Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#13 - A specialist’s perspective

American Heathen:  aired: 28 April 2012

Science has fractionated into many disciplines and subdisciplines since the Renaissance.  As any body of knowledge expands, it becomes increasingly difficult to know it all, so scientists have been becoming rather specialized over the years and know most about only some small part of science.  My particular discipline is meteorology and my primary subdiscipline is severe storms.  Becoming a scientist involves learning basic principles in broad disciplines, such as general physics or biology, and developing skills, such as mathematics or computer programming. These become foundational elements in developing one’s specialized interests.  The knowledge and skills needed vary with the topic of specialization.

One problem with being a specialist in anything is that you see things from a perspective that isn’t shared with many others.  It can be difficult to communicate your understanding of some topic simply because that understanding is based on a specialist’s knowledge base.  I want to use an example from my field to try to make this clear.

In the spring of 2011, we had some really big tornado outbreaks that resulted in tragically high death tolls.  In the last 30 years, every time a big tornado outbreak has occurred, the news media descend on meteorologists, wanting answers to questions like, “Why has the weather gone mad?” or “What caused this freak event?”  With all the public media controversy about global climate change – a controversy not present within the global climate change science community – we get questions like, “Are worse things than even this event in store for us because of global warming?” or “Does this event signal the climate change induced beginning of more such storms to come?”

To lay persons (including the typical scientifically ignorant media reporters), it may seem like the weather has gone mad, but to someone who’s spent decades studying these storms and the historical record of them, big tornado outbreaks simply are natural hazards that occur when the conditions for them come together on a particular day.  Seen against the backdrop of the historical record, a major tornado outbreak isn’t a freak event;  it’s just another example of what’s happened in the past and surely will happen again in the future.  And tornado outbreaks are weather events – the climate is the long-term average of the weather – so any particular weather event says pretty much nothing about the climate and how it might or might not be changing. 

What we know about the weather and its relationship to climate tells us that even if the average temperature of the planet is increasing, the winters will still be cold and blizzards will still happen.  A particularly hot day in the summer doesn’t signal global warming.  What’s characteristic of the weather is variability – the weather changes all the time, from day to day, from month to month, from year to year.  A single weather event is but one piece of data that goes into the climate.  On the average, winter days are colder than summer days, but if you search the record, you can find warm winter days and cold summer days.  It’s only when you do the averaging over time does the climate emerge.

From my specialist’s perspective, I know that that past is a key to anticipating the future; what has happened before will happen again.  We can imagine tragic tornado outbreaks in the future, but can’t seem to convey that to a public that grows complacent within a few years after major events.  Tornadoes?  Yeah, I suppose they happen somewhere but surely not here!  Surely not now!  Why should I prepare for something that probably won’t happen to me in my lifetime?

Such complacency is simply a matter of not having my specialist’s perspective.  Although tornado outbreaks are rare, they also are inevitable somewhere, sometime.  And complacency means that when another major tornado outbreak occurs, such as happened several times during 2011, and again in 2012 naturally, unprepared people will make poor decisions and become casualties.

As I see it, we specialists have an obligation to do our best to share our perspectives.  We have to try to help people who aren’t specialists understand our point of view.  That’s why I’m doing this.  After all, our careers as scientists are bankrolled by taxes, for the most part, and we should seek to give something back to our societies for the privilege of a career in science.  But the public (yes, that includes you!) also has a responsibility to serve their own best interests and not remain willfully ignorant of information that can save their lives.  They have to be receptive to the message we’re trying to convey, and to deal with the unfortunate situation that the media fill the public with misinformation, for the most part.  Even the public has to work to separate the wheat from the chaff.   When it comes to understanding the natural world about us, ignorance and misinformation can get you killed, so it’s in your best interest to make the effort.

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.