The Importance of the “Translator” in Climate Science

charlie-brown-learning“Recent changes in the seasonal timing of biological events have been linked to warmer temperatures.”, caught my eye on my twitter feed(@ClimateCentral) this morning. I thought it might lead to a good blog topic for the day discussing the observed changes in the arrival of spring over the last few decades. Birds arrive earlier, flowers bloom earlier, etc. However, when I investigated further another topic came to mind and that was the importance of the “translator” in this often confusing world of climate science.  Twitter led me to an abstract of the article entitled Out of Step (Heffernan, 2010).  It opened with; “Recent changes in the seasonal timing of biological events such as flowering and migration have been linked to warmer temperatures. Now a study shows that such seasonal shifts are becoming increasingly common in the UK and could wreak havoc across ecosystems as they disturb the delicate balance of nature.”  Still understandable, and intriguing I thought, but I wanted to get back to the original source.

The abstract led me to the original journal article in Global Change Biology (Thackeray et. al, 2010) entitled;  Trophic level asynchrony in rates of phenological change for marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments.  I probably don’t need to share the first few sentences for you to get a sense of how the article was written.  I also want to be clear that I am not devaluing the importance of scientific journals.  Every discipline has its lingo and language which is important when communicating with colleagues.  What I do want to highlight is the important role science writers, journalists, science museums and non profits play as translators and communicators.  That is not to say there aren’t scientists that aren’t also fantastic public communicators of science.  Dr. James Hansen, and E.O. Wilson are a few of my particular favorites.  Real Climate blog is also an excellent example.

For those of us in education this presents a fantastic opportunity to challenge our students to find out how the “know” what they know, based on magazine, newspaper or online articles.  Ask your students to choose a climate science based news item and ask them to trace it back to the original source or sources.  Do they understand the original article?  Does it seem to have been accurately translated?  Did the author of the item they started from take some license to interpret more than merely make the language more understandable?  Finally, ask them to try and “translate” a scientific article themselves.  Break out the dictionary, and online sources and challenge them to do their own science writing.

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