08 June 2015

Spectating on Science: Length of the Game

Science doesn't move as fast as basketball, so spectators need to adjust their expectations.  The 'game' plays out over a period of years.  The first play of the game is that someone publishes their work in the peer reviewed professional literature.  But that's something like the first pass in football/basketball/hockey -- it might _eventually_ turn in to a score.  But it isn't the score itself.

The short-hand for this is 'single study syndrome'.  All sorts of things show up in the media, or scientific literature, as being interesting and perhaps revolutionary.  But almost no revolutions follow from the very first study.  Few of the potentially interesting ideas, from the first publication, really hold up for any length of time.  Something worked out to be interesting _once_.  But, chances are good it won't hold up in the long run -- the previous consensus or state of knowledge is more likely correct than the new idea with just a single supporting piece of research.

For the spectator of science, which also includes me most of the time, we can, and have to, sit back a little and wait for the confirming evidence or studies.  One area which is an active area of discussion in science now is whether the recent US weather extremes (Eastern US has been far to the cold end of the historical distribution in winters of 2014 and 2015, but the Western US has been far to the hot end -- including setting several all time records) is due to the reduced Arctic sea ice pack.
Jennifer Francis, and a number of others, suggest the answer is yes -- Arctic sea ice cover is a cause of the observed weather.  John Walsh, and a number of others, suggest the answer is that weather happens, as it always has, which mean you sometimes get warm/cold winters like this.  I know both Jennifer and John personally, and many of their collaborators.  They're all good scientists.  They all have good arguments on their side.  My personal take so far is that Jennifer is more likely more correct than John.  But I am a spectator on this issue, not one of the primary investigators, so it's going to be a while, a few more years probably, before I'll see it as really decided.

But _this_ is what it's like in the world of real scientific 'debate'.  It isn't a matter of scoring a quick sound-bite debating 'point'.  It is slogging through the available data and trying to do the best possible analysis of it, and constructing the best possible conclusions from it.  I lean towards thinking John has neglected some data sources in his analysis, but Jennifer has also underestimated some other data sources.  No knock on them; there are too many possible sources for one person to analyze them all seriously, judgement is required.  Who will make the best analysis?  I don't know, and, in a sense, don't care.  The science will advance based on _whoever_ it is makes the best analysis from the most data.

It's an interesting time to be a spectator on the topic of how polar conditions may affect the mid-latitudes. Get some popcorn and keep your eye on the scientific journals.

1 comment:

Kevin O'Neill said...

Given your interest in the arctic and sea ice, I'm not sure if you ever visited Wayne Davidson's site. If you haven't you might find his work interesting; basically using the optics of temperature inversions and/or atmospheric aerosols to measure the changing arctic.

I don't know where the best place to start is - but last spring's prediction page has lots of interesting images. The 'toboggan sun' images and comparisons are worth looking at.