Weather versus climate

6 06 2014

This is the first in a new series of posts that look at the effectiveness of science demonstrations.

TV science programs often use real life experiments or handy visualisations to help illustrate the point they are making. These are a valuable source of examples we can learn from as live science presenters.

Here is a great example from the rebooted series Cosmos. In this clip the presenter is explaining the difference between weather and climate. (If the link doesn’t work go to YouTube and search ‘climate change versus weather Cosmos’).

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As you can see from the pictures the presenter is walking along a beach holding onto an excited dog who is running from side to side held back by its lead.

The first time I watched this I thought the dog running from side to side was really distracting, it stopped me from listening to what the presenter was saying. But then we get a shot from above that reveals why the dog is there.

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As the presenter explains:

My friends meanderings represent the short term fluctuations, that’s weather. It’s almost impossible to predict what will attract his attention next.

But it’s not hard to know what the range of his meanderings will be because I’m holding him on a leash.

We can’t observe climate directly but what we see is the weather. The average weather over a course of years reveals a pattern. I represent that long-term trend which is climate.

Keep your eye on the man, not the dog.

When I’m assessing the effectiveness of any science presentation I ask three questions: What’s the story? Who’s the audience? And where’s the science?

I think this is an excellent piece of science presentation because it addresses all three of our categories excellently.

At the start of the clip the story is revealed. If scientists are so bad at predicting what the weather is going to be in 10 days time how can we be confident about their predictions for long-term climate change?

This is a really compelling question. If you’re a climate change sceptic this question could well form one of the main pillars of your scepticism. I think most people would be very interested to find out why we can be so certain about climate when we are so bad about predicting the weather.

And by using the dog this compelling story is linked to an everyday experience that most of us have had and everyone can imagine. There is no way to tell which direction an overexcited dog might go in next.

I think this explanation is excellently suited to its audience. Cosmos isn’t a show aimed at science specialists, it’s a show aimed at the general public who are no more than just curious. In fact one of the amazing things about the rebooted Cosmos is that it’s being shown initially primetime on Fox television which is not known for its sober science content.

Seeing a respected scientist walking along the beach with the dog is familiar and relaxing, it isn’t a scientist standing at the blackboard ready to bamboozle us with complicated equations.

Using a more conventional, mathematical-style graph would run the risk of turning off a percentage of the show’s audience. The level of words used in the explanation together with the example of the dog on a lead means this is perfectly suited to a general, non-science expert, audience.

Finally the science that is explained in this clip is spot-on. The argument is made in three steps.

1 Weather fluctuates (the dog)
2 This can seem chaotic but the fluctuations fall within a range (the leash)
3 The average of these fluctuations over time is the direction the climate is moving in (the man)

This is a very clear explanation fundamental piece of science that can be very easily misrepresented or misunderstood.

In summary I’d say this is an excellent piece of science presenting.

If I was to critique it I would say the dog running backwards and forwards at the start of the clip is distracting when the presenter is setting up his explanation.

Perhaps it would be better lose the dog for the first 30 seconds of the clip and just see the presenter walking along the beach. This would still be accessible and intriguing but the dog wouldn’t distract us from what the presenter was saying. Then the dog could be called across, the presenter could grab the lead and begin to walk off in the distance to make the point about the difference between short-term fluctuations and long-term change.

But maybe the dog is there to keep the attention of people who have just stumbled across the show, who are happy to just look at the dog, before the essential point is made as the presenter walks into the distance.

Personally I can’t wait for the new series of Cosmos to come out on DVD. I’ll be buying it and binge watching it the first day it does.

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