charles rangeley-wilson – writing about fishing, travel, rivers, conservation

Science and the English Language

Science and the English Language. A book George Orwell never wrote, but should have. But anyone who wants to write (or speak) accessible English should read the book he did write: Politics and the English Language.

I listened to The Today programme with some heart on Thursday morning: Professor Alan Jenkins from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology was due to discuss flooding.  I was mildly hopeful too that John Humphrys might have read the blog I tweeted him a link to. Whether he had or hadn’t, when JH said ‘so, in a nutshell, we allow the fields to flood and make it up to the farmers’ I dared myself to believe we might win this argument in the end.

Weirdly, it was Professor Jenkins who mildly underwhelmed me. He seemed so equivocal. Of course the issue is complex, of course we can’t make sweeping statements that cover all floods and all valleys. But we are engaged in an ideological debate here. John Humphrys statement / question is the soundbite. It’s the idea people can get their heads around.

‘Well, it’s a possibility and it certainly should be considered but it’s not a one size fits all I’m afraid’ is hardly an exciting rallying cry. Come on Prof! Do we work with nature or against her? Too much prevaricating and you’ll lose the public to the visigoths and their Hymacs.

Well, I was being unfair. It was a very short interview and Professor Jenkins had hardly got started. This issue is complex and how on earth can you do it justice in ten seconds?

It turns out however, that Professor Jenkins had got started, the day before at a press conference entitled The Science of Flooding. I saw the link on Twitter. I went to the site and read the seven points Professor Jenkins had made to the media. Now, a few minutes later, I can’t really tell you what they were. There were lots of words but not much content. I’ll go back and have another look.


Point 1. Flooding is caused by lots of rain or snow. The science of water flow is called Hydrology. Hydrology is very complex.

Point 2. Even though these floods were big, there will probably be a bigger flood some day.

Point 3. Every flood is different.

Point 4. Every flood is different because stuff varies, like how much it rains or snows, whether the ground is wet. Whether its winter or summer, or fall. All that kind of thing. It’s really complex.

Point 5. Really, there’s nothing you can do to prevent flooding. Partly because it’s so very complex. Also, I’d like to say this:there’s no evidence that if you furrow a hill with vertical drainage ditches the hill will drain faster. And I guess that must be why the people who furrowed the hill did it, because there was no evidence that what they were doing did anything. So I hope that’s clear.

Point 6. We think, and you’re going to just have to take our word for this, because its so very complex, but we think that maybe climate change has got something to do with all this rain.

Point 7. There are many things that can be done about floods. Some of things will be man-made, but perhaps some won’t be. They’ll all work a bit, but not everywhere all the time. And we’ll still have floods. It’s so complex.

And that’s it! The science of flooding. I daresay we can expect a much more informed debate over the coming days and weeks.

Still I’m being unfair. Those seven points merely kicked off a discussion the content of which we’ll see in the next blog. Hopefully that one will tell us something.

And yet something still bugs me… . It really does matter, you see. The ecological health of our landscape (which is distilled for good or ill in our rivers), not to say a flooding policy that might actually work, will turn on the wisdom of experts like Professor Jenkins. Not only the wisdom, but how it is communicated. Why not make the issue accessible, not inaccessible?

I was on the edge of feeling peeved about the above, when a link on that site took me to another statement Professor Jenkins had made about Liz Truss MP’s recent announcement that the government would be rolling out its scheme to allow farmers to dredge ‘ditches’ without Environment Agency consent. This is what Alan said:

‘Well waterlogged fields are absolutely no use to farmers, they can’t maintain their productivity on flooded or waterlogged soils so it makes sense to enable them to manage the field accordingly. There is a potential downside, however, in that if we increase the drainage in these fields during heavy rainfall events, it’s possible that there will be increased and faster transmission of water through the river system with a possible increase in flood risk further downstream. This however is likely to vary from one catchment, one scale to another, local scale to big catchment scale and in fact at this moment we have no good evidence whether the flood impact would be increased or decreased.’

Again, the prevarication, whilst all very laudable from a scientific point of view, is all the drainage lobby need. Of course the impact will vary. It’s the principle which is at stake. Unregulated drainage versus some form of control. I’m not saying farmers shouldn’t manage water-levels. But one farmer’s ditch is another man’s brook, is (without getting too sentimental) a water-vole’s home.

Why dress up what could be accessible to the general public as stuff beyond all but specialist knowledge? To carry public opinion the complexities and nuances need to be distilled and made accessible. In this debate there is so much misunderstanding about what flood defences and dredging could ever do in the face of all this rain, that we cannot afford to prevaricate, offering a only a nuanced, conditional response to the ignorant but popular idea that a few million pounds and some infrastructure and dredgers will save York, Carlisle, Newton Stewart etc from the next massive flood.

2 Responses to “Science and the English Language”

  1. gcrcrisis

    I’m glad I was not the only person bemused by the soggy complexities of hydrological science as communicated by Alan Jenkins in the Radio 4 interview, re. the recent spate of flooding. Scientific evidence is one thing, but interpreting it in order to help politicians and the public understand the systemic complexities of the climatic, hydrological and geomorphological factors behind flooding is something else. Let’s hope the Environment Agency have some systemic thinkers who can help shape public policy.

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