Another Way to Frame Climate Change

A few weekends ago, a local group I volunteer with had a “Science Pub Night” with Dr. Deborah Lawrence, a UVA professor of environmental science, about climate change. Dr. Lawrence studies the effects of deforestation on climate and has also worked extensively in the policy aspects of forest and climate science, and her talk was (mostly) about the importance of forests and land use to climate change. If you want to see more, I livetweeted it.

One thing I especially liked was a way she mentions she tries to better frame climate change to make it more relatable to people. It is (rightly) acknowledged that the Earth has seen larger temperature variations, but it is equally right to point out that those generally happen on longer time scales than we see now, or at least they do if they’re not also accompanied by mass extinction events. So Dr. Lawrence had a very human timescale to relate this change to. One of the most optimistic climate goals is to keep global warming to an average global temperature rise (compared to “preindustrial” temperatures, often early 1900s before extensive fossil fuel burning) of only 1 degree Celsius by 2100. 200 years for one degree might not sound bad to our scale, but Dr. Lawrence points out prior to the 20th century, ALL OF CIVILIZATION (e.g. let’s go with recorded history, so about 5000 years) had only seen the average global temperature only vary within a window of half a degree C*. So even our most hopeful plan essentially means adapting to a doubling of whatever variance any human society with large infrastructure has seen, and doing that in a time frame shorter than the building of some temples and cathedrals during the Middle Ages.

Another way she framed it was to more directly relate climate to weather, since most people don’t think in terms of average temperatures. (To prove this, Dr. Lawrence asked if anyone in the bar could say the average temperature for Charlottesville or wherever they were from off the top of their head, and no one could.) So instead, she has looked at models to see how a warming climate changes how often certain temperature thresholds are reached in different places. Dr. Lawrence has studied forests in Kenya, and one concern there is days of “debilitating heat”. This is when the temperature goes above 39 degrees C (102 degrees F!), and for people who generally live without air conditioning, the point where your body can basically only regulate your temperature if you don’t do much physical activity. Currently, Kenya has about 20 days of debilitating heat in a year, but in a world of 1 deg C warming, that goes to over 100 days per year! That would drastically change their lives. Even if you assume air conditioning becomes common, having AC and the electrical grid deal with over 100 degree temperatures for almost a third of the year becomes a great drain on infrastructure and communities will need to plan for that if they want to make sure their systems don’t overload.

*Edit to add: I may have misunderstood Dr. Lawrence or she may have mispoke in giving her value of “average temperature variance” across history, but I do want to point out that some temperature reconstructions of the Little Ice Age suggest that temperature went down more than 0.5 C from the pre-industrial norm, maybe up to 0.7-0.9 C. (The graph there compares temperatures to the 1950-1980s average.) Dr. Lawrence may also think those reconstructions are less reliable, but that was way outside the focus of her talk, so I don’t know why and didn’t get a chance to ask her. Those very deep decreases also quickly oscillate back to less extreme values, so the average may still work out to 0.5 C if you exclude short-term climate cycles.

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I Have a Hard Time Summing Up My Science and Politics Beliefs Into a Slogan

From a half-joking, half-serious post of my own on Facebook:

“SCIENCE IS POLITICAL BECAUSE THERE’S LOT OF INFLUENCE BY POLITICAL AND POWERFUL CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, BUT NOT PARTISAN. AND ALSO THAT SCIENTIFIC RESULTS AFFECT MORE OF OURS LIVES. BUT LIKE MAN, WE REALLY SHOULDN’T DO THE WHOLE TECHNOCRACY THING. BUT LIKE EVIDENCE SHOULD MATTER. BUT ALSO VALUES MATTER WHEN EVALUATING STUFF. IT’S COMPLICATED. HAS ANYONE READ LATOUR? OR FEYERABEND? CAN SOMEONE EXPLAIN FEYERABEND TO ME? DOES ANYONE WANT TO GET DRINKS AND TALK AFTER THIS?”

the_end_is_not_for_a_while

Evidently, I am the alt-text from this comic.

“HERE ARE SOME GOOD ARTICLES ABOUT PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIOLOGY OF SCIENCE” (I didn’t actually give a list, since I knew I would never really be able to put that on a poster, but some suggested readings if you’re interested: the Decolonizing Science Reading List curated by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a recent article from The Atlantic about the March for Science, a perspective on Doing Science While Black, the history of genes as an example of the evolution of scientific ideas, honestly there’s a lot here, and this is just stuff I shared on my Facebook page over the last few months.)
“LIKE HOLY SHIT Y’ALL EUGENICS HAPPENED”
“LIKE, MAN, WE STERILIZED A LOT OF PEOPLE. ALSO, EVEN BASIC RESEARCH CAN BE MESSED UP. LIKE TUSKEGEE. OR LITERALLY INJECTING CANCER INTO PEOPLE TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS. OR CRISPR. LIKE, JEEZ, WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH THAT ONE? SOCIETY HELPS DETERMINE WHAT IS APPROPRIATE.”
“I FEEL LIKE I’M GOING OFF MESSAGE. BUT LIKE WHAT EXACTLY IS THE MESSAGE HERE”
“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE MESSAGE IS, BUT THESE ARE PROBABLY GOOD TO DO. ESPECIALLY IF THEY INSPIRE CONVERSATIONS LIKE THIS.”
“ALSO, DID YOU KNOW THAT MULTICELLULAR LIFE INDEPENDENTLY EVOLVED AT LEAST 10 TIMES ON EARTH? I’M NOT GOING ANYWHERE WITH THAT, I JUST THINK IT’S NEAT AND WE DON’T TYPICALLY HEAR THAT IN INTRO BIO.”

Let’s Rethink Science Journalism

There’s been a lot of talk about science journalism after the revelation that a heavily publicized study about chocolate helping weight loss was actually a sham. A great deal of this is meta-commentary about whether or not the whole “sting” was ethical or if it even added much to ongoing discussions on science communication. It’s worth pointing out that science journalism in major outlets could be said to work for the most part, as they didn’t actually report on the study. The ScienceNews piece points out that a Washington Post reporter did want to write up something on the study and dropped it when he became suspicious. HuffPo would be the obvious exception in that they evidently had TWO pieces at one point on the study, but it’s science and health sections have historically been pretty questionable. (The science section has gotten better lately. I don’t know about the health section.)

I’m going to mainly focus on science in general publications, because that’s what most people see. And because science journalism in general publications has a weird organization. The standard treatment seems to be that a science journalist should be able to write on any science topic, regardless of background. That increasingly strikes me as strange. The conceptual difference between, say, astronomy and neuroscience is huge. That’s not to say people can’t be good at covering multiple fields of science. Rachel Feltman at The Washington Post wonderfully covers developments from all over science. But I think we should recognize that this is an incredible talent that not everyone has. (Indeed, going over HuffPo’s recent pieces, it’s notable how many seem to come from actual scientists now compared to what seemed like a never-ending stream of uncredited articles probably coming from anyone with an Internet connection a few years ago.)

A man is shown looking slightly up. Floating above his head are a moon, frog, butterflies, crystals, and some other objects, perhaps representing his thoughts or ideas.

It’s hard to actually have all this in your head.

Pretending that all science writers can cover everything harms science journalism. Where I think this shows up particularly clear is coverage of work done by children. For instance, consider last year’s story about the 12-year-old who supposedly made a major breakthrough about lionfish. Let’s be clear: Lauren did a lot of research for a 12-year-old and contributed a lot to a science lab and we should celebrate that. But so many outlets either exagerrated the claims of her father or took his overly hyped claims too much at face value, because it seems like none of these original reporters had any idea where her project fit in with other research. Similarly, there was the 15-year-old who said to have “invented a way to charge your phone”, but his project was similar to research that has been done for years (but again, Angelo ended up doing a lot of work for his age and seemed to develop a way to make it more effective).

I don’t think there’s a reason why a publication couldn’t cover all its science section by having more specialized journalists who also happened to work outside of science. For example, maybe someone covering physical sciences could also cover engineering and manufacturing firms for business reporting and someone else could be on a combined life sciences/health beat. And someone who can specialize and keep up to date on a smaller area can probably toss out names that better reflect the diversity of the research community instead of just pulling up the same few powerful people who typically get referenced¬†. In fact, probably one of the best trends in science coverage over the last decade has been the proliferation of pieces¬†focusing on social implications of science and also pieces that focus on how science is shaped by society. Reporting like that would benefit from more journalists and communicators who cover things both inside and outside of science and can give voice to diverse groups. And also, it would be great if these pieces actually called on scholars in the sociology, history, and/or philosophy of science and technology to help inform these pieces.

It is an image announcing a panel discussion, entitled

Discussions like this reflect important discussions in society that need to happen in science, too. And they’re at their best when people can understand science and society.