What is in a headline? Headlines should be descriptive. They should give you a clue as to the nature of the words you are about to encounter in the body of the article. In popular media a headline is often written to draw attention. Some headlines might be more dramatic in order grab more readers. Scholarly (research articles) are descriptive but rarely “dramatic”. Where the popular media and scientific articles meet is where we sometimes run into trouble. This is particularly the case with anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The popular headlines over the last decade or so have been hyperbolic – and this could be an understatement. The actual climate research (and papers) is mostly couched in terms of percentages and confidence intervals – such as “there is a 90% chance of xxxx happening by 2100″. I have heard and read some climate scientists mention this fact. They say the popular media takes their research and statements out of context and blows things out of proportion. This is likely the case for most research and researchers, however leading climate scientists are increasingly jumping into the political/activist arena so the media cannot be solely to blame – think James Hanson “we are all toast”, or James Lovelock “it is already to late to save humankind”.
Here is a recent article that captures the problem pretty well. “Sea Level Rise – It’s Worse Than We Thought“. Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Grabs your attention, doesn’t it? Pretty typical of AGW headlines. The headline leaves no margin for error. IT IS WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT. Read the article and you find that things are not so certain. Here are a couple quotes:
“And while we still don’t understand the dynamics of ice sheets and glaciers well enough to make precise predictions, we are narrowing down the possibilities.”
“Findings like these suggest that predicting sea level rise is even trickier than previously thought.”
“and while regional climate models are improving, ice sheet models are still too crude to make accurate predictions.”
Another article here displays a more subtle problem. “New NASA Satellite Survey Reveals Dramatic Arctic Sea Ice Thinning“. Sea ice has thinned in recent years but what should be considered “dramatic”. The writer thinks it is dramatic. Others might label it dangerous, extreme, or worrisome. We know from human records and climate proxies that the north pole was likely ice free at a few different times in the past. What is needed are some historical numbers to put the ice loss into perspective. How do the last 4 years compare to other periods of ice thinning?
When non-scientists cover science topics, there will always be a few poor or exagerated headlines, but that is the nature of media. My job is at the intersection and thus I probably notice it more often. The best we can do is read deeper into the data or article. A headline that says “the world is ending” will usually have caveats or properly framed data within.
Not surprisingly, articles covering alternative energy can sometimes be over-blown. Advocates like myself might feel positive about a new technological breakthrough and want to let everyone know about it. How better than to start with a dramatic headline. Here is one from today “Major Breakthrough With Water Desalination System“. When I saw the headline I was hoping that a new process had been developed that would make desalination much cheaper, or maybe a desalination plant had been built that exclusively used solar power. After all, the world could really use more desalination capability. Unfortunately, the “major breakthrough” was interesting, but hardly major. Researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science created a mobile desalination testing plant. The nice thing about being mobile is that it can save a lot of money when planning a new desalination plant. Otherwise a test plant has to be built on the future site of desalination to make sure it is feasible. With the UCLA mobile test plant, they can just haul in the unit, conduct tests, find out if it will work, and then move on to the next site. This saves money, which is good, but I wouldn’t call it a “major breakthrough”. It is good press for UCLA. Maybe they have some connections with Science Daily.
If I had to pen an attention grabbing headline for our current weather in Northcentral Wisconsin I would call it abnormal, strange, or even amazing. Scientifically speaking we will be within 5 degrees of breaking record lows and record cool high temperature marks by Friday of this week. Today and tomorrow will seems scorching as compared to Thursday and Friday – even though high temps will only be around 80. Later this week the mercury will struggle to reach 70. The good news is that temps should warm-up for the weekend. We should experience mid 70s on Saturday and upper 70s to around 80 on Sunday. Most of the week will also be dry. Our one significant chance of rain will be tonight. I am forecasting a 70% chance of rain, but that does not mean it will be heavy. I doubt many areas will have even a half inch.
Have a nice Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under AGW, Alternative Energy, Records, Science
This post was written by jloew on July 14, 2009