The Plight of the Post-Doc


Learning to Write about Science with Carl Zimmer

Earlier this week I took the Metro-North up to New Haven to attend a science writing workshop with Carl Zimmer, who's written thousands and thousands of amazing sciency words for the New York Times and Discover Magazine.  He gave us an assignment for the 2nd part of the class, meeting next Monday, and I'd love your feedback!  Our instructions were simply to write a piece aimed at lay people describing one of two recent findings reported in Science.  The one I chose was:

Global Signatures and Dynamical Origins of the Little Ice Age and Medieval Climate Anomaly
Michael E. Mann, Zhihua Zhang, Scott Rutherford, Raymond S. Bradley, Malcolm K. Hughes, Drew Shindell, Caspar Ammann, Greg Faluvegi, and Fenbiao Ni Science 27 November 2009 326: 1256-1260

Let me know what you think!!

A Global Thermostat

Sir Galahad was hot—literally. Not because of poorly ventilated castles or armor that didn't breathe well, but because the legendary knight lived in a time during which, according to climatologists, the earth’s northern hemisphere experienced unusually warm temperatures. This warming, which lasted from approximately 950 to 1250 CE, is known as the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA), and new research revealing regional differences in the earth’s surface temperature during the MCA may help us better understand current global warming trends.
             Determining the weather conditions of a thousand years ago isn’t easy.  Daily temperature recording wasn’t commonplace until the mid-19th century, so today’s scientists rely on information that can be gathered from natural sources that have survived for hundreds, or even thousands, of years.  These sources, called “proxies,” include tree rings, oxygen content in coral, and water molecule structure in ice from deep within the polar caps.  Until recently, proxies have only allowed researchers to estimate past temperature change on a very broad scale, providing information about the earth as a whole, or in some cases, its hemispheres.  However, a team headed by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann has been able to combine data gathered from an array of proxies to construct a more focused picture. 
            Mann’s group looked at two distinct periods:  the MCA, and what’s known as the Little Ice Age (LIA), a period of uncharacteristic cold that spanned from about 1400 to 1700 CE.  Unlike in previous studies, they were able to see differences in temperature patterns at a regional level, rather than global or hemispheric. Mann’s reconstruction for the MCA showed distinct warm patterns over much of North America, the North Atlantic, and some of Western Europe, all of which was expected.  However, when they looked at the temperature of the eastern tropical Pacific area, they saw something surprising—it was cold.
            In fact, this part of the Pacific was colder during the MCA than during the LIA, a finding that may initially seem counter-intuitive.   Colder temperatures in the tropical Pacific are commonly referred to as “La Niña,” (the flip side of El Niño, when the tropical Pacific is particularly warm) and are often associated with increased rainfall in much of the United States, as well as increase snowfall in Canada. Mann’s findings suggest that the eastern tropical Pacific may act as a kind of global thermostat, adjusting to extreme swings in the earth’s temperature in an attempt to restore balance to the climate. 
One thousand years ago, before cars and Styrofoam and other human-created sources of greenhouse gases, these swings were almost certainly caused by natural occurrences, like suppressed volcanic activity and changes in the intensity of the sun.  Over the last 100 years the Northern Hemisphere has experienced a remarkable spike in surface temperature, presumably due at least in part to human activity. The question now facing climatologists is whether we can expect a response in the tropical Pacific comparable to that of the MCA, and what such a response would mean in terms of flooding, drought, and other potentially destructive weather patterns.  Hopefully, Mann’s model will provide some answers.


Zen said...

1. Mixing a legendary character (Galahad) with an actual event weakens credibility.

2. You're straining the reader's short-term memory needlessly by using "MCA". (I think this marks the piece as being written by someone who's used to writing for research journals.) Is space so short that the actual words couldn't just be spelled out?

3. LIA: See point 2.

4. A climate "anomaly" could be anything from warming to cooling to heavy precipitation to typhoons to raining frogs. (Okay, maybe the last one is just a weather anomaly.) Is there any way to refer to the "anomaly" with something more concrete that described what actually happened? I'm reasonably sure I've heard this called the "Medieval warm period."

5. The title is explained very deep down in the text, by which point the reader may have already forgotten the title.

6. Paragraph 2 is rock solid, and I don't think I'd change a thing. Paragraph 3 is also tight (except perhaps for the acronyms).

7. Last paragraph: "these swings were almost certainly caused by natural occurrences". Again, this feels like the sort of cautious hedging of someone used to writing in a technical journal. Could there really be a non-natural / human cause for those swings?

Hope that helps!

Michael Hultström said...

Zen does hit most important points. I would only add that if you want to make a point of the current situation in your conclusion, it is a good idea to bring it up in the beginning. Maybe instead of Sir Galahad and his hotness, which - while lots of fun - doesn't strengthen your argument.

Dr Becca, PhD said...

Thanks Zen and Michael, great advice! To clarify a few things:

1. We were asked to do the assignment in 500 words, so space was pretty tight. However, that wasn't really the reason I started using abbreviations. I just figured it would be easier for the reader to see it once and then not worry about processing the idea over and over. I guess I just assumed the practice was common in both technical science writing and layperson science writing, but I see your point, that it does require the reader to hold on to that information.

2. Apparently the Medieval Climate Anomaly used to be called the Medieval Warming Period, but that's not the case anymore (according to a Michael Mann interview I listened to), because they now know that it wasn't all warm.

3. Re: cautious writing--you're totally right. Science has beat declarative statements out of me!! I can't write them anymore. When I think about saying something definitive, I start to feel VERY uncomfortable. I blame all those peer reviewers from years passed who've complained that I overstated the implications of my data...

Christopher Intagliata said...

Hi Becca,

1. I agree with Zen on acronyms. You'll notice in professional press that the only things you see in acronym form are those that you could reasonably expect readers to already be familiar with, i.e. NASA, CDC, etc. And when there's too many of those in a story, that too becomes problematic.

2. What does "unusually warm temperatures" mean? It's always easier (and of more service to the reader) to quantify. That way you don't have to qualify. Same for "uncharacteristic cold." I'm left wondering what that means.

3. The second graf is nicely done, but there's really no need to introduce the term "proxies." Just say "sources" as you do in the first place.

4. A killer quote would really punctuate nicely after that second graf. And in general that's what this article could use -- quotes, either direct or attributed, from the experts who do this work. Addressing your third concern in the comments, you shouldn't be making declarative statements -- your sources should. They're the experts. That's why it makes you uncomfortable. So get some of these people on the phone and quote them! :)

5. Like Zen, I'm not sure how important you want the thermostat thing to be. But since you titled the article as such, to bury that information so far down seems weird. I'm not sure how important the thermostat idea is to the study, or if it's particularly new.

Overall, for a first effort, this is very good! I would just encourage you to talk to the key players, and quote them. Really helps hold a reader's hand through a piece. And if you talk to a researcher who gives you lousy quotes, call another one.

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