Posted on | June 17, 2010 | 3 Comments
update: Eli had a nice post on this topic last week.
In the newspaper this week, I took a whack at what I think is one of the fundamental public misunderstandings about the nature of science. I like to call it “the textbook problem”, but one might also characterize it as “the science journalism problem.”
Lay exposure to science comes in two fundamental ways. The first is academic learning, in which non-scientists are exposed to textbook explanation of things scientists have already figured out, knowledge with sufficient stability to make it into textbooks. Much of science journalism involves a similar domain – stories about papers scientists have published as a result of figuring something out.
This creates, I believe, a public impression of science – that it is about Stuff That’s Been Figured Out. But in fact much of the activity of scientists, even in the practice of what Kuhn called “normal science”, involves poking around in Stuff That Hasn’t Been Figured Out.
Mostly, this is not a problem. As a journalist, a story abouts seismologist Rick Aster figuring out that it’s icebergs making those weird noises his instruments were picking up is interesting. A story that Rick Aster’s instruments are picking up some weird noise, and he has no idea what it is, less so. That’s not to say that stories about the process of science are journalistically uninteresting, and I do try to write them. But mostly, the craft of science journalism enters the game after some amount of the figuring out has been completed.
Now let’s enter an area where the public has some interest, but which the scientists haven’t figured out yet, or haven’t figured out completely. I’ll skip the obvious elephant in the corner of the room and talk instead about the summer rainfall forecast here in the southwest. We’ve come to expect that El Niño and La Niña provide some useful seasonal forecast skill in winter. But with the North American Monsoon, seasonal forecasting has eluded some really interesting efforts:
“From a strictly scientific perspective, the story in my mind is how little definitive progress the community has made in improving prediction skill over the past decade,” Gutzler wrote in an e-mail last week. “I’m not sure there’s a newspaper story there but that seems to me the way the science is playing out here.”
But actually, if you want to understand how science works, this turns out to be a great case study.
Movies and textbooks treat science as a fixed body of knowledge — the things researchers have already figured out. But most real science is more like what Gutzler and his colleagues are doing here — poking and prodding in the dark, learning that things are more complicated than they first appeared.
Gutzler thinks scientists understand the monsoon better today. But part of what they understand is that the things that influence its behavior are more complex than scientists realized, making the forecast problem harder than they thought.
“At this point,” he said in an interview, “I’m less confident than I was a decade ago.”
For a science journalist, that should make the monsoon a great story, a chance to show how science really works. But I admit I’ve stopped calling Gutzler every year to ask for his forecast.
The problem is that when this public misunderstanding of the nature of science enters the political and public policy sphere, all hell breaks loose. “What do you mean they can’t tell me how much sea level will rise? Those guys must not know what they’re talking about!”