What We Say; What We Mean

There is a table has been making the rounds of the science blogosphere for the last couple of weeks — and I thought it’s the kind of thing that the B-J crowd enjoys:

Blog friend Southern Fried Science is extending the list, and you can add your own gems on his public Google Docs spreadsheet.

The original table comes from this Physics Today feature — “Communicating the science of climate change“ [PDF], by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol.  I entirely agree with their conclusion:

We must find ways to help the public realize that not acting is also making a choice, one that commits future generations to serious impacts. Messages that may invoke fear or dismay—as projections of future climate under business-as-usual scenarios often do—are better received if they also include hopeful components. Thus we can improve the chances that the public will hear and accept the science if we include positive messages about our ability to solve the problem. We can explain, for example, that it’s not too late to avoid the worst; lower emissions will mean reduced climate change and less severe impacts. We can point out that addressing climate change wisely will yield benefits to the economy and the quality of life. We can explain, as figure 5 shows, that acting sooner would be less disruptive than acting later. Let us rise to the challenge of helping the public understand that science can illuminate the choices we face.

The most important claim in that paragraph, IMHO, is that “it’s not too late to avoid the worst…”  As outright denialism becomes ever more risible, the fall back for those hopelessly drunk on dinosaur wine* is that climate change is just too bad, because some irrecoverable threshold has already been crossed.  This is nonsense.  See, e.g., for just one of many arguments on this issue, this 2009 report from the Yale e360 project. [Another PDF].  Confronting the (tactical) climate fatalists is the next huge communications challenge for scientific — and science writing — communities.

That said — the gap between what’s understood in conversation between people speaking the same technical jargon, and what gets through to the public remains a major stumbling block.  Which, I suppose, keeps me and my students in work. Ill winds and all that.

But I digress.  The point of this post is to encourage the Balloon-Juice commentariat both to add to the list above — or perhaps, depending on your mood, to come up with a similar table, a what-they-say/what-they-mean guide to Republican debate speak.

Have fun.

*”Dinosaur wine” is a phrase I steal from Dan Jenkins’ classic (sic–ed.) football novel, SemiTough.  So yes, I  know.  It ain’t dinosaur corpses that wind up in black gold.

Image:  Thomas Blount, Glossographia Anglicana Nova, (Title page from the 2nd edition, 1719)

Explore posts in the same categories: science writing, Uncategorized, words mattter


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