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The scientific language of climate change

In this past Saturday's Toronto Star, there is a profile of a professed "climate skeptic."

The article was riddled with phrases that ought to irritate anyone who understands the power of language. Of course, the erroneous phrases used are not endemic to this particular column.

So let me briefly address the words, incorrectly employed, by the mainstream media to foment climate change debate. And I should state that I welcome and encourage debate as long as it's open, honest, and the rules and words of engagement are clear.

Let's start with the word "skeptic" or "sceptic". Science is all about scepticism. You cannot be a useful scientist if you are not a sceptic. Sceptics question and probe and explore.

The word "sceptic" is from the ancient Greek "skeptikos", meaning thoughtful or inquiring.

A sceptic does not draw conclusions from belief, but from evidence. Simply claiming that anthropogenic climate change is not true does not a sceptic make -- ignoring evidence is "denial."

This takes me to another word often used in the anthropogenic climate change debate: "belief."

One "believes" in faeries or leprechauns or angels. You do not "believe" in evolution or gravity or climate change.

Beliefs do not require evidence. There are things you think to be true; whether true or not is immaterial to the believer.

This word causes me many headaches when I find the odd scientifically illiterate person proclaiming that they don't "believe" in evolution because their god or religion forbids such thoughts (for an unsettling example of this thinking, see Canada's Science Minister). Or they don't "believe" in human-caused climate change because they think it's a conspiracy (the East Anglia CRU emails didn't help matters).

To say that one doesn't "believe" in climate change ignores the fact that human-authored climate change is predicated on a preponderance of evidence.

Finally, the word "theory" needs to be explained in its scientific context.

The colloquial use of "theory" has harmed the scientific meaning of "theory." In its everyday conversational use, theory can mean hunch, something that cannot be proven.

In science, a theory is a collection of facts. For example, evolution, despite an alarmingly large number of people who don't "believe" in it (or more likely, don't understand it), is a theory supported by over 150 years of research, evidence and fact-gathering.

Gravity is "just a theory." One can try testing this "theory" by jumping out of a window.

A theory uses observation and experimentation to make predictions.

However, if we want to pose a tentative explanation for something, and one that can be falsifiable, we call it a "hypothesis."

In the world of climate change science, we cannot tolerate the phrase "just a theory" by those who disagree with the science by offering scant, cherry-picked evidence. The deniers' scientific evidence must challenge the preponderance of evidence.

Of course there are gaps and that's what science seeks to fill, to understand. Science doesn't "know" everything. If it did, it would stop.

For those interested in a quick and fascinating presentation on sceptisim and scientific inquiry, check out Michael Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit (although I would be remiss if I didn't note that Shermer is occasionally guilty of using the words I've thus far labored to clarify).

We must be aware of the scientific language we use when countering anthropogenic climate change deniers' claims. We must ask what evidence they stand on and how it challenges or what it contributes to climate change science, but also recognize how they speak about their claims.

Language is as critical as data.

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