/11 truther ideas to each other. It occurs to me that this is a similar form of denialism, although it doesn’t strike me as being as harmful as climate/environmental denial.

  29. Blargh

    As a mathematician and engineer, I read “vector” and think “quantity with amplitude and direction” or “arrow”, but my mother-in-law was a nurse and thought “disease-carrying organism”. Most of the population has probably never even heard of the word.

    Q: What do you get when you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber?
    A: Nothing. You can’t cross a vector with a scaler.

    … sorry, I had to. :D

  30. Tim G

    “Correlation” is not nearly as well understood as it could be. I’ve stumbled upon an online definition of “correlation” to mean the degree to which one variable influences the the other; that a high correlation means that the second variable will increase at a high rate with change in the first variable. However, this describes the coefficient of proportionality. I checked the online definition again and it has since been edited to mean how one variable predicts ( rather than influences ) the other. The distinction can be easily shown by comparing a steep, spraypaint-like data plot and a shallow, well-aligned data plot.

    A study in the not-so-distant past found a correlation ( between what and what, I don’t remember ) and several people were commenting online that the finding was useless because correlation does not mean causation. Of course correlation does not mean causation but it is ridiculous to assert that it is useless. The finding leads to better predictions and narrows the search to what the real cause(s) may be.

    P.S. There are at least a couple of terms that have much more general meanings in the colloquial sense than in a scientific sense. “Proportional” and “exponential” come to mind.

  31. Lori S.

    I’d like to add another to the list of oft-used but misinterpreted scientific words:

    significant / important, robust / unlikely to have happened by chance

    I see this misunderstanding capitalized on very often in advertising, sadly.

  32. Will

    I do have a bone to pick with the mention of the Climategate emails. Those emails were internal communication between scientists, and there’s no reason to expect the language in them to be chosen for public consumption.

    You make a very good point that lay people hear these (and many other) words differently than a trained scientist, but scientists use such precise language on purpose. The key is knowing your audience–different audiences will always have different expectations about what certain words mean in certain contexts.

    So yes, the above table is an excellent reference for scientists who are trying to communicate with laypeople–it’s not reasonable to expect them to understand that e.g. “bias” means something significantly different than what they’re used to. But when scientists are talking to other scientists, it”s just as absurd to expect them *not* to use the word “bias,” when it’s the correct word to describe some property of their data, out of fear that the meaning of the word will be misconstrued by non-scientists who the communication isn’t intended for in the first place.

  33. Tim G

    Everyone should read Mark Chu-Carroll’s quibble about the use of the word “logical”.

  34. Blargh

    On a more serious note though, in my field – radiation protection – this is the least of our problems when communicating facts and findings to the public. When the public has such a distorted perception of the science involved that 70% of the US believes that all radioactivity is man-made*, you can try to imagine how difficult our job is even without taking terminology into consideration…

    * NSF: Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology, 2008.

  35. Scott Romanowski

    Anyone’s that taken a control systems course knows “negative feedback” is good and will keep the system in control, but “positive feedback” is bad and will drive the system out of control, but the colloquial use is π radians out of phase. :-)

    We need to be careful when we communicate.

  36. Your final paragraph reminded me of a saying I like to keep in mind when trying to teach or explain something: Speak to the person in the language they understand. Which makes sense, and I wish my math teacher adhered to that idea.

  37. Wiggly

    @ Blargh, that sounds pretty rough. I sympathize with you. In my work (stats, mostly) it’s really difficult to show simple things like correlation as a predective value to the businessmen that write my paychecks.

    @that chart and everything I’ve read in Bad Astronomy to date, thank you for giving me the tools to describe my enthusiasm for all things Astronomical and Mathematical to my girlfriend in terms she can understand. Even with an undergrad in English, I am consistently set back by your abilities at manipulating the language to be both thorough and clear.

  38. I’d add “significant” to that table, the difference being “not likely to be random” for a scientist versus “substantial” for the public.

  39. miklos treiber

    People are not stupid. You just think you are smarter; but, alas it is only you that is stupid. More to the point, stupid is as stupid does.

  40. Keith Bowden

    @Southern Fried Scientist – You can’t fool me! Cosmopolitan is something a woman drinks while reading Cosmopolitan magazine. :)

  41. S.J. Esposito

    This brings up something that my girlfriend and I — both 4th year undergrad science students — were talking about the other day: the general public’s misconception of what science is and what it means when spoken about. A very minor, though totally applicable, example would be the TV show The Big Bang Theory; it’s a great and funny show, packed with jokes that make us chuckle. But they also make people who have no idea what the characters are talking about chuckle. We might give credit where its due and say that they are some fantastic actors that could be saying rubbish, and that their delivery is what’s funny. But that’s not exactly true for me. If I didn’t feel like the science jokes on the show were being presented in a somewhat intelligible way, I wouldn’t watch. A lot of those jokes are funny because they make sense, and it strikes me as odd that the world likes to watch Jim Parsons utter long lines of a script that have a completely arbitrary meaning to them.

    Now, the better question is: are popularizations of science good for science communication, or bad?

  42. Carolyn

    Thanks for this, Phil – great post. I’m in astronomy outreach too, and as we always say, the important thing is not what you’ve said, but what people hear.

  43. Chris the Canadian

    Hey Phil,

    For all of the ‘non-scientifically inclined’ science buffs out there, I want to say THANK YOU. Thank you for explaining a lot of potentially very difficult to understand topics/thoeries/observations/beliefs/etc in a manner that provides the public with real substance while at the same time not weighing it down with a lot of hyperbole, language, and statistics that some of us just don’t understand. You and your colleagues on this website as well as on Discovery Channel programs like “The Known Universe” take the time to explain complex topics like String Theory and Space/Time in a way that is educational, entertaining, and most of all REFRESHING!!!

    I think what happens sometimes is when scientists try to discuss topics or write papers for the public they get way too caught up in the finite details of their work. For a paper submitted to a University panel or the Scientific community those details are vital to support their theory or observation, but for the general public? Not so much. You guys do a wonderful job of balancing the details without overwhelming us with them. I won’t always agree with or believe some things I read here, and I will voice my skepticism often (Still don’t believe in Dark Matter. Fact is we have mathematically discovered it but we haven’t actually measured it or seen it or detected solid evidence of it.), but many people appreciate what you guys do who wouldn’t have access to or interest in the sciences otherwise. My 13 year old nephew and I have taken out the small telescope I bought him for Christmas a few years ago and finally begun to use it, all because he watched an episode of The Known Universe while over at my house recently and it instantly sparked interest in a topic that he didn’t really even think about until then. Keep up the great work!!!

  44. In many cases, we have to remember that it’s not the general public who are misusing scientific words; the popular meaning came first, as with “work”, “force”, “power” and “energy”. (Someone who speaks of “psychic energy” might not be a practitioner of woo who thinks there are powerful rays coming out of our heads; they might just be using the term the way psychologists use it.)

    Concerning climate, I think that “denier” is loaded by its specific association with Holocaust denial, which is actually a crime in some countries and a serious thing to be accused of elsewhere; it’s got an implicitly Godwinian connotation, which I think is why people find it so offensive.

    I use “climate contrarian” instead because it’s still more accurate than “skeptic”; these are people who keep willfully pushing a contrarian view of the subject, regardless of evidence.

  45. Eric Atkinson

    Or maybe you can get PZ to run the experiment, being he has such an evidence based knowledge of climate science.

  46. Stan9fromouterspace

    The term feedback is even more ambiguous, depending on your setting & intent: social worker or psychologist – feedback good. Sound engineer, feedback bad. (And also one of the most overused cliches in any given movie or TV show: “Hello? Is this mic on? Hello-” SQUEEEE – Every. Damn. Time.)

  47. It’s not just science, you know. All academic fields have their special uses. (So do all centuries; time after time it’s necessary to say, “No, your clever interpretation of this line by Shakespeare is impossible, because word X didn’t acquire its present-day meaning until the 1850s.”)

  48. dcwarrior

    let’s not forget, people in all fields love their jargon, but it is important to remember that when talking to people OUTSIDE your field, the jargon might mean nothing or something completely different. That’s not the same thing them as being stupid.

  49. CraterJoe

    I think most of use forget the target audience. This is why there are magazines out there like ohhh Discover Magazine for example that converts writings applied to one audience to another.

  50. Stevepr

    Totally agree.

    The use of these words is used by the anti science brigade to denigrate science, climategate etc.

    As most science commentary is soundbites removing the opportunity for confusion or deliberate twisting is important

  51. lunchstealer

    Concerning the perennial problem of ‘theory in science means damn-solid-notion’ vs ‘theory in everyday life means possible-but-unproven-idea’, what place does the term ‘conjecture’ have in terminology? For example, would it be reasonable to refer to ‘Intelligent Design Conjecture’ to differentiate it from evolutionary understanding? Or does ID not even meet the level of conjecture? Is there some other term that’s even more appropriate for such an inherently unprovable idea?

    In hotly contested areas where scientific understanding comes into conflict with cultural belief, the issue of helping science seem more palatable is largely one of framing the debate. Science, by nature, is wary of absolute statements, but it’s possible to maintain that level of honest admission of incomplete knowledge without falsely giving the impression that it’s ‘just an opinion’. If ‘conjecture’ is inappropriate on its own, what about ‘faith-based conjecture’?

  52. Larry

    That’s not the same thing them as being stupid.

    dcwarrior, I agree completely with your observation. However, when they’ve been repeatedly informed what a particular piece of jargon means (e.g., see Theory), and they continue to misinterpret it, I no longer feel so accommodating. They are either playing to their own agenda or they are, in fact, stupid.

  53. I have known for a long time that language is a tool. It can be used as precisely as a person a) is able and b) chooses.

    If you’re having a serious discussion then precise language is important. That doesn’t mean you have to be Mr. Spock but it does mean saying things that accurately reflect your meaning.

    Nowhere is sloppy language more obvious than in discussions of politics.

    “Leftists are destroying America!!!”
    “Oblamo is a NAZI!!!!”

    Not that I agree with this idea, but saying, “Liberals think that giving people hand-outs is a good thing but it’s actually bad because it actively removes motivation from those individuals to make themselves stronger by finding ways to succeed through their own efforts.”

    I think scientists would do well to use words that more precisely mean what they are saying. 99% of everyone (OK, maybe that’s not a precise number) thinks that “theory” means “just guessing”.

    I realize scientists have used the word for a very long time but I’m sure they’re very tired and frustrated having to defend the meaning of their language rather than defend their actual data which they can do easily.

    It’s longer but why not say, “All available and tested evidence indicates that man-made global warming is a real phenomenon and it needs to be addressed before the affects devastate us.”?

    OK, I know it’s been said and the people who have a vested personal interest in global warming being untrue aren’t going to be swayed. I was using it as an example, not as the subject.

    Anyway, an avalanche hit my house and I need to get my shovel to clear it out.

    Actually, it’s a little messy so I need to put some things away and sweep the floor. Same thing, right?

  54. Debra

    Add “elegant.” To the general population it means tastefully luxurious. To scientists it means that something resolves a problem or answers a question perfectly.

  55. Steve Metzler

    12. CreidS:

    I loved your post, especially the Orwell quote. But Muphry’s Law dictates that when you are dispensing advice in print, you will almost inevitably make a mistake yourself:

    Notice how “aerosol” turns into “spray can”. Their ‘better choices’ could be improved as well; “small /air/ particle”, for instance.

    “tiny /airborne/ particle” would be much clearer, because the untrained might interpret what both you and the original post suggested as a ‘very tiny bit of air’. Just sayin’ :-)

  56. Infinite123Lifer

    The Idols of the Marketplace. Francis Bacon and The Four Idols comes to mind here.

  57. If you’re having trouble accessing the orignal Physics Today piece, “Communicating the Science of Climate Change”, the full pdf of the article, including the table of terms, is available for free download at the Climate Communication website: http://climatecommunication.org/news/physics-today-article/

  58. Another meaning of “vector” for a computer programmer: an array that can grow at run-time.

  59. Dys

    Fundamentally this is about language and its continuous evolution. It could be reasonably argued that no two people speak the same language, and the smaller and more isolated a population is, the more distinct their use of language is going to be.

    As the world becomes ever more interconnected and cultures begin to merge across national boundaries, languages are ceasing to be isolated due to distance or politics. This is the main reason that some version of global English is becoming the international lingua franca.

    Conversely, as populations within the global society isolate themselves from each other in cultural bubbles language can be seen to mutate such that one social class can become incomprehensible to another, even within a single nation.

    I think science is an example of a culture which is not only extremely isolated, but which has striven to shape its own language in order to provide the high degree of coherence necessary for precise communication; precision is vital to the success of scientific endeavour. The inevitable side effect is the production of a dialect largely incomprehensible to outsiders.

    In this case, there is then a formal, scientific language the integrity of which is preserved by the value of precise usage within the scientific field. Exposure of such a language to the mutational properties of informal, ‘wild’ language would effectively render it useless. To speak ‘science’ you must be a scientist, since nobody else has any use for it. The general public, being untrained in this precise use of language, cannot understand ‘science’, for reasons similar to those which cause the majority of us to be unable to understand Navajo.

    If the preceding is true, the options available are threefold.

    1) abandon science, thereby eliminating the divide.

    2) train everyone as a scientist, or at least teach them to speak ‘science’

    3) emplace translators to bridge the gap between the isolated scientific culture and the general population.

    The third option is not ideal, but it is the only one likely to prove viable in reality.

    This all makes me wonder how many scientists speak only ‘science’. No doubt for most it is a second language, or at the very least a mother tongue is retained for informal conversation. There must surely be a minority whose non-scientific language has atrophied to the point where they can’t actually converse in anything but pure science.

  60. tmac57

    My motto is:
    Eschew obfuscation in perpetuum.

  61. MadScientist

    Changing those words would be even more of a problem, for example:

    positive feedback: There is also such a thing as ‘negative feedback’, and how do you relate that with phrases like ‘vicious cycle’ (which usually does not describe a situation in which there is positive feedback anyway) or ‘self-reinforcing cycle’?

    uncertainty: ‘range’ has yet another meaning when dealing with numbers, nor is the word range appropriate for describing uncertainty. If someone used the word ‘range’ rather than uncertainty I would assume that they need to go back to school and learn statistics.

    anomaly: The phrase ‘change from long-term average’ is an inadequate replacement for ‘anomaly’ and would only apply in a minority of situations.

    Now when talking to folks not in my field I do my best to avoid technical terms and fill in more appropriate phrases. However, imagine what a journal article would look like if we didn’t use the nicknames and stuff.

  62. JB of Brisbane

    @tmac57 #61 – My favourite fumblerule is “It behooves the author to avoid using archaic expressions”.

  63. MD Anderson

    How can a society so humanly intelligent be so completely stupid? Here’s the amazing thing: do you realize in your intelligent stupidity you actually enforce and fulfill the prophesy of Scripture? Absolutely amazing for those of us who have taken the bold step to know. No, you really don’t realize how foolish you are; you have no idea how you are playing right into the mix. Few of you have read Scripture, so you’re not qualified to speak on this, merely to spout your politically or scientifically and societally correct euphamisms to this post, which of course I will not see. How sad I am for your ignorance.

    Please, continue on with your intelligensia. It confirms all that has been written of you millenia before you were created. You have no idea of the power and supreme intelligence of that which is beyond your grasp of comprehension. You are mites in comparison. May God have mercy upon your souls. I do realize you truly do seek to understand the origins of all that is, and the means by which the universe was set into motion; you drool to completely comprehend the inner details of all that is biologically, astrologically and genetically existant. Have fun. And let me tell you now: you will NEVER understand all of it. That’s because you are incapable of grasping the most simple of concepts from God. You’re not ready for the prime time revelations.

    So sorry to interrupt your hubraic euphamisms…please, do continue telling each other just how wonderful you are. For this is your reward.

  64. tmac57

    Anomaly don’t come round these parts podna,but where I come from, ‘uncertainty’ is colled pussyfootin’! An’ I’m positive the feedback at the barn can git them cattle out on the range thru tha winter.If it caint,then I’ll bias some more.

  65. tmac57

    @MD Anderson-You misspelled ‘euphemism’. (Talk about drooling…sheesh!)

  66. “Here’s the amazing thing: do you realize in your intelligent stupidity you actually enforce and fulfill the prophesy of the gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Absolutely amazing for those of us who have taken the bold step to know. No, you really don’t realize how foolish you are; you have no idea how you are playing right into the mix. Few of you have read the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, so you’re not qualified to speak on this, merely to spout your politically or scientifically and societally correct euphamisms to this post, which of course I will not see. How sad I am for your ignorance.

    Please, continue on with your intelligensia. It confirms all that has been written of you millenia before you were created. You have no idea of the power and supreme intelligence of that which is beyond your grasp of comprehension. You are mites in comparison. May His Noodly One have mercy upon your souls. I do realize you truly do seek to understand the origins of all that is, and the means by which the universe was set into motion; you drool to completely comprehend the inner details of all that is biologically, astrologically and genetically existant. Have fun. And let me tell you now: you will NEVER understand all of it. That’s because you are incapable of grasping the most simple of concepts from the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You’re not ready for the prime time revelations.”

    I (heart) religion.
    The magic, the invisible people, the collection plates etc. But mostly the kooks and the internet rants they provide for public entertainment.

  67. tmac57

    @JB of Brisbane -My new favorite word is ‘fumblerule’ ! I had never heard that.Thanks!

  68. Grand Lunar

    The term “theory” gets my vote for the most abused scientific term, not only in the public but also in the media (including our beloved Hollywood films, even sci-fi ones).

    An aunt of mine is a perfect example.
    When I mentioned that the sun’s output was 40% less during Earth’s beginning, she declared it as “only theory” and “not proven”.
    I tried to explain what “theory” really meant (including pointing out that gravitation is a theory too), but she didn’t get it at all (she’s a hard core Catholic).

    Something like this needs to be put out in the media and circulated, to set the public straight.
    Of course, a whole article could be made on what a “theory” is.

  69. MMM

    Personally, I use “contrarian” instead of denier. On the one hand, it feels like greasing the squeaky wheel. On the other hand, it avoids pointless arguments about terminology with people who can score points by acting offended (even though “denier” does not imply “holocaust” the contrarians, being contrary, keep claiming it does). I agree that “skeptic” is the wrong word to use to describe people whose minds are made up and who do Gish gallops at every opportunity…

  70. Blargh

    @ 67 Cedric Katesby
    Hah! :D
    But one can do even better:

    64. MD Anderson Says:
    How can a society so humanly intelligent be so completely stupid? Here’s the amazing thing: do you realize in your intelligent stupidity you actually enforce and fulfill the prophesy of the Necronomicon? Absolutely amazing for those of us who have taken the bold step to know. No, you really don’t realize how foolish you are; you have no idea how you are playing right into the mix. Few of you have read the Necronomicon, so you’re not qualified to speak on this, merely to spout your politically or scientifically and societally correct euphamisms to this post, which of course I will not see. How sad I am for your ignorance.

    Please, continue on with your intelligentsia. It confirms all that has been written of you millennia before you were created. You have no idea of the power and supreme intelligence of that which is beyond your grasp of comprehension. You are mites in comparison. May the Great Old Ones have mercy upon your souls. I do realize you truly do seek to understand the origins of all that is, and the means by which the universe was set into motion; you drool to completely comprehend the inner details of all that is biologically, astrologically and genetically existant. Have fun. And let me tell you now: you will NEVER understand all of it. That’s because you are incapable of grasping the most simple of concepts from the Great Old Ones. You’re not ready for the prime time revelations.

  71. Harold Tessmann III

    Even worse, sometimes people assume positive and negative mean the exact opposite of the technical use. Consider the episode of The Office in which Kevin has a cancer scare. He announces that he tested negative (cancer not present), which of course Michael interprets as negative meaning a bad result.

  72. Messier Tidy Upper

    Communication public versus science – always a miscommunicaton. :-(

    There is a real problem here in the use of langauge and the different understandings people have.

    I’d really like to see the terms ‘positive fedback’ and ‘negative feedback’ replaced by ‘escalating feedback’ and ‘stabilising feedback’ respectively for clarity.

    I think three things need to happen :

    - Firstly, science education needs to improve at schools and in the media, we need more of the public *much* more to have a far better comprehension of science and scientific terminology and meaning.

    - Secondly, I think scientists need to explain more clearly and perhaps use different clearer words in expressing themselves. Not so much dumbing things down as making things as clear as possible. I think that’s where people like the BA, Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan have done some marvellous work.

    - Finally, I think there needs to be more interaction and more communication generally between science and public. Scientists shouldn’t be seen as an elite locked away in some ivory tower but as people like everyone else just having specialist knowledge and skills in the same way other workers do. There needs to be a two way communication where scientists do listen as well as lecture and where the public are given a chance to participate as much as they can. Ignorance, lack of knowledge breeds lack of understanding and fear and the “other~isation” we seem to get. Intellectuals need to seen to be ordinary people not almost an alternative mutant species. There’s a lot of anti-intellectualism in the public but also I think a fair bit of snobbery and arrogant looking down upon the dumb, “great unwashed” masses by the scientists too.

    This isn’t “rocket science”, these are all obvious things and, yeah, it won’t be easy but a long slow grind to fix them methinks.

  73. Make that :

    - More contact and more accessibility of scientists to the public and vice-versa.

    A change of culture is needed where scientists are seen as less alien to the public and more as part of the public, where scientists can and do talk to everyone instead of just other scientists and where familiarity makes scientists seem more *with* the rest of public rather than, as sometimes appears *against* them; imposing things on the rest of us from up high, eg. carbon taxes, removing Pluto from planetary status, telling people the things they find pleasurable are harmful and shouldn’t be allowed, etc ..

    I also blame the media for causing a lot of the miscommunication and ignorance to begin with. The media treating science much more intelligently and promoting good science instead of woo would be a great thing and a good place to start.

    Click on my name here for an interesting item in this regard : “If sports got reported like science” which makes some very good points. If the public can understand the complicated rules and statistics of various sports why then do they find science so incomprehensible and often intimidating?

  74. Peter B

    MD Anderson @ #64 said: “…do you realize in your intelligent stupidity you actually enforce and fulfill the prophesy of Scripture?”

    Which bit of scripture?

    “…you really don’t realize how foolish you are…”

    Compare with “…I do realize you truly do seek to understand the origins of all that is…” below. So is trying to find out about the universe a worthy thing or a foolish thing?

    “Few of you have read Scripture…”

    In my experience many atheists are better acquainted with the Bible than many Christians.

    “…which of course I will not see…”

    Post and run? Why not stay and share your wisdom?

    “…astrologically…”

    Whoops. I think you meant “astronomically”.

    “…let me tell you now: you will NEVER understand all of it…”

    Funnily enough there are plenty of scientists who accept much the same idea – that we can constantly approach an understanding of ultimate truth but we’ll never reach it. That’s not arrogance, that’s humility.

    “…hubraic…”

    What? Do you mean “hubristic”?

    “…do continue telling each other just how wonderful you are…”

    What’s wrong with celebrating the successes we *do* experience with expanding human knowledge, even as we understand we’ll never know it all.

  75. Messier Tidy Upper

    @71. MMM & 44. Matt McIrvin :

    Concerning climate, I think that “denier” is loaded by its specific association with Holocaust denial, which is actually a crime in some countries and a serious thing to be accused of elsewhere; it’s got an implicitly Godwinian connotation, which I think is why people find it so offensive. I use “climate contrarian” instead because it’s still more accurate than “skeptic”; these are people who keep willfully pushing a contrarian view of the subject, regardless of evidence.

    Thirded by me too. :-)

    I also call it Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) as the clearest most accurate descriptive phrasing of the problem.

    Because “Anthropogenic” is a weasel word (euphemism) and jargon and the word “Warming” has a lot of really positive and mild connotations that aren’t really appropriate to the issue.

    The public misunderstanding of science is depressing and makes it a struggle to get things across. It’s face-palmingly frustrating how many among the public still confuse ‘astronomy’ and ‘astrology’ and think the word ‘theory’ just means ‘guess’ which shows how basic they failure of understanding runs :-(

    Maybe part of the problem is pyschological in that science makes many people (NOT me but I think many others?) feel powerless and uncomfortable and threatened? There’s an a large element of “shooting the bad news messenger” with some of the anti-science anti-intellectual hostility methinks.

  76. Vic

    When someone tells me a tomato isn’t a vegetable but a fruit, I usually say “no, a tomato IS a vegetable, but botanically, it is a fruit.” (an aside – strange that people will say this about tomatoes or avocados, but rarely about zucchini or eggplant)

    I believe that Scientists / mathematicians / engineers / computer programmers (that’s me) should be able to use their vocabulary in the precise way they intend in their respective fields. When communicating to those outside the field, they should explain the difference in meaning when appropriate and only choose different terms when necessary (yeah, that’s a fuzzy bit). People were able to grok DNA – unfortunately, even to the point of assigning it new meanings – and know the difference between someone saying that they have gas when deciding if they can get all the way to Vegas without stopping versus when they are complaining about not feeling well. Context is everything.

    Those who state the loudest that something is “only a theory” usually know the difference. If the consequences weren’t so serious, the line could have been the punch line of a typical George Carlin bit.

  77. alex

    Two words that should be added to that list:
    Science – it doesn’t mean spaceships or lab coats, it means deductive reasoning, experimentation (see chart) and active review.
    Law – It doesn’t mean an absolute truth (as in an alternative to a theory — see chart) it means an empirical description of observation that has been proven to be consistent under consistent conditions.

  78. Jack

    @ Phil, Re #64:

    How “hubraic” of you, Phil, to define your terms. Do you not realise that all definitions of everything that ever was or will be were written down and set in stone in the Bronze Age?

    MD Andersen will be smitten most severely for browsing an evil science site using a 21st century computer NOT BASED ON the Scriptures.

    He must be secretly interested in “astrology”, although in baffling fashion, he says “it will not be seen by him”.

    What has been seen, cannot be unseen….

  79. Jack

    @78 Vic:

    So true!

    I don’t know why we can’t refer to “The Law of Evolution” or “The Law of Natural Selection” in the same way as “The Law of Gravity”.

    But then, I guess, Congress would vote to repeal it.

  80. Jawnee Authmann

    I don’t know whether my comment here will be considered scientific or not. I was like Phil in a way that I laughed the first time I read this article, but unlike Phil, I just couldn’t stop laughing after that….

  81. bassmanpete

    Few of you have read Scripture, so you’re not qualified to speak on this

    A lot of us renounced religion because we HAVE read scripture. Also you used prophesy (verb) where it should have been prophecy (noun).

  82. Dave692

    You should fret over using the term denier.

    On one extreme you have those who blindly believe in AGW, and denigrate those who are sceptical by calling them Deniers, on the other extreme you have those who refuse to believe in AGW and refer to those who accept AGW as warmists.

    There are serious, thoughtful scientists who are sceptical of AGW, they may not make up a vast portion of the scientific community but to call them deniers is just insulting.

    It used to be I found those who blindly denied AGW slightly disturbing, but now we also have those who blindly believe in AGW and refuse to even consider that this theory might be even slightly flawed or in need of modification.

    It’s usually easy to tell those who have given up a scientific frame of mind and embraced a faith like belief for or against AGW. They call their respective opponents Warmists and Deniers.

    Be careful what terminology you use.

  83. Josh

    I’d like to add the word “trivial”. In science discussions people tend to use it in the meaning of “obvious, withoud need of proof” but it can be very easily understood as “unimportant, minor detail”. In a sentence like “the way the carbon dioxide influences climate change is rather trivial, based on current understanding.”

  84. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    skepticism is not cynicism or denial; it’s asking for and looking at evidence logically and rationally (in a nutshell).

    Oh, man!

    I’ve been doing it wrong for years! I’ve been asking for and looking at evidence logically and rationally in an office. I need to get me a nutshell pronto.
    ;-)

  85. Nigel Depledge

    @ Southern Fried Scientist (10) -
    Yes, definitely.

  86. Nigel Depledge

    Creid S (13) said:

    This is not how it passes in the general language, because most English speakers are not trained in their use. We learn: “See the dog run” not “View the coursing canine”. We’re more comfortable with English words, because their meaning is solid. Notice how “aerosol” turns into “spray can”. Their ‘better choices’ could be improved as well; “small /air/ particle”, for instance.

    Scintillate, scintillate, globule aurific;
    Fain would I fathom thy nature specific:
    Loftily placed in the aether capacious,
    Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

  87. Jan

    As a mathematician, I am quite used to this, even with other scientists.
    Try: group, set, ring, category, field, simple, ordinary, natural, real, complex, rational, stacks, forms, motives, “Introduction to”, operator, etc…

    Even worse, I work in “something something Geometry”, so people think I’m drawing triangles and circles on blackboards and what not, and have excellent spatial intuition.
    In fact, I get lost when I don’t turn the map into the direction I’m facing.

  88. Mel

    Nicely said. My career at the moment can be pretty well described as ‘explaining computers to people who don’t understand computers’ – it’s an interesting mental exercise to translate between the two worlds, and it comes with very good job security. It doesn’t have serious social ramifications if I fail, though.

  89. WordChecker

    Is enverbumnate a word?

    Can someone link a definition?

  90. Charlie

    Please, please, please I beg you stop using silly words like embiggen, enverbumnate, etc. etc. etc.

    Yes it was funny once or twice or fifty times. Now it is just silly.

    Every time I see an one of these cutesy words it just makes me want to cry. If you want to be clever there are more entertaining, less grating ways than this.

    Also I stop reading which just makes me sad.

  91. Takesi Akamatsu

    I think a better word than “denier” would be a cynic.

  92. Messier Tidy Upper

    @84. Dave692 :

    You should fret over using the term denier. On one extreme you have those who blindly believe in AGW, and denigrate those who are sceptical by calling them Deniers, on the other extreme you have those who refuse to believe in AGW and refer to those who accept AGW as warmists.

    I don’t think too many people – especially in the science community – who accept what the science is saying about Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) are doing so out of blind faith as you claim there.

    The vast majority have looked into the issue, studied the evidence and come to the conclusion the climatologist experts are correct.

    There are serious, thoughtful scientists who are sceptical of AGW, they may not make up a vast portion of the scientific community but to call them deniers is just insulting.

    Care to name some examples please?

    Actually 97% of climate scientists (Climatologists) agree that HIRGO is correct and a serious problem we need to address.

    If you take 100 doctors and 97 of them say you have a medical problem would you ignore all of them and go only with the 3 who disagree – especially if those trio are NOT current leading lights of their field?

    I don’t believe in insults, name-calling and the use of “denier” but I can see the case for it as many of the climate contrarains do seem to argue in very bad faith and use and re-use some very poor cherry-picked arguments. Their conduct and the harm such climate contararians cause is extremely frustrating and at times infuriating. The longer we delay when it comes to HIRGO – and on preparing for Peak Oil too – the worse the situation will eventually get and the harder and more costly – in lives and human suffering as well as dollars – the fix will have to be. We’d be much better off now had we not listened so much to some rather bad people and arguments.

  93. Messier Tidy Upper

    See :

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm

    for one source for the 97% of climataologist accept HIRGO figure.

    For my own personal history and journey on this issue see this comment (#84) :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/06/17/are-we-headed-for-a-new-ice-age/#comment-389985

    on an old BA blog thread which explais how I arrived at my current understanding of this issue.

  94. #81 Jack:
    Because a law and a theory are two completely different things! They are not, as many people seem to think, different levels in a hierarchy; a theory does not “become a law when it’s proven”. In fact, a theory can never be truly “proven”; we can only say that it’s very strongly supported by evidence.
    A law is an empirically derived mathematical description of a phenomenon. A theory is an attempt to explain a phenomenon. A law answers the “how”; a theory tries to answer the “why”.
    Example: The Law of gravity, as formulated by Newton, states that “Every object attracts every other object, with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses, and inversely proportional to the square of their distance apart”, which is expressed mathematically as F = G m1 m2 / r**2.
    This tells us nothing about what gravity is. It isn’t necessary to know why masses attract each other in this way – and of course, Newton didn’t – in order to observe that they do, and to deduce that the attraction obeys an inverse square law.
    Our current theory of gravity is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which explains gravity in terms of the distortion of space-time due to the presence of a mass, and which wasn’t thought of until more than two centuries after Newton deduced the Law.

  95. Jeff

    good,

    I frequently tell the students that physical sciences could be much better organized at least from a pedalogical viewpoint, nomenclature and such. Of course, we have a hodgepodge of terminology borrowed from the ages in the past scientists and their concerns.

    I like theory replaced by scientific understanding. I myself would prefer scientific explanation, but whatever, it’s good. Some would argue , such as newton’s law of gravity doesn’t really explain, but I think there might be good underlying reasons , spacetime reasons, why the inverse square laws are true; so I myself think explanation isn’t too audacious a claim.

  96. Gary

    It’s not entirely the public’s fault, either. Jargon tends to slip into regular speech, and conversely, specialized disciplines borrow vernacular words and redifine them for their own usage without politely asking the public first. It’s just the way language works.

    The difference is that scientsts (and other types) can easily tell which definition they’re using based on context (just for fun, google Phil’s posts for the phrase “I have a theory”). Laypeople? Not necessarily so.

    Educating people will help, certainly, but the process will always go on. I’m not sure if that table was meant tongue in cheeck or not, but unfortunately, I fear that even if writers did try and adopt them for clarity, they’d just end up runing the Euphemism Treadmill (http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Euphemism_treadmill#Euphemism_treadmill )

  97. Julmuri

    No, you are wrong.

    The three main arguments of CAGW are:

    1) Earth is warming rapidly.
    2) Warming is caused by humans’ CO2 emissions.
    3) This warming is very bad.
    4) Best way to solve our problems is to rely on wind and solar power plants.

    The difference between a sceptic and a denialist is that a sceptic disagrees with one of those, denialist with two or more.

    Björn Lomborg was hailed in the media as a leading sceptic, and he disagreed only on point number 4.

  98. Tony

    101 Julmuri: only the first 2 can be addressed by science. And the second (warming is caused by humans) comes with caveats. (This is similar to the fact that we can conclusively show that smoking causes cancer, but we can never show that any individual person died because of smoking.) The third argument (that it is bad) is a decision about values and has nothing to do with science. What is one person’s bad is another person’s good. The fourth argument is a political one that involves engineering (and the political will to invest in a particular form of engineering and/or science).

    To treat the first two the same as the last two is a mistake I think.

  99. Joseph G

    @4 Anonymosity: Yes, a that one’s (“experiment”) particularly important in the context of keeping people from getting swindled by snake-oil hucksters and various alt-med quackery. People need to understand that giving 100 people your herbal pill and then collecting testimonials about how it made them feel better isn’t a real science experiment. And more to the point, they need to understand why it’s not a science experiment.

  100. Joseph G

    @100 Gary The difference is that scientists (and other types) can easily tell which definition they’re using based on context (just for fun, google Phil’s posts for the phrase “I have a theory”). Laypeople? Not necessarily so.

    IMHO, it gets even fuzzier than that. If your theory contains a set of consistent premises that can make predictions with reasonable accuracy, then it’s probably closer to a scientific theory then a colloquial “hunch” “theory”.
    For instance, if I were to say “I have a theory that heavy alcohol consumption predisposes people to sleep with people they never ever would sober”, I could go to a bar on a Friday night and see my predictions borne out.
    And if I buy other people enough drinks, I might even get lucky in the process ;)

  101. Joseph G

    @Nigel Depledge: Scintillate, scintillate, globule aurific;
    Fain would I fathom thy nature specific:
    Loftily placed in the aether capacious,
    Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous.

    If I ever have kids, I am so singing that for them at bedtime.
    Heh, between that and my other nerderiffic ideas, my kids are going to read at a college level by second grade :-P

  102. Tony

    Mr. Plait: Thanks for that list. I saw it in Physics Today a couple of weeks ago and had about the same reaction. On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to change our language (or to ‘translate’) too much. As others have posted above we all routinely use the same words to mean completely different things in different context and without anyone blinking an eye. You don’t see announcers on ESPN ‘translating’ the language of sports to everyday English. Nor do you have the religious minister’s ‘translating’ their language as well.

    The reason they don’t ‘translate’ and the reason I think we shouldn’t translate is that in none of these situations (including science) is the translation that difficult for the listener. To always translate from ‘science-ese’ to English risks it being seen as understandable only to those who have studied it for years. Yet, the very fact that we are able to make such a short list that accounts for most of the problems is proof NOT that we should translate our language for them, but that public should learn our language. And the only way to learn a language is to be exposed to it.

    A second important reason not to translate is that the language of science is for the most part significantly more precise than English and therefore to translate from it to English risks either becoming too wordy or loosing vital information.

  103. MarkHB

    What most people don’t realise is that the words they’re using have specific meanings. For scientists. For most muggles, mundanes and other puddlers in reality who sort of drift through it without connecting to it, words are just fuzzy balls of ishkinda. To a person trained in the scientific method, a word is an infinitely thin, infinitely strong, inflexible needle to be thust and kept through the meaning of a thing. I do not think the two can be reconciled.

  104. “You should fret over using the term denier.
    On one extreme you have those who blindly believe that tobacco causes cancer, and denigrate those who are sceptical by calling them Deniers, on the other extreme you have those who refuse to believe that tobacco smoke can harm you and refer to those who accept the link as alarmists.
    There are serious, thoughtful scientists who are sceptical of the link between cancer and smoking, they may not make up a vast portion of the scientific community but to call them deniers is just insulting.
    It used to be I found those who blindly denied tobacco caused cancer slightly disturbing, but now we also have those who blindly believe in the medical science and refuse to even consider that this theory might be even slightly flawed or in need of modification.
    It’s usually easy to tell those who have given up a scientific frame of mind and embraced a faith like belief for or against tobacco/cancer. They call their respective opponents alarmists and Deniers.
    Be careful what terminology you use.”

    “You should fret over using the term denier.
    On one extreme you have those who blindly believe that vaccines are safe, and denigrate those who are sceptical by calling them Deniers, on the other extreme you have those who refuse to believe that vaccines don’t cause autism and refer to those who accept the link as Big Pharma.
    There are serious, thoughtful scientists who are sceptical of the safety of vaccines, they may not make up a vast portion of the scientific community but to call them deniers is just insulting.
    It used to be I found those who blindly denied the safety of vaccines disturbing, but now we also have those who blindly believe in the medical science and refuse to even consider that this theory might be even slightly flawed or in need of modification.
    It’s usually easy to tell those who have given up a scientific frame of mind and embraced a faith like belief for or against autism/vaccines. They call their respective opponents Big Pharma and Deniers.
    Be careful what terminology you use.
    You should fret over using the term denier.”

    Denialists: They exist and they richly deserve the label.

  105. Dori

    This reminds me of the time I went to work for the U.S. Geological Survey as a technical editor. Having majored in biology, I was accustomed to thinking of the word “nutrient” as referring to a GOOD thing: something nourishing and healthy. It has a very different meaning for people in the field of hydrology, and is definitely something you want to limit in fresh water. One of our hydrologists was preparing a presentation to a subcommittee of Congress, and I tried very hard to convince him to change the term to “pollutant” or something that might not have been as technically accurate to a hydrologist, but would have been less confusing to a lay person. The author very indignantly refused and called me a bunch of nasty names. I understand that his presentation did NOT get the money they were hoping for.

  106. RE : Opponents of the HIRGO climatological consenus :

    James Hansen NASA’s top climatologist prefers to use the term “contrarian” rather than “denier” too :

    “The example [Arctic sea ice's apparent temporary recovery between 2007 & 2011 - ed.] also shows how people who are determined to discredit the threat of human made climate change – I call them contrarians; others call them denialists – use uncertainties inappropriately to cast doubt on all conclusions, even those that can be made with confidence. Nobody has figured out a good way to deal with this problem but we cannot change the way we do science so we just have to present the data as best we can.”

    - Page 166, Storms of my Grandchildren’ J. Hansen, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009.

    For whatever that’s worth.

    The best way to deal with the problem of climate contrarians – in my humble opinion naturally – is to use the facts, the observed evidence and good logical arguments and present these clearly, persistently and reasonably, countering the cherry-picked flawed logic and other bad “arguments” contrarians present whenever we encounter them.

  107. Messier Tidy Upper

    @109. Cedric Katesby :

    Denialists: They exist and they richly deserve the label.

    Maybe they do – but the term itself becomes an unhelpful distraction and an unnecessary side issue. It does have for many people Holocaust Denier connotations which is something I think we are well-advised to get away from and reserve the “Denier” term for Holocaust deniers even though the context usually makes things clear.

    Anti-vaxers are how we best refer to those opposed to vaccinations and tobacco lobbyists applies for those oppose reality on the issue of smoking.

    Climate Contrarians has the advantage of being specific to those who hold views contrary to the 97% of climatologists who accept the reality of HIRGO.

    @101. Julmuri :

    No, you are wrong.The three main arguments of CAGW are:

    1) Earth is warming rapidly.

    Yes, that is observed scientifically measured fact.

    2) Warming is caused by humans’ CO2 emissions.

    Actually its a little more complex than that because it isn’t just carbon dioxide but also other Greenhouse gases (GHGs) at work and there are other factors too – esp. escalating feedbacks such as albedo change from arctic sea ice that reflects 80% of the sunlight to open ocean which absorbs 80% of that sunlight instead. But as a simplified first approcximation I guess that’s reasonably close.

    That is also a matter of scientific fact and theorisation. (Is that a word?)

    3) This warming is very bad.

    Hmm .. Now that’s a value judgement more than a scientific one.

    A scientific conclsuion is that HIRGO (CAGW as you choose to call it) will have certain predictable consequences. HIRGO will lead to more intense and long lasting droughts & heatwaves, more frequent and devasting floods & severe storms, the disappereance of alpine galciers , Arctic sea ice, rising sea levels, reduced biodiversity, reduced crop productivity, the potential loss of the Amazon rainforest and low-lying islands and areas, runaway feedbacks leading to a vastly different planetary climatic regime.

    These are some of the likely scientific outcomes of HIRGO and, we humans can then judge for ourselves whether such changes are a subjectively good or bad set of consequences.

    Since they lead to massive human suiffering and loss of life it is reasonable to judge them as a bad thing – but this is NOT science so much as our opinion.

    4) Best way to solve our problems is to rely on wind and solar power plants.

    No. That’s NOT part of HIRGO theory or science but deals with a different socio-political question instead.

    Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating or Anthropogenic Global Warming is a matter of science helping us to understand what the problem and situation actually is.

    What we choose to do based on that informatio, what possible solutions we think may or may not work to mitigate it is a quite separate matter.

    The difference between a sceptic and a denialist is that a sceptic disagrees with one of those, denialist with two or more.

    No, the difference between a skeptic and a denialist is that a skeptic will accept the science and follow where the evidence leads whereas a denier rejects and cherry-picks the science to support only their pre-determined ideological position.

  108. Messier Tidy Upper

    Continued @ #101. Julmuri :

    Björn Lomborg was hailed in the media as a leading sceptic, and he disagreed only on point number 4.

    Not exactly.

    By under-estimating and under-rating the scale of the Global Overheating problem Bjorn Lomberg is also disagreeing – at least to an extent – on point 3.

    Which, as I noted earlier, is an *ethical* rather than scientific question.

    Regarding Bjorn Lomberg – who is a statistician not a cliamtologist & whose calculations inhis key book apaprently involve more economics than actual science – I have to agree with what George Monbiot said :

    “… is it really possible to place an economc price on human life? Or on an ecosystem, or on the climate? Could such costs, when rolled out around the world, really be deemed to amount to $ 4,820 billion [Lomberg's suggested figure - ed], give or take the odd dollar? If you believe the answer is yes then I charge that you have spent too much time with your calculator and not enough with human beings. When economists have tried to cost such things, they have simply exposed the limitations of their science. [Which I consider a pseudo-science rather than an actual science - ed.] … their figures [& Lomberg's] were not just wrong; they were meaningless.”

    -Page 50, ‘Heat’, George Monbiot, Penguin, 2006.[Brackets added.]

    So to sum up of Julmuri’s four points :

    Julmuri is, I think, correct about point 1 which is a matter of science. Julmuri gets half marks for point 2 which is correct but insufficient as it misses a few key extra things.

    Julmuri’s point 3 is a question of ethics & human opinions rather than science. Science tells us *what* is happening, *why* and what the likely predicted consequences will be but NOT whether or not something is “bad” or otherwise.

    Julmuri’s final point is a totally different question stemming from the *consequences* of our scientific understanding of HIRGO but totally independent of it. What we choose to do – or refuse to do – about the very well-established reality of Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating is a question of policy and politics NOT science. So out of the four I’d give Julmuri one and a half correct, two and a half incorrect. InMyHumbleOpinionNatch.

  109. Jack

    @98 Neil Haggarth:

    Originally, I made that comment as a throwaway- a lead up to the little joke about denial of reality by some politicians.

    However, in the interests of friendly debate, let’s see where this leads us!

    Respectfully, I think your definition of Laws as mathematical statements is rather restricted and debateable.

    For example:
    http://hunblog.typepad.com/hunblog/2006/09/four_laws_of_bi.html

    “Fourth Law: Life evolves – populations of organisms change genetically and irreversibly through time. The observation of biological evolution is clearly universal. This law is the most profound and far-reaching of the four laws in the same way that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is the most profound and far-reaching of those three. “

  110. @ Messier Tidy Upper

    Maybe they do – but the term itself becomes an unhelpful distraction and an unnecessary side issue.

    It’s a mistake to let the deniers frame the issue. You must be prepared to call a spade a spade.

    It does have for many people Holocaust Denier connotations which is something I think we are well-advised to get away from and reserve the “Denier” term for Holocaust deniers even though the context usually makes things clear.

    Why? Holocaust denialism is not something new. Denialism is not specific to the Holocaust. When the last holocaust denier dies, denialism itself will not be buried with them. Denialism will fester in other topics.
    You know this.

    Anti-vaxers are how we best refer to those opposed to vaccinations…

    Anti-vaxers do the same thing as any other denier group out there. They deny the science. The mentality is the same. The arguments are exactly the same. The disemination of propoganda is exactly the same.

    …tobacco lobbyists applies for those oppose reality on the issue of smoking…

    One can deny the link between tobacco and cancer and not be a lobbyist.
    People deny the science on a range of issues. The issue itself is not the problem. It’s the denialism itself.

    It must be clearly and unambiguously labeled.

    I get it that deniers don’t want to be called deniers. It hurts their feelings. They whine about it. HIV deniers don’t like being called deniers because of the Holocaust connotations too. That’s too bad. Too bad for them. They don’t get to frame the debate. They don’t get to deny their denialism and we should not aid or abet that kind of thinking by dancing gingerly around the “D” word.

    “Perhaps we shouldn’t call holocaust deniers “holocaust deniers”?
    The term itself becomes an unhelpful distraction and an unnecessary side issue. It does have for many people connotations which is something I think we are well-advised to get away from and reserve the “Denier” term for some other group of even though the context usually makes things clear.”

    That would please the neo-nazis out there no end. They would love a less “distracting” term. We should not accomodate them.

    Some evidence was fabricated.
    I don’t believe much of anything concerning Auschitz or any other alleged death camp that came under control of the Communists.
    I don’t know why anyone would.
    I wonder why CuriousWasp and Co. use these bogus bits of falsified evidence in their effort to defend the scam?
    It’s funny how they call us deniers when we point out all the preposterous lies and false evidence.
    Are we not simply pointing out the truth?
    The scary part about it is the majority of them support laws (Written by the Anti Defamation League of th B’nai Brith) that will make questioning this scam a criminal offense.
    You would think that people who continue to perpetuate lies that are being used to bilk people out of untold billions would be the deniers.

    (I would give the link but I don’t want to improve their blog traffic. Sorry.)

    No, the difference between a skeptic and a denialist is that a skeptic will accept the science and follow where the evidence leads whereas a denier rejects and cherry-picks the science to support only their pre-determined ideological position.

    Exactly. When a denialist does this then they should be called a denialist…even if they complain about it. They should be called a denialist loud and clear at every opportunity.
    Only the topic changes. The denialism itself is right there for all to see. The language we use when we confront these people should honestly reflect that.

  111. Don’t suppose there’s any chance that someone could be a scientist and a member of the public is there..

  112. Nigel Depledge

    Takesi Akamatsu (95) said:

    I think a better word than “denier” would be a cynic.

    Interesting idea.

    Reflecting on this, though, I think that, while many deniers are cynical, “cynic” does not describe what they all are as accurately as “denier”. And one can be a cynic without being a denier.

  113. Nigel Depledge

    MTU (96) said:

    Actually 97% of climate scientists (Climatologists) agree that HIRGO is correct and a serious problem we need to address.

    To be slightly more picky, the figure is between 97% and 98%, and the 2 – 3 % of climate scientists who contest AGW are among the least credible of climatologists (i.e. no substantive publication record, no great discvoveries, generally regarded as the “also ran”s of climatology, even before the manufactroversy became so intense).

  114. Julmuri

    First I want to make a disclaimer that I am not a native english speaker. I got here because Google Reader recommended this page to me. Stuff I write might have a lightly different tone than intended.

    But to the matter itself. I know I have been called a denier for saying that Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are not melting catastrophically. I based my claim on two studies reported here:

    http://www.universetoday.com/11078/greenlands-ice-sheet-is-growing/ and http://www.physorg.com/news4180.html

    During the years 1992-2003 both ice sheets saw increase in ice thickness. In Greenland it was 6cm/year. In Antarctic about 1cm/year. The rate of ice sheet melting has since 2003 been similar to the rate of increase in the previous 11 years. This means that at the current rate we are back in the polar ice sheet thickness of 1991 at approximately 2014. With the current rate it takes about 150’000 years for both Greenland and Antarctic to melt. Not very catastrophic.

    Now, how come I’m the one always being called a denier when I bring this up? The news always mention one single glacier (usually in the volcanic West Antarctic) and make it sound like it is a good representation of the whole continent. When I try to bring some context to the claims, its just: “denier, denier, denier!”.

    In my experience the term “denier” is just an insult you throw at anyone who doesn’t agree with your point of view. Until it was derived from the term Holocaust Denier few years ago, discussions about the matter tended to end always in insults. Usually along the lines of “you are n*zi who wants to destroy Mother Earth!”. Today the conversation always starts with the same reference.

    There is no reason to call anyone a denier, exept to insult them. So do not try to make up unnecessary justifications for it. Just say like it is: normal rules of politiness do not apply to anyone questioning some claims or facts of climate change. That would at least be honest.

  115. Nigel Depledge

    Julmuri (101) said:

    No, you are wrong.

    The three main arguments of CAGW are:

    1) Earth is warming rapidly.
    2) Warming is caused by humans’ CO2 emissions.
    3) This warming is very bad.
    4) Best way to solve our problems is to rely on wind and solar power plants.

    The difference between a sceptic and a denialist is that a sceptic disagrees with one of those, denialist with two or more.

    Björn Lomborg was hailed in the media as a leading sceptic, and he disagreed only on point number 4.

    Your entire post is a strawman.

    First, not everyone agrees that AGW is catastrophic. “CAGW” is a term I have only ever seen used as part of a strawman argument by AGW deniers.

    Second, while all climatologists (apart from the 2 – 3 %) agree that your points 1, 2 and 3 are (very roughly) correct (your formulation is very loose and ambiguous – I assume deliberately so for the sake of making the AGW position look less convincing), I have yet to see anyone categorically state your point 4, let alone see any broad agreement on it.

    Thus, to highlight a sceptic by stating that he disagrees only with point 4 is irrelevant to the use of the term “denier” for anyone who rejects any one of 1, 2 or 3.

    In fact, what would be a slightly more correct formulation would be something along the lines of:
    1) The global climate is warming at an unprecedented rate;
    2) This rapid warming is caused mostly by human activity, such as the burning of fossil carbon;
    3) The impact of this warming is likely to be very bad for many of us humans, and is also likely to be very bad for many other inhabitants of the planet.

    This is my understanding of the consensus view on AGW.

    As to what should be done about it, there is little agreement except in the broadest headlines – emit less of the greenhouse gases that are contributing to warming.

    I think many folks agree that some combination of wind, wave, solar, tidal, hydro, nuclear and biofuel power generation is the best way forward, without excessive reliance on any one technology. Some folks also suggest it is best to prepare for the worst and start working out how to mitigate the effects of substantial warming, but geoengineering remains speculative and controversial.

  116. Nigel Depledge

    Tony (103) said:

    101 Julmuri: only the first 2 can be addressed by science. And the second (warming is caused by humans) comes with caveats. (This is similar to the fact that we can conclusively show that smoking causes cancer, but we can never show that any individual person died because of smoking.) The third argument (that it is bad) is a decision about values and has nothing to do with science. What is one person’s bad is another person’s good.

    Not really. I think all people agree that having the amount of arable land availble to the world reduced by a third or more would be bad. Who could possibly see this as a good thing?

    Having perhaps half the population of Bangladesh and the Netherlands rendered homeless is another one – this should universally be seen as bad. Who could possibly see it as a good thing?

    There are already tensions over water supplies in some parts of the world. With GW changing rainfall patterns, it is likely that some of these tensions will escalate into war. How can anyone see this as good?

    So, you see, there are some outcomes of GW that look very likely to happen if we do nothing, and that should be seen universally as bad things.

  117. Nigel Depledge

    Joseph G (106) said:

    If I ever have kids, I am so singing that for them at bedtime.

    Sadly, the rhythm doesn’t fit as well as the original words, so you have to kind-of speak-sing it.

    My 6-month-old did not seem impressed, anyhow.

  118. Nigel Depledge

    Dave692 (84) said:

    There are serious, thoughtful scientists who are sceptical of AGW, they may not make up a vast portion of the scientific community but to call them deniers is just insulting.

    But there are prtecisely zero good climate scientists who are doubtful of AGW.

    BTW, Dave, your use of the word “sceptical” is wrong. You meant “doubtful” and you should have said “doubtful”. Scepticism implies being open to persuasion by the evidence. The evidence for AGW is strong enough that to doubt AGW is no longer a rational position.

    To call the deniers “sceptical” is to insult all real sceptics.

  119. Citizen99

    Putting aside for a moment all of the climate change warfare that has followed the original article, I would say this was an excellent, excellent article! It highlights one of the worst mistakes that scientists make when talking to the public. And they compound it by misunderstanding what they should do to correct it, which is usually “use smaller words.” No! It is not the size of the words that matter, but the common understanding of their meaning. Examples were given in the comments, such as “quantum”, which most people would ironically take to mean “really big”, as in the term “quantum leap” that is used ad nauseum by marketers and politicians. But back to the topic of climate change, it is particularly important to choose words properly, as well as overall concepts. For example, I think it is unwise to get wrapped up in tha argument about whether climate change is “man-made” or “human-caused” because that gets into the area of blame or fault, and has a sinister connotation that some people will take as meaning that we should reduce the population, with all the ugly images that invokes. Climate change is not caused by “man” – it is caused by “burning of fossil fuels”. Another thing we should avoid is calling it “pollution” because that implies some discernible effect such as smog, haze, or odor. Better to refer to it as “buildup” of gases that are slowly but inexorably changing the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that are unpredictable and almost certainly not good for our descendants.

  120. crystalspin

    Apparent –
    Public thinks “looks like but isn’t” –
    Scientist/Researcher means “obvious, what all the data suggest”.

    Except James Hansen quoted in #111 goes ahead and seems to use it in the colloquial meaning; but all should be aware that MEDICAL researchers use it in the second definition.

  121. John EB Good (25): Well, wow! That was a really nice thing to say, and I really appreciate it.

    I’m not sure how I feel about being a “pastor”, though. :) Of course, in Hebrew, “rabbi” means teacher, so maybe that’ll do!

    Thanks again.

  122. Julmuri

    “To be slightly more picky, the figure is between 97% and 98%, and the 2 – 3 % of climate scientists who contest AGW are among the least credible of climatologists (i.e. no substantive publication record, no great discvoveries, generally regarded as the “also ran”s of climatology, even before the manufactroversy became so intense).”

    Actually, it’s a quite a funny story how they came up with that 97% of all scientists agree with climate change theory.

    They decided to conduct a scientific survey. For reasons unknown, they decided to rule out solar scientists, space scientists, cosmologists, physicists, meteorologists and astronomers from their survey. They sent a questionnaire in an email form to 10257 earth scientists in the fields of geology, oceanography, paleontology and geochemistry etc. 3146, or 30.7% answered.

    The interesting bit is here. The two main questions were:

    1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?

    2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?

    The thing is, I would answer “yes” to both, and I’ve been called a denialist a time or two. Global temperature has been increasing ever since the end of the little ice age, in the late 1600′s. Human activity has been significant contributing factor in the form of deforestation, air traffic, pollution and urban development. Even CO2 plays a small part. My estimation would be that CO2 contributes something around 0.1C – 0.2C to the total temperature increase of 0.7C.

    For some weird reason though*, only 82% of the scientists polled answered yes to both. This was obviously not enough to claim of overwhelming majority, so they started throwing out questionnaires that were answered by “less than worthy” scientists. They needed to find a subgroup where almost everyone agreed with those two questions.

    They didn’t bother with the obvious ones, like status, education level or number of publications. What they ended up with was all scientists that had published in the previous two years peer-reviewed research that fell primarily in the climate change field.

    The problem with this approach was obvious. Out of the original 10257 scientists they were left with 77, of which 75 (97%) agreed with both of the questions. I have seen this kind of polling before on womens studies. You start with a answer and then try to somehow come up with it.

    Why don’t they do a simple poll along the lines of “Do you think human CO2 emissions will cause a catastrophic rise in global temperature?” and see what they get? I think I know why.

    *: I think some of those that answered knew what was being asked between the lines and answered that and not what was being asked literally.

  123. common citizen

    I am a police officer, not a scientist. But we PO-lice have the same problem with being misunderstood that you scientists describe. In my experience, this problem has many causes, not the least of which is groupthink. As a group, we tend to see the world through a prism created by our close, almost exclusive, association with people who are all trained the way we are and who deal with the same narrow field of the world. Every day we see a part of the world that most of you (hopefully) will rarely or never see. Because of this, we start to see the world as bad or ugly. We start to see people as crooked, greedy or stupid. But really, since you don’t deal with crooks every day, you see the world more the way it really is.

    I fight groupthink many ways. Among theses ways I try to have friends who aren’t cops. Also, I try to interact with people in non-law enforcement, or at least non-crime report ways. I get out of the Batmobile and I talk to people. I try to get to know and understand them and their point of view. So when a scientist tells me that his house was robbed, I really know that he means that his house was burgled. When commiting theft, you “rob” a person, you “burgle” real peoperty (ie: a house).

    The reason that so many common people don’t believe in human caused global warming is that you make a very poor arguement for it. But as people who look at the world through a narrow prism, you can’t see the flaw in your arguement.

    Most of we common folk accept that man creates pollution and that the pollution is bad for us. Most of us want to mitigate this pollution as much as possible. But come on, we are the primary cause of a 0.5 % increase in global temperatures over the last century? Really? Volcanoes have nothing to do with it? This stuff about ice ages and thaws is just denier propaganda? 20,000 years ago ice sheets covered about a third of the northern hemisphere, as far south as modern day Nebraska or Colorado. These sheets were mostly gone by 1804, assuming Lewis and Clark weren’t deniers, too. The Industrial Revolution began in about 1840. If you are right, and global warming is mostly caused by man, where did the northern ice sheets go? (to be fair, I ask the same question to people who don’t believe in global warming)

    That scientist who used a “trick” to get the right data results used a trick to get the results that he wanted. Because you are so invested in man made global warming, you don’t see that he cheated to get the results that he expected. And if he didn’t, he has to expalin, just as I would have to if I used a trick, how what he did was valid.

    Several years ago it was revealed that the head coach of the New England Patriots had hacked into the radio system and was able to hear what opposing coaches were calling down to the field. This included play calls. Everyone knew that this was cheating, but to this day, many sports fans excuse this behavior because a team should be able to overcome this type of cheating. IT WAS STILL CHEATING!

    My advice. If you want the public to accept what you find, occasionally step back and look at your work. Expaline it to a layman and actually listen to his critique. Are you really seeing what’s there, or are you seeing what you expect to find?

  124. Tom

    I would like to humbly offer the suggestion that science in general work to de-jargon itself even in technical writing. I trained as a physicist, and have worked for years as a geophysicist, yet I still keep my iPhone (and google search) nearby when reading papers only slightly out of my field. Of course, geophysics touches on geology, and I won’t go into that minefield of literally greek terminology, but really, we are not doing our communications any good at all if good scientists who are not working in that micro-sub-field do not understand the terminology! I understand that Science Magazine has editors, and I enjoy reading original research articles in far-removed fields, but…google is a great goodness!

    I will keep the AGU article close as a reminder while writing myself! Thanks for sharing.

  125. Julmuri

    Small correction to the previous posting. Obviously the answers they were looking for in the study was “risen” and “yes”, not “yes” and “yes”.

  126. Julmuri

    “That scientist who used a “trick” to get the right data results used a trick to get the results that he wanted. Because you are so invested in man made global warming, you don’t see that he cheated to get the results that he expected. And if he didn’t, he has to expalin, just as I would have to if I used a trick, how what he did was valid.”

    The trick was used to hide the fact that the trees that were used were poor proxy for temperature. The CRU emails revealed that for some reason their tree ring data stopped being a good proxy since 1960. What made them think it was valid before that? Because it fit what they expected to see.

    A moose dropping his antlers under the tree will cause the tree to have a growing spurt larger that few tenth of a degree increase in temperature. A bear marking his territory by mauling the bark will cause the tree to slow its growth much more than few tenths of a degree of temperature drop will. What is needed to rule out this kind of events is extremely large sample size, which none of the tree ring series produced by the hockey team have.

    A more interesting direct long term weather measurement can be found from Tornio, a town in the northern part of Finland. Remember that global warming is supposed to be most evident in the polar regions where Tornio is located.

    http://maps.grida.no/go/graphic/trends-in-the-ice-breaking-date-in-the-tornio-river-finland

    The ice breaking date (the rather dramatic day that the river ice is thin enough to break by itself in the spring) has been recorded in Tornio for every day since 1693. This is a graph that cannot be “adjusted”. Just collection of absolute raw data. Can you see any signs of anthropogenic global warming in the graph? Can you see acceleration? What you can see is the slow but steady recovery from the little ice age. The effect of CO2 increase in the late 1900′s can not be found at all. If anything the rate has slowed down.

    What I find interesting is compairing that graph to the sunspot graph found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sunspot_Numbers.png

    While not having any kind of training in statistical analysis, I used photoshop to merge those graphs together, flipping the other upside down and stretching them to fit. What I found was something interesting. Every time there is a spike in the sunspot number, the ice breaks much earlier on that year than the years right before and right after. Also the long term trend seems to affect the ice breaking date by making later dates more unlikely.

    One could say that the sunspot number has definitely an effect on Tornio river ice breaking date. Could it have a global effect? IPCC says no, there is no possible way sunspots could affect global temperature. Svensmark says yes and CERN CLOUD experiment says perhaps. I think there must be. Those graphs are just too similar to be a coincidence. And if there is… how much of the warming in the last 200 years is left to be caused by CO2 increase?

  127. Nigel Depledge

    Citizen99 (126) said:

    Climate change is not caused by “man” – it is caused by “burning of fossil fuels”.

    And intensive agriculture.

    And deforestation.

    And damming rivers.

    And CFCs.

    And making cement.

    Basically, while the burning of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to AGW, there are several other human activities that substantially contribute to it. It is wholly appropriate to refer to the current rapid warming trend as human-caused or anthropogenic.

  128. Nigel Depledge

    Julmuri (130) said:

    The thing is, I would answer “yes” to both, and I’ve been called a denialist a time or two. Global temperature has been increasing ever since the end of the little ice age, in the late 1600′s.

    This is a non-sequitur. The “little ice age” was a local, not a global phenomenon.

    Human activity has been significant contributing factor in the form of deforestation, air traffic, pollution and urban development. Even CO2 plays a small part. My estimation would be that CO2 contributes something around 0.1C – 0.2C to the total temperature increase of 0.7C.

    If I accept your figures as correct (and I’m not sure that I do, since you don’t even make a case, you just present them as a guess), CO2 contributes perhaps 14 – 28% of the total increase. And you call this a “small part”. What would constitute a “large” part?

    With so many causes, even 28% could be the largest individual factor.

    For some weird reason though*, only 82% of the scientists polled answered yes to both. This was obviously not enough to claim of overwhelming majority, so they started throwing out questionnaires that were answered by “less than worthy” scientists. They needed to find a subgroup where almost everyone agreed with those two questions.

    They didn’t bother with the obvious ones, like status, education level or number of publications. What they ended up with was all scientists that had published in the previous two years peer-reviewed research that fell primarily in the climate change field.

    The problem with this approach was obvious. Out of the original 10257 scientists they were left with 77, of which 75 (97%) agreed with both of the questions. I have seen this kind of polling before on womens studies. You start with a answer and then try to somehow come up with it.

    Why don’t they do a simple poll along the lines of “Do you think human CO2 emissions will cause a catastrophic rise in global temperature?” and see what they get? I think I know why.

    The word “catastrophic” is too subjective. Whether the likely increase in global temps from human activity is catastrophic or not depends on both a value udgement and your projected impact of AGW.

    Also, you focus your question on CO2 only, when it is but one of several factors causing AGW. I am not sure anyone has worked out exactly what contribution each factor makes, so trying to parse it down to the contribution of CO2 alone is disingenuous. And largely irrelevant. It is sufficient to know that CO2 emitted as a result of human activity is a major factor in AGW.

    While we can know (from measurement of isotope ratios) how much atmospheric CO2 was derived from fossil sources, we don’t know exactly how much each factor contributes to AGW. I am sure that there are some approximate figures, but lack of time precludes a hunt for them today.

  129. Nigel Depledge

    Common citizen (132) said:

    That scientist who used a “trick” to get the right data results used a trick to get the results that he wanted. Because you are so invested in man made global warming, you don’t see that he cheated to get the results that he expected. And if he didn’t, he has to expalin, just as I would have to if I used a trick, how what he did was valid.

    Your statement is just wrong.

    Those scientists don’t cheat, they use statistical “tricks” to extract real data from noisy signals. Digital signal processing works along the same kind of principles.

    There is no need to explain what they did, because they are using valid statistical techniques to find out what the data actually are. They have not tweaked the data to get the result they wanted, they have used mathematical tools to find out what the result is.

  130. Nigel Depledge

    Common citizen (132) said:

    The reason that so many common people don’t believe in human caused global warming is that you make a very poor arguement for it. But as people who look at the world through a narrow prism, you can’t see the flaw in your arguement.

    Actually, this is wrong in two ways.

    First, the argument for AGW is actually very strong. The data pretty much all point at global average temps increasing, and that human activity is the cause.

    Second, the main reason so many common people don’t accept it is because of the lies spread by the deniers about, for instance, the quality of the data, the integrity of the researchers, the validity of the models, or the existence of contrary data (there is, AFAICT, zero data that genuinely conflicts with AGW as a conclusion).

    Third, a reason supporting my second point is that the mainstream media have reported such items in a “he said” / “she said” mode, without reference to the actual data, or any investigation into which side has the more credible argument.

  131. Brewdog

    If the “trick” (“Mike’s Nature trick”) was not “something underhanded and sneaky to hide something important,” then why did Dr. Phil Jones need to use it in order to “hide the decline?”

  132. Excellent post. Sadly, a great many ‘science writers ‘ nowadays have only a very basic training in science, often leading to a very superficial understanding of the material under discussion. I have lately come to the conclusion that society needs a great deal more trained scientsts writing like you, and less science journalists

  133. Pro Libertate

    I am so very, very disappointed!

    I loved the translation of terms into common and scientific language. I’m very familiar with that issue.

    And then – bang – it turns into yet another idiotic excuse to insult people who do not tow the AGW line!

    I’ve seen this at least 3 or 4 times over the last few months: perfectly good theories about psychology, denial, fabrication of false truths, religious believes, fanatics etc. and just when you think “that’s a pretty good summary of the issue”, the author makes the completely spurious claim that this proves that AGW skeptics are really just fools, idiots, deluded souls, when in fact the exact same theory can very well be used to explain the behavior of the AGW fanatics, if not more so.

    I absolutely despise people who try to pull such tricks in a scientific debate, who attack the opponent instead of sticking to the actual science.

    Every attack on opponents of the AGW theory is really just proof of the fundamental weakness of that theory and the dishonesty of its supporters.

    If the scientific case was really so strong, then there would be absolutely no point in insulting opponents. None. But it is not a scientific issue. Never was. It’s pure politics and hence, the debate occurs along the same lines – AGW supporters consider that it is more important to attack their opponents than to back up their claims with facts.

    The idiocy of claiming that skeptics don’t look at the data is really painful when you look at who the opponents are, e.g. Dr.Lindzen, Professor of climate science at MIT. Dr.John Grey from NZ, official expert reviewer of the IPCC report, Prof.Curry, head of the institute of atmospheric science of the University of Georgia etc.

    I can provide a list of hundreds of scientist with RELEVANT scientific backgrounds, including most recently a Physics Nobel Price winner from Sweden, who question the theory and its simplistic claims. None of them have any problem with the language of science. None of them are idiots, delusional or paid by special interests – unlike a lot of AGW supporters!

    So please drop the act!

    There has been NO WARMING since 1998. That’s a FACT. Since 2010, there’s even a very strong cooling trend. NONE of the predictions by the AGW crowd have come true. All of them turned out to be completely false. No one expects ALL predictions of a theory to be correct, especially not in a field of such complexity. One would expect, however, that a correct theory gets at least some predictions right. Or that serious scientists refrain from making predictions when they clearly don’t understand how things work.

    There currently isn’t a single climate scientist who can make a valid prediction for 1, 5, 10, much less 100 years. Or who could explain accurately what factors truly control the climate.

    The entire theory that a SINGLE, minor factor could have an overwhelming effect that would lead to catastrophic effects in an extremely complex system, which is not even understood, is fundamentally dishonest and contrary to every principle of science.

    So please keep your arrogance to yourself and FINALLY admit that the issue is not even close to being decided. And immediately stop calling scientific opponents “deniers” or face the tag “fanatic of the church of global warming”, “eco-Nazi” or “Al Gore lap dog”.

    You’ll do yourself and everyone else a huge service.

  134. Nigel Depledge

    Pro Libertate (144) said:

    I absolutely despise people who try to pull such tricks in a scientific debate, who attack the opponent instead of sticking to the actual science.

    Hey, preaching to the choir here.

    Go tell that to all the AGW-deniers who treat evidence like it doesn’t exist!

    Every attack on opponents of the AGW theory is really just proof of the fundamental weakness of that theory and the dishonesty of its supporters.

    Eh?

    How so?

    AFAICT, every shred of climatological data supports the following conclusions:

    1) GW is happening, more rapidly in the last 30 – 40 years than ever before.
    2) Human activity is by far the largest contributing factor to this trend.
    3) If left unchecked, it will be a bad thing for us humans and our modern intensively-populated societies.

    Also AFAICT, every argument against AGW runs along the lines of “those scientists are lying” or “wait, there isn’t enough data yet”. I have yet to see any cited piece of anti-AGW “evidence” that withstands even the most casual scrutiny.

  135. Nigel Depledge

    Pro Libertate (144) said:

    There has been NO WARMING since 1998. That’s a FACT.

    This is a lie.

    Either 2 or 3 (I forget which) of the warmest years on record have occurred since 1998.

    Don’t forget, we’re talking about global average temps here, not any local stuff.

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