Saturday, April 28, 2012

Sometimes, the problem is just terminology

Scientists have their own set of words and meanings and sometimes, these are different than what the general public thinks. Take the word 'theory,' for instance. When a scientist uses that word, he means something that has been tested over and over and passed every test. But, to the general public the word 'theory' means a best guess. That is what a scientist calls a 'hypotheses.' We observe something and we make our best guess, a hypotheses, as to the cause. Then, we put it to the test and observe the results. Based on those observed results, we modify our hypotheses and test it again. And, we do this over and over until we no longer need to modify the hypotheses and we then call it a 'theory.'

So, when a scientist says, 'We have a theory,' other scientists hear, 'We have tested the dickens out of this thing and it looks to be sound,' but the public hears 'We are making a guess.' People who are skeptical of the scientific results are fond of disdainfully saying, 'Well, its just a theory!' To a scientists, this statement is a complement.

And, there is the crux of the problem. We are not saying and hearing the same thing.

In the world of climate change I hear the words 'weather' and 'climate' used interchangeably all the time. The words are not even close to each other, though. In a nut shell, 'climate' means what you expect and 'weather' is what you get. It is spring so I expect moderate temperatures in the day, a little chilly at night and lots of rain. I base that on the fact that this is the description of what happens between winter and summer. That is climate. But, on a given day it might be in the 90s or it might get below freezing. That is weather.

I would never say 'the climate tomorrow is a high of 90 degrees.' Neither would I say 'the weather tomorrow is spring.' The importance is that we are saying the climate is changing and that is not what we expected. But, weather is constantly changing and is expected to change.

We cannot take the weather on some given day and say that it is proof for or against climate change. There is natural variability in both the climate and weather. As we know, the weather can change from day to day and even from hour to hour. However, the climate is much more stable and takes a long time to change. In my example above, spring will always fall between winter and summer, but what are the dates and what are the average temperatures? We can see that spring is starting earlier and earlier and the average temperatures are going up, but it takes decades, and longer, to document this.

So, to start defusing the debate and end the climate wars it would be helpful if we would all start using the same meaning for a set of words. If we can find a common ground to talk and communicate on then a lot of the tension might go away and we can move forward.

At least, its a theory.

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