13 June 2009

Scientific Specificity

Reading science is a bit different from what we're accustomed to in the rest of our lives. No, not that scientists use inscrutable jargon or math; plenty of other groups have their own jargons and uses or abuses of math. The challenge is that scientists, in writing and speaking science, are usually much more precise in what they say.

I was reminded of this in the comments to my note about the correlation between CO2 and temperature. Still thinking about how to write so as to avoid the problem. Since, even if I do complete the rewriting, there are many other scientists who won't be revising, I figure it's not a bad thing to write this general note.

Over in that note, I documented that there is indeed a correlation between CO2 levels and temperature. Quite a surprisingly large one, in fact. I also noted that merely running this correlation is not how the science is being done. (In fact, the science on temperature rising because of CO2 increase, if there were enough of one, predated there being observations of the CO2 increase or temperature rising. Conservation of energy is a powerful law.) Still, where there are people saying that there's no correlation between CO2 and temperature, there's the elementary disproof.

A catchphrase that I'd thought was very widely known (and correct, which is rarer) is "correlation is not causation". But that's particular to correlation. The more general point is, if you've supported a particular claim (CO2 correlates with temperature), that's all that has been supported. One thing we try to do in science is to find things which are true to work with. Some things that are true aren't very useful. But you can't reach a good scientific conclusion with things that are not true. These elementary truths are the building blocks for constructing larger true structures.

This is why the difference in reading for science vs. many other things. In many other areas, you can predict an entire argument from a short part of it (not least, because the author is arguing rather than trying to understand -- see my note discussion vs. debate for why this is such a difference). To read science, you need to keep this in mind. Examine that one tiny building block that's being presented at the moment very carefully, by all means. But avoid rejecting the whole thing because you think it might be used to build something that you don't like. If the block holds up to scrutiny, then it holds up and work with it.


Philip H. said...

There is a downside though - we get too used to specificity, and communicating messages with the actual words, and we for get that most people use nuances and sub-text when writing or speaking. So we tend to blunder a lot socially because we expect precision in language from the people around us who aren't trained to use language that way.

Penguindreams said...

It's a bit more double-sided than even that, I think. On one hand, in talking science, we speak fairly carefully and the words themselves are our meaning (this much, and not more). On the other hand, we also use a lot of qualifiers -- it's 'about' this, 'probably' that, 'evidence supports' the other, and so on. Outside the science context, that makes us sound perhaps untrustworthy, and definitely unreliable.

As you suggest, we need to adopt different communication standards when outside our science context. Or, as I was reminded of, even inside a somewhat science context like a science blog. Most of the time, no big deal. I don't talk the same in talking baseball as I do in talking climate science.