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Welcome to "Significant Figures." February 8, 2013

· Archived ScienceBlog
Welcome to the first post in my new National Geographic ScienceBlogs column “Significant Figures.” I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you on a wide range of environmental science-related issues, data, and people, and to a productive and constructive interaction.

My background? I’m an environmental scientist by training and inclination, with experience in engineering, hydrology, climatology, and interdisciplinary analysis. My research and writing have, for over thirty years, focused on water resources, climate dynamics and change, energy, risk assessment, and the synthesis and communication of knowledge at the intersection of science, economics, and public policy. I direct a non-profit research institute; regularly brief policy makers and speak to the public on issues of major concern in the field of environmental science; testify for state, national, and international proceedings; and far too infrequently bird (that’s a verb) and play the five-string banjo. I’m a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and other professional scientific organizations in the geosciences. I’ve authored or co-authored nine books. My biographical information and publications list can be found here. Some of you may also be familiar with my writings from other outlets, from my peer-reviewed journal articles, to the research and analysis produced at the Pacific Institute, to the blog posts I’ve done at Forbes (archived here); SFGate “CityBrights” (archived here); and my Huffington Post column.

My focus here at ScienceBlogs will be topics related to the science and policy of water, energy, food, and climate. The themes of my posts will be “Significant Figures” in three meanings of the phrase:

First, I will write about noteworthy, informative, and provocative numbers and data. For example, few people know that the total amount of useable, renewable freshwater on the planet is a tiny fraction of all of the water on Earth. We see photos from space showing the vast surfaces of water in the oceans, ice caps, and great lakes of the world, but humans can mobilize and use only an insignificant portion of this. I might write about the current data on cholera illnesses and deaths and why those data are only part of the real story about water-related diseases. I will explore trends, uncertainties, and gaps in our collection and understanding of a wide range of environmental information on past and future climate conditions and impacts; water availability, use, and quality; food production; and the links between the production and use of energy and water.

Second, I will address confusions and challenges in understanding and reporting on science, misunderstandings or misrepresentations of science, and the complexities of interpreting science for policy makers and the public, including the issue of the use of “significant figures” in the classic mathematical and policy sense. For a perfect and humorous example of this, take a look at this comic from the genius of Randall Munroe.

broken image

Thanks to and Randall Munroe, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Look at the countdown clock in the cartoon. How many “significant figures” (in the mathematical sense) are there? We don’t know because the picture on the wall is hiding critical information: there might be four or there might be nine or more! The answer – and a strong understanding of scientific concepts – has consequences for humanity.

Third, I will occasionally highlight important and controversial people – historical and current figures in the public discussion over environmental issues. Some might be well known, such as John Muir or Theodore Roosevelt or Richard Nixon; some might (to many of us) be obscure, like Roger Revelle or Gilbert White or John Wesley Powell, but I think they will be all be interesting.

Sometimes I will highlight new research from the Pacific Institute or anywhere else in the world where innovative, provocative, and informative environmental science is happening. Sometimes I will explore a subject in the news that deserves more attention than traditional media might be offering, especially in these days of diminishing coverage of science (including environmental science) by newspapers, television, and radio.

A few minor ground rules: I encourage thoughtful comments and questions, even challenging and controversial ones, and will try hard to respond as appropriate. But I discourage – and will be strict about deleting – rude, ad hominem, and off-topic comments. I will be especially hard on marginal comments made by anonymous trolls. I encourage you to use your names, to ask questions, and to join a productive conversation.

Welcome to “Significant Figures.”