The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Some Hippie Punching of My Own

On the other hand, and at the risk of being accused of taking a swing back at the "good guys", let me insist that the good guys are the guys who get things right. When NCAR issued a dramatic press release announcing that oil from the Gulf spill would soon be appearing on the beaches of the Atlantic ocean, I realized that they were treating the oil as a passive tracer, and that the numerical experiment was of purely academic interest. That is, it did not constitute a remotely reasonable prediction or projection of the likely path of significant surface concentrations of oil. It was inconsistent with the behavior we had already seen.

And I would like you to recall that I said so.

So I am in complete agreement with Roger Pielke Jr. on this one. The experiment should not have been presented to the public in the way that it was presented. The phenomenology was not purely physical oceanography, and any physical oceanographer paying actual attention to the data ought to have known this. Persons familiar with the chemistry of oil released into the environment should have been consulted.

A mere hint of this does appear deep in the press release:
“The modeling study is analogous to taking a dye and releasing it into water, then watching its pathway,” Peacock says.

The dye tracer used in the model has no actual physical resemblance to true oil. Unlike oil, the dye has the same density as the surrounding water, does not coagulate or form slicks, and is not subject to chemical breakdown by bacteria or other forces.
Emphasis added. Well, duh, then, put that in your model first, before you bother us about it, okay?

This press release had consequences. It was widely reported. It hurt businesses on the East coast of Florida and in the Keys in a way that was not substantively justified. Making a situation appear worse than it is is just as bad of an interface between science and the public as the other way around. This was, in my opinion, a major blunder, and not one that should be dismissed lightly.

The press officers of scientific institutions are in positions of considerable responsibility. Highly trained professionals with a broad basis in science should be recruited, suitably rewarded, and held responsible for the quality of their communication. Scientists should take care how their results might be used in any case where a press release might have broad public interest.

3 comments:

crf said...

If you're going to keep this up, your fists are going to become very bloody indeed over the next month.

Dano said...


The press officers of scientific institutions are in positions of considerable responsibility. Highly trained professionals with a broad basis in science should be recruited, suitably rewarded, and held responsible for the quality of their communication. Scientists should take care how their results might be used in any case where a press release might have broad public interest.


Huh. Who knew? Should we create a track to help scientists communicate?

Best,

D

r67 said...

Arrgh not sure if I got through the first time. Anyhow, the overhyping of the of the original NCAR result has been known for at least 6 months!

Please have a look at

http://alistairadcroft.wordpress.com/2010/08/18/the-fate-of-oil-from-the-deepwater-horizon-oil-spill/

There are also related pages at GFDL which have been up for ages explaining what exactly was modelled.