Princely Pitfalls to Expaining Science

By Jack Williams ©2015

Prince Albert II of Monaco,whose environmental credentials are certainly as strong as those of any head of state, illustrated some of the pitfalls of trying to help people understand science during his talk and following question and answer session at the  National Press Club on Nov. 30, 2009.

In his talk the Prince described his family’s heritage of environmental concern going back to his great-great grandfather, Prince Albert I, who was known as “the scholar prince”  Albert II said that Albert I, along with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, was “one of the first heads of state to understand the importance of conservation, of large areas and species. Albert I was a man of progress whose message continues to inspire my actions.”

Prince Albert II of Monaco speaks at the National Press Club. Photo by Darlene Shields.

Prince Albert II of Monaco speaks at the National Press Club. Photo by Darlene Shields.

Unfortunately, with his background, knowledge, and opportunity to get his message out, Prince Albert II wasn’t really prepared for the question and answer session following his talk.

He should have expected some version of the first question since his talk was billed as being on global warming: “What do you think of the recent report on scientists who changed their data to fit the climate change scenario of global warming?”

He joked: “Someone said that these were going to be easy questions. Is this the right luncheon?”

Obviously the Prince had not been briefed about how NPC luncheon talks work. Did someone really lead the him to think the Washington Press Corps was going to pitch softballs?

Attendees at Press Club luncheons write questions on cards that are passed up to the head table. Whoever is presiding (in this case NPC President Donna Linewand of USA TODAY) selects the questions to ask. The aim isn’t to put the speaker on the hot seat, but to elicit information for reporters.

Since the name of who sent up each question isn’t given, questioners aren’t tempted to play gotcha games for the television cameras. The format gives speakers the opportunity to answer at length,without being interrupted by shouted questions. Also, the audience expects information, not sound bites.

As the Prince rambled through his first answer he didn’t clearly answer the question.

If the Prince had seen page 10 D of that morning’s USA TODAY newspaper, he would have had the answer at hand. A four-column graphic above the story, “Leaked climate e-mails cause a fracture,” shows global average temperatures from 1910 through 2008 as reported by three separate institutions, including the one at the center of the e-mail fuss. They all track closely, showing ups and downs but a generally upward trend.  The USA TODAY story is here, but without the graphic.

The Prince could have said something like:  “Those making a fuss over the e-mails seem to assume that one set of figures contains all of the the evidence of global warming.” This was the gist of his 198-word answer, but his answer was a paragraph without what my seventh grade English teacher called a topic sentence.

Such topic sentences help reporters who are not necessarily experts on a topic zero in on what’s important.

Albert did much better in answering the next question, about the best evidence he’s seen for global warming,  by referring to a long trip he made to the Arctic where he saw “wide areas of open water in the early spring which never used to be — and pretty close to the North Pole, so pretty high up, around the 89th parallel. So that was not the case just a few years ago.”

Here he illustrated a pitfall for those who know what they are talking about, but don’t quite realize that the people they are talking with don’t know as much as they do.

You and I know, of course, that the 89th parallel in this context refers to latitude 89 degrees north (not 89 degrees south). We also know that parallels of latitude are approximately 60 nautical miles apart and 60 nautical miles equals 69 U.S. statute miles.

Saying the open water was “only 69 miles from the North Pole” paints a clearer picture for most listeners than “89th parallel.” By the way, open water near the North Pole by itself isn’t a “proof” of warming; it happened from time to time in earlier years but not as early as April, when he saw it, and not over as wide an area of the Arctic Ocean as now.

The Prince then used a perfect example of the way to make his point about ice loss by referring to photos that one of Alfred I’s Arctic expeditions took in 1906 of the Lilliehook glacier on the island of Spitsbergen, approximately half way between Norway and the North Pole. When Albert II visited the glacier he compared the scene with the 1906 photo and saw the glacier had receded four and a half miles since Albert I had visited.

Albert II again ran into trouble with the question: “While the Arctic ice is melting, we have an increase in ice (in) Antarctica. Nevertheless, a peninsula at Wilkins Island broke apart. How do you explain that incident?”

He said, “I cannot substitute myself to scientists and maybe there’s someone in this audience who might be able to explain that better than I can, but please…”

I was sitting in the front row and when I raised my hand the Prince pointed at me. I said,  “As the air gets warmer, it can carry more water vapor. Scientists talked about this years ago. As the air warms up slightly, but not enough to melt Antarctica, enough extra water vapor arrives to make more snow.”

“That’s what I was talking about with precipitation,” the Prince responded as the audience laughed. “No, but that’s what I alluded to before. But I was thinking more of the ice shelf breaking off. I don’t know if you have an explanation of that?

I answered, “One theory and it seems to be a good one, is that warmer ocean waters are eating away underneath.” (I should have said “hypothesis rather than “theory.”)

Later while talking about Antarctica, Albert said, “And what is also happening is that the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica has not receded at all. It’s still very much there and it still influences, sometimes in a very negative way, the climate, not only in Antarctica, but as far as Australia or South America.”

First, he’s not really correct in saying that the ozone hole has not receded at all. It varies from year to year depending on the weather, but the amounts of substances in the air that cause it are being reduced, thanks to the international agreements that followed the late 1980s discoveries of its cause. Scientists who study ozone expect the hole to disappear by the end of this century. These treaties are an example of how the nations of the world can get together to solve a complex environmental problem, although it’s a problem that’s not as complex as global warming.

Second, anyone talking about climate change should not bring up the ozone hole when they are giving a “Climate Change 101″ talk because the relation between climate change and stratospheric ozone is not simple.  After their listeners have heard the “Ozone 101″ talk and the “Climate Change 101″ talk, maybe they will be ready to tackle the complex interactions between ozone and climate at the earth’s surface.

I tell the ozone hole story on pages 280 to 286 of my The AMS Weather Book.  I give it so much space because it’s a fascinating look at how scientists find out what’s going in the most remote place on earth you can imagine: in the stratosphere over Antarctica as winter’s darkness is ending. Earlier in the chapter with the ozone story, I make that point that while there are some relations among climate change, ozone depletion, and the kind of pollution that prompts air quality warning, it’s easier to begin understanding each as a separate problem before getting into the relations among them.

When she introduced Prince Albert II to the NPC audience, Linewand mentioned the talk that Albert I gave to the NPC in 1913 about his oceanography studies. She quoted the Washington Post as saying that “Prince Albert I called the press, ‘The means by which scientists can reach the ears and brains of the public.”

If anything, that is more true today than it was in 1913.  Anyone who wants to explain climate science needs to think seriously about how to take ordinary people along on their scientific journey. The last thing you want to do is to, however, is to “dumb down” the science.

My answers to the Prince about Antarctic snow fall and melting ice shelves are in the AMS Weather Book. I think the book would help any prince, politician, or scientist who wants to connect with non scientists about any atmospheric sciences topic–but that, of  course, is my opinion.

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