As someone who works indirectly for an environmental agency, I've encountered a number of people who become distrustful when I talk about habitat issues on their property. After half a dozen of these encounters, I began to wonder what causes this distrust.
Some of it is a lack of understanding — but not just from the citizens. The truth is, the scientific community has been wrong on several occasions in the last century regarding environmental practices, like conservationist Aldo Leopold and "edge,"
the idea of an ecological Indian
, and so forth. The driving need to produce results has allowed bad, oversimplified science to result in bad practices and legislation. Simplified ideas that are presented as nearly irrefutable become half-truths.
A classic example of such a half-truth is the carbon dioxide/temperature map
that is widely shared by global warming proponents. It shows information from the last 100 years or so, whereas a look at a larger time frame shows that we're experiencing a small fluctuation. As the saying goes, "There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics." The Little Ice Age
is a minuscule blip in the Antarctic ice core data, but if presented isolated from other eras, it can look quite dramatic.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying I support or dispute the fossil fuel/global warming theory. However, the data-throwing between the pro and con groups worries me because it polarizes people who could be acting in unison. Also, this data is a trend, not definitive numbers. It's the best indicator we have to predict carbon dioxide and global temperatures, but we can't say "this is absolutely going to happen" just to get a point across. What if trees capitalize on increased carbon dioxide levels and the situation stabilizes itself? We can't create legislation that cripples our companies and landowners' rights based on bad science, especially in this economic climate.
As scientists, we have to present data in as objective a manner as possible by admitting possible errors and stating the real applications and unbiased results of our studies. As citizens, we need to be educated on the issue and not wholly buy into a polarized, simplified view. Science can and should be presented in simple language, but the results should never be simplified and distorted to back one theory over another.