Hmm, I wonder, who should I trust: scientists, or them guys on the tube what sound kinda like science?

From the New York Times: Scientists and Weathercasters at Odds on Warming.

On the whole, it’s a phenomenon rather to be expected: in an issue relating to their field, a group of people who are sort of like experts don’t all agree with the consensus of a group of people who are actually experts, and I’m sure we’ve all heard of this particular iteration thereof.  So when I saw this article, my first thought was: why is this even worth writing?  Doesn’t it just, like so much other reporting on the global warming issue, simply lend credibility to a viewpoint that is scientifically accepted to be dubious at best?  But then I saw the following statistic: the article cites an American Geophysical Union survey of earth scientists which finds that, compared to meteorologists, “only economic geologists who specialized in industrial uses of materials like oil and coal were more skeptical” of global warming.



Three possible reasons are given: the obvious one (less graduate-level education and climate science training), the somewhat-less-obvious-but-still-straightforward one (meteorologists’ models are shorter-range than climate scientists’) and the interesting one that more likely accounts for meteorologists being seemingly on the other side of the average: a sort of hostility toward the idea that other people in the field in which you’re a professional get to tell you what’s true and what’s false (somewhat of a necessary consequence of being a non-researcher in a scientific field).  No matter what the reason, however, it’s troubling.  After all, most people have a tendency to get a higher exposure to the weather guy they see every day on the TV than major climatologists; also, they are considerably more likely to trust said weather guy than, say, Dunsterite Al Gore.

So what needs to happen?  Firstly, the attitude of the nation – starting with certain parts of the media – with regards to science needs to change.  The problem is, that old tenet of democracy that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion works slightly different with regard to science.  While there will always be a great variety of opinion, and a great variety of people believing in those opinions, it’s often very easy to tell which one’s right (or at least which ones are wrong: consensus around incorrect theory may be common, but it’s almost always because nobody’s thought of the right theory yet or that theory hasn’t had enough time to take hold).  Furthermore, there will always be scientific uncertainty, and there will always be scientific crackpots.  So the media needs to be able to say: OK, nobody who has published a peer-reviewed paper on this topic recently would agree with this guy; he’s not worth quoting as a valid viewpoint.  And ordinary people need to be able to say: The years that this guy has spent studying this topic in a graduate setting, and the number of years since that he has been working in that field, and the respect he has garnered among other such people, mean that he’s a lot closer to the truth than some random person with an opinion, or a lot of random people with an opinion, or for that matter a half a country with an opinion, or even my own common sense.  (In this regard, I believe, “common sense” is the bane of all science.  In particular, I can tell you that any attempt to interpret a result in physics from the last century in terms of common sense will be among the best ways there are to make your head explode.)

In the meantime, just tell yourself, and tell other people: a PhD, fancy equipment and models, and scientific review beats the heck out of a bachelor’s degree, Doppler radar, and a TV camera.