Why do we bother teaching statistics?

The keynote speaker at the conference that I attended referred to the unusually high temperatures of recent days. That, he told us, should convince those who do not “believe” in climate change that they are wrong.

A quick search on the Web with the words “February record temperature” produced headlines from 2017 that described record high temperatures in my part of the world and headlines from 2015 that described record low temperatures in my part of the world.

If the high temperatures in 2017 cement the case for the proponents of global warming, what do the low temperatures of 2015 add to the arguments of those who are not yet persuaded that models of the earth’s climate are sufficiently reliable to guide public policy?

The world has grown warmer in recent history, but we cannot make the case for that claim by pointing to one warm week in February. Put-downs do not persuade.

The quality of the discussions about climate are terrible. Passion too often eclipses reasons. Name-calling supplants logic and evidence. Perhaps some people worry that any admission of the complexity of the natural phenomena will introduce doubt that will in turn lead to a delay in action. Perhaps experts claim more certainty than the evidence warrants, leave out error bars, and predict with exaggerated precision because they doubt their own ability to explain their methods to lay people.

Members of the scientific and technical professions have an obligation to not only present their results accurately, but also to help citizens understand how they have arrived at their conclusions.