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Science is a jigsaw puzzle, not a house of cards Featured

Some skeptics view climate science as a house of cards. You pull one card from the bottom and the whole thing collapses. But science is more like a jigsaw puzzle, assembled piece by piece over decades of research. Gradually, the overall picture emerges, until it's unmistakable. Remaining gaps or even a few misplaced pieces don't change the overall picture.

Note:   This the most powerful metaphor we know for rebutting "cherry-picking" by climate change skeptics.    Some professional climate science disinformers search tirelessly through reams of climate science studies to try to unearth some tiny error or gap in knowledge, then proclaim the entire body of knowledge faulty.

Metaphors like this breath life into climate communication by explaining complex, abstract and unfamiliar ideas in terms of simple, concrete and familiar experiences.  

Bite Source:   paraphrase by Tom Smerling, inspired by William Chameides, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, speaking at the National Academcy of Science, 5-12-2011.   A variation is found in the Economist, The Clouds of Unknowing, 3/18/2010, which reads:

"In any complex scientific picture of the world there will be gaps, misperceptions and mistakes. Whether your impression is dominated by the whole or the holes will depend on your attitude to the project at hand. You might say that some see a jigsaw where others see a house of cards. Jigsaw types have in mind an overall picture and are open to bits being taken out, moved around or abandoned should they not fit. Those who see houses of cards think that if any piece is removed, the whole lot falls down. When it comes to climate, academic scientists are jigsaw types, dissenters from their view house-of-cards-ists."

The second graphic (tiger puzzle) was used by Nobel-lauriate Mario Molina to characterize the state of climate science.   In testimony before Congress in 2010, Molina described his jigsaw analogy this way (via Dot Earth, Andy Revkin)

"'There appears to be a gross misunderstanding of the nature of climate change science among those that have attempted to discredit it. They convey the idea that the science in question behaves like a house of cards: if you remove just one of them, the whole structure falls apart.

"However, this is certainly not the way the science of complex systems has evolved. A much better analogy is a jigsaw puzzle: many pieces are missing, and some might even be in the wrong place, but there is little doubt that the overall image is clear, namely that climate change is a serious threat that needs to be urgently addressed.

"It is also clear that modest amounts of warming will have both positive and negative impacts, but above about 4 or 5 degrees Fahrenheit most impacts turn negative for many ecological systems, and for most nations."

 For a somewhat different metaphor, making the same point, see "Science is a mountain of pebbles, not house of cards."

 Image Source: here   The second graphic, the tiger puzzle, appeared in Dot Earth (2/2/12) with this caption, "Mario Molina, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, uses this image representing a partially completed jigsaw puzzle to convey the state of understanding of human-driven climate change."

12 votes

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Submitted by
Tom Smerling
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Com (4)

June 29, 2011

1 of 1 people found this review helpful
This should be our mantra, recited every time some denier nit-picks some detail. Don't attempt to refute their cherry picking, bounce "How does that affect the overall picture, the jigsaw puzzle?" back at them. One poorly placed thermometer doesn't negate the tsunami of information coming from dozens of disciplines.
Owner's reply

Excellent suggestion! We hope you will comment on other bites -- or your own favorites.

byMarc Hudson

September 18, 2011

1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I first encountered this one on that excellent "Climate Sight" site.
Denialists want to quibble about the details, and are perhaps unable (and certainly unwilling!) to see the big picture. Also good to remind folks that even in "airtight" cases for murder, for example, there are always little anomalies, eyewitness testimony that is unreliable, or bits of the puzzle that don't fit as well as you'd hope/expect...
byJohn Russell

November 26, 2011

1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I used the jigsaw metaphor in a comment here [ ] and received a response from one of the authors of the report being discussed.

He linked back to one of his interviews where he'd picked up on this metaphor: . Interestingly he referred to himself as 'a jigsaw kind of scientist'.


bysteve reed

February 24, 2012

This "bite" attempts to deal with the lack of understanding people have about science and theories.
- the common belief that one cogent objection or counterevidence is enough to destroy a theory. Unfortunately, some scientists have also promoted that simplistic view. It seems like there should be something even simpler to use than "jigsaw puzzle" , but I don't know it. I'll see if there a bite that offensively puts the onus on the skeptic to defend their theory of what's going on.
OTOH, the bite might be beyond many folks' comprehension.

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