Friday, May 06, 2005

Science Reporting

Sigh. An NYT article opens "Reversing a decades-long trend toward "global dimming," Earth's surface has become brighter since 1990, scientists are reporting today.", despite the fact that the paper's conclusion "care
must be exercised in the use of potentially
misleading terms like “global warming” (13)
and “global dimming” (14). Their use may
constitute an obstacle in reaching an understanding
of the issues driving the fundamental
scientific questions of Earth’s energy balance,
albedo, greenhouse effect, and interactions
of solar and infrared radiation with
aerosols and clouds."

Partly due to their use of such phrases, I only figured out what the paper really said when I reached in paragraph 4. Granted upon rereading it, I could have figured it out sooner, but the point is that even an unusually well-informed reader was confused for way to long. (I've actually done some related research and compared my models to the observations of Goode et al, the team in references 8 and 9).

The real paper can be found here.

5 Comments:

Blogger Justin said...

Eric, is your objection that the New York Times article is fundamentally misrepresenting some aspect of the paper (which I don't have access to)? Or that the article is using lay terms in its summary?

If it's the former, then it's not clear to me what the fundamental misrepresentation is. If it's the latter, I'm not sure that I can share your objection. There is, and ought to be, differences in the terminology used to describe any relatively complex endeavor to expert audiences (those doing original research in the area), educated audiences (those trained in the field but not necessarily familiar with every intricacy of the particular problem), and lay audiences (everyone else). The Times is using terminology that is less than precise and which obscures many of the underlying details, but the effect of this simplification is to make the article more understandable to the lay audience. If it confuses the educated & expert audiences temporarily, that seems to be a reasonable trade-off.

Remember, most people who read this article aren't sure whether the greenhouse effect exists. Expecting them to understand exactly what the greenhouse effect is, how it differs from global warming, how that impacts Earth's energy cycles, and why the various feedback systems involved make predicting much of anything terribly complex would mean that 99% of the readers of the Times wouldn't be able to follow the story. Either that, or the Times would have to devote 10's of pages to providing the necessary background, which they cannot reasonably do for every science story.

5/06/2005 12:23:00 PM  
Blogger Eric said...

The article prominently uses the exact terminology which the paper explicitly states are confusing, to all three types of audiences that you identified. That terminology does not simplify anything, and both the authors and I agree that it makes things more confusing. In many cases you can chalk up the confusing parts to reporters being confused. But in this case they virtually flaunt the fact that they're doing exactly what the scientsits warned would be confusing.

Indeed, one of the reasons this paper is interesting is because it provides an measurment one of the variables in a climate model that is very different from many of the other measurements, and that the results of this and other observations aren't definitive. The NYT article missed one of the main conclusions that "The magnitudes of the inconsistencies exhibited by both measurements and models of albedo changes and effects are as large as, or larger than, the entire enhanced greenhouse gas effect when compared in terms of the albedo change equivalent of climate forcing." Granted they would have wanted to explain that a little better, but the concept of signal-to-noise less than one shouldn't be that hard to explain.

5/06/2005 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

Everyone, though, is familiar with the term "global warming" and tends to equate that exactly to the "greenhouse effect". Explaining in a single page that the two are actually different would be a challenge. Adding in an explanation of absorbed, and reflected radiation, explaining that the error bars in all these are greater than the signal would seem very challenging. Making sure that most people don't come away with the message that global warming does not exist, that humans probably have no impact on climate, etc strikes me as infeasible.

5/08/2005 04:05:00 PM  
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