Sensationalism in Science News

Obesity Panacea at PLoS Blogs has a good article on something science journalists tend to do wrong, and how to fix it. For our purposes, we can take it as something journalists tend to do wrong, and to make sure to be aware of it and not misinterpret science news as a result.

All too frequently, newspapers portray individual studies as the definitive answer on a given topic.  This is a problem because most studies are not the definitive answer on anything. That is why researchers are constantly trying to replicate each  others’ work.

Just because one study finds a relationship between A and B, does not mean that other studies will be able to replicate that finding, or that it will extend to other situations. On the face of it, this seems like an incredibly obvious statement.  And yet it’s something that newspapers often forget, and which I think could have some very negative consqeuences.

… To be honest, all journalists really need to do is dial back the enthusiasm a bit, rather than painting every study as a GROUNDBREAKING NEW FINDING.

Journalists may also want to shift away from writing about individual studies, and look instead to systematic reviews. This is what researchers and policy-makers are doing already.  We know that many published findings turn out to be false (some have argued that most findings are false) and so when we want to know the definitive answer to a question, we look at systematic reviews rather than individual studies.

Trying to understand the health impact of any given behaviour (e.g. sedentary behaviour, physical activity, smoking, etc) is a bit like trying to make a map of a city by taking thousands of independent pictures using different angles, distances, and resolution, without knowing how all the pictures link together. Any one picture (or study) tells you relatively little about the city, and some pictures may seem to contradict (e.g. one picture may suggest the city is grassland, while another picture may suggest it is incredibly urban). But if you take enough pictures from enough angles, you start to get a pretty good sense of what the city looks like.

Systematic reviews are an attempt to bring order to that chaos by organizing the pictures, grouping types of pictures together, and placing more weight on the high quality pictures, while reducing the emphasis of low quality pictures, or simply throwing them out entirely.

If journalists focused more on systematic reviews rather than individual studies (and there are plenty of systematic reviews coming out these days), they’d be less likely to steer people in the wrong direction, and more likely to be spreading a message that will hold up over the long term.

The problem is that asking news outlets to be less sensational is probably not going to happen as long as sensationalism is what sells. The change should start, I think, with the readers – rewarding good science writing and complaining about the bad. We have to be mature enough to understand that studies can be important without being life-changing, and that studies can be interesting without being definitive. For that, I think we need a more scientifically literate public, so it’s all a rather circular problem. 

You may not need any more examples of this, but if you read the full article, the author, Travis Saunders, provides an example of how newspaper articles poorly representing science are dangerous, in this case in reporting on the relative health risks to inactive children of TV or video games or computer use. Science is our best tool for knowing how to take care of ourselves, so we have to be able to trust what we hear about current scientific progress, and this trust is shaken when media outlets continuously declare contradicting definitive results. 

So let’s do our part to fix this problem, and read (and discuss) more science!

Edit: A recent article at New Scientist discusses some shortcomings of science reporting more generally, and again how journalists can fix this issue. 

Lethal Underwater Briny Icicle

BBC has some phenomenal footage of an icicle forming from salty water in the Antarctic. It crawls down into the water (because the density of the saltwater makes it sink) and freezes everything around it, including the poor animals underneath.

That video was not posted by the BBC so hopefully it doesn’t get taken down too soon. Here’s the camera set-up they used:

I don't think my camera can do that

You should check out their article for the description of the brinicle. Very cool stuff. It feels like nature is just always up to random amazing things without us ever realizing it. 

What Casual Climate Science Deniers Don’t Understand About Science

I’m really averse to writing about the political controversy around climate science because it’s beaten to death in every kind of media already, and there are plenty of blogs revolving around it. Without it, though, I might not have started this blog in the first place, since that and the political controversy over evolution are the biggest symptoms of a society that doesn’t know enough about science.

You may have heard about what the media gleefully called “Climategate 2.0”, a release of more stolen emails from climate scientists. Here’s Scientific American and LiveScience discussing the leak, and Life’s Little Mysteries addressing the scientific complaints against anthropogenic climate change. 

In my opinion, the controversies over evolution and climate science stem largely from a sheer lack of understanding of how science works. As I see it there are a few main misunderstandings:

1) Nothing is 100% certain. Deniers demand 100% certainty in scientists’ claims, which is literally impossible. There is always room for error and misinterpretation, in every kind of science. Scientists know this and so they tend to talk about their findings cautiously. This doesn’t translate well in the public sphere; we’re used to people in everyday life making certain claims, especially when those claims are relevant to politics. What kind of politician would say “My plan is to do this, because such-and-such is probably the problem with our economy, and such-and-such will probably help”? That would be honest, but it wouldn’t sell, and that politician’s dishonest opponent would come off much more convincingly.

This creates a conflict when science is dragged kicking and screaming into politics. There’s pressure to put things into certain terms – it’s technically bad science, but good politics. From what little I’ve seen excerpted from the hacked emails, it looks like this is what these scientists are discussing – how to remain scientifically accurate while trying to get across an important public message. Does glossing over the science in this way make them liars or frauds? No, it makes them roughly as inaccurate as everyone else in the public sphere. It’s regrettable that science has to be dumbed down for public presentation, but the dumbing down is obviously not a conspiracy. 

2) There will always be internal disagreement between scientists on smaller issues. Deniers will point out any and every sign of disagreement between scientists when it comes to climate science or evolution, and use this to claim that the science isn’t settled. There will probably always be differing hypotheses when it comes to the details of the matter, but that has no bearing on whether the field as a whole is valid. There’s tons of uncertainty in climate science, and personally I don’t like it at all when bold predictions about 100 years into the future are made, because it seems obvious that those predictions are so error-prone as to be meaningless. However, there’s negligible uncertainty when it comes to the facts of the Earth gradually warming over the last century, and the human release of greenhouse gasses as a significant contributing factor.

Do we know how all of this will pan out? No, not at all. I summarized a New Scientist article earlier showing just how little we know about the magnitude of the problem. This kind of subtlety can be confusing to the public – if we don’t know, then why should we take such dramatic and costly steps to respond? Science doesn’t work strictly by knowing though, as should be clear by the fact that nothing is 100% certain. Everything is a matter of probability. If curbing greenhouse gas release is very likely to be beneficial, then it makes sense to do it, whether or not we can know for sure – which we really can’t, ever. Doing nothing is making an active choice to act on the much less probable future scenario, which doesn’t make any sense. 

3) Science is not an opaque, elite clubhouse. The fact that e-mails from a small group of scientists are being used to smear an entire field betrays a profound misunderstanding of, everything. Science is a global pursuit. Even if these fantasies about these emails being incriminating were true, it would have virtually no implications for climate science, since different groups of scientists have independently come to the same conclusions anyway. Individual scientists can’t just make things up or conspire with impunity. They’re accountable to everyone – anyone can debunk their claims, and if they’re caught forging data or being incredibly dishonest in any way, it’ll probably mean the end of their careers. Science is not like politics – you can’t just lie and move on. If you’re a bad scientist, you’re done, for the rest of your life. There’s no way one particular group of scientists would just decide to make enormous lies about something that’s being investigated all over the world. 

I think the faster-than-light neutrino story is a great example for understanding science better in this context. Were the CERN scientists shunned for going against the overwhelmingly dominant consensus theory? No, quite the opposite. Is there a possibility that the theory of relativity is incomplete? Yes, anyone will admit to that. Does that mean we should ignore all of the findings brought to us by assuming that relativity was completely correct for the last hundred years? No, that would be ridiculous. 

In sum: even the best of theories can be challenged, even the best of theories can be incomplete, but it makes sense to act on what information we have even if it’s not perfect (which, again, it never will be). This alone should be enough to finally move past this political misunderstanding.

All of that being said, another reason why I’m averse to writing about topics like this is because I get the impression that facts and reason are not what’s driving the discussion. I have no idea what will convince most deniers to jump on the modernity bandwagon and trust the global institution of science, but it’s probably not posts like this. 

My Thoughts on Free Will and Neuroscience

There have been a few articles written about neuroscience and its implications for free will in the last few days; here’s one in Salon, here in Scientific American, and here from Mind Hacks, which also links to an October article in the New York Times and August article from Nature

I’ve found that none of these reflect my own perspective, which is why I thought I’d add my thoughts to the mix just in case you wanted another opinion. Basically these articles portray a struggle over the definition of free will, and make it seem as if some people (namely neuroscientists) find free will soundly disproven while others (namely philosophers) think more evidence is needed. Philosophers argue that neuroscientists are seeing free will as something immaterial, a ghost in the machine, which is not how they see it – free will can coexist with a purely material brain.

My thought is that free will is irrelevant. Free will is an intuitive model for human thinking, a historical assumption. Now we have evidence for another model for human thinking, one based on physics via chemistry via biology. Is there any reason to continue to consider free will as a relevant way of thinking about thinking? I really don’t think so. It may be interesting to philosophers for the moment, but practically speaking what does it tell us? What reason is there for thinking it exists? Whether it exists by one or another definition is irrelevant if it’s a useless, unfalsifiable concept. 

The only point that’s brought up in these articles for the utility of free will is in courts, for assigning responsibility. However, we already acknowledge the flaws of free will in court, via the insanity plea. The idea is that insanity prevents a suspect from using their reason. I don’t think there’s any difference between that case and the case where reason prevents a suspect from using their insanity. There’s this common conception of a “normal” brain and a “defective” brain, instead of the more realistic acknowledgment that every brain is unique and has its own predispositions. Why would a brain we culturally consider defective not have free will, while an equally deterministic “normal” brain has free will? It doesn’t actually make any sense. 

So where does that leave us in terms of legal and moral responsibility? I think it leads us towards rehabilitation instead of pure punishment. The point of rehabilitation is to acknowledge and use determinism – change a convict’s circumstances, change their brain. We just have to realize that this applies to everyone, not just the people we currently don’t think have much free will, like children or the mentally ill.

I could probably ramble on, but I’ve probably made my point clear: free will is, as far as I can tell, a useless concept, and if anything it just obstructs a more effective justice system, as opposed to being the only thing between us and anarchy as some people would claim. I don’t think neuroscientists should be worrying about it at all, given what we know now, so I don’t. 

Big Science and a Big Laser

Scientific research is generally rather expensive and requires specialized equipment and real estate, but some projects are bigger than others. Physics World has a pdf of a supplement to their magazine describing a few giant-sized physics facilities currently working (like the LHC at CERN) or in the works; it’s pretty interesting to look over and see the huge ambition at play, and the frontiers of science. 

One of the proposed projects, the Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility, is the subject of a Telegraph article today. It’s going to include the most powerful laser in the world by orders of magnitude, strong enough to tear apart the virtual particles that are theorized to appear and disappear in a vacuum, and thus be able to learn more about them.

From the Telegraph:

Contrary to popular belief, a vacuum is not devoid of material but in fact fizzles with tiny mysterious particles that pop in and out of existence, but at speeds so fast that no one has been able to prove they exist.

The Extreme Light Infrastructure Ultra-High Field Facility would produce a laser so intense that scientists say it would allow them to reveal these particles for the first time by pulling this vacuum “fabric” apart.

They also believe it could even allow them to prove whether extra-dimensions exist.

“This laser will be 200 times more powerful than the most powerful lasers that currently exist,” said Professor John Collier, a scientific leader for the ELI project and director of the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Didcot, Oxfordshire…

The ELI Ultra-High Field laser is due to be complete by the end of the decade and will cost an estimated £1 billion. Although the location for the facility will not be decided until next year, the UK is among several European countries in the running to host it…

The Ultra-High Field laser will be made up of 10 beams, each twice as powerful as the prototype lasers, allowing it to produce 200 petawatts of power – more than 100,000 times the power of the world’s combined electricity production – for less than a trillionth of a second…

It will cause the mysterious particles of matter and antimatter thought to make up a vacuum to be pulled apart, allowing scientists to detect the tiny electrical charges they produce.

These “ghost particles”, as they are known, normally annihilate one another as soon as they appear, but by using the laser to pull them apart, physicists believe they will be able to detect them.

Cool. It’s funny to think that the solution to the most subtle universal mysteries are solved by building giant crazy lasers and shooting stuff – it sounds like a solution from the mind of a 12-year-old boy. Or look at supercolliders like the LHC, where the solution instead is to smash particles together really really hard. Then again, those are descriptions tailored for mass consumption, so they leave out the 99.99% of the work that’s not quite so exciting – but still, at least parts of it are pretty exciting. 

If you looked at the supplement about “big science” from Physics World, you may have noticed that all of the projects they discuss are mainly or entirely European, which is kind of disappointing. It should be clear why science can be damn expensive, but if our continent doesn’t step its game up it looks like it’s going to fall behind, at least in this realm.

What We Do and Don’t Know About Climate Change

As I said in the last post, the science behind climate change has been in the news recently, which brings the side benefit of having New Scientist publish a series of articles on climate change for our education. You may not be able to access the articles without registering with them (for free), but they’re very short in any case and I’ll summarize them here. Because they’re very short though, be warned that they’re probably slight-to-gross oversimplifications, so don’t take any of this as whole, perfect truths. 

This ended up being super duper long – feel free to just skim over the titles and read more only if you’re interested. I think the important thing to note is that we don’t know everything – and we likely never will. That applies to every field of science though, as the final article eloquently explains. Climate change science has been brutally politicized, but that shouldn’t distract people from the facts.

Climate known: Greenhouse gasses are warming the planet

From melting glaciers and earlier springs to advancing treelines and changing animal ranges, many lines of evidence back up what thermometers tell us – Earth is getting warmer. Over the 20th century, the average global temperature rose by 0.8 °C

Studies of Earth’s past climate tell us that whenever CO2 levels have risen, the planet has warmed. Since the beginning of the industrial age in the 19th century, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased from 280 parts per million to 380 ppm. Satellite measurements now show both that less infrared of the specific frequencies absorbed by CO2 and other greenhouses gases is escaping the planet and that more infrared of the same frequencies is being reflected back to Earth’s surface. While many factors affect our planet’s climate, there is overwhelming evidence that CO2 is the prime cause of its recent warming.

Climate unknown: How much greenhouse gas to expect

The biggest uncertainty is human… Our current emissions trajectory is close to the worst-case scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If we continue on this path, CO2 levels could hit 1000 ppmby 2100 – or perhaps even higher.

The second uncertainty is Earth’s response… Currently, rising CO2 levels are driving global warming, but in the past CO2 levels have naturally risen in response to rising temperatures. We do not know why exactly, but the reduced solubility of CO2 in warm water and changes in biological activity have been suggested as reasons. If such mechanisms kick in, even bigger cuts in emissions will be needed to limit warming.

There are also vast quantities of greenhouse gases locked away in permafrost, in peat bogs and undersea methane hydrate deposits. We don’t know how big these stores are. Nor do we know how much permafrost will melt, or how much peat will dry out and decay, or whether the seas will get warm enough to trigger the release of methane – an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 – from the hydrates.

Climate known: Other pollutants are cooling the planet

We pump all kinds of substances into the atmosphere. Nitrous oxide and CFCs warm the planet as CO2 does. Black carbon – soot – warms things up overall by soaking up heat, but cools Earth’s surface by shading it. But other pollutants reflect the sun’s heat back into space and so cool things down…

Burning sulphurous fossil fuels has been adding huge amounts of SO2 to the atmosphere. Between the 1940s and 1970s, this pollution was so high that it balanced out warming from CO2. But as western countries limited sulphur emissions to tackle acid rain, the masking effect was lost and global warming resumed.

Sulphur emissions began rising again in 2000, largely as China built more coal-fired power stations. Now China is installing sulphur-scrubbing equipmentin those power stations. If SO2 emissions fall, global warming could accelerate…

Climate unknown: How great our cooling effects are

Pollutants that form minute aerosol droplets in the atmosphere have horrendously complex effects. How much radiation is reflected by sulphur dioxide aerosols varies according to the size of the droplets, their height in the atmosphere, whether it is night or day, what season it is and several other factors…

But if aerosol cooling is larger than generally assumed, the planet will warm more rapidly than predicted as soon as aerosol levels fall.

Climate known: The planet is going to get a lot hotter

Take water. Water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas. When an atmosphere warms, it holds more of the stuff. As soon as more CO2 enters a watery planet’s atmosphere, its warming effect is rapidly amplified.

This is not the only such “positive feedback” effect. Any warming also leads to the rapid loss of snow cover and sea ice, both of which reflect sunlight back into space. The result is that more heat is absorbed and warming escalates. Longer timescales bring changes in vegetation that also affect heat absorption, and the possibility that land and oceans begin to release CO2 rather than absorb it. Over hundreds or thousands of years, vast ice sheets can melt away, further decreasing the planet’s reflectivity. Barring some unexpected catastrophe such as a megavolcano eruption, then, the planet is going to warm considerably.

Climate unknown: Just how much hotter things will get

The bulk of the evidence still points to a short-term climate sensitivity of around 3 °C, as the IPCC’s models suggest. But while a figure much lower than that is unlikely, there is a significant probability of higher sensitivities (see diagram)…

Climate unknown: How things will change in each region

Even with an average global temperature rise of just 2 °C, there will be some pretty dramatic changes. Which regions are going to turn into tropical paradises? Which into unbearably humid hellholes? Which into deserts? For planning purposes it would be useful to know.

Unfortunately, we don’t. The broad picture is that the tropics will expand and get a bit wetter. The dry zones either side of the tropics will get dryer and move towards the poles. High latitudes will get much warmer and wetter.

When it comes to the finer details, though, there is not much agreement…

Climate known: Sea level is going to rise many metres

Studies of sea level and temperatures over the past million years suggest that each 1°C rise in the global mean temperature eventually leads to a 20-metre rise in sea level.

That makes the effects of a rise of at least 2°C rather alarming. How alarming depends on how quickly the great ice sheets melt in response to warming – and that is another big unknown.

Climate unknown: How quickly sea level will rise

We have little clue how much room we have for manoeuvre. Past melting episodes provide little help. Melting can be rapid: as the last ice age ended, the disappearance of the ice sheet covering North America increased sea level by more than a metre per century at times. It is unclear if Greenland’s ice will melt as rapidly.

To predict exactly how quickly sea level will rise, we would first need to know how much hotter the planet is going to get. As we have seen, we don’t.

Climate unknown: How serious the threat to life is

Many species will have to move to stay within a tolerable temperature range. Animals will also have to change their time of hatching or migration to stay in sync with food sources. Many won’t make it: theoretical studies based on relatively conservative warming scenarios have come up with dire estimates of a third or more terrestrial species going extinct. Real-world studies of the effects of warming so far have backed these conclusions.

Climate known: There will be more floods and droughts

Warm air holds more moisture: about 5 per cent more for each 1°C temperature increase. This means more rain or snow overall, and more intense rain or snowfall on average.This trend is already evident, and is stronger than models predict.

More intense precipitation means more floods…

Although most of the world will get more rainfall on average, dry periods will still occur from time to time. When they do, soils will dry out faster because of the higher temperatures. Once soils dry out, the sun’s heat goes into warming the land rather than evaporating water, triggering or exacerbating heatwaves.

Climate unknown: Will there be more hurricanes?

As the lower atmosphere gets warmer and wetter over the coming decades, there will be more fuel available to power extreme storms. But how often will this fuel ignite? Hurricanes are relatively rare because they form only when conditions are just right. While higher sea-surface temperatures will favour their formation, stronger high-level winds may rip them apart. The result could be fewer hurricanes overall, but with greater strength when they do occur. As the destructive power of hurricanes rises exponentially with increasing wind speed, a few intense storms could wreak more havoc than many weak ones.

At temperate northern latitudes, the news might be better. There winter storms are powered largely by the temperature differences between cold air from the poles and warmer air masses from the tropics. Such storms may become less common as rapid warming in the Arctic reduces the temperature differences.

Climate unknown: If and when tipping points will come

If the Arctic suddenly cooled, sea ice would recover within a few years. If the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica lose enough ice to raise sea level a metre or more, though, it would take thousands of years for snowfall to build up the ice sheets again. The risk is real: we know that the West Antarctic ice sheet has collapsed many times in the past, raising sea levels at least 3 metres.

We can identify many other such dangerous “tipping points“. The Amazon could flip from being rainforest to grassland, just as the Sahara suddenly dried up 8000 years ago. Massive amounts of methane could be released from undersea methane hydrates.

I really like the concluding article. Here it is (most of it anyway) in its sciency glory:

The biggest climate change uncertainty of all

WOULD you jump off a skyscraper? What if someone told you that physicists still don’t fully understand gravity: would you risk it then?

We still have a lot to learn about gravity, but that doesn’t make jumping off a skyscraper a good idea. Similarly, we still have a lot to learn about the climate but that doesn’t make pumping ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere a good idea.

Uncertainty is one of the defining features of science. Absolute proof exists only in mathematics. In the real world, it is impossible to prove that scientific theories are right in every circumstance; we can only prove that they are wrong. This provisionality can cause people to lose faith in the conclusions of science, but it shouldn’t. The recent history of science is not one of well-established theories being proven wrong. Rather, it is of theories being gradually refined. Newton’s laws of gravity may have been superseded, but they are still accurate enough to be used for many purposes…

In fact, perhaps the biggest source of uncertainty is not to do with the science at all, or the global climate system, but with us.

Will we burn every last drop of fossil fuel? Or will some amazing technological advance make the switch to renewable energy a no-brainer? Will we keep building cities in places vulnerable to sea-level rise, like Shanghai?

Even politicians who back action to curb global warming are not delivering on their promises. Many of the countries that signed up to the Kyoto protocol have failed to achieve their very modest targets. Meanwhile, some countries in Europe are signing up to more ambitious goals for reducing emissions by 2030, while still commissioning coal-fired power stations.

By the time the need for drastic action becomes blindingly obvious, the best opportunity to curb harmful change will have been squandered. Yet if draconian action is taken today, any success in limiting warming will be greeted with scepticism that drastic measures were ever worthwhile or even necessary. Perhaps the greatest unknown, then, is how to persuade people to act today to help protect their long-term future, not to mention future generations.

One more thing is certain: only science can reveal how our planet can provide a decent home for billions of people without toppling over the precipice.

I love it. Succinct, honest and forthright. 

Climate Change Science In the News Again

The science behind climate change has been thrust back into the media spotlight in the last few days, after a former global warming skeptic and Berkeley physicist led a study that ended up corroborating prior research showing that the Earth is indeed warming. He wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal explaining why he had been skeptical of the climate change evidence and how his own study took into account all of the factors that had left him doubtful, and ended up agreeing with the mainstream evidence after all. 

If you’ve heard scientific-sounding arguments against climate change and weren’t sure how to address them, this op-ed might be interesting to you. The punchline, though, is this:

When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate. How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.

On its surface this news story sounds like a good thing, but I don’t like it. The soundbite version is that “even a skeptical scientist was convinced once he looked hard at the evidence.” The implication is that the vast majority of scientists who accept climate change theory aren’t sufficiently, reasonably skeptical. It promotes the idea that mainstream scientists can’t be trusted, which is why an “outsider”, a member of the denial faction, had to find out for himself and carry the word back to his fellow deniers. 

Obviously that’s only my very subjective take on things, but I can’t help but feel that that’s how news agencies are pitching it to the public. Otherwise, it would be irrelevant that this physicist was a climate change skeptic – it has no bearing on the science, it’s purely a means of making him sound trustworthy to other deniers. It may serve to convert some people, but for a lot of people it’ll only reinforce their “scientists can’t be trusted” mentality – and now this physicist will be just one of those lying mainstream scientists to them. 

That being said, what’s the alternative way of convincing deniers? I don’t know… I’d like to go on about this, but since this is Science Picks and not André Rants I’ll move on: I want to share an interesting series of articles from New Scientist discussing what we do and don’t know about climate change. I don’t want this post to be crazy long, so check it out in the next post!

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