How Science Works and Why It Matters

As a scientist and science writer, I’m concerned about the way science is perceived by the public.  I think some big misunderstandings about how science works are creating distrust and dismissal of important scientific findings.  That’s a huge problem, and I’d like to try to help fix it.

Let’s start with this: Science is a process that helps us understand and explain the world around us.  That process relies on repeated observations and experiments that continuously change our understanding of how things work.

Scientists often come up with results that conflict with those of other scientists.  That doesn’t indicate that something is wrong; it’s exactly how science is supposed to work.  When scientists disagree about something, more scientists get involved and keep testing ideas until a consensus starts to emerge.  Even at that point, ideas continue to be tested, and either gain more acceptance (because of more supporting evidence) or weaken (because conflicting results are found).

There is no endpoint in science.  Instead, ideas move through various steps of acceptance, depending upon how much evidence is collected to support them.  You can read much more about how the process works here.

We are lucky to have easy access to immense amounts of information today.  However, it can be be very difficult to know which statements are supported by good science and which are just opinions amplified by people with an agenda and a prominent platform.  Today’s world, for example, still includes people who earnestly believe the earth is flat, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Media coverage of science often increases confusion.  How many times have you heard or read a media story about how a particular substance either cures or causes cancer?  In most cases, the scientist being interviewed tries to explain that their work is just one step in a long process of evidence gathering and doesn’t prove anything by itself.  That scientist might as well be talking to an empty void.  The headline has already told the story and pundits are shaking their heads and complaining about how scientists can’t ever agree.  (Please see paragraph three above.)

Unfortunately, confusion about how science works means the public often doesn’t pay attention when scientists actually do agree on things.  Loud voices can easily sway public opinion on important topics because it’s hard to know who to believe.  Often, we believe those who say things we want to be true.

Let me ask you three questions:

Do you believe that childhood immunizations are safe and effective?

Do you believe that rapid climate change is occurring as a result of human activity?

Do you believe that food derived from products containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is safe for human consumption?

The scientific community has clearly and strongly stated that the answer to all three of these questions should be yes.  Despite that, many people will answer yes to one or two of these questions, but not all three.  If you’re one of those people, I have another question for you.

If you trust the scientific community and the scientific process on one or two of these topics, why not on all of them?

This post is not about vaccines, global warming or GMOs.  I’m not trying to tell you what to think. Instead, I’m inviting you TO think.

If you’re a scientist, are you spending enough time thinking about how to talk to a public that is skeptical of science?  Being right isn’t enough when there are louder voices shouting that you’re wrong.  How do you expect the public to find the real story when your results are hidden in subscription-only journals and written in technical jargon-filled language?  What can you, personally, do to help others understand what science is, why it’s important, and what it can tell us?

If you’re someone who believes the science on some topics, but not others, are you comfortable with the reasons behind that?  Do you think science has been polluted by money and agendas, or do you think money and agendas are trying to discredit science?  Have you spent enough time reading articles that contradict your position and evaluating the credentials of those on each side?  Is it possible that long-held beliefs are preventing you from looking at evidence with clear eyes?

While individual scientists may have biases, the scientific process has no agenda other than discovery.  Scientists are strongly incentivized to go against the grain – both employers and journal publishers get most excited by research that contradicts mainstream ideas.  Because of that, ideas that gain overwhelming scientific consensus should be given extra credibility because they have withstood an onslaught of researchers trying to tear them down.

Can scientists be wrong?  Yes, of course – scientists are wrong all the time, and they argue back and forth in pursuit of knowledge.  That’s a good thing.  Saying that science is untrustworthy because not all scientists agree is like saying that we shouldn’t eat fruit because some of it isn’t ripe.

We desperately need credible science in order to survive and thrive on this earth.  Sustaining that credibility is the responsibility of both scientists and the public.  Scientists must provide accessible and clear information about what they’re learning, but the public also needs to be a receptive and discerning audience.

There is a torrent of news and data coming at us every day.  As you process that information, think like a scientist.  Question everything, including your own assumptions.  Form an opinion and then test it by looking for information that might disprove it.  Most importantly, even when you’re confident in your viewpoint, keep your mind open to new evidence and alternate perspectives.

Finally, remember that science is a continual and cumulative process.  Conflicting research results don’t indicate weakness, they drive scientists to keep looking for answers.  Science shouldn’t lose your trust when scientists disagree.  Instead, science should earn your trust when scientists reach consensus.

 

Special thanks to Anna Helzer for helpful feedback on this piece.

Why A Warming Climate Is Making This Spring So Cold (… and Last Spring So Warm)

Melting sea ice might not seem important to those of us living in the middle of a continent.  It is.

Weather and climate have always been complicated and difficult to understand, so it’s no wonder that climate change is a topic that confuses most of us.  The fact that most climate change discourse is more political than scientific these days makes things worse.  It’s hard to have reasonable discussions because most people’s opinions tend to be linked to whichever loud voices they listen to, and few of us understand climate science well enough to draw our own independent conclusions.

The poor groundhog has been a popular scapegoat for this year's cold spring temperatures.  In reality, both this year's cold spring and last year's warm spring are much more strongly tied to global warming and melting arctic ice.

The poor groundhog has been a popular scapegoat for this year’s cold spring temperatures. In reality, both this year’s cold spring and last year’s warm spring are much more strongly tied to global warming and melting arctic ice.

I’m certainly not going to wade into the politics of climate change, and I’m not qualified to get very far into climate science.  However, I did read something recently that clarified some things for me, so I’m hoping it will help you as well.  Thanks to Joel Jorgensen for passing along the article that spawned this post.

One of the most difficult things to understand about global warming is that it can make local temperatures get colder as well as warmer.  Here in Nebraska, we’re experiencing a very cold spring – if you can call it spring – this year, but had a very warm spring in 2012.  How, you might ask, is it possible that both the warm spring of 2012 and the cold spring of 2013 are a result of global warming?

Last year at this time, pussytoes was starting to bloom in our Platte River Prairies.  This year, there's no indication that they're anywhere close to that stage.

Last year at this time, pussytoes was starting to bloom in our Platte River Prairies. This year, there’s no indication that they’re anywhere close to that stage.

Scientists have long suggested that more extreme weather patterns (including warm and cold, wet and dry) are a consequence of global warming, but I’ve never had more than a vague understanding of why.  Apparently climate scientists are still figuring it out too, but new research published by Jennifer Francis and Stephen Vavrus in Geophysical Research Letters seems to help.  After reading a summary of the work in the Omaha World Herald and stumbling through the actual scientific journal article, here is my best shot at explaining the results.

First two pieces of background information you need to understand.  This is based on my own rudimentary understanding of this topic, so please take it as such.

1.  The warming of the Arctic and the subsequent loss of sea ice is reducing the contrast in temperature between the cold Arctic region and the warmer center of the globe.

2. The contrast between warm and cold areas of the globe is a major driver of weather patterns because it creates an imbalance in atmospheric pressure.  The jet stream is the major current of air that tends to run along the boundary between those cold and warm areas (there is actually more than one jet stream, but let’s not get into that). When the jet stream is strong, it moves strongly in a relatively straight west to east direction.  However, when it is weak, it makes large north-south loops as it ambles slowly to the east.

Ok, armed with that background knowledge, here’s what’s happening with global warming.  Arctic air to the north of us is less cold than it used to be, so there is less contrast between that air and the warm air to our south.  That weakens the jet stream, causing it to make large loops as it moves from west to east.  Equally importantly, those loops tend to stay in the same place for a long time.

When Nebraska is inside a southward loop of the jet stream, the jet stream’s current allows lots of cold arctic air to come down from the north.  That’s what is making our 2013 spring so cold.  The opposite is true when we’re inside a northward loop – our weather is dominated by warm air coming up from the south, creating a weather pattern such as the one we saw in 2012.  Because a weak jet stream causes those loops to not only be greater in size, but also to stick around longer weather patterns persist for longer periods than they otherwise would.  If the weather extra warm for a long time, we tend to have drought, but extended weather periods can just as easily lead to flooding, extended cold temperatures, etc. – depending upon whether we’re north or south of the jet stream current.

When we are inside a southward loop of the jet stream (top picture) cold air from the north dominates our weather.  When we are inside a northward loop of the jet stream, warm air moves in from the south.

When we are inside a southward loop of the jet stream (top picture) cold air from the north dominates our weather. When we are inside a northward loop of the jet stream (bottom picture) warm air moves in from the south.

Of course, there is much more to weather and climate than just jet stream loops, so a slower, more wandering jet stream is only part of the story.  In addition, understanding why we’re getting more extreme and extended weather patterns doesn’t change the situation – it just explains it.  I’ve written in the past about some climate change adaptation strategies for those interested in prairie management, restoration, and conservation.  A big part of our responsibility is to make prairies as ecologically resilient as possible.  

Since creating and sustaining resilience in prairies is largely dependent upon factors we’ve been working on for a long time anyway – species diversity, habitat size and redundancy, etc. – not much changes when we add climate change into the mix, except perhaps that we should feel a little more urgency.

Again, I’m no climate scientist, so I’m trying to explain things I barely understand myself.  Please correct me if I’ve mis-stated something or explained things poorly.