Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Sunday

May 4, 2014

Forum: How not to write about science

By Porter Abbot

An April 18 op-ed on climate projections (“Warming Study Merits Some Skepticism”) shows how not to write about science. Watch the language.

A study sponsored by “true believers” at the University of New Hampshire, “purports to tell us that the summer of 2100 in Southern New Hampshire may be as much as 11 degrees warmer than it is today. Not 5 degrees, not 10 degrees, not even ‘a few’ degrees but 11 degrees. Now that’s forecasting precision! We’d be a little more impressed if the boffins of UNH could tell us accurately how many degrees we’ll see tomorrow, let alone in the summer of 2100.”

Here the cautious projection “may be as much as 11 degrees warmer” is twisted into precisely what it does not “purport” to be: “forecasting precision.” This is what we call flat-out distortion. Pundits resort to it when their agenda is not the truth, but politics.

Symptomatic of the same agenda is calling the study’s sponsors “true believers” and its scientists “boffins” rather than what they are, specialists in the earth sciences. It’s like calling conservatives “Neanderthals.” The word is a linguistic button with a strong negative charge. Pushing it saves us the trouble of taking a whole class of people seriously.

Yet another button, “bureaucrats,” is applied contemptuously to the planners who might be helped by the study. The implication is that planning itself will only get us in trouble. But last I heard, the ability to plan ahead is one of our great survival gifts. It allows us to adapt and keeps us from extinction - unlike, say, Neanderthals, who failed to adapt and went extinct.

Finally, there’s the device of the “straw man,” by which the laughable work of boffins for bureaucrats is made to stand for the 97 percent of climatologists on one side of the global warming issue. This sets off the only authority the op-ed recognizes, Richard Lindzen. It looks balanced, but in fact it’s totally lopsided.

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