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This is what Science Reporting Looks Like

by: Jeremy Houser

Climate change advocates* have long been frustrated by the inability or unwillingness of scientists to make clear statements to the public that attribute specific weather events to global climate change. However, science reporting in the mainstream media is beginning to reflect a change in this cautious approach, in part due to scientific progress (there is an emerging field of quantifying the degree to which a given storm is the result of human-induced climate change vs. other factors – apportioning the blame, so to speak), but also largely due to the recent increase in extreme weather (and general weirdness) of recent months, which surely makes such stories more popular. An article in the Boston Globe focusing on recent weather events contains lots of quotes from research scientists who are now willing to take a sort of “I told you so” position: without claiming this particular event was caused by climate change alone, they can say “see, these are exactly the kinds of things we said would happen.” Two scientists separately used the expression from the Globe’s headline, “this is what climate change looks like.” For advocates, this phrasing may just have to be good enough for now.

* Not people advocating for climate change, rather those interested in doing something about it; a useful, if grammatically incorrect, expression

 


To exaggerate only a bit, research zoologists won’t tell you that a horse is larger than a donkey until someone gathers a good number of each (one animal apiece from multiple locations, to boot), measures them all, and then runs a statistical test to determine the odds that the observed difference in size could have happened due to random chance. As someone who spent his formative years in the company of these folks, I tend to think and speak that way as well. However, now working in advocacy, I also understand the frustration this causes when definitive statements from scientists – boisterously bellowed from the parapets – would be useful to help affect change in a difficult political environment.

While no one needs an academic scientist to weigh in on the matter of ungulate size relationships, we do need them to provide best estimates of the effects of climate change. But we also need them to study the question objectively and retain their credibility, not just with the public but also among themselves, which is compromised when scientists stray from the norms of academic discipline. In fact, scientists have spoken clearly on climate change, and are even now broaching the question of how to attribute specific weather events to climate change. The fault lies not with scientists but with the media, who, in the case of weather event attribution, have been unsuccessful in translating scientific uncertainty into probabilistic language for the lay audience, and, in general, have obscured scientific consensus on climate change by elevating balance above accuracy.

In short, “this is what climate change looks like” is a pretty solid answer. It would also be ok for a science reporter to write “That heat wave probably had something to do with global warming.” And should they find themselves on that staple of 21st century TV news, the pundit face-off, they can answer the follow-up, “Are you sure?” with “Yes, I am sure it probably did.” And if the conversation actually gets deeper than that, just be prepared to explain how science works.

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