Paper No. 4
Presentation Time: 1:50 PM


MILLER, Keith B., Geology, Kansas State University, Dept of Geology, 108 Thompson Hall, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506,

Misconceptions about the nature of science, and a lack of understanding of how the scientific community evaluates evidence and reaches consensus, often predominate the public discussion of global warming. Whether communicating to the public or teaching in a formal classroom setting, these misconceptions must be explicitly addressed.

Common misconceptions include: 1) an identification of science with a completed set of unchanging “facts” instead of a dynamic process; 2) a popular view of scientific theories that equates them with unsubstantiated guesses; 3) a strong discomfort with uncertainty and unresolved questions; 4) a failure to recognize the importance of scale and context in recognizing trends and formulating explanations; and 5) a perception that appeals to peer-reviewed research are appeals to authority. It is critical that these problems be explicitly addressed when communicating climate science.

Theory construction is essential to provide natural causal explanations for the observed patterns and trends recognized within the data. These recognized patterns and trends are nearly always scale-dependent. The causal agents involved at different temporal and spatial scales are likely to be different - at least in importance if not in kind. Popular discussions are often conducted without any reference to scale. It is thus critical that the scales being discussed be made explicit.

Scientific explanations will always be accompanied by uncertainties and unexplained observations. “Proof” is demanded when such certainty is never possible within science. The nature of scientific consensus is often not appreciated, and the existence of conflicting data or interpretations are viewed as adequate to bring into question an entire field of study. The role of peer-review and communication of results in advancing scientific understanding and reaching consensus is an essential part of the practice of science. So scientists and educators need to communicate not only the current scientific conclusions, but also the process by which those conclusions were reached.