Reading is Believing?

“Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers” they used to say. Well now it seems that the phrase is (or should be) “Don’t believe everything you read on a blog“.

As we’ve seen on this very blog, we need to be wary of of fact and fiction. But everybody knew that already did’t they? Richard Ladle suggests:

Misreporting and misrepresentation are important because they can lead to a loss of trust at a time when public support for pro-environmental policies is most crucial.

Poor reporting of environmental science may also have a disproportionate effect on children who are increasingly turning the internet as their preferred source of information and who are least able to judge the validity of claims or the legitimacy of one blog over another.

So how should we be responding to the challenges and opportunities presented by the blogosphere?

One way to deal with misrepresentation in blogs is to increase the weight of informed opinions in the blogosphere. An influx of scientifically informed opinion and accurate information would also help combat and correct misrepresentations in the traditional news media and draw public attention to important new research findings.

Recently there has been plenty of debate about the politicisation of environmental science. Scientists are increasingly using the media, including blogs, to promote and disseminate their work. This has left them open to criticism that they are cherrypicking their arguments and misrepresenting science. NGO’s and advocacy groups have been cherrypicking their arguments for decades — but scientists shouldn’t fall into this habit and they will only be devaluing their credibility if they do. However, this is not to say scientists should not be disseminating their work, quite contrary. They should, if nothing else to add to the debate. If a scientific finding is to be useful in the ‘real world’ it will be always be political – we have to accept that. The time has gone when scientists were able to say “I just do the science, not the politics”. Environmental science in the 21st century must accept this, and learn how to engage with the public at large to communicate its findings and the implications of those findings. (How this in turn influences how the science proceeds is another, interesting, question).

Of course there’s uncertainty in science, and there always will be. As Rodger Bradbury suggests, Science is 3-tuple:

  1. a body of knowledge,
  2. a method for generating that knowledge, and
  3. a collection of people using those methods to increase that knowledge.

The knowledge generated by science is, and should be, constantly re-evaluated and questioned. For me this is the best way to examine the world, by constantly questioning. But the people using the methods and tools of science will always have their own agenda — even if it is simply the advancement of their own scientific career. Scientists are human beings. But now we need to continue to work to improve another facet of our scientific toolbag – the accurate communication of scientific work to the public at large. Who is better qualified to deliver the message, the scientist or the journalist? Scientists should work hard to make sure it is them.

But what about the situation right now? Richard Ladle again:
Fortunately, there are several ways in which the credibility of a website or blog can be quickly assessed:

  • Check the data – strong scientific arguments are based on information from recognised sources that is available for public scrutiny, while weak or spurious arguments are often backed up with data from secondary sources or often no data at all
  • Take note of the language – arguments couched in hyperbolic language may be masking a lack of understanding or sound information

These are sound starting points for anyone reading anything on the internet. Personally, on this blog I try to make a distinction between ‘serious’ comments and more ‘tounge-in-cheek’ comments by capitalising words in titles of the former, but not the latter. A good scientist will never deliberately mislead — but at the same time it needs to be understood that they can never be 100% sure of their findings. Scientific knowledge is provisional and always open to scrutiny and change. That’s how it differs from faith.

2 thoughts on “Reading is Believing?

  1. Yes, I’m leaving a comment on my own blog… I forgot to note a key point; not only do environmental scientists need to communicate their research, they need must be able to effectively communicate the uncertainties in their work, and what the implications of those uncertainties might. This need not be in the form of a quantitative uncertainty assessment, but should be couched in terms that are appropriate to the potential uses of their work in the ‘real world’.James


  2. I do agree that uncertainties in scientific work can’t always be represented quantitatively (just imagine the amount of pointless numbers! And who would have time to analyse them?). For instance, I spoke to a consultancy a while back who told me they were asked by a client to write a report quantifying the uncertainties in a modelling project they had finished the year before. After considerable umm-ing and err-ing they came to the conclusion that statistically representing such uncertainties would take another 3 years, and probably won’t yield much in terms of useful information. Instead they categorised the uncertainties qualitatively, with ‘high, medium and low’ ratings. Although I applaud their efforts to make these uncertainties meaningful in the ‘real-world’, further questions are raised about the ambiguities between these boundaries. What constitutes ‘high’ and ‘low’? Who decides? Using what criteria? And probably more importantly than semantics, we may find ourselves slowly walking into is an interpretive nightmare. Suddenly the scientist or modeller will be asked to make even more judgements beyond the initial construction of their model. This situation could easily spill over into a quandary over how objectivity, solidarity and responsibility are distributed throughout the work. Dodging the real issue that eventually someone will have to make a decision on the data that’s avaliable. Life is uncertain. And the best we can hope from scientists is for them to offer well-researched work. Its then up to policymakers and individuals to do the rest.Thanks for raising the topic.James P


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