The push and pull of science

This past week, Andy Revkin posted an intriguing article in his Dot Earth blog entitled, “On Plankton, Warming and Whiplash” (NYTimes article link).  In his post, Revkin discussed the tug-of-war inherent in science, where hypotheses are tested and retested in a variety of experimental permutations until the ultimate “truth” is found.  Revkin’s blog was motivated by the somewhat contentious Nature article that made headlines last year when its authors concluded that oceanic phytoplankton were in decline (“Global phytoplankton decline over the past century”; Nature.Com link)

Such a finding has global implications; everything from carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration to the air we breathe is partially controlled by marine phytoplankton.  Thus, it was not surprising that the media took this story and ran with it, and that the scientific community furrowed its brows and began its push-and-pull with the data.  Would the findings of this paper hold up to the scrutiny of other scientists?  Were its conclusions too broad?  Were phytoplankton really in decline?

Since the article made headlines, Nature has posted several blog excerpts that scrutinize and critique the original study, and the debate remains “hot” in the scientific community (Revkin).  This work has motivated several other related-studies, and it has shed light on the need for higher-resolution sampling in the world’s oceans.   But how is this particular scientific tug-of-war resonating outside of the field of oceanography?

Ronald Bailey points out that although the initial study made headlines, refutations are buried deep within a Google search (“Ocean Phytoplankton Apocalypse- Perhaps Not”; Reason.Com link).  Is anyone outside of oceanography taking notice?  The fact that this story has had a recent resurgence in both the NYTimes (Revkin) and Reason.Com (Bailey) points towards the subject-matter’s broad-reach, and its potential for making headlines a second time around.  But, thus far, this “second coming” has not made it past the blogs, calling into question the attention-span of major media outlets for scientific tug-of-wars.

So, will this story gain momentum or will it fizzle; this remains to be seen.  But the phytoplankton study does provide excellent fodder for a FOSEP discussion group: How do we communicate scientific uncertainty and the scientific method when scientific findings, rebuttals, flaws and new hypotheses are constantly evolving over a large span of time?  I would be interested in hearing a nicely packaged answer to this question, although my guess is that, like science, the answer is complicated.  In the meantime, this issue offers something to chew on while you peruse the headlines this weekend.

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