Word of the Day: Extravagate

by | May 23, 2007

Sir Harry Kroto laments the fall in applications to science degrees at UK universities. “Without first-class science graduates, how will we understand and deal with the crises caused by global warming?”

The facts that a) we use in one year an amount of fossil fuel that took a million years to accumulate, b) we may be on the verge of a climate change catastrophe of global proportions and c) powerful technologies may soon fall into the hands of disturbed individuals with minds riven with those twin cancers of nationalism and religious fanaticism, seem to concern the scientific community a lot more than they do politicians or the media. As my Sussex colleague, the Nobel laureate Sir John Cornforth, has written: “If you are a scientist, you realise before long that if the world is in anyone’s hands, it is in yours.” 

Kroto extravagates. That’s BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh’s word. And he didn’t make it up either.*

Ghosh is writing about concerns expressed by Professor Mike Hulme of the UK’s Tyndall Centre that scientists and the media are prone to exaggerate and dramatise matters of global warming.

He says extravagated claims simply generate a feeling of helplessness in the public. 

Good word. Extravagant, exaggerated, vague. And it is refreshing to hear a high-profile climate scientist complain about it.

“There has been over-claiming or exaggeration, or at the very least casual use of language by scientists, some of whom are quite prominent,” Professor Hulme told BBC News […] “My argument is about the dangers of science over-claiming its knowledge about the future and in particular presenting tentative predictions about climate change using words of ‘disaster’, ‘apocalypse’ and ‘catastrophe’,” he said. 

But Hulme’s reason for disapproving of scientific extravagation is disappointing. It’s not that society needs the best information available to make difficult decisions about its future, or that scientists should not be confusing scientific knowledge with science fiction, or that we need to be able to distinguish science from politics. He is worried that extravagation is politically counter-productive:

“What we are concerned about, and some of our research has shown, is if those dangers are presented in too catastrophic a way, on too large a scale, then people just distance themselves and are less likely to take actions to reduce their own carbon emissions. That’s our concern.” 

One is left wondering whether Hulme wouldn’t object to making stuff up, just as long as it got people to act on the message.

Meanwhile, the Tyndall research he refers to reads like another attempt (albeit more sophisticated and politically-correct than likening people to rats) to explain in psychological terms why individuals aren’t acting on climate change.

Kroto wonders why students are being put off science. He blames lots of things – the government, universities, religion – but perhaps the culprit is closer to home and perhaps part of the problem is that leading scientists are bent on creating the sort of bleak and biblical statements that Kroto himself comes out with. Science once promised a better future. Now it hopes for a less terrible one. It creates extravagated visions of a Hell on Earth we need to be saved from. That doesn’t turn scientists into heroes. It just turns humans into sinners.

*Extravagate v.i. 1. Stray from a right course, a text, into error, etc. 2. Wander at large; roam at will. 3. Exceed what is proper or reasonable.


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