Wind Chill as Science Communication: Effective or Misleading?

In recognition of the Canadian winter and the polar vortex, today I’m going to use the concept of wind chill to discuss science communication.

Recently, a 2016 article by Vox has been popping up in my social media feeds. TItled Wind chill is a terrible, misleading metric, it discusses how, over the years, a wind chill index has been replaced by the concept of a temperature equivalent, and it argues that this temperature equivalent obscures as much about the weather conditions as it reveals. The article goes on to suggest that we do away with wind chill altogether, and instead adopt more accurate metrics of the temperature, such as the Universal Temperature Climate Index.

Jak & Nic - Cold
“Jak & Nic – Cold” by craigmdennis is licensed under CC by 2.0

While it’s very important that scientists adopt the most accurate measurements in their work and within the scientific community, I’m not sure that the argument to scrap wind chill for the general public is a good one. The reason why has to do a bit with how scientists communicate, vs how the general public makes sense of scientific reasoning.

Scientists are trained to value accuracy. And they SHOULD be. Without accuracy, science is simply not scientific. But scientists spend years learning how to account for both accuracy, and for complexity, and they’ve learned to communicate these things in a way that the community understands. But the general public doesn’t have the time, or the need to communicate in this way, and adding complexity doesn’t help a person know whether they should put on a hat before going outside.

Wind chill works, and I would argue, is popular because it relies on reasoning by analogy. If I tell someone that the temperature is -17 degrees celsius with a wind chill factor of 7, I’ve now put a mental load on the receiver of the message, who must work out whether a wind chill factor of 7 means a hat and a scarf or just a scarf. On the other hand, if I tell someone that the temperature is -17 degrees celsius with the wind chill making it feel like -25 degrees celsius, this creates a mental picture for the receiver of the message who now knows they probably want both the hat and scarf (and the gloves, too). They don’t have to do additional mental work, and so can focus on the rest of their day.

Yes, wind chill is variable, and wind chill (feels like) is relative. But it is also a matter of safety. So you need to give people the worst case scenario in words they can understand and act on. If I’m caught outside with my hat, gloves, and scarf, and it’s warmer than I expected, I’m not in trouble – I just remove my hat or scarf. But conversely, if I’m caught outside without my hat, gloves or scarf and it’s colder than I expected, I might be in serious trouble.

When we are communicating science, I think sometimes we must sacrifice a little bit of accuracy in order to make sure the message is translated appropriately. We can’t expect people who have not trained as scientists to understand scientific language the way the experts do. In this case, the use of analogy, in circumstances where it is helpful or necessary, is not something to be avoided, but perhaps is something to be embraced.

People aren’t incapable of understanding complexity, but it is not their job to work through it. Scientists and experts can do a better job of communicating complexity, using tools like analogy and metaphor, to better help people act on scientific information when they need to. So is wind chill perfect? No. But in many ways it’s an elegant solution to ensuring people use scientific knowledge to adapt their behavior.

Wind Chill as Science Communication: Effective or Misleading?

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