Should technical science journals have plain language translation?

A short essay in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society , entitled “A Proposal for Communicating Science” caught my attention today. Written by atmospheric scientist Alan Betts, it advocates technical journal articles related to Earth science be complemented by a mandatory non-technical version for the lay public. What a refreshing idea!

Here’s a compelling excerpt:

. . . Given that the future of the Earth depends on the public have a clearer understanding of Earth science, it seems to me there is something unethical in our insular behavior as scientists.

Here is my proposal. I suggest authors must submit for review, and scientific societies be obliged to publish two versions of every journal. One would be the standard journal in scientific English for their scientific club. The second would be a parallel open-access summary translation into plain English of the relevance and significance of each paper for everyone else. A translation that educated citizens,businesses and law-makers can understand. Remember that they are funding this research, and some really want to understand what is happening to the Earth

Let me explain further why this is a good idea, using a recent scientific publication as an example.

Earlier this week, a study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled: “Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia.” The abstract of the study is easy enough to understand. It explains rates of sea levels - as reconstructed using salt marsh sediment from North Carolina - were much higher over the last 100-150 years compared to the 1800-1850 years prior. And it found changes in sea level roughly tracked changes in temperature. In other words, when temperature went up, sea level rose, and vice versa.

For anyone who knows anything about the relationship between sea level rise and temperature, none of those results should be surprising. And the rates of sea level rise published in the paper for the last century or so are consistent with rates from tide gauges (published in many prior articles).

Many blog/press accounts were written on the study and its significance. For example, the blog Real Climate provided this succinct explanation (before delving into more detail): “A group of colleagues have succeeded in producing the first continuous proxy record of sea level for the past 2000 years. According to this reconstruction, 20th-Century sea-level rise on the U.S. Atlantic coast is faster than at any time in the past two millennia.” See also a good write-up at Climate Central.

However, after reading the paper, I was quite surprised to see this quote by Michael Mann, one of the study’s authors (and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State) about the study’s implications on the blog Climate Progress [emphasis added by Joe Romm, the blog post’s author]:

The longer timeframe provided by this study also provides for increased constraint on the parameters used in semi-empirical models of sea level rise. That increased constraint points toward projected sea level rise lying at or near the upper range of current projections, more than a meter by the end of this century under business-as-usual carbon emissions.

I found this statement remarkable, because nowhere did the paper include any discussion of future sea level rise - nor did the blog post about the study on RealClimate by another of the study’s author, Stefan Rahmstorf. UPDATE (5:55 p.m., 6/22): Rahmstorf - in an update to the initial blog post - did add a discussion regarding the projection implications, stating: “...we can note now that the model fit to the new proxy data is highly consistent with the fit we obtained in 2009 to the tide gauge data. Hence it implies almost the same future projections as in our 2009 paper (75-190 cm by 2100).”

If the paper’s results truly point to significant increases in the rate in sea level rise in the future, a companion piece which explicitly said that while offering an easy to understand explanation would’ve given the study much greater impact. And importantly, that information would be accessible to the public, journalists, politicians and those whose planning decisions might be better informed.

Some scientists might resist the onus of having to write a lay-person friendly version of their articles. However, I agree with Betts, it’s well past time they do so - even if the write-ups are short for more esoteric topics.

What do you think? Should this be an element of Science 2.0 to help bridge the gap between science and the public?

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.


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