What is Wrong with Embellishing Science?
embellishing present participle of em·bel·lish (Verb)
Verb: Make (something) more attractive by the addition of decorative details or features: “blue silk embellished with golden embroidery”.
Make (a statement or story) more interesting or entertaining by adding extra details, esp. ones that are not true.
Yesterday, before heading back to the National Hurricane Center to help deal with Sandy, Chris Landsea gave a great talk here at CU on hurricanes and climate change (we’ll have a video up soon). In Chris’ talk he explained that he has no doubts that humans affect the climate system through the emission of greenhouse gases, and this influence may affect tropical cyclones. He then proceeded to review theory and data from recent peer-reviewed publications on the magnitude of such an influence. Chris argued that any such influence is expected to be small today, almost certainly undetectable, and that this view is not particularly controversial among tropical cyclone climatologists. He concluded that hurricanes should not be the “poster” representing a human influence on climate.
After his talk someone in the audience asked him what is wrong with making a connection between hurricanes and climate change if it gives the general public reason for concern about climate change. Chris responded that asserting such a connection can be easily shown to be incorrect and thus risks some of the trust that the public has in scientists to play things straight.
The late Stephen Schneider gained some fame for observing that when engaging in public debates scientists face a difficult choice between between honesty and effectiveness (as quoted in TCF pp. 202-203):
On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.
Often overlooked is what Schneider recommended about how to handle this “double ethical bind”:
I hope that means being both [effective and honest)