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Geosciences Column: Flooded by jargon

Geosciences Column: Flooded by jargon

When hydrologists and people of the general public use simple water-related words, are they actually saying the same thing? While many don’t consider words like flood, river and groundwater to be very technical terms, also known as jargon, water scientists and the general public can actually have pretty different definitions. This is what a team of researchers have discovered in recent study, and their results were published in EGU’s open access journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences. In this post, Rolf Hut, an assistant professor at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands and co-author of the study, blogs about his team’s findings.

On the television a scientist is interviewed, in a room with a massive collection of books:

“Due to climate change, the once in two years flood now reaches up to…”

“Flood?” interrupts my dad “We haven’t had a flood in fifteen years; how can they talk about a once in two years flood?”

The return period of floods is an often used example to illustrate how statistically illiterate ‘the general public’ is supposed to be. But maybe we shouldn’t focus on the phrase ‘once in two years’, but rather on the term ‘flood’. Because: does my dad know what that scientist, a colleague of mine, means when she says “flood”?

In water-science the words that experts use are the same words that people use in daily life. Words like ‘flood’, ‘dam’ or ‘river’. Because we have been using these words for our entire lives, we may not stop and think that, because of our training as water scientists, we may have a different definition than what people outside our field may have. When together with experts on science communication, I was writing a review paper about geoscience on television[1] when we got into the discussion “what is jargon?”. We quickly found out that within geoscience this is an open question.

Together with a team of Netherlands-based scientists, including part-time journalist and scientist Gemma Venhuizen and professor of science communication Ionica Smeets and assistant professor on soils Cathelijne Stoof and professor of statistics Casper Albers we decided to look for an answer to this question. We conducted a survey where we asked people what they thought words like ‘flood’ meant. People could pick from different definitions. Those definitions were not wrong per se, just different. One might be from Wikipedia and another from a policy document from EU officials. We did not want to test if people were correct, but rather if there was a difference in meaning attached to words between water scientists and lay people. For completeness, we also added picture questions where people had to pick the picture that best matched a certain word.

The results are in. We recently published our findings in the EGU journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences[2] and will present them at the EGU General Assembly in April 2019 in Vienna. As it turns out: words like ‘groundwater’, ‘discharge’ and even ‘river’ have a large difference between the meaning lay-people have compared to water scientists. For the pictures however, people tend to agree more. The figure below shows the misfit distribution between lay people and water scientists: the bigger the misfit, the more people have different definitions. The numbers on the right are the Bayes factor: bigger than 10 indicates strong evidence that differences between lay people and water scientists are more likely than similarities. The words with an asterisk are the picture questions, showing that when communicating using pictures people are more likely to share the same definition.

Graph showing the posterior distribution of the misfit between laypeople and experts by using a Bayes factor (BF) for every term used in the survey. Pictorial questions are marked with an asterisk. A value of the BF <1∕10 is strong evidence towards H0: it is more likely that laypeople answer questions the same as experts than differently. A value of the BF >10 is strong evidence towards H1: differences are more likely than similarities. In addition to a Bayes factor for the significance of the difference, we also calculated the misfit: the strength of the difference. The misfit was calculated by a DIF score (differential item functioning), in which DIF =0 means perfect match, and DIF =1 means maximum difference. (Figure from https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-23-393-2019)

Maybe that scientist talking about floods on the television should have been filmed at a flood site, not in front of a pile of books.

Finally, the term ‘flood’ proved to be one of the words that we do tend to agree on, so maybe dad should take that class in basic statistics afterall…

By dr. ir. Rolf Hut, researcher at Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands

[This article is cross-posted on Rolf Hut’s personal site]

References

[1] Hut, R., Land-Zandstra, A. M., Smeets, I., and Stoof, C. R.: Geoscience on television: a review of science communication literature in the context of geosciences, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2507-2518, https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-20-2507-2016, 2016.

[2] Venhuizen, G. J., Hut, R., Albers, C., Stoof, C. R., and Smeets, I.: Flooded by jargon: how the interpretation of water-related terms differs between hydrology experts and the general audience, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 23, 393-403, https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-23-393-2019, 2019.

Imaggeo on Mondays: High above the top of Europe

Imaggeo on Mondays: High above the top of Europe

Sentinel-2B imaged the highest mountains of western Europe, just the moment an airplane was about to fly over the granite peaks of Grandes Jorasses and cross the border from France to Italy. The passengers on the right side of the plane must have enjoyed a spectacular view on Mont Blanc, just nine kilometers away to the south-west, and Mer de Glace, the longest glacier in France flowing down from its peak.

Note the shadow of the granite “aiguilles” on fresh early winter snow in the upper part of the glacier. The famous Aiguille de Midi is casting its shadow on the village of Chamonix on the top-left, as late autumn colours are still visible on the larch in Val Ferret in the bottom-right corner of the image. Contains Copernicus Sentinel data (2018). Processed with Sentinelflow (v0.1.3).

Description by Julien Seguinot, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Northern lights in northern Norway

Imaggeo on Mondays: Northern lights in northern Norway

Northern lights in Tromsø, displaying the collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun which penetrate the earth’s magnetic shield and strike atoms and molecules in our atmosphere. Collisions excite the atoms causing electrons to move to higher-energy orbits, further away from the nucleus. When electrons move back to lower-energy orbits, they release particles of light called photons which form the aurora. The green color is produced by collisions with oxygen, purple colors are produced by collisions with nitrogen.

Description by Rita Nogherotto, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Patterns in the peatland

Imaggeo on Mondays: Patterns in the peatland

This magnificent pattern is the result of hundreds and hundreds of years of evolution. In this structured minerotrophic peatland in Northern Quebec (Canada), which can also be called a string fen or aapa mire, the green peat ridges (or strings) alternate with water-filled hollows (or flarks). Often flarks are replaced by ponds, which vary in number and size. This pattern of strings and flarks (or ponds) runs perpendicular to the flow of ground water.

Many theories exist to explain the dynamics of this pattern; however, we still do not know the mechanism responsible. Almost all of the present theories suggest that the movement of water could be a major driver of the landscape’s features. The permafrost and frost action, the gradual down-slope slipping, and expansion of peat, the merging of hollows, and fire outbreaks are also considered to be potential factors. Further research is going on to deeply understand the complex relation between abiotic and biotic factors influencing how the string fens take shape.

Vegetation in string fens differs between strings and flarks. Strings are dominated by sedges like Carex exilis, Trichophorum cespitosum, Eriophorum angustifolium, and dwarf birches (Betula glandulosa). On the other hand, flarks or ponds are dominated by Menyanthes trifoliata (also known as bogbean), depending on the level of the water within the ground. The peat moss Sphagnum subfulvum is found on strings while a different species of moss Sphagnum majus can be found on floating mats, at the margin of ponds.

This type of peatland is abundant in the boreal regions of the world, and its predominance can be explained by cooler weather conditions, that limit Sphagnum growth and foster greater surface water flow, especially when the snow melts in the spring.

I encountered this beauty on a field trip during summer of 2016 when I was looking for fens burned by natural wildfires. Unfortunately (or not) this one did not burn, even though all the forests at the margin of the peatland burned pretty heavily. Indeed, the ground of the burned forests was covered by Polytrichum strictum, a pioneer moss known to colonize burned forests or peatland soils (look for the apple green vegetation in the bottom of the photograph).

By Mélina Guêné-Nanchen, Laval University, Québec, Canada

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.