Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Letters to the Editor on Scientific Topics.

This is the first posting of my blog, which will deal with a variety of examples of the lack of understanding of scientific topics by an apparently large percentage of the public.

Letters to the editor in newspapers provide an interesting picture of how well members of the general public understand scientific subjects. A good example is a letter on climate change that appeared in the Indianapolis Star on June 29, 2009, which denied that human-induced global warming is occurring, and stated that "...a few hundred years ago, during the Dark Ages, the Earth cooled. Before that, Vikings grew crops in Greenland."

It is clear that the writer is confused about more than climate change. The Dark Ages had no relation to the "Little Ice Age." The letter went on to say that "The effect of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere has been debunked..." without saying how or by whom. He then mentioned "...fluctuating magnetic fields of the earth and the cycles of the sun..." as the causes of the current warming (without mentioning how they cause warming), and if those things were known in general, climate researchers would all be out of jobs. The writer clearly believes that human-induced global warming has been fabricated by the media and that climate scientists are in on the fabrication.

Another letter that appeared in the same paper ten days later claimed that the energy legislation being considered in Congress is not necessary because the earth is cooling, not warming. Once again, no evidence was given for the claim; the public is just supposed to believe that it is true. In fact, a drop in temperature in 2008 was caused by the La Nina effect in the tropical Pacific ocean, but 2009 was the second warmest in the decade.

If the writers of these letters had any background in science, they would have noted it, so we can assume they have none. The fact that letters such as these appear fairly regularly indicates that the editors of the paper feel that there is an audience for the views expressed (which which the editors may well agree). On the same day that the first letter appeared, Paul Krugman noted in his N.Y. Times column that to be true, claims of the kind mentioned would require a conspiracy involving a few thousand scientists who work in dozens of countries. How such a conspiracy could develop and persist without anyone except the letter writers knowing about it is hard to imagine. But the fellows who write the letters do not seem to understand that: to a conspiracy theorist, anything is possible except the possibility that there is no conspiracy.

Future postings will develop these ideas further.


  1. Thanks for responding to my query. IE may not be the best browser to use. No "comment" section appears on my page when I look at it; but at least it tells me that a comment was made.

  2. Are you looking at the home page of your blog or the individual post’s page? You would not see a comments’ field in the former, but you will in the latter.