Occasionally, comments on this website call me reticent. I think that this is because I try not to let my personal opinions cloud my professional, scientific judgement. I am proud to be reticent. I always try to be informative, to give values of uncertainties and ranges and assessments of confidence. I try to present both sides of the story, while always relying on peer-reviewed papers published in reputable scientific journals. I try to let the evidence speak for itself.
Reticence in the science world
When I write scientific papers for publication in peer-reviewed journals, my personal opinion does not matter. I am an impartial scientist who must interpret the disparate data in front of her and present a theory that explains them. Another scientist may come along, hopefully having read my paper, and disprove this theory. This is the scientific method, where we continually test hypotheses in an attempt to get ever closer to the truth. The more a theory withstands rigorous testing, the more robust it is considered to be. Theories that have withstood decades, or even centuries, of testing, are generally assumed to be true. These theories form the hard core of research; examples are continental drift, evolutionary biology and climate change. Hypotheses outside of and surrounding this core of universally held truths are continually tested and challenged, and eventually this rigorous testing may result in a paradigm shift where a new set of hypotheses and theories are held to be true.
The fact that our world is changing, that glaciers are shrinking, and that the oceans and atmospheres are warming, are a set of theories that form the hard core of much of the research that I and my colleagues do. However, theories around this core of assumptions and generally accepted truths are continually challenged. How much and by how far? At what rate and magnitude? How does it vary spatially and temporally? What are the causes and sensitivities?
Recent papers on rates of grounding line recession in West Antarctica fall into this latter category of newer hypotheses. We know that these ice streams have been receding for decades; this has been tested and replicated by numerous independent studies. But new techniques, new satellites, new datasets over coming decades will revolutionise our ability to evaluate and consider this change. Predicting the future is even harder; numerical models are simplifications of reality, with simplified physics and numerous unknown and unconstrained parameters. Model improvements over coming years and decades will improve our ability to replicate past behaviour, investigations of the sub-shelf cavity and ice physics will constrain these parameters, and observations and modelling of basal processes and calving line dynamics will improve.
Reticence in science communication
These papers represent the state-of-the-art, at the very forefront of knowledge by some of the world’s leading experts. But the values and numbers and ranges that they give will change, as more people hurl themselves at the problem, and test the theories and hypotheses that the authors suggest. The more they are tested, the better the projections will become and the more we will reduce uncertainties. But we must remember that they are only a model; that we cannot know the truth; that our knowledge is limited.
I am aware that the field of science communication is different to the world of science where I work day to day. But we are unfair to our readers if we suggest that these data are the whole truth, that they are the answer, that they are fact. To do this lays us open to criticisms when the next publication comes out with slightly revised estimates. We must be reticent about our personal opinions and be explicit about the limitations of the data, or we will undo ourselves as scientists and as science communications. To be alarming, to present opinions without proper scientific support, to make wild claims; all of these harm our credibility and result in people (rightly) ignoring us.
We must therefore be reticent about our personal opinion of new scientific findings. We must provide our professional judgement, but acknowledge that this can only hint at the true complexity of the problem.