"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Confusing words

Tread carefully in public communication among words with multiple meanings:
  • global warming
  • consistent with
  • uncertainty
  • model
  • chaos
Any other nominees?

It makes you sound stuffy to get it right, but it just adds to the confusion if you don't define what you mean in the context where you mean it. Best to avoid these words if you can make your point otherwise. Unfortunately, these are obviously key concepts. But precise communication is what we need, and without considerable care, these words lead into hopeless argumentative tangles.

All they need is two people: a clueless person whom you try to get the idea across to in broad brushstrokes, and a persnickety person trying to find an edge case that leads to a contradiction. If you find yourself trying to talk to both at the same time, you are doomed. Go too broad, and the persnickety person finds plenty to snipe at. Go too formal, and the clueless person finds grounds to say you are making no sense and hiding something. Try to walk the tightrope and they both find stuff to come at you with. Both people can be perfectly sincere. Your message will sink into a mire of suspicion, hostility and missing the point, and your opponents will pride themselves on a worthy job well done.

Woe to the person who has an important message that has any subtlety to it. And woe to the world that is so eager to find ways not to listen.

We'll return to our "why this summer is different" saga soon. Thanks for listening.


Patrick said...

George Musser (Please Stop Talking About the Global Warming Consensus) doesn't care for the word consensus. However I don't think the word consensus is in any way confusing.

It is a worthwhile excercise to take the time to carefully parse the meaning of words like model, consistent, uncertainty, which I believe that I understand.

For my own part I know that my understanding of the word chaos as it is used by mathmaticians and physicists is nil, and will be untill I have done some hands on work to understand some of what is understood by the word.

I suspect that without having done some work on the summation of convergent and divergent series many people don't "get" what the difference is between a "runaway" greenhouse effect such as Venus enjoys and what is being contemplated for the Earth.

Michael Tobis said...

+1 "runaway greenhouse effect" or "runaway global warming"; definitely two different meanings out there

I think I will add "tipping point" too. For all I mostly admire Hansen he did this on purpose which I don't like. It used to mean the transition point in a situation of conditional stability. Now it also means "things getting surprisingly lousier", which means we passed a weak-sense tipping point this summer.

David B. Benson said...

Interview with physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, 2 K limit advocate:
Schellnhuber equivocates?