GUEST BLOG: Talking sensible science when wondering about the weather

By Georgina Glaser, Voice of Young Science member

Talking about science when you’re a PhD student seems like it should be an obvious prerequisite and an easy task. For some people, it is. For others, it is far more difficult. Reasons for this can be the intimidation of other scientists who you believe ‘know more than you do’ and so you feel your opinion isn’t valid. But these barriers need to be breached, and the sooner the better.

As a member of Voice of Young Science (VoYS), (a network of early career researchers who stand up for science), I am encouraged to think critically about science and to feel confident in immersing myself in scientific discussions whilst also challenging claims which I think are unreliable. This can be a daunting task, but it is a worthy and rewarding pursuit, not least of all because it equips us with the confidence to talk about science. Voice of Young Science is run by Sense About Science, a charity that aims to put science and evidence in the hands of the public. When the VoYS network suggested creating a Weather Quiz to address misused and sometimes misleading meteorological terminology used by the media, it seemed like a fantastic opportunity to get involved with some of the great work that they do. The aim of the quiz is to test your knowledge on the definitions and details of ‘well-known’ meteorological terms. That is, terms we are familiar with and have a vague notion of the definition, but which are not necessarily recognised as real or correct by meteorologists. And herein lies the problem. We all know what a heatwave is, in the sense that it is a period of warmth, but I would have no idea how to identify a heatwave on a technical basis. So, the question here might be: does that matter? When the media uses the term heatwave, and they’re just telling us that it’s going to be warmer, does it really matter if we know the details?

The answer to both of these questions should be yes. Not only because it is frustrating for meteorologists, but because it represents somewhat careless reporting on the side of journalists, and shows a clear misdirection or miscommunication of science to the public.

Although meteorology is not my field of expertise (I’m in the School of Biology at the University of St Andrews), it is still something that affects me as a member of the general public. In fact, a few months before I contributed to the project, my friend and I were discussing what exactly is meant by the term ‘80% chance of rain’ (which I therefore made an effort to include in the quiz in case anyone else has difficulty with this one as well). This is one aspect that I felt needed clarifying, but there are others where the media just misuses terms completely (I would give more detail here but obviously I don’t want to ruin the fun of the quiz!). Working on this project was a real eye opener, and I truly appreciated the chance to make contact with meteorologists who made me aware of just how many terms are misused, made up, or are misleading in the media (and not all of them made the cut, so there are still terms out there that we weren’t able to address in our quiz). What’s more worrying is that I was not previously aware of the extent of the problem before engaging with the project. Further to this, other people were aware of the issues, but perhaps felt that it was unimportant, or not their place to say, or not worth the effort. However, it is vital to encourage scientists, early career or not, that it is important, it is your place to say, and it is definitely worth the effort. VoYS provides us with such a valuable platform where we have the opportunity to clarify and address the issues of how science is reported, benefitting scientists and members of the public in the process, and even improving the quality of media coverage.

Meteorology is not my specialist area, but I was still able to engage with this aspect of science by simply understanding where the problems were and how they could be addressed. With help from early career researchers who are indeed meteorologists (including those at the University of Reading), we have been able to produce something which will hopefully not only highlight the issues with how the weather is reported in the media, but also highlight the need for scientists to step forward with other issues in their own field so that we can continue to address the misrepresentation of science.

The Voice of Young Science weather quiz Haven’t the foggiest

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