Monday, 25 August 2014

Scientific certainty and the media

How many people read a newspaper article on global warming, and do not think everything claimed is of equal certainty? That would mean they treated the temperature rise, sea level changes, ice melt, causes of ice melt, water vapour changes, CO2 increase, causes of forest fires, droughts, hurricanes and any other extreme weather, all as equally certain within science.

How wrong they are. In fact unlike the formula for the volume of a circle or the distance from the sun, these items are all placed on a sliding scale from 100% to who knows whatever they can get away with. The confidence levels are not based on opinion, but the amount of direct measurements and the number of alternative causes. Unless every single newspaper report were to (as the IPCC to its credit does for them) include the confidence level for every single claim, and ideally the details of why it is lower or higher, which they all know themselves, the public have a false impression all climate data is of the same unquestionable standard, and use that as a meme they carry around and then infect each person they talk to about it.

Clearly they are not comparing like with like. Science in general has a sliding scale. Eating natural fats was demonised till a few years ago when tests showed most cholesterol was made internally and any from the diet was stored in a small percentage of people who could not process it properly by genetics, so rather than metabolise it had it build up in the body's tissues. In fact till the 20th century there wasn't much refined food, everyone ate their eggs, milk and meat with everything it came with naturally and didn't suffer more heart disease as a result, science caught up and moved on to salt and sugar, which they may well also find out are essential to our diets a few years from now.

The point is science is a moving target. Apart from the knowns, like you have appendicitis (but only once they've opened you up, as it can mimic a few other diseases from outside), the movement of solar systems, you have anaemia or a specific infection, or the local rainfall from a rain gauge and tide level from a tide gauge, using direct specific measurements, beyond that level the grey area (something literally found in their graphs, specifying the range of uncertainty) grows and grows, and when it becomes wider than the data itself it becomes worthless and no longer capable of use. Like the IPCC graphs for the next 100 years of temperature models, a range of around 5C, similar to widening the goalposts beyond the width of the pitch to make every shot score, or allowing most lottery tickets to win. But is it science (translated as 'knowledge') or simply using science to do something else for other personal reasons? Well having seen the standard required by science I think the answer there is obvious.

So basically science cannot be sure about many things, papers are written all the time which are either retracted or debunked at a later date, but given similar credit by the media at least and many politicians, giving the pay public little opportunity to learn the actual weight of the evidence, something more vital than any other area in statistics. Unless people are shown this in the reports, and the reasons why, then they have too little information to know, and in practical terms, vote for someone who will do the right and not the wrong thing with that information. Of course that would mean most such reports would never even be published, as imagine a reporter publishing a piece which then went on to say that 'we are only 40% certain this is the case, as the measurements were only possible for a limited area and depth of ocean/ice therefore it is only one possible answer among many not yet learnt'. It would be honest and accurate, but would it be journalism? Unfortunately not, so they aren't honest and they aren't accurate, and the general public make their decisions based on scattered piles of bullshit. Little new there really I suppose.

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