The Polar Vortex…and what is with all of this Crazy Weather?

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This picture was taken at Mt. Rainier, however images like this have been used to illustrate the “Polar Vortex” in Midwest and East Coast cities.

About a week ago FOSEP members got together to talk about scientific communication, a topic that was one of the most requested from our members.  In particular we discussed the distinction between climate and weather.  The Polar Vortex has kept the East Coast and Midwest frigid  Meanwhile, on the West Coast we are in drought conditions.  Some counties in Oregon have already declared drought conditions, while parched Northern California has finally seen some rain. On my recent snowshoeing trip to Mt. Rainier (which are being used to illustrate this post), snow level was below “low” on the mountain.

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It is amazing to me that this is actually a low snow level at Rainier.

There have been rumblings in the media from both sides about the significance of these events.   In preparation for our discussion, we read the blog post by the University of Washington’s Cliff Mass about this topic.  I also pulled out comments from recent news stories about the weather.  While I know on the internet, you are never supposed to read the comments, I think they provide a good insight into diverse views of this topic. Select quotes: “hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on junk science”; “heads in the sand idiots [who deny climate change]”; “it is unwise to create policy based on such loose science”….  We can never say any one event is associated with climate change, but are we causing ourselves problems with this caution with a misunderstanding of uncertainty?  Or being scientific?

In the meeting, we used the Polar Vortex and climate topic to launch into a discussion on the nature of Science and how we communicate it.  How do we help non-scientists understand the value of peer review?  Should it be taught in secondary school?  In our discussions of peer review representing our diverse disciplines, I was  shocked to learn about differences in areas such as: whether or not it was “ok” to publish negative results, and how much there is competition or collaboration for publishing.

When talking about our research, we usually say things like: “With caveats X, Y, and Z, we observe that condition 1 is associated with condition 2”, which gets turned into “condition 1 causes condition 2”.  Do we as scientists have a responsibility to make sure our research is communicated accurately?  As was brought up in the discussion soundbytes are not unique to science stories;  they simplify all news. Finally, a last question that we briefly discussed:  Why is there a stigma by some in the scientific community against those who are willing to talk with the general public (for example, Carl Sagan), especially when we realize how important it is?

However, the good news is that FOSEP will be continuing to further develop our communication skills. Later this month, FOSEP will be discussion the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I hope to get more insight as to how people think, how to meet people where they are at, and learn some concrete steps to help learn how best to talk about and communicate science.  Later this quarter, will be the 2nd annual 1000 Word event, co-hosted with the Burke Museum. Hopefully both these events can give us more insight and  practice in communicating effectively.

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