March 2, 2010

Dispelling the Myths: Scientific Misconceptions, Part 1

by Heather Falconer

In the last few months, the IPCC has been the subject of much mud-slinging — primarily from the Anti-Climate Change camp. Questions about report embellishments and document leaks have been taken by many as “evidence” that the conclusions drawn by the Panel are spurious, at best. Whether you agree with the findings or not, it has become clear through all of this that misconceptions about what science is and how it is conducted are as prevalent as ever.

This week, we’d like to spend some time discussing the misconceptions that have been leading the arguments against climate change and the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. We would love to hear how you are addressing these misconceptions about science and the controversy around the report in your own classrooms.

Misconception #1: Scientists work alone, or interactions between scientists are not important.*

Many people believe that scientists are wacky old folks who hole themselves up in labs and have little interaction with others. If you’re a scientist, or know scientists, this makes for great amusement. Of late, select individuals in government and the media have specifically targeted the Chair of the IPCC as being responsible for the errors in the latest reports (keeping alive this misconception). Why? Likely, this is because it is far easier to write off the ideas of one person than those of a consortium of experts.

Though ignored by most in the media, the IPCC has done a good job documenting their process of science in their Statement on IPCC Principles and Procedures (2 Feb 2010). The major fact to address when discussing Misconception #1 is that the IPCC’s scientific practice is not taking place in a vacuum: “IPCC assessment involves a very large proportion of the climate science community at one level or another…450 scientists from 130 countries served as Lead Authors. Another 800 served as contributing authors. More than 2500 experts provided over 90,000 review comments.” Further, these scientists have all contributed their time and energy pro bono, eliminating any chance that their findings were directed by monetary interest.

Approximately 3750 scientists from nations all over the world have contributed research data and analysis to the Fourth Assessment Report, and agreed with the results. Does this mean that mistakes do not happen? Of course not – there are plenty of examples from history to show that they can and do. What it says, though, is that the conclusions drawn and the problems identified are not the fabrication of one person. Through rigorous peer review and discussion, a large body of highly trained specialists came to the same conclusions, regardless of whether they agreed with current popular theories.

If you are interested in learning more about the Process of Science, visit Visionlearning’s free, peer-reviewed learning and teaching modules, including Peer Review, Scientists and the Scientific Community, and The Practice of Science.

*J. Ryder, J. Leach, and R. Driver. “Undergraduate Science Students’ Images of Science” (1999) Journal of Research in Science Teaching 36(2), 201-219

Heather Falconer

Written by

Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.