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Irresponsible Science Communication? Models, Media, and Oil in the Gulf.

June 6, 2010

Note the disclaimer at the beginning of this video. The animation is totally theoretical, and is “for research guidance only.” But, thought UCAR, while we’re guiding research, let’s also issue a press release trumpeting these results so that they get picked up by just about every media outlet around (according to this search, probably about 15,000 articles and counting…). And while we’re at it, we’ll throw in a quotation from a scientist that appear to completely contradict our disclaimer:

“I’ve had a lot of people ask me, ‘Will the oil reach Florida?’” says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock, who worked on the study. “Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood.”

Is this a responsible thing to say? First off, she is communicating confidence in the likelihood of the model forecasts (something eschewed by the disclaimer). Secondly, she is equating the presence of any oil at all with environmental disaster. Those two are not the same thing.

None of this is to downplay the scale and gravity the situation, which is just shocking. But let’s not stoke the fire with this kind of speculation.

There is clearly a role for UCAR in the unfolding calamity. Models of ocean circulation seem like a potentially useful tool for informing various parts of the response. But I don’t see how feeding the media frenzy with misleading YouTube animations and overconfident quotations is related to that role. Apparently, for UCAR being part of the solution is not enough; they need to be in the spotlight too.

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