Tuesday, January 14, 2014

SCIENCE is the 2013 Word of the Year!?

By Lisa Micheli, PhD, Executive Director

Geeks everywhere are pumped that as part of the New Year’s media blitz the dictionary publishers Merriam-Webster crowned science as the word of the year! (See here). Sciencea word users looked up 176% more than the year before, was followed by other popular lookups including ecology’s niche coming in at number four. It caught me by surprise, since 2013 struck me as a year full of doubt and questioning authority, but perhaps that’s part of science’s growing appeal?

The more we thought about it, the righter it seemed in that it does lurk behind a lot of big stories that we as a society are grappling with, whether it’s climate change or environmental regulation or what’s in our textbooks,” said John Morse, president and publisher of Merriam-Webster Inc. (Read the article here).

As a scientist who spends a fair bit of time trying to explain what we know and what we don’t about things like our water supply, wildlife ecology, and climate change, I am heartened by 2013’s word.

My only worry is whether looking up science on the web will provide eager neo-geeks the reassuring knowledge they seek….or is there the risk of finding a bunch of confusing misinformation that may only deepen rifts between entrenched, distinctly unscientific, points of view?

Many of Pepperwood's research projects utilize data from this
weather station, pictured here with Pepperwood Steward Dave 

Andersen (right) and Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly (left)
As an experiment I “googled” climate science to see what I would find. Instantly I was gratified that the top links were actually research-based, including sites hosted by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  But I realized while there was a lot of late-breaking research findings there, honestly it was at such a high technical level I suspected someone without an earth science PhD would likely find it pretty confusing. 

Only a couple search products below the hard-core science news stuff, however, I was disappointed to find international media sites featuring cutting edge science articles serving apparently as primarily a prod for renewed mudslinging. Below the actual news pieces slews of comments were posted that rapidly devolved into science-free personal epithets traded between seasoned extremists…and I found that disheartening.

I don’t mean to disrespect the internet with my cursory experiment, but being kind of old school I always rely on knowledgeable individuals to filter on-line data sources for me. Colleague Dr. Andy Gunther who coordinates the Bay Area Ecosystems and Climate Change Consortium (BAECCC) has a bunch of links up to climate science resources, including the State of California’s succinct climate science summary located here. For those who want greater depth, I am a fan of  NOAA’s Climate.gov which includes a real-time climate “dashboard” on the front page.

So in honor of the word of the year, I ask what does it mean when millions around the globe are searching for meaningful information regarding science?

Preserve Ecologist Michelle Halbur conducts TBC3 research
To me it suggests that people are ready to make scientific knowledge their own, to seek reliable information to provide a middle ground for understanding, and to provide meaningful explanations to the sometimes puzzling events around them.

Recent surveys indicate that people’s number one preferred way to get scientific information is from scientists themselves—ideally in person—and those are the kind of rare opportunities we aim to provide at Pepperwood through our programs that link citizens and scientists.

At our pilot climate adaptation workshop for land managers last fall, our TBC3 scientists were on hand and in the field to present their data in nature’s context and to answer key questions. Our scientists in turn wanted to hear from range and conservation managers what their priorities were to guide the next phases of TBC3 research to make sure it will have meaning for those who need it most.

We aim to provide this kind of transparent access and exchange via every class, workshop, lecture and hike folks participate in at Pepperwood. Please join us in making science the word of the day everyday at Pepperwood!

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