Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Haphazardly informed institution

One of my favorite former Spectator columnists, Charles Homans, has a great article in the Columbia Journalism Review about weather reporters who deny climate change, as they draw faulty connections from one field (meteorology) to another (climatology):
But the disagreement, then as now, also came down to the weathercasters themselves, and what they knew—-or believed they knew. Meteorology has a deceptively close relationship with climatology: both disciplines study the same general subject, the behavior of the atmosphere, but they ask very different questions about it. Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.

From here, he turns to the problem of scientific expertise and science literacy as it's broadcast in local news.

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