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  1. My response post to Rasmus’ article seems very relevant to this discussion, where I basically say the same thing as the above post, and in agreement with the necessity for a hierarchy of presentation levels. In summary, I group RealClimate readers (and by extension, the general blogosphere and lay public) into different levels of understanding and technical level at which they like to engage the subject at.

    Personally, I find the comments by gavin’s NYT correspondent absurd. While I do agree that the general news article one picks up off of the shelf should not assume that people know what the Planck law or what a stratosphere is(see * below), and it is necessary to convey only the “broad picture” to the general reader, it is also necessary to make “deeper” material readily accessible without the need to spend 100 dollars on a textbook or the time off to go to grad school.

    * I had an interesting encounter in a café today while I was on my laptop working on a project. An elderly gentleman sitting next to me met a woman who made some small talk, and somehow ended up discussing global warming. The discussion went along the lines of “It’s definitely getting hotter. I remember when I was a kid and there was a lot more snow on the ground. The ozone hole is certainly making things hotter.” The gentleman then proceeded to talk about the Bible and its relation to ozone and global warming.

    I (somewhat regrettably) chose not to interject at all and let them finish their conversation. I felt a strong sense of disappointment though, not just in that virtually every sentence they said about the subject was completely wrong, but also that I knew there was very little I’d be able to say that would make a difference (my thinking was not just these two people, but for the larger population and in the long-term). Even if I did give a 2-minute lesson on global warming, I’m quite sure that similar misconceptions thrive throughout the general public. Obviously this is a population not at all worried about nuances such as “stratospheric cooling.”

    Continued in another post…

    Comment by Chris Colose — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:14 PM

  2. I like the idea of a slider in science communication where the reader can choose the technical level. Sounds like an ideal application for Web technology.

    Grab the tech-level slider with the mouse and move it to the left, and you get a less technical, more mainstream article. Move the slider to the right and you get a treatment that is more and more technical the more to the right you move the slider.

    The article itself, both text and graphics, actually changes in your browser as you slide left or right, and you’d be able to change the technicality level as you read through, without losing your place. This way you can delve deeper into technicalities for a particular paragraph by sliding right, then slide back left to continue reading. Or if you start to get that “bogged down” feeling in a particular paragraph, just grab your slider and slide left to get the higher-level version of that paragraph.

    What this would mean for the authors is to publish X number of versions of the same article, where X is the number of levels of technicality the user will be able to slide among. The process for a scientific author might be to publish the actual paper at the furthest right level (ha, actually imagine having a further right slider position than the paper itself where the author’s more detailed calculations and comments would become visible). For less technical versions, the author would edit to mainstream-ize the original more and more for each version as the slider moves to the left. The author would ensure that the story told at each level is accurate given the available language at the given level.

    This way the solution to a stratified audience is a multi-level—i.e., stratified—communication tool.

    Comment by Kevin — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:17 PM

  3. Would this simply be an exercise in labeling, or would it actually lead to a change in how articles are written? The latter may be inevitable: if you decide ahead of time what level you want the article to be, you’d probably end up with something different than what you’d otherwise have written.

    Arguably, your articles “A Saturated Gassy Argument”, Part I and Part II were written at different levels. So that could be a rough example of how a general article could have a more technical companion piece. So why not go through your archives, and see how easy it is to come up with a consistent rating scale?

    Other climate blogs can differentiate; they might be more consistent in their level and choice of topic, so their audiences self-segregate. But RC has to somehow cater to everybody. So rating makes sense.

    I doubt this would work as a universal tool for all websites. Who would do the classifying, and how?

    Finally, an article can start as a green beginner slope, but then get steeper as it runs. I think “science of doom” uses this as an approach to public education. It’s a nice newish site, check it out.

    Comment by carrot eater — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:38 PM

  4. Continued from a previous post:

    As for RealClimate, in the long run this website has accomplished more than any series of news articles can ever hope to do. All in all, this is a site accessible to people who don’t even know what ozone is, but it’s also accessible to people with a much deeper background. This obviously does not apply to every single article here (Rasmus’ post being a case in point which was too difficult for many and too simplistic for others), but rather applies to the general trend of articles that RC has put out since it began.

    Consider this: Anyone who were to take off some time to go through the entire list of posts at RC, and comments (even just those with inline responses) over the last 5 years or so (regardless of their initial background assuming they are not already publishing experts), would gain a vastly superior understanding of climate change than virtually anyone you were to randomly encounter in the world. If you were to find an assembly of people that was statistically representative of the entire population (not a bunch of physicists or climatologists), chances are you would be able to educate all of them about the basic mechanics of global warming and have the ability to respond to general inquiries that are likely to be asked by a non-technical audience. You would be able to confidently and authoritatively respond to questions at the level of those asked by journalists, and have the ability to judge the quality of content in news articles, other blogs. At a deeper level, you would even have the ability to make judgment calls on the importance or robustness of technical papers (even if you didn’t yet have the ability to reproduce results or understand the fine statistical/math details). This is what RealClimate has done when viewed from the perspective of not just an individual article, but its half-a-decade history.

    As for me, RealClimate is a large reason I have chosen to go off into the Atmospheric Sciences as a major and future career goal (particularly in climate study). I thank them for what they have done, and regardless of what people believe about levels of technical presentation, or what the NYT journalist said, it has been an excellent (and primary) supplement in my own education and has given me a huge advantage in courses or lectures that have anything to do with climate, global warming, etc. It has given me a great motivation to follow up in more advanced textbooks and in the scholarly literature. Some classes do get boring and very predictable when you are first being “formally” taught what the “ice-albedo feedback” means after you’ve read RC and some primary documents and textbooks.

    So, for the question of how RealClimate should move forward…I think it should do the same thing it has successfully done for the last 5 years or so. This is to simply discuss the science that continues to come out (okay, as a biased “veteran reader” of RC maybe I’d be one of those in favor for a few more technical pieces from time to time and less refutations of silly denial talking points). If new readers could somehow be encouraged to dig through the archives of posts that already exist and follow them up a bit with intermediate-level texts such as David Archers or a bit more ambitious texts such as Ray Pierrehumbert’s, then they are already on a solid ground to discuss climate change with anyone and if they have the math/physics background, are as close as one can get to starting grad school in preparation for independent research. This is no exaggeration to what RC can do to a squishy, curious brain if a new reader spends enough time here. RC is an invitation to those who want to set off more than 3 minutes of time to learn a subject: No news outlet or other blog on the internet can claim to have the ability to extend this invitation in a more thorough and complete manner, and is really the best thing you can get short of textbooks and formal education at upper-level university course.

    Comment by Chris Colose — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:41 PM

  5. There’s actually a “Simple English” version of Wikipedia. It is, however, more aimed at people who are only just learning English rather than looking for simpler explanations. That said, it’s quite interesting to note the differences between the Simple English and regular English articles on, say, the greenhouse effect, or global warming.

    Comment by Joel — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:56 PM

  6. How about two green circles for me? I abhor unnecessary complexity, firmly believing in the keep it simple principle. Unfortunately climate science is very complex and so complexity is often necessary.

    Despite that, I still appreciate the links to all those papers I do not fully understand. Reading several papers on the same subject often increases that understanding, even if mastery is never going to happen.

    You are doing a great job and your efforts are appreciated. You will never please everyone and I don’t know that you should try.

    Comment by Tony O'Brien — 10 Jul 2010 @ 11:59 PM

  7. for the specific problem of GW , the issue is the following : how a better understanding of the fundamental physics helps acting on the whole society? I’m afraid, not a lot. It may help dismissing the most absurd criticisms of greenhouse effect, but if the public were sensitive to basic physics argument to dismiss absurd theories, astrology and most parallel medicines would have disappeared for a long time (IMHO, religions would also have disappeared for a long time, but some of you may not share this opinion :) ). The issue here is that fundamental radiation physics doesn’t give the slightest answer to other important elements of the problem. First, it doesn’t even solve precisely the scientific problem of climate sensitivity since it all depends on complex non linear retroactions that can NOT be derived simply from fisrt principles. Furthermore it doesn’t address issues such as : how does a X°C increase really affects the human society and what do we know about the possible adaption in 50 or 100 years? what would be the effect of reducing FF and can we really suppressing them without making the whole society collapse? and so on…

    for the general audience, these questions are much more important to decide what to do , than understanding why the stratosphere is cooling when the troposphere is warming, or the exact reason why the Arctic sea ice is melting although the antarctic one is growing…

    Comment by Gilles — 11 Jul 2010 @ 12:49 AM

  8. 1) Anything would be better than nothing. I observe some books are structured so that each chapter starts generally, then after a while gets deeper, then comes back to a summary at a more general level. One can tell a potential reader:

    Read a chapter until ti gets deeper than your want, skip to the conclusion of the chapter, then on to the next chapter. I past recommended to Wall Street analysts the book “Computer Architecture: A Quantitative Approach” (a graduate textbook) and have them tell me later they got a lot from it by reading that way.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen texts that shifted levels with little warning and could be quite disconcerting, especially when the conclusions depended (unnecessarily) on having understood everything.

    2) I’ve been trying for some time to experiment with graded levels, like here, or here. These things may not be right, and experts would certainly do better on the specific topic.

    3) In formal schooling, there is usually a whole graph of prerequisites.
    It might be nice to evolve a little “quiz” to help people calibrate where they are.

    4) I’ve done ~500 public lectures and ~1000 sales pitches. One *must* have some idea of the level of backgrounds being addressed. Of course, talks are easier, because you can get immediate feedback. In sales situations, you expect good salespeople to brief you beforehand. The toughest ones are where you must deal with a 4-deep management chain, where the senior VP wants the big picture, and the techie at the bottom wants to go as deep as possible. I used to take stacks of extra foils on trips to cope with surprises.

    5) But, being a skier, I certainly like the idea, although I would note that quite often, those ratings are mostly relative to the local mountain. A first cut might be to go back and grade a bunch of existing posts, or parts thereof.

    Comment by John Mashey — 11 Jul 2010 @ 1:06 AM

  9. Years ago when I trained at the US National Park Service, they taught that an environmental interpretative presentation should not be pitched at a same uniform level as the NY Times writer said. Instead during the same talk, the informational content should vary from something accessible to a middle schooler to something that would be interesting to a grad student. This made sense with a mixed audience showing up at a park visitor center.

    Given the near-infinite variety of information available in the blogosphere, I wouldn’t follow the NY Times nor the Park Service model. Instead just label the educational level you’re aiming at – high school, undergraduate, graduate. I’d consider most Realclimate posts to be undergraduate to graduate level, which is fine – the authors here know how to communicate to that audience while others have more expertise in communicating at high-school and lower educational levels.

    Comment by Brian Schmidt — 11 Jul 2010 @ 1:40 AM

  10. I believe that footnotes and links already do what you suggest and do it economically. The writer sets out to say what they want, the way they want, to the audience that want to speak to. More (technical) detail is provided by links and footnotes.

    That way the writer only has the task they set for themselves, but provides the reader with access to greater depth if desired.

    Comment by Greg Leisner — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:00 AM

  11. A very interesting concept – there are 2 main barriers as I see it though. One is technical and one is social. Firstly you would need to devise a grading methodology. This would need to address questions such as: how many different grades do we need; how to choose a grade for a particular article and who should do the grading (in an ideal world it would not be the IMHO, as I suspect it is too easy to underestimate how hard it is for someone else to understand your field). The second aspect is a social one – how to get as many people as possible to get involved.

    Probably you need to start small – perhaps just try and grade some of the existing RC articles. I suspect that would not give enough spread. If we stick with your analogy above the I don’t think there are many Green circle articles (not your objective IMHO, you cater for the “interested public” who ones assumes will make some effort and not simply want sound bites as some of the comments on Rasmus’s post seem to want) or double black diamond articles (presumably corresponding to the peer reviewed papers). Some review articles in Nature or GRL might be black square articles. Once you have a proposal of how to grade an article and some examples, you could then invite comment from other bloggers and see if they like the proposal and would be willing to try it on their own site.

    A nice idea but potentially a lot of work!

    Comment by Nick Savage — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:07 AM

  12. An old saw regarding wire service stories is to put the general meat of the story first, and details later. That is because if a publisher that picks the story truncates it to fit available space, the gist of the story is intact.

    Accordingly, press writers have the ability to put the green run first in a story, and all the other color runs after it. In the internet age, this would work quite well for providing scientific detail — if only it were done (and if only the report really understands the issue and its details) — because even if the story is truncated in some newspapers, the full version will can still be found somewhere on the web by many readers.

    So in my opinion it comes down to the thoroughness of the reporting and the willingness of an editor to publish a story that satisfies all potential reader curiosities.

    Comment by Larry Edwards — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:20 AM

  13. (continuing) That is, readers can then read down until they are board, disinterested, or done with the piece.

    Comment by Larry Edwards — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:21 AM

  14. I like the idea of graduated levels of discourse a lot, but what symbol do you use for people who think that snow is a mythical substance that only foolish liberals believe in, and that skis are the work of the devil?

    Comment by James McDonald — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:24 AM

  15. Excellent post #1 and #4, by Chris Colose.Well said, and I agree with what you said about RC.Fantastic site.
    On a completely unrelated note I posted to RC a number of times a few years ago that, in my humble opinion as a layman, I thought 1000 ppm co2 would be quite possible in Earth’s future.I believe I mentioned some work by Peter Ward in Scientific American.Now, a few days ago, I see that the National Academy of Science just came out with a study that said that that co2 level is possible by year 2200.I have not read RC in a while so I’m going to search the archives.If this has been dealt with recently on RC then my apologies.And,also, hate to say it, but, in regards to a settle point of 1000 ppm, I told you so… :(
    Mark J. Fiore
    substitute teacher, lawyer, and I read a ton of press releases on global warming ever since 1987.

    Comment by Mark J. Fiore — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:29 AM

  16. Realclimate is a great website, and indispensable now that the mainstream media can no longer be trusted to report the science behind global warming fairly and accurately (*cough*Climategate*cough*).

    However it’s only major fault is the lack of organisation of the content. Really it would be good have a hierarchical index of the content by topic (as well as the default blog layout of by date) with markers for difficulty.

    It would also be good to link articles covering the same topics together in series where possible. Where the first article provides the most basic ‘green level’ intro to the particular topic and subsequent articles get increasingly in depth and difficult. This would provide the non-scientist public, like me, an easy way to get into these topics and gradually increase our understanding.

    Comment by HappySkeptic — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:34 AM

  17. We all know that there is a need for accessible material for the general public, material that provides the essence without being inaccurate. There is also a need to provide non-physicists or non-atmospheric chemists, non-paleontologists, etc. “state of the art” syntheses. This is evidently true as one of the American Geophysical Union’s most popular journals is Review of Geophysics. This is true in all of Earth sciences, because we have become increasingly interdisciplinary over the last few decades. But it is especially so for those working in climate change in some form or another, because once you have this label, you are expected to be an expert in all aspects of it!

    RealClimate could solicit articles that are aimed at this second audience. After these have appeared as regular articles on the blog, they could be archived under a meaningful heading over to the right, something like Issue Reviews or Disciplinary Reviews.

    Comment by Mike Ellis — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:39 AM

  18. There’s a yawning gap between Dave Archer’s excellent and lucid books (aimed at the intelligent layman) and the impenetrable thicket of rocket-science level of mathematics in Pierre’s new book (intended for the professional climate scientist).
    Einstein famously envisioned riding a moonbeam to help him imagine, and understand, the effects of relativity on physics.
    I suggest we could use a similar example, following the voyage of an infrared photon leaving Earth – or rather, a series of them to illustrate (using actual numbers!) the salient features. This might include: the optical and path lengths to the capture by a GHG molecule; the immediate heating effect and “blackbody” radiative emission and back-radiation; convection heat transfer and the lapse rate shift; the different OLR behaviour between hot and cold latitudes, and between saturated, part-saturated and unsaturated bands; the effect of doubling CO2, and so on. This, together with some clear physical explanations (and the odd graph – again, with numbered scales) – you get the idea.
    Anyone at Real Climate want to try?

    (Les Southwell, Melbourne, Australia)

    Comment by Les Southwell — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:52 AM

  19. Gavin, Rasmus and everyone else at RC: you are doing an excellent job pitching climate science at the level I need – that of a university educated scientist – and at the level required for people with technical doubts/questions about climate science. I have often directed my friends and colleagues to your site. I hope it’s made a difference.

    People who want to understand and who have genuine questions can get them addressed at a level appropriate for their own understanding. The issue we face is not pitching things at the right level, but the vast resources of those trying to “muddy the waters”. I don’t know how to tackle this until it becomes self-evident that vested interests are lying. That often seems to require some form of disaster or dramatic event.

    The ozone hole did it for CFCs. I was hoping the 2007 arctic sea ice melt would do it for GHGs, but no.

    Comment by Bruce Tabor — 11 Jul 2010 @ 3:08 AM

  20. Kevin @2

    I would second this idea as something that is really really needed. But the mind boggles at the work required to implement it. Perhaps this could be the next major evolution of Wiki. Like the layers of an onion, you can start with a simple statement like “the GHE is like a blanket around the planet” and then dig deeper and deeper until you are at the warts-and-all details of radiative transfer models, references to all the literature, graphing tools for the data etc. All internally self consistant.

    Imagine, a sceptic puts up strawman X, and the response is simply “Yes, but if you go down one more level you see …”

    We can all fantasise.

    However some aspects of this might be worth considering for the next IPCC report. Not just a flat text document with FAQ’s, but a layered exposition of ever more detail, totally easily accessable. Certainly the next IPCC report should ‘address’ every sceptic argument, even the really whacky ones – the US EPA’s finding on GH gases was a good example of this.

    This shouldn’t be too much work. After all, there are 36 hours in every day.

    Comment by Glenn Tamblyn — 11 Jul 2010 @ 4:24 AM

  21. Perhaps you could emulate cooking or DIY magazines – many have 4-5 ratings from beginner to expert for each project. Though I do think displaying 3 spoons or hammers may be inappropriate here.

    I very much doubt that anyone could come up with a google-wide system.

    Comment by adelady — 11 Jul 2010 @ 5:30 AM

  22. One traditional medium that had levels was the magazine Scientific American, where you got one level of explanation reading and looking at the illustrations and diagrams, and a deeper level by reading the entire article. This is easily adapted to the Web. In AIP’s history exhibit on Madame Curie at there is a “brief” version (actually aimed at schoolgirls as primary audience) with each page hyperlinked to a longer version. In addition, there are links to detailed explanations of things like the periodic table. It works–millions of visitors.

    In practice, on the Web people typically judge a page within a few seconds by glancing at its layout and headlines, so careful Web designers give indications right there of the level and type of audience they are targeting.

    Problems do emerge for a large project like Realclimate, where different posts are at different levels. For a start, writers should indicate the level within the first few sentences; this is most easily done by using, or not using, a few highly technical terms.

    These are of course workarounds. I think Gavin’s post is brilliant and points the way forward, and I hope Realclimate can find a way to classify posts… there is at least a chance other science blogs will pick it up, and who knows where it will go from there? Personally I think the ski-run icons are a great idea, many millions of people understand them already.

    Comment by Spencer — 11 Jul 2010 @ 5:45 AM

  23. Hello:

    Labeling science articles as to difficulty, much as one would a DIY project, is a good idea. However, it fails to address, or maybe seduce, a public potentially able to engage at successively higher levels. Perhaps the presentation style of the older Scientific American, where the content of the science is presented for a layman by scientists, is something to aim for?

    Frank Johnston

    Comment by Frank — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:03 AM

  24. As a layperson with no scientific background (apart from what I learned in school about physics and chemistry years ago) I’ve learned to basically ignore the technical details in some of the more in depths posts here on RC and elsewhere. In a “leap of faith” I trust that the authors know what they are writing about and I therefore concentrate on the big (and dire) picture. I don’t need to understand everything to know that we have a very big problem and need to do something about.

    Since I started to read websites like Real Climate, ClimateProgress and Skeptical Science (to name just a few) I have learned a lot. From that perspective it would help me to see some kind of categorisation for a post to indicate how technical the overall post will be (as rated by the author). If we as readers could then provide feedback how we’d evaluate the post, the “system” could be calibrated over time. Alternatively, a post – especially one with a lot of technical discussion – could have a short non-technical summary at the top which basically everybody can understand. The rest of the post can then go into the nitty-gritty details and the readers can decide if they read that as well or not.

    Comment by Baerbel Winkler — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:19 AM

  25. In their free time people accept beeing patronized. There is even a culture of how to deal with beginners, since everybody has to start once.

    For professionals it’s different: Nobody wants to be treated as a trainee and all are experts by default, because they are worth the money.

    I think, it’s about whether level of knowledge or interests drive your decisions and money is the game changer.

    Interestingly, in Germany the industry stopped a traffic light labeling system for food (sugar, fat) although demanded by consumers. People want to spend less time developing knowledge about food and leave this exercise to the experts.

    On the other hand you can’t argue with satellite photos: The Northwest-Passage is only blocked by crushed ice since a few days.

    Comment by noiv — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:20 AM

  26. I think it’s incumbent on scientists to communicate clearly to ALL audiences without sacrificing accuracy. To write for the layperson without dumbing down the content is, of course, every bit as challenging as preparing a peer-reviewed article. Some branches of science have very effective communications for the general public – one example is the Society for Neuroscience’s “Brain Briefings”, but they seldom link well to more sophisticated material.

    In this field especially, it should become THE PARAMOUNT TASK. The uncertainty generated by events of the last year make accessible and transparent tools for understanding climate change phenomena, mechanisms, assumptions and limitations – and even areas of controversy – more important than ever. At present, an educated layperson who seeks to understand climate change has to pick and choose from an enormous range of resources, of greatly varying reliability, complexity, and content but has little in the way of a structured tool for progressively delving deeper and deeper into the topic.

    Web-based materials are ideal, as a hierarchy of links can allow the reader of the simplest version to explore terms and concepts as required (as in Wikipedia articles). Ideally this should link all the way down to the data-sets and allow motivated readers not only to understand as much as they can, but to explore the data and satisfy themselves that the conclusions are well-founded. Of course they would not be able to undertake large-scale simulations, but it’s hard to imagine a more significant challenge for climate science than the development of a definitive, open, transparent, public access self-education tool.

    Comment by Charles Worringham — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:22 AM

  27. Gavin, I hope you craft an op-ed for, say, a national newspaper about this. In my view your thoughts merit consideration by exactly the kind of audience that your unnamed NYT science writer targets: the educated person who wants the big picture.

    Ironically, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page — hostile though it is concerning your outlook on climate (did you see the Friday editorial that included a climate-bashing of the American Physical Society?) — often does a fine job of including scientist authors. It’d be a nice, and maybe constructive, irony to see such a Gavin piece there.

    But somewhere, in any case. Thanks.

    Comment by Steven T. Corneliussen — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:28 AM

  28. Gavin and the RC Team,

    I do not think you need to worry about posting articles at the green or the double diamond level. Let others use the information here to write at green levels and journals are already double diamond. I view RC as a nice middle ground. Your Start Here page already serves the purpose of this thread.

    As with any communication, one has to consider who the target audience is and then tailor the words to that level. I do not see RC’s target audience as the general public nor does it need to be.

    You are all doing a fine job and you should change nothing. RC has the reputation as the #1 climate blog (among reasonable people) for a reason.

    Scott A. Mandia, Professor of Physical Sciences
    Selden, NY
    Global Warming: Man or Myth?
    My Global Warming Blog
    Twitter: AGW_Prof
    “Global Warming Fact of the Day” Facebook Group

    Comment by Scott A Mandia — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:56 AM

  29. Speaking as a layman who reads fairly avidly on the science, posts at RealClimate seem to come with layers of sophistication in-built. For example, reading further on the molecular physics of the greenhouse effect, I come back to the Gassy Argument posts to find I understand a little more each time. I don’t see that the occasional mention of sophistication level would be bettered by some form of standardization.

    Comment by barry — 11 Jul 2010 @ 7:41 AM

  30. Gavin’s article states the problem well. My only complaint with Rasmus’s article was that it claimed to address an audience that was unlikely to be able or willing to cope with it.

    As a general rule, there is no need to stamp the “target level” on the front of an article. People can find what suits them best by themselves, often by choosing the source of the information. RC, for example, caters for the people seriously interested in getting their hands dirty with technical detail. This made it all the more surprising to see Rasmus’s article purporting to be universally accessible and genuinely “simple”. In truth, the level the article was pitched at was RC’s normal readership.

    I have found that in article discussions, the people flailing around most and causing the most trouble (both deniers and not) are those people who do not understand what level they can cope with. But D-K prevents them from noticing this, so they flounder and flop around to the annoyance of all. Is there a way to suppress this disproportionate amount of noise coming from a relative minority? How do you target for someone who thinks they can cope at a far higher level, when they really have trouble with the basics?

    This is a conundrum I cannot answer.

    Comment by Didactylos — 11 Jul 2010 @ 8:23 AM

  31. I’m a layman who has learned the basics of AGW through internet, with the background of just a good high school student (my graduation in Law did not help much here).

    Reading RC posts has helped, but the fragmented information still had some important gaps. David Archer’s “offering” was a great way of filling them. Other websites like SkepticalScience and ScienceofDoom have been great resources as well.

    I agree with Chris Colose that regular RC readers are way above average in understanding the issue, and even have enough background to easily spot most misconceptions of mainstream media.

    So, the internet already has enough information for the really interested to learn enough to have an informed opinion.

    My suggestion for a comprehensive user-friendly AGW information guide is this: a Wikipedia-like website, where the first page is the patronising “Al Gore” explanation with the blanket idea and yellow arrows to show trapped OLR. This initial simple explanation would have hyperlinks in the relevant words or sentences pointing to increasingly deeper texts and references. This way, most people would start there and go as deep in the reading as they can or want to.

    Comment by Alexandre — 11 Jul 2010 @ 8:34 AM

  32. The ski hill signage metaphor is a good one. I think the specific publication being read indicates the difficulty of the material.

    The only thing missing is the board indicating what the signs mean (green circle is a beginner, realclimate is where the technical level is a little more ambitious) and which direction to go to find the specific “slopes” you are looking for.

    Perhaps individual publications can help with this by indicating where readers can go to find an easier or more challenging explanation of the subject being discussed. I know that this is sometimes done already but perhaps this is where standardization comes into play. It is usually easy to find a search on a web page, we need to make it easy to find the “where to go to get a different technical level” section.

    Comment by Richard — 11 Jul 2010 @ 9:21 AM

  33. You know, I might be more sympathetic to the position of the Times writer if the popular press didn’t absolutely suck at communicating science. It is not even that they get facts of implications wrong–though I’d also give them a failing grade there. It is that the utterly fail at conveying the scientific method and at placing their subject in the context of the broader understanding of the field.

    As to op ed pages, I’d hate to add anything of value to them and destroy the perfect cesspit of misinformation and lies that they’ve become.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 11 Jul 2010 @ 9:29 AM

  34. I like Spencer Weart’s approach on the <a href=""Discovery of Global Warming website – he has a text which (I think) is at the right level for someone with very little scientific knowledge, but with links in the margin when you’re ready to go into a particular topic in more detail – I find this better than just having highlighted words (hyperlinks) in the text which don’t give you much of a clue what you’re going to get if you click on them.

    Anyone with a continuing interest in this subject may start on the ‘green runs’ but they will want to move onto the ‘blue runs’ when they have absorbed the basics and want to understand more of the detail. It’s not really possible to do this in a newspaper but a website is perfect for it. The point is that you as authors don’t have to try to decide what’s suitable for your audience, you let them decide. If a reader finds a particular article too technical then they just won’t continue reading it, but they might come back to it later when they understand more of the basics and have a better chance of making sense of it.

    RealClimate has lots of great content and is excellent if you want to read discussions of new scientific papers or get a better understanding of current news items in the mainstream media, but I feel it would benefit greatly from a little reorganisation. At the moment, someone with a new interest in global warming would come here and see no obvious way of learning about the basics, except by being redirected to other websites (via the ‘start here’ page). I think this is a great pity because there are many excellent articles here, discussing more general aspects of the subject such as glacier retreat, ocean currents, how we know the CO2 increase is due to human activity, and so on. The index is good for finding those individual articles but there is nothing to tie it all together in one story, one structure with the necessary different levels of detail.

    So here’s what I think you need to do to make this a more accessible resource of information: Have one very prominent “Beginners Start Here” link on the home page which takes the reader directly to a lengthy introduction to the subject (not a link to another website), pitched at a suitable level for someone with just a basic science education. Throughout the text, have very clear links to new or existing articles which cover the sub-topics in more detail (don’t have highlighted words in the text). The new reader can decide what level of technical detail is suitable for them, and they can keep coming back for more detail as their understanding develops. I think the important thing is to have that structure so that the reader can find the right level for them. Much of the content is probably already here – you just need to make it more accessible.

    Hope this helps…

    Comment by Icarus — 11 Jul 2010 @ 9:34 AM

  35. What Didactylos says about the D-K position of some of the noisey commenters is so true, but keep in mind that out here in the ether on average, half the population isn’t. Not much to be done about that.

    Interesting that many of these comments discuss the basic tenents of expository writing, something that a sucessfully employed degreed scientist should have a handle on [unless they use ghost writers for publications!]. The understanding of these complex fields also involves the serial position effect, or primacy and recency. For me, most articles should follow the simple form of intro, body, summary, like a journal article: tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em [trigger primacy with a simple picture] – tell’em [as complexly as necessary, but clearly] – tell’em what ya told’em [trigger recency with the important details] …. they might not take away the details of the body, but the abstract and summary might sink in …. and remember that “you can’t please everyone all the time”.

    Comment by flxible — 11 Jul 2010 @ 9:41 AM

  36. I can only try to add a few minor suggestions to the excellent comments of others.

    Different levels of complexity are needed for different readers

    Readers with a stronger background or greater interest will benefit from more complexity, while those with lesser starting credentials are likely to be confused or discouraged from pursuing the material.

    The same text can accomodate these different levels

    As suggested by others, some parts can summarize main points while others can address the details. Even further details can be linked to as references or footnotes.

    Subheadings, often bolded, are a good way to identify the levels

    Interested readers can read only the subheadings in areas they already know, or which don’t interest them, but then read the entire subsection when it attracts their interest. This type of organization permits a reader to distinguish levels throughout an entire text. He or she, for example, might be interested in a complex issue near the beginning and a summarized subheading near the end, and will be able to examine the entire content without being discouraged from reading further by complexity at the front end.

    PS – I hope my html bolding code is working here, or else I haven’t illustrated my point.

    Comment by Fred Moolten — 11 Jul 2010 @ 10:55 AM

  37. Clarence Page has a good column today on climate change. He is one of my favorites and a great antidote to the depredations of George Will.,0,2704150.column

    Paul Middents

    Comment by Paul Middents — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:11 AM

  38. Thank you for this most excellent idea. In terms of science, I’m a black run wanna-be but probably a blue run in skill and knowledge. You could say I throw high attempting to at least hit mid-level. I’m certainly more apt to find crendence in an article that attempts to be clear, accurate and intelligently written. If what I am seeking is over my head, I’ll look for something more understandable.

    This multi-tiered approach makes sense in a time when climate change issues are being blurred by sensationalism (what news isn’t anymore?), lies and misleading information, denial, and fraudulant attempts to distort the truth. In any case, climate contrarian articles generally lack the clarity and intelligent approach that the articles found on sites such as Realclimate contain. I appreciate that you folks are out there and applaud this idea of working to find ways to inform a wide audience… before it’s too late!

    Comment by Brian Lux — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:18 AM

  39. A RealClimate University? I would vote for that.

    But I’m not sure that there would be a consensus in favour, or that you would have the time.

    Anyway some Comments:

    1. It is not often realised that it can actually be harder to teach at an elementary level and can require more preparation. This point used to be stressed by Brian Pippard who used to be head of the Cavendish Lab.

    2. Our school teacher had to teach a mixture of medics , such as future dentists and doctors who took biology, while the others , the future engineers and physicists used that time to do ‘advanced maths’. He produced two versions of most topics. We soon noticed that the medics had a harder time of it, because their versions were more difficult to understand than the proper ones. This sort of effect was not restricted to school. In the UK until recently engineers were often given less maths than physicists so they found it harder to understand some topics such as semiconductor devices. It could work the opposite way now , depending on the way the degrees are constructed.

    3. Another comment of Pippard’s was that it might have been better if his students had come with no prior exposure to physics at all. He thought that some arrived with so many misconceptions it was making their education harder. If that might hold in a climate-neutral area just imagine how much worse the problem is for climate science in the age of Google and corrupt newspapers.

    3. Defensive writing.

    Teaching climate science is not analagous to teaching Newton’s laws of motion. If you have to simplify the theory of orbits you won’t have a crowd of propagandists pointing to a non-rigorous deduction with the aim of discrediting your whole web site and by implication the validity of classical mechanics.
    But it will always be the case that some conclusions may not follow rigorously in the simplified version, even though it could be well supported in the advanced version.

    That was the fate of Al Gore’s slide show when it was the object of a daft legal action in the UK and the judge decided that it had always to be accompanied by some explanatory notes.

    There are some good accounts of parts of climate science. But Realclimate is in a good position to give a bit more emphasis to those parts of the subject which have been most often distorted or misunderstood. That is one aspect of what I mean by defensive science. Its like defensive driving which takes into account that a reasonable proportion of other people who use the road are not to be trusted.

    4. With regards to the elementary discussions, these are aimed at people who think quite differently to the authors, so it is more important to get feedback from potential readers.

    Finally if we don’t get an RC University there is a bit of a problem with the existing material being all over the place and being partially duplicated.
    Estimates of climate sensitivity,of levels of confidence and of the possibilty of something very nasty are examples.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:21 AM

  40. 30 Didactylos asked:

    “How do you target for someone who thinks they can cope at a far higher level, when they really have trouble with the basics?

    This is a conundrum I cannot answer.”

    There isn’t an answer. People are funny. You can’t predict what they will think of even though there are gaping holes in their knowledge of the basics. B, one of my best friends (deceased), coauthored a series of papers on quantizing solitons which are fairly highly cited and considered profound by experts. As far as I know, B never did learn the classical theory of solitons. I heard one expert say he absolutely could not believe the stuff that B didn’t know about classical solitons but yet was able to make profound contributions to the quantum theory. The point is not having an encyclopedaic knowledge of a subject doesn’t mean you can’t make important contributions. Fresh eyes sometimes see things that others missed.


    “There we have (in the US for instance) green runs for beginners wanting a gentle introduction and where hopefully nothing too bad can happen. ”

    I couldn’t help but mention that I’ve skied most of the double black runs at Taos and by far the worst accident I’ve had occurred on a green run!

    Comment by John E. Pearson — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:26 AM

  41. Gavin and the RC team

    Once again you show the utmost good faith by (once again) showing your concern about getting the correct (best at the time) science out there at whatever the level of understanding of the audience.

    Echoing Scott (#28); as far as I am concerned you’re all doing a wonderful job and don’t need to be too concerned about level labeling, although newbies that stumble onto the site may find it useful. Thus I’m also in agreement with #30 that people will find their way – at least those with scientific integrity that have not been blinded by emotional prejudices or suffering from D-K effect.

    It’s useful to me to have new papers that are cherry-picked by denialists (and then the media) to ostensibly falsify AGW are simply clarified to highlight, and contextualise, the actual facts.

    As you do now, old recycled denialist points that pop up from time to time can be responded to with a terse comment and link/s to where the actual facts can be found.

    And thanks to the regular constructive commentators who support this site – I usually find the comments add depth and further insight to the posts.

    I like it that this site focuses on climate science and the likely impact of projected changes. The latter seems to get less attention, perhaps rightly so given the professional expertise of the posters; which leads to the question; can anyone direct me to a blog or logs focusing more on the science of likely impacts that are comparable to RC in integrity?

    Comment by Hugh Laue — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:55 AM

  42. This article by Matt Thompson might offer some insight. (See also his diagnosis about how to solve the problem .

    Comment by Robert Nagle — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:58 AM

  43. If I may, part of the problem is one of level, but it’s also one of the complex nature of the varying backgrounds of the readers. You can never know what someone doesn’t know, and the gaps in each person’s background knowledge will be different. Your text at exactly the right level and still lose any number of people to simple but unexpected, individual pitfalls.

    To give an analogy, I develop software. By far the most difficult part of any software project is bringing together both technicians and business people, each with very different and often only minimally overlapping backgrounds. The business person knows the business problem. The database guy knows how to design a database. The programmer knows how to write code. The project manager doesn’t know anything (sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist that).

    One can visualize this like a Venn diagram with many, many circles representing each party’s knowledge, and with very little intersection between the circles, and lots of cases of no intersection.

    Inevitably, dozens of mistakes are made, some of them inches-vs-centimeters Hubble sized mistakes, because a large number of incorrect assumptions are made because of that small area of intersection. The database doesn’t quite capture what the business wanted, and the code doesn’t quite access the database the way the designer intended, and so on.

    Back to the problem at hand; how do you recognize the gaps, and make sure they are always properly addressed? My point is that it’s not merely a linear problem of “level,” but rather a more multidimensional problem of multiple, intertwined levels.

    Sadly, I can’t offer any solutions. Hyperlinks help, but only if people follow them, and often people don’t even know what they don’t know, so they don’t realize when they need help.

    It does bring to mind one idea. It would be interesting to put together a “climate science test,” a multiple choice test with some intelligence built in. Rather than receiving just a final grade, the wrong and right answers could be used to help direct the test taker to the areas where he needs more education.

    In fact, such a test would be a lot of fun, especially if people were asked to declare their stance on climate change before beginning, or if the test included policy questions which could be used to deduce their stance separate from their factual knowledge. An analysis of what different populations do and don’t understand would be interesting.

    Comment by Bob (Sphaerica) — 11 Jul 2010 @ 12:12 PM

  44. This entire discussion reads as though the problem facing humanity is the challenge of elevating the level of scientific literacy among the general public.

    I would submit that the problem facing humanity is rapid and extreme global warming driven by GHG emissions primarily from fossil fuels, which threatens to kill billions of people and destroy human civilization in perhaps as short a time as a few decades, and which could plausibly lead to the mass extinction of most life on Earth.

    I would suggest that what needs to be effectively communicated to address the first problem is very different from what needs to be effectively communicated to address the second problem.

    A mainstream example of communication that addresses the second problem is NOAA’s Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report.

    If you look at the report’s ten “key findings” you will see that only two are aimed at “communicating the science” in the sense that this discussion seems most concerned with — the first one straightforwardly acknowledges that “global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced”, the second one acknowledges that “climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow” — and the remaining eight all address the expected impacts and conclude by addressing the urgent need for action now to mitigate the worst impacts.

    I don’t mean in any way to denigrate or understate the importance of improving public scientific literacy about climate science or any other field of science.

    But I would submit that what the public most needs to hear from the scientific community is not another attempt to explain the radiative properties of atmospheric gases to a lay audience.

    What the public most needs to hear from the scientific community is that hell on earth is coming our way and our only hope of preventing the most horrific impacts is urgent action NOW to phase out fossil fuels and other practices (e.g. deforestation) that are causing the problem.

    I would submit that the members of the general public who are stuck on denialism — including for example the various pseudo-scientific cranks and pseudo-ideological Ditto-Heads who occasionally copy-and-paste denialist boilerplate on these comment threads — are not in denial because they don’t understand the basic science. They are in denial because they are not listening to you and they are not going to listen to anything you say, which is in turn because they have been brainwashed by the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda, promulgated through the all-pervasive corporate media (both “mainstream” and “conservative”), which not only has indoctrinated them with lies about global warming, but has indoctrinated them with the belief that YOU are liars and nothing you say can be trusted.

    You are not going to reach those people or convince them of anything — unless perhaps you have hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of time with which to build a huge media network and brainwash millions of people with the most powerful propaganda techniques ever conceived by Madison Avenue. Which you don’t.

    Fortunately, those people are still a minority. As noted in the first article on this subject, polls actually indicate that the majority of Americans already do indeed “believe” that AGW is real, and they already think that action should be taken.

    And I would submit that what those people need from scientists is, again, not explanations of the basic science, but clear messages about what the impacts of global warming will be, and that urgent action is required NOW.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 11 Jul 2010 @ 12:29 PM

  45. I would be concerned about RC trying to be to many things for to many people. You do the RC job so well now. If I want news about climate/political I read climate progress. Skepticalscience brings the science up a notch for a layman like myself but if there is something I want to learn more about I seem to always able to get the answer here. So I think that the people that want to learn can. I do wish I could contribute more to conversations on RC, its cool to be able to talk to the top climate scientists, but just because I’m not at that level doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a lot from this blog.

    Comment by Ani — 11 Jul 2010 @ 12:57 PM

  46. 22 Spencer said, “For a start, writers should indicate the level within the first few sentences; this is most easily done by using, or not using, a few highly technical terms.”

    I’d suggest a simple label, Easy, Medium, or Hard. Not much work involved and simple to search with.

    Comment by RichardC — 11 Jul 2010 @ 1:43 PM

  47. Frankly, I think Didactylos is on the money. It really doesn’t matter what the technical level of the article is if people reject its message by reflex. As such, it is perhaps nearly as important to look at who is responding to the article as to aim for appropriate content. The people who do not understand climate science are not really the problem. Rather it is those who:
    a)think they understand, but are clueless (the D-K contingent)
    b)those who are bullshitting because on the Intertubes nobody knows you are a dog
    c)a small contingent of professional propagandists spreading large amounts of disinformation

    Couple this with the fact that all of us wish the current crisis weren’t real, and you have a recipe for confusion about the science.

    About the first contingent (a), D & K showed that they can be educated by patient tutelage. About the second contingent (b), I personally favor public humiliation. The last group is probably the most difficult, but a few things to look out for–e.g. sockpuppetry, unverifiable claims of authority, etc. I’m all for free speech. Lies aren’t free speech.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 11 Jul 2010 @ 1:53 PM

  48. My view on this is that coloured links could do the trick, but at the same time I must admit I don’t know how to produce those :-|. I think most science writers are beginners in some subjects (though some are quite exceptional in many disciplines on science) and this might or should or could be the guide line for grading the articles. The less complex the system is the likelier it is to be taken in use, very many people have made minor fixes in a petrol engine, very much less people have done it for an electric engine, to take an example.

    As it is clear (to me) that this issue you make clearer here, is very potentially having a hugely grave impact on future generations and the quality of their living, the double green level might be as low as a school book for 10 years old people, at this point, cause and consequence have become clear to most human inhabitants of this planet as teachers may tell you.

    Think if it is better for your children to be informed of the many opinions and issues concerning and circulating this planet, or leave them vulnerable to the many things that might harm them in the days you are gone. Memento mori.

    Comment by jyyh — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:33 PM

  49. There are different types of difficulties as well. Often the problem is that when people are presented with counter arguments, X does Y which pushes left, but also Z which pushes rightward. Rather than doing some sort of mental back of the envelope calculation of the likely magnitude of competing effects, most people go with their emotional gut feeling. Then we have people who are willing and able to do elementary algebra, but not much more, all the way up to an expert applied mathematician who can do the math, but doesn’t have the specific science background. So I’m afraid there is more than a single dimension of difficulty involved, and some readers may be at quite different levels in these different dimensions.

    To go back to your skiing analogy. One year my weekend job was teaching first day on snow lessons to kids. The difficulty arises because of the wide spread of abilities in your assigned class. I’d usually have to give ninetyplus percent of my attention to one student, while the others (I felt) weren’t getting their moneys worth. But, like science/math, to go on to the more intersting stuff without getting the basics down will put your student on the path to failure.

    Comment by Thomas — 11 Jul 2010 @ 2:35 PM

  50. #44, Secular Animist:

    You said: “And I would submit that what those people need from scientists is, again, not explanations of the basic science, but clear messages about what the impacts of global warming will be, and that urgent action is required NOW.”

    This is not untrue, but you seem to be missing a basic point that is assumed throughout the earlier discussion: “clear messages” from scientists would be accepted by the public when & if there is acceptance of scientific authority. However, that acceptance is exactly that which has been attacked and weakened (maybe destroyed) by the Climategate.

    If someone is a believer in the non-reality of GW, and presents some article by S. Fred Singer, you cannot count on that individual to be impressed by the statement that “the vast majority of climate scientists do not agree with Singer.”

    What you CAN do is to address the specific argument presented and eviscerate it, until the individual understands that this argument cannot be sustained. (Yes, sometimes it happens, if there is enough time.)

    But some of the more complicated arguments depend on the individual having a reasonable understanding of how the greenhouse effect actually works, instead of thinking of it as simply “CO2 blocking IR”. So a comprehensible explanation of the greenhouse effect is really useful.

    Because the biggest obstacle to our actually doing something about GW is the fact that many people don’t take it seriously enough. And as long as they feel that the basic science behind it is not “100% proven”, they’re not going to take it seriously enough.

    So improving the scientific literacy of the public is important (including the excision of the concept of “100% proven”), at least of that portion of the public that is thinking about the issue at all.

    Comment by Neal J. King — 11 Jul 2010 @ 3:39 PM

  51. Hey Dr. Schmidt,

    I recently added my comment to the post by Dr. Benestad regarding a follow up. My intent was for the initial conversation there to expand. The idea would be to take the basic rules he has outlined and to then develop a basic “cause and effect” article. The intent being that most laymen like me are fairly practical or empirical if you will. If you can build a logical picture that we can understand and is supported by the facts, then wider acceptance would be more forth coming.

    That the basic physics is well explained in Dr. Benestad’s article is well and good. However, the difference between facts and knowledge is how the science knowledge is derived. Where many of us may be confused is how science bridges between the planks of facts to develops the platform of knowledge.

    If we are missing the planks, it is not an issue, Real Climate and others have provided the data in a data library where we can go to retrieve either the links or the actual data itself. So as to addressing the (“Green Belt Level”) Basics, it is only a matter of adding a footnote/reference. As to the issue of the building the construct (IE: Yellow or Purple Belt Levels) again references to a data base of papers that discusses the details would be welcome.

    One of the issues that we have been dealing with elsewhere recently as an out come of the unauthorized e-mail access; has been it would be desired to have a combination of a Global scientific paper data base with a caveat as to it’s validity/acceptance/revision level. This then gets the author down to the issue of fitting the sub-assemblies or constructs into the main platform (Black/Red Belt Level).

    This is a logical pattern that many laymen can follow. It is when there are sudden leaps of insight or applications of intuitive knowledge that many of us might get left on the side of the road and hence miss the basis of the decision set.

    That there may be sites that specialize in say Green, Yellow, Purple, or Black belt level. (Sorry for the Judo/Kung Fu allusion, professors of science knowledge often remind me of Shaolin Temple Priests, with me being similar to “Grasshopper”.) The body of knowledge at each step would could then be open for discussion and the advances of the knowledge at that level would be posted and examined by professional peers there.

    The problem as I see it is that the requirement would be that the knowledge and the authoring access would have more graduation and a different institutional structure. The most important thing is that a “Black Belt Level” author would not have to go into details supporting their work.

    That was one of the nicest things I liked about professors with a PhD versus a Masters, for some reason the explanation of the Dr. was almost always much simpler and clearer. It certainly would be nice if that same simplicity and clear explanation could be extended to climate science.

    Dave Cooke

    Comment by L. David Cooke — 11 Jul 2010 @ 4:26 PM

  52. Greenfacts do excellent summaries of scientific papers in a question and answer format. They start with a question e.g. “1. What makes the climate change?” and follow it up with answers at the “summary”, “details” and “source” levels.

    The IPCC FAR is here:

    They have summaries on a wide range of interesting topics including agriculture and GM, biodiversity, phthalates and energy-saving lightbulbs.

    Comment by Tim Croker — 11 Jul 2010 @ 4:45 PM

  53. It is probably hopeless to teach science to the public at large. After all, a very large part of the population thinks our planet is less than 10,000 years old. They are not going to understand paleoclimatic data. The best we can hope for is to convince opinion makers that the science is correct.

    It is interesting that after a relatively short period in which deniers (some of the same people denying climate science) about ozone depletion seemed to be in ascendance.In that case, the science wasn’t any more certain, and there wasn’t any thing the man in the street might notice. But then opposition seemed to melt away.

    Of course, the stakes were not as high in that case. Manufactuerers of ozone depleting gases were told by their own chemists that the scinece was correct and it was not hard to find substitutes. So they stopped funding the deniers.

    Are there any lessons to be learned by the comparison?

    Comment by Leonard Evens — 11 Jul 2010 @ 5:13 PM

  54. I think the idea of classifying posts has some merit.

    I’m also thinking you could probably “crowd source” the writing of simpler versions based on more detailed ones. There’s clearly a lot of willingness here to contribute–of course, somebody still needs to edit the final product.

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 11 Jul 2010 @ 5:23 PM

  55. I think I am leaning towards the same conclusion as Leonard #52 “The best we can hope for is to convince opinion makers that the science is correct.” If you look in general at policy making we don’t demand that “the public” is up to speed on all the latest details on financial theory before decisions are made on interest rates or money supply or regulation or stimulus. Nor do we seek universal public knowledge and understanding of foreign policy, or public health measures. What in effect the deniers have done is not “educate the public” but manage to convince politicians that there will be a political price to pay if they proceed to renewable energy or improved car mileage or building standards for homes. I guess what needs to be done from our side is convince policy makers that the political price of inaction is going to be higher. I suspect after years of watching the debate, and contributing to it in a small way, that merely correcting denier errors, or putting facts alongside myths, doesn’t mean beans when it comes to stimulating a senator to action. Especially if his campaign funding depends in him not understanding the science of climate change.

    Comment by David Horton — 11 Jul 2010 @ 5:52 PM

  56. #40

    Your soliton story is very interesting and slightly romantic. It shows that very talented outsiders can sometimes enter a new area, go to the frontiers, and see something which those working within it have missed. The boring truth is that this type of event is rare especially in a mature science.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:18 PM

  57. The question of levels of information is not new to climate change. Museums and those who run them have argued for generations about the level of data that should be included in museum labels. Much of the discussion was biased by studies that showed visitors spending only 4-5 seconds in front of each exhibit. “Tell them only what they need to understand the principle”, became the watchword for those guided by surveys and not brains.

    My own perspective, after many years working in museums, but more importantly, visiting and enjoying museums, I believe we should put the very basic information in bold text perhaps, or in caps in museum exhibit labels, but then include the rest of the scientific data in supplementary materials. Too many times I have walked away from an exhibit wishing curators had thought to add all their research data, because I was walking away frustrated.

    I often find descriptions and posts on this site too advanced for my knowledge or experience, but on many occasions, that alone has pushed me to learn more. Dumbing down the subject will not inform anyone. Give us the data and let us determine what we can use and what we might need to do to have a better understanding. Thank you.

    Comment by John Carnahan — 11 Jul 2010 @ 6:31 PM

  58. Re: Bob (Sphaerica)@ 11 July 2010 at 12:12 PM, who says:

    “It does bring to mind one idea. It would be interesting to put together a “climate science test,” a multiple choice test with some intelligence built in. Rather than receiving just a final grade, the wrong and right answers could be used to help direct the test taker to the areas where he needs more education.”

    Excellent idea! Just needs a catchy name…lemme see, Myers-Briggs? Taken. How about the Dunning-Kruger test?

    In all seriousness, a great suggestion. A possible enhancement: posting on RC not allowed until passing the test…


    Daniel the Yooper

    Comment by Daniel the Yooper — 11 Jul 2010 @ 7:13 PM

  59. The problem of explanation has three main dimensions: The first relates to whether the matter we areattempting to explain can be reduced to a collection of reason-and-logic-connected “facts” (ie public knowledge). Complex systems often cannot be explained in the same way that simple systems can. In principle, it isn’t difficult to explain why a stone falls to the ground when it is dropped- there is only two elements connected by one force. Global warming is a complex system and may not be amenable to explanation in the same way, although all of its parts might be explicable in a simple way.

    The second dimension is whether the person receiving the explanation (the “Explainee”) has the mental capacity to to absorb all the facts and relationships to a level that would provide an explanation that would satisfy them. In some cases the explainee’s reach exceeds their grasp.

    The third dimension (assuming that the first two issues can be resolved) is the very mechanics of assembling an explanation. Curiously, not a great deal of work has been done on this subject, hence the profusion of “personal wisdom” type comments like the one from the esteemed NYT journalists.The renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget established a useful framework for resolving this problem with his proposing that there are five levels of cognitive development, starting with “concrete”- the state of the newborn- to “abstract”, which most ten-year-olds are capable of. He then assumed, for the most part, that adults operated continuously in “abstract” mode. Our experience tells us that most of us don’t.

    A few years ago, while working in adult education, I developed a model for explanation, essentially based on Piaget, that posited eight stages from “concrete” to “abstract”. The model, unlike Piaget’s is age-independent. The model enables the explainer to identify where the explainee “is at” in terms of fact, reason and level, and then plot a path towards either providing more facts to complete the picture at a particular level, or guide them to a higher level of generality (“abstraction”). I have used the model many times in developing my own presentations, lecturing and tutoring and analysing and advising on public scientific programs. Unfortunately I never published the paper, which met some resistance at the time from education-academics who were averse to “structuralism”. My career shifted and the motivation and opportunity to publish it diminished. Nonetheless, I continue to use it myself and others comment on my valuable and lucid explanations.

    I can make the paper available to anyone who cares to really try to bend their mind around this problem. I’m also happy to embark on diagnostic discussions with draft presentations.

    A few yea

    Comment by Adjunct Professor John Barker — 11 Jul 2010 @ 7:49 PM

  60. How about a reader rating for technical depth? The average and the number of ratings would be posted with the article. Personally, 3 levels would do the job.

    Comment by catman306 — 11 Jul 2010 @ 8:44 PM

  61. As it happens I’m at a ski resort right now. No skiing since it is Summer but I did explain the core of Rasmus’ post to someone from Shenandoah who restores houses while sitting in the hot tub (no pencil or paper, just hands to wave). If you have a little time, anyone can understand this at least for an hour or so. I started out explaining why the sky is blue which got me to the electromagnetic spectrum, warning all the time that the subject was going to get more complex.

    I won’t go through the whole quarter hour but we agreed that he understood why GHGs warm the planet and he probably would not tomorrow but also he might teach me how to get people to install low emissivity windows but I would not know it fully until I’d practiced more than a few times.

    Time to listen and patience to explain allows any level complexity though not retention without prior familiarity. People’s eyes glaze over when the explanation is rushed and they are not being brought along. As we sit like frogs in hot water, we have time at least for patient explanations I hope. And even I can do a double diamond with hiking boots in the Summer.

    Comment by Chris Dudley — 11 Jul 2010 @ 9:18 PM

  62. In 33, Ray Ladbury wrote, in part, “As to op ed pages, I’d hate to add anything of value to them and destroy the perfect cesspit of misinformation and lies that they’ve become.” Surely that’s just frustrated hyperbole, and not serious. It’s true that the WSJ has just posted (for Monday’s paper) a Patrick J. Michaels op-ed with the headline “The Climategate Whitewash Continues” and the subheadline “Global warming alarmists claim vindication after last year’s data manipulation scandal. Don’t believe the ‘independent’ reviews.” (You knew it was coming in that paper, and now here it is.) And yes, the Washington Post prints George Will’s climate pieces. But what about at least some of what else appears in the op-ed spreads of the Post and the Times and other papers? Another question: Who ever promised that democracy was going to be tidy and well ordered? Gavin: Please write that op-ed about your fine idea — not just for climate science, but for science in general. That scientists ideally and intentionally exemplify public rationality makes scientists more responsible, not less responsible, for seeking to contribute to, and in some cases lead, untidy and often deeply frustrating technocivic discourse. (Yes, it’s easy for me cavalierly to lob a writing task at Gavin, who no doubt has way too much to do. But still.)

    Comment by Steven T. Corneliussen — 11 Jul 2010 @ 11:50 PM

  63. The way to address the “level” problem is to take advantage of the fact that you aren’t using a static medium. Many academic journals embed figures as small graphics you can barely make out, and you can expand them inline to see more detail (at the expense of making scrolling up and down less wieldy).

    I would like to see an article like the one in question developed into three layers: a top-level view (“the greenhouse effect is like a blanket”) with a more detailed view with simplified versions of the equations etc. (like the previous article) that you can open up to for more detail, plus another layer with really detailed explanations. A single button to close all detail would get you back to the top-level summary.

    Some thought would have to go into usability issues but once you have the concept straight you could use this as a general wrapper for future articles.

    Comment by Philip Machanick — 12 Jul 2010 @ 12:35 AM

  64. Whoa up a moment. On the front page it says START HERE. Do so.
    When you’ve gone thru the recommended list you are ready for a more in depth examination of issues and whether or not you can follow the maths you will still learn from articles and discussions. A blog specializing in simple answers soon becomes too simple to be interesting. When combating denier blogs simple translates as unpersuasive. I may not completely follow the science on RC but I certainly understand far more than I did before I found this blog. Best to layout the table before me and allow me to consume what I can without dumbing down the science.

    Comment by w kensit — 12 Jul 2010 @ 1:44 AM

  65. Oops, I see I lost a post somewhere. See This from a year ago. Oddly, it has green circles and blue squares, although no black diamonds :-) That evolved from 18 months ago, here at RC, when trying to work out a scale of recommendations for books.

    One more time:
    one really, really needs a model for the level of and mixtures of readers AND
    given that, it is awfully nice to tell the readers what they should expect, just as ski slopes do (more-or-less .. although names help too, like:
    Hummingbird, OGoSlow, SleepyHollow are likely to be different from
    Talon’s Grip, Grizzly, Dragon’s Tongue, or The Cliff.
    (The probably comes when some beginner thinks Piece of Cake or Playground sound easy andturn otu to be black diamonds.)

    Formal schooling has prerequisite structures for good reason. It is even fine to say: “This piece will be a stretch for you, but a possible one.”

    Comment by John Mashey — 12 Jul 2010 @ 2:00 AM

  66. Hi Gavin,

    Excellent article. I fully agree with one comment above (#9), which suggests that RC is set at the level of being comprehendable to university students and higher. This means, however, that it is understandable to a very small percentage of the general population, probably around 5%.

    I willingly admit I enjoy this level of presentation, but to be able to reach and convince a far higher percentage of the population the presentation needs to be much more basic. Your suggestion here would help a lot, although it would certainly be a huge task.

    My concern is that people who have a university education are the majority of those who have any understanding of the subject. It is the much larger at least, say 50% of the population, who must be convinced if action is to be taken on a large scale due to the effect of elections in various countries.

    Comment by John — 12 Jul 2010 @ 2:53 AM

  67. Professor Barker,

    I agree with you completely with respect to #59. I would perhaps only comment by pointing you towards the work of Ken Wilber of the Integral Institute, who has extended Piaget’s work to 10 stages.

    Comment by John — 12 Jul 2010 @ 3:01 AM

  68. Firstly I’d like to say I have limited scientific understanding (more or less a literary MA level), that makes me part of the general public.

    I find your articles quite easily understandable, for the parts written in English and the graphs, I simply have to skip over the maths. The most difficult to understand are sometimes the comments, when they go into finer detail.

    To resume my thoughts on the subject: don’t change anything.
    Good reading skills are sufficient to understand the salient features of RealClimate posts.

    Comment by Eric Davies — 12 Jul 2010 @ 3:24 AM

  69. Don’t forget the book(s).

    For a slightly more elementary take on the subject Parts 1 and 2 of “Dire Predictions” by Mann and Kump provides an excellent over-view. It lacks references but its internal organisation is remarkably good. So a new alternative on line version needs to be at least as good.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 12 Jul 2010 @ 4:59 AM

  70. I think this explains everything:

    “Students are leaving high school with a diploma, but “most are testing at middle-school reading comprehension” and many at elementary-school level, said James Sauvé, an English department instructor in charge of revising the remediation classes.”

    Comment by EL — 12 Jul 2010 @ 5:13 AM

  71. As one of your non-physical-scientist readers, I’d just like to agree with Scott Mandia, Hugh Laue and Ani, among others, that RC ain’t broke, there’s no need to fix it.

    That said, it’s not a surprise if many of the regular readers like the way you write, since you have attracted us by writing the way you do. And presumably turned off others. So it also comes down to this: do you feel you have the readership you want?

    Finally, I do think Icarus at #34 also has a point. Rather than tying yourself up in knots about writing new stuff for defined color-coded audiences, it would be useful to develop the Start here and Index pages further to set up a more structured readers’ guide to your existing basic-science post for those who’d like that. Possibly a community task rather than a task for the contributors.

    Comment by CM — 12 Jul 2010 @ 5:48 AM

  72. You’ll never get the op-ed writers for the Wall Street Journal, the talking heads on Fox News, or the global warming deniers supported by the fossil fuel industries to accept an incomplete and fractured green square as the logo they need to apply to their articles/new stories.

    Wes Dingman

    Comment by C. W. Dingman — 12 Jul 2010 @ 7:08 AM

  73. Has anyone yet published “global warming for dummies” or “the idiot’s guide to global warming”?

    Comment by Sarah — 12 Jul 2010 @ 7:14 AM

  74. Steven T. Corneliussen,
    I not only meant what I said, but will go further. I’ve read nothing of any value on op ed pages in a decade, and nothing of value about science in any newspaper for about the same timeframe.

    Newspapers are no longer about news. They are about profits. They make profits by attracting readers and they attract readers by appealing to the lowest common denominator. Most major news organizations do not even have a science desk any longer–and at most, they regurgitate press releases from a scientist’s institution.

    I’ve all but quit reading newspapers, and on those few occasions when I do read one, I usually regret it. And now that NPR and the BBC have decided they don’t want to cater to an intelligent audience, I’m basically left with The Economist as the only source I can stomach anymore.

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 12 Jul 2010 @ 7:25 AM

  75. RE #73

    I don’t know, but I found Robert Henson’s “The Rough Guide to Climate Change” to be fairly comprehensive and very good value considering its low price.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 12 Jul 2010 @ 8:04 AM

  76. re: #73 Sarah

    “Has anyone yet published “global warming for dummies” or “the idiot’s guide to global warming”?”

    Well, Christopher Horner of the CEI has published “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism”.

    James Inhofe recommends it strongly a “A definitive resource to debunk global warming alarmism.”

    However, that probably isn’t what you want :-) although it ironically fits the definition in an inverse way from usual.

    Comment by John Mashey — 12 Jul 2010 @ 8:31 AM

  77. “Both these examples suggest that there is a very widespread feeling that there is only one level at which public communications must be conducted.”

    That misses the point, I think. I think there’s widespread feeling that explanations appropriate to one’s own level of knowledge should be available. The quarrel here, as I see it, is that the previous post asserted the explanation was at a common, everyperson level, when a poll would almost certainly have shown that it was too involved for most people.

    This doesn’t pose a real dilemma; it just highlights the challenge of trying to quantify the scientific sophistication of your audience. Please DO continue to provide explanations that range from the simpler to the more complex.

    Comment by Duane — 12 Jul 2010 @ 8:58 AM

  78. 2 practical suggestions:

    1) We could tag pages in with a difficulty level like “difficulty1” (easy) or “difficulty9” (hard). The really big problem with tagging articles with a difficulty rating is that there is no absolute rating of difficulty. What you find easy I may find impossible. So…

    2) A more satisfactory system may be something automated, a little like the “readers who bought books you bought also bought…” algorithm on Amazon. Ideally a search provider like Google would run the service so their algorithm has access to semantic information about the page too. When you read a page, you’d click a button on your browser to say “too easy”, “just right” or “too hard”. The system would categorise pages by subject matter. The system would predict how well each user would cope with each page based on the user’s history of similar pages and on how hard similar users found the page in question.

    3) My favourite solution: A really easy system (which requires no new code to be written) would just to implement a “house style” similar to WikiPedia’s style whereby statements would by hyperlinked to introductions to what those statements mean so if a reader comes across a statement or an argument which makes no sense they can follow the link to find out more.

    Comment by Jack Kelly — 12 Jul 2010 @ 9:22 AM

  79. I started with a comment, but hit a key that shut down my system. You are all very optimistic when thinking about communicating science to the general public. In a country where 46% of the population believe that the Earth is less than 6000 years old (see Chris Moony’s “Unscientific America”) we have serious problems with even something as simple as the energy balance on the Earth. This is particularly true when the audience doesn’t want to hear about the possibility of “bad tomorrows”. Note that Scripts Oceanagraphic Institute suggests that there is a 50% that Lake Mead will be dry by 2021. That is the water supply for Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas along woith much of California, yet the folks there are more worried about illegal aliens coming across the boarder. Well when there is no water, they won’t come.

    Comment by George W. Collins, II — 12 Jul 2010 @ 9:25 AM

  80. gavin @ 10 July 2010 :

    Nonetheless, there were complaints that was too much to be absorbed by the lay public, counter-arguments that making it too simple was patronising, as well as complaints that the discussions were not technical enough (for instance in explaining stratospheric cooling).

    Said combination of opinions being a clear indicator that the article in question was just about right for the regular commenters of this site.

    Comment by llewelly — 12 Jul 2010 @ 10:52 AM

  81. The NYT writer explained that she always pitched her stories at exactly the same level – (paraphrasing) the interested, but educated, person who did not need the details but wanted the big picture. Indeed, she went so far as to say that was the only relevant mode of public communication on science issues.

    Speaking as someone who was a regular NYT reader from about 1984 to about 2003, and who has no degrees of any sort, I think she’s largely wrong; the “big picture but no details” is often wrong-headed because there are usually at least a few details that are essential to understanding the “big picture”. Moreover, on any issue that is politically divisive, knowing many details is essential, because partisans will rely heavily on details (or a perceived lack of knowledge in their opponents of details) to score rhetorical points.

    Comment by llewelly — 12 Jul 2010 @ 10:58 AM

  82. SecularAnimist

    “What the public most needs to hear from the scientific community is that hell on earth is coming our way and our only hope of preventing the most horrific impacts is urgent action NOW to phase out fossil fuels and other practices (e.g. deforestation) that are causing the problem.”

    Why not tell the public about the mayan 2012 prophecy while you are at it?

    Here is the point:

    The average person on this planet has virtually no mathematical understanding. Without this understanding, the idea of global warming becomes very difficult to separate from stories like the Mayan 2012 prophecy. People simply do not understand how scientists could possibly know these things, and scientists seem to be talking prophecy instead of science.

    The scientific community has two communication issues:
    1. Communication with the technical community.
    2. Communication with the rest of humanity.

    #2 is more important than #1 in my opinion. Why? Because the political power of the world is in the hands of #2. I don’t care if every tech on earth is convinced. Without the general population, action will not be taken.

    The ‘silent majority’ is who we have to convince in order to get anything done. I don’t see governments taking action without a solid majority behind them. Our job at this point is to deliver (or find someone who can) that solid majority.

    Comment by EL — 12 Jul 2010 @ 11:12 AM

  83. There we have … green runs for beginners wanting a gentle introduction and where hopefully nothing too bad can happen. Blue runs where the technical level is a little more ambitious and a little more care needs to be taken. Black expert runs for those who know what they are doing and are doing it well, and finally, double black diamond runs for the true masters.

    And, in fact, an examination of the books and magazines available under the general rubric of “popular science” reveals that during the 1980s and 1990s (still true for the books, but can’t comment on the magazines, as I read websites these days instead of magazines), they differentiated themselves mostly by how technical they were – some no more technical than the NYT, others a little more technical, some a lot more, and some only barely less technical than a college textbook. The people who wrote these books and magazines often said they were told “every equation cuts the audience in half” and the like. And people complained when SciAm became less technical. But other sources (like MIT tech review) moved into the territory vacated by SciAm. I think the NYT reporter you spoke to had it 100% backward; newspapers did not choose to target the “big picture but no details” because their audience wanted it; on the contrary, they chose that target because they thought anybody with journalism degree could do it. They went for what they thought they were most able to provide, and for a few decades it worked out, so they thought they were providing what customers wanted. But around 2000 or so, readers started abandoning newspaper science sections in droves. But the newspapers still think they’re doing the right thing. *shrug*.

    Comment by llewelly — 12 Jul 2010 @ 11:15 AM

  84. How simply GW for dummies should start?? “When you burn something in another something, this another something gets warmer. There are very many kinds of materials in Earth and on Earth that may burn, if one burns them on Earth, Earth gets warmer.
    Most stones (for example Silicon dioxide) do not burn. Water does not burn. They get warmer in the sun, or, if one burns something near them. Earth is near you and your fire you use to get warm. Very many engines (technical) use fire to power machines and appliances (technical).”

    Ah, too much for me to think of this. Should this diverge to the being originally adapted to tropical climates, called human or go to more technical issues in science is another matter I don’t like to decide.

    Comment by jyyh — 12 Jul 2010 @ 11:29 AM

  85. In a sense you’re proposing an extension of Accessibility for technical communications. Leveled material would require some form of diagnostic testing (see QTI xml) and some means of repurposing the original content to ensure the meaning was consistent across the reading levels.

    You can do this with a simply expert system using form based input where the input forms require the author to maintain the resulting relationships.

    See the free Altova Authentic Authoring tool:

    The information can then change over time:
    see W3C Semantic Web:

    One positive benefit, the news media rarely does any fact checking so an Accessibility Aid for the News could help to eliminate factual errors for the public.

    Note: someone on a MSNBC Newswire poll comment recommend this site for information — I’m here to balance my reading on AGW. I’m not currently convinced CO2 emissions are a driver so I’d be grateful if you can point me to some required reading.

    John from CA

    Comment by John from CA — 12 Jul 2010 @ 11:57 AM

  86. @ 85: “I’m here to balance my reading on AGW. I’m not currently convinced CO2 emissions are a driver so I’d be grateful if you can point me to some required reading.”

    Hard to beat Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming for starters:

    Comment by Adam R. — 12 Jul 2010 @ 12:43 PM

  87. Ray Ladbury in 74 (see also 27, 33, 62) seems to be citing the quality of newspaper science reporting and the disappearance of newspaper science desks — both having to do with newsgathering, not opinion — as at least part of his justification for his remarkably anti-democracy view that op-ed pages offer us nothing. It’s true that newspapers are a dying industry, and in my view it’s also true that this is a slow-motion civic disaster. But the opinion pages, for better or worse, still contribute mightily to national and even international conversation. Consider that last Friday in the Washington Post, Eugene Robinson’s column “On climate change, let cool heads prevail,” though it might have been scientifically imperfect, seemed to me to present a sensible argument for forgetting Climategate now that those review panels have completed their studies. And a Saturday editorial in the NYT began, “Perhaps now we can put the manufactured controversy known as Climategate behind us and turn to the task of actually doing something about global warming.” It ended by saying, “Given the trajectory the scientists say we are on, one must hope that the academy’s report, and Wednesday’s debunking of Climategate, will receive as much circulation as the original, diversionary controversies.” Just in the climate realm, it’s easy to find such counterexamples to Mr. Ladbury’s earlier assertion that op-ed pages generally are a “perfect cesspit of misinformation and lies.” Whatever Mr. Ladbury may think, I hope others continue to realize that this is all part of the outrageously frustrating democracy that we’re stuck with — and that it’s a whole lot better than any of the even more chaotic and crazy alternatives.

    Comment by Steven T. Corneliussen — 12 Jul 2010 @ 1:24 PM

  88. @ 86: Thanks Adam R.

    Comment by John from CA — 12 Jul 2010 @ 2:12 PM

  89. I think our problem is that humans evolved to be story-telling and story-absorbing beings. These stories have both personal interest, and moral content. Only trained scientists who continually work at it can avoid the moralistic-story mode of thinking. Even then, I know several accomplished scientist types who let moralistic-ideology control the credibility of information. So with a subject like global warming we have dualing moral storylines. Some of these stories can be listed:
    (1) Mankind is being greedy and must be punished.
    (1a) Mankind is burning through fossil fuels more than a milion times faster than the planet can create them, there must be a punishment attached to this.
    (2) God is the sole controller of the planet at large scales, any claim that mere humans can effect the planet is arrogant blasphemey.
    (3) God made the planet for libertarians, any thing that suggests that the tragedy of the commons is the product of evil trynanists.
    (4) God expects us to use the planets resources, then he will return in person, delaying our consumption would be immoral as it puts off the day of the second coming.

    Obviously there is scant likelihood that dualing moral stories can determine the truth of nature. But, it is a dominant mode of human thinking about the world.

    Comment by Thomas — 12 Jul 2010 @ 8:54 PM

  90. Steven T. Corneliussen,
    No, the current incarnation of newspapers and other news gathering orgianizations is not part of our messy democracy. Rather it is a mouthpiece for an oligarchy who have set themselves above the system. Almost all newspapers today are owned by a tiny number of individuals. The Wall Street Urinal is a Murdoch mouthpiece. The Post is more reasonable, in part because Warren Buffet has a lighter hand–but still, just let them write anything against exploiting tar sands. The Times cannot find its tuckus with both hands and a GPS. No, Steve, it is the news organs themselves that are anti-democratic.

    I used to subscribe to the Post. I used to read the Sunday Times. Now I wouldn’t even wrap a fish in either. Shouldn’t it tell you something when the most respected name in news is John Stewart?

    Comment by Ray Ladbury — 12 Jul 2010 @ 8:56 PM

  91. A slider is rational from the point of view of scientists’ wish to reach all sectors, but if Rasmus’ very good summary represents a midpoint, we are in trouble. There is too much information there and in a typical RC discussion for a typical reader to grasp. You need simpler logic, less information, and uncluttered graphics.

    I’m not referring to a Fox viewer or high school graduate either- someone with a humanities or law degree is going to be lost very early in most scientific discussions of global warming. I fear that the sliding gradient developed by scientists will tend to go from upper division science students on up. That means that 90% of the public won’t be reached.

    The best communication on this subject does not come from scientists. That’s why the high school teacher’s UTube video was so popular, and why people like Peter Sinclair and George Monbiot are so good at communicating the essence of what’s going on. Among trained scientists, Harte and Weart are two of the best, since they avoid scientists’ reflex to go back to technical terms and syntax. Gavin is pretty good at simplifying, too.

    Your notion of putting people together to brainstorm how to communicate effectively is a good one, and let’s hope it develops into a serious and long term project. I suggest it be done by nonscientists, since their instinct will be to simplify and summarize, while scientists have too many inner censors (for good reason). I will be happy to help if asked.

    Comment by mike roddy — 12 Jul 2010 @ 9:03 PM

  92. Levels sound good to me. Good search tag. If nothing else it might encourage a habit of pondering the audience when dispersing thoughts into the ether.

    BTW, those wacky kids at NASA had an interesting idea. If someone out there is working on a SimClimate-type game, I’d appreciate a Mac version.

    Comment by Radge Havers — 12 Jul 2010 @ 9:52 PM

  93. #89 Thomas, good thinking, someone way back said we need a narrative (or short stories :-) ) to grasp the human aspect of GW. [edit – theology is OT]

    Comment by jyyh — 13 Jul 2010 @ 12:46 AM

  94. Ray Ladbury continues to argue that the bias in newspapers’ news operations is so profound that it not only corrupts their opinion pages as well, but somehow corrupts those separate pages so totally as to render them completely useless as civic and technocivic forums.

    That’s apparently even though — just to take the two examples that Ladbury ignored — both Eugene Robinson’s Friday Post column and a Times Saturday editorial upheld the climate consensus, declaring it vindicated.

    It’s even though both papers obviously reach large audiences not yet ready to say, with Ladbury, “I wouldn’t even wrap a fish in either” newspaper.

    Gavin, I say again, the fine idea that you have presented in this posting merits wider civic attention. A constructive, effective venue for that would be an op-ed in a national newspaper.

    It would be a useful contribution to a national and even international conversation that is highly imperfect, but still well worth joining.

    Comment by Steven T. Corneliussen — 13 Jul 2010 @ 5:59 AM

  95. Steven T. Corneliussen 87: the opinion pages, for better or worse, still contribute mightily to national and even international conversation.

    BPL: Ray’s point is that much of that contribution for the past couple of decades had consisted of outright lies and misleading propaganda.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 13 Jul 2010 @ 6:13 AM

  96. I think RealClimate is a great place for discussion at a reasonably high level, but I think there are better sites for educating the masses and maybe some of the obviously less well informed commentators should be firmly pointed elsewhere to get their basic education before coming back. Moving “start here” to the left of the top menu is a move in the right direction.

    My misinformed opinions were shot down in flames here when I first started posting, which was very dispiriting and almost put me off the subject completely. However, it was sites like Skeptical Science that put me back on the right track.

    I think its format is brilliant. We all hear arguments such as “Its the sun”, “CO2 rise is natural” etc in the press and on blogs, and listing the argument alongside the counter argument treats the reader like an intelligent being able to make up their own mind which explanation sounds the more plausible. They also link to more detailed explanations for those wanting to extend their knowledge in a particular area.

    Despite no background in climate science, I now regularly find myself reading quite complex papers and understanding the hypothesis and conclusions, if not the maths and statistics. I rarely feel qualified to make any comment on the science here, except where I can contribute facts or data.

    That has not stopped me commenting at WUWT where the level of ignorance and stupidity is so high that even I can seem like an expert!

    I have noticed a greater level of counter-argument at WUWT recently, particularly to Steven Goddard’s most mind bogglingly laughable arguments. I would encourage as many people as possible to do this. You never know, SG might eventually understand the depth of his own ignorance and stop spreading poisonous falacy. Nice to see that the director of the NSIDC pitching in regularly to correct the worst misinterpretation of his excellent work.

    Personally, my main interest is in Man’s more direct short-term degradation of the natural environment, and how that can be stopped. But a sound understanding of global warming (still prefer that to the rather non-committal “climate change”), and how that might affect things in the longer term, is useful when discussing the impact of deforestation, over-fishing, unsustainable irrigation etc.

    Comment by Matthew L — 13 Jul 2010 @ 7:26 AM

  97. It seems obvious to me that you need both levels of communication. Eyes will glaze over for 98% of folks reading an overly technical article. But for folks seriously engaged in the public debate, they need to be able to lay their hands on the below-the-surface, more-than-just-big-picture stuff.

    I consider RC to be a more technical site, and I visit it when I’m prepared to engage my mind in trying to fully understand a point. The NYT or the WSJ are more mainstream outlets, and their readership in general isn’t looking for technical discussions.

    In this electronic age, the answer seems simple enough. For a site like RC, stay technical, but link within the articles to the other sites or posts with the simple explanations of the big picture ideas that many RC readers already grasp. The NOAAs and the NASAs of the world have plenty of fact sheets on the underlying AGW principles. Conversely, the mainstream newspapers should have links to scientific papers that explain the technical components of the big picture on which they are reporting.

    Comment by Buzz Belleville — 13 Jul 2010 @ 9:36 AM

  98. Speaking as someone who started out at basic green and graduated to blue and black (although admittedly the double-blacks are still a bit much sometimes), ALL those levels are necessary for the “interested public”. Unfortunately, a lot of the public is disinterested, instead of interested. It’s those greens, though, that get them interested – the article where they go hey, maybe I can understand what’s really going on, here. They read, they read a bit more, they come to understand, they move on to blue. Every single person who comes to understand the reality of climate change makes a difference. It’s the sway of public opinion that will win the battle of policy based on fact instead of wishful thinking.

    So, while a color grading system isn’t a perfect solution, it’s *something*. If nothing else, maybe it will encourage scientists to also write at different levels than the one they’re most comfortable with, the double black.

    Comment by msc — 13 Jul 2010 @ 10:20 AM

  99. There is a petition to sign at

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 13 Jul 2010 @ 10:49 AM

  100. John 85,

    Using annual time series for CO2 and Hadley temperature anomalies for 1880-2008 (N = 129), Granger causality tests clearly show the influence running from CO2 to dT and not the other way around.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 13 Jul 2010 @ 10:50 AM

  101. Why not consult with the humanities? They may have a different take on this topic.

    Comment by EL — 13 Jul 2010 @ 11:18 AM

  102. Re 95: No. The point that Ray Ladbury has actually stated is way bigger than merely “that much of that contribution [from op-ed pages to civic discussion] for the past couple of decades [has] consisted of outright lies and misleading propaganda.” If he had said only that, I’d agree with him — except that “past couple of decades” should really say “forever,” given that democracy has always been messy and outrageous. Instead, his point is that all op-ed pages are utterly worthless as civic or technocivic forums. See for yourself. In 33, he wrote, in part, “As to op ed pages, I’d hate to add anything of value to them and destroy the perfect cesspit of misinformation and lies that they’ve become.” In 74, he wrote, “I’ve read nothing of any value on op ed pages in a decade.” Scientists and science’s supporters should recognize the danger in acting — or not acting — based on that kind of extreme overstatement.

    Comment by Steven T. Corneliussen — 13 Jul 2010 @ 12:46 PM

  103. Thomas #89: “I think our problem is that humans evolved to be story-telling and story-absorbing beings…”

    Good point. Global warming fits into the “story problem” category – and what do most people recall of such math problems presented in story format? Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon of Hell’s Library contains nothing but titles like “Word Problems Galore” and “The Big Book of Word Problems.” The typical public recollection is one of mystification (what is this problem talking about?), likely because they were never trained in how to solve word problems.

    First, you might want to consider what a word problem is – and the general consensus seems to be that word problems don’t work well as stand-alone problems. The first step in solving (or writing) a word problem is always building a model – and if you can’t go from the word problem back to the model with ease, then there’s a problem. Modern education systems recognize this – for example, SAT test questions will present the model explicitly, then ask questions relating to it. This glosses over the real problem – how does one construct a realistic model of a physical system, starting from scratch?

    The central problem might thus be that good chunks of the public don’t have a grasp of the basic model that all the climate word problems refer to. In comparison, in discussions of cancer and health, most people have a decent model of the human body – heart, lungs, liver, blood circulation, etc. Some people might be unaware of the role of the liver vs. the kidneys, say, but if someone said losing either was no big deal, who would believe it?

    A good way to get students to learn the material is to get them interested by telling stories – the classic one that high school physics teachers have used to capture student interest is the Dead Body Mystery – how can a detective, by determining the temperature of a corpse, estimate the time of death? One needs a model of heat loss from the human body. The surrounding conditions matter (freezing? wet?), as does the nature of the clothing worn, but the initial temperature – 37C or 98.6F – is a given.

    Let’s say our body is that of a mountaineer, who fell from a height, and is dressed in thermal underwear, fleece, and a goretex parka. It is 0C outside. If digital thermal probes were placed between each clothing layer, they’d show a range from 37C at the skin to a value slightly about the surface temperature at the surface. Now, replace the fleece with a thick goosedown layer – what would happen to the outer parka’s temperature? It would cool somewhat, reflecting the fact that heat was being lost at a slower rate. (The heat is being generated in this case by human metabolism based on conversion of organic carbon to CO2, not by solar radiation)

    That roughly corresponds to stratospheric cooling. Increase mid-tropospheric CO2, and it acts like a thick goosedown, and as a result, the radiation emitted to the surroundings is at a lower temperature, shifted to the longer wavelengths.

    The last valid objection to the greenhouse model and CO2 projections was that there might be a tear in the garments, a dynamic behavior that
    would allow heat to escape at high temperature in the tropics – the Lindzen Iris proposal, refuted in the late 1990s at the same time that Pinatubo was providing a convincing test case for climate models.

    That’s why it’s safe to conclude that the core scientific issues on climate science were all settled in the 1990s – everything since then has just been refinement.

    If you desire a more complete treatment, the kind required to understand the details of a scientific paper, then you want to start with some textbooks, presuming a college-level background of courses in math, chemistry, physics and biology. For example:

    Atmospheric and Oceanic Fluid Dynamics: Fundamentals and Large-Scale Circulation, Geoffrey Vallis (2006)
    Atmospheric Radiation: Theoretical Basis, Richard Goody, YL Yung (1995)
    Marine Biogeochemical Cycles, Open University Press (2005)

    Comment by Ike Solem — 13 Jul 2010 @ 3:07 PM

  104. I do agree with earlier posters that classifying all posts would be a very time-consuming job. Normally I understand most posts at RC but sometimes I do skip over the most technical stuff , especially if I am in a hurry. I do not think this is a problem. RC is a wonderful resource of high level scientific material on climate science. But RC has its strength for people who really want to learn and are ready to read. And I hope RC will stay in this niche. Readers can adapt the information to their use (teaching, discussing, blogging…)
    Reaching out to other groups that do not want to, or have the time to read and learn should perhaps use other methods. Being a high school teacher I often use animations when I have to explain complex material. University of Colorado has some of very high quality, see Colorado animations . But there are very few about climate. Using animations makes the students get a feeling for the subject and visualization is very effective. I think animations can help interested laypersons get a feeling that they understand complex effects without having to read technical material.
    Reaching out to the public and even non-science journalists, things probably have to be even simpler. I was thinking of an idea but I do not have any experience on this. What if the scientists created a set of scientificly based oneliners like addressing the recent storm/drought/precipitation event and the general change in weather. And then most importantly kept mixing these one-liners into their answers, so that the public really learn these basics. That would make it more difficult for the deniers to change it all in next weeks story in the media.

    Comment by MS — 13 Jul 2010 @ 4:03 PM

  105. The link did not work correctly in my previus post. It is

    Comment by MS — 13 Jul 2010 @ 4:24 PM

  106. Enterprise level solutions exist for organising knowledge. Each article, graph, equation, web page, test, questionaire etc is reduced to a database entry of the form [header, abstract, content, {tags}]. A web browser is attached to allow flexible search/retrieval and automatic linking based on the content of its database and the search templates established by the user.

    For example, this discussion could be filed under:

    “Information Levels”,
    Article text,
    {Type:Communication, Sub-Type:General, Complexity:1 Security:0 …}

    Say I am at green square level. I choose a beginners search template. With this template in play the knowledge engine screens out complex articles and math, but automatically highlights links to more basic and digestible material aimed at my level. I move my “slider” to the right and the next more sophisticated template comes into play. Power users design their own templates…

    Knowledge engines allow arbitrarily complex domain knowledge to become flexibly accessible. They are used very successfully in teaching medicine for example. This is not a practical suggestion for RC of course. It is a major endeavour with significant upfront and ongoing costs. Controlling scope to avoid “importing” the whole of science would not be trivial either.

    Thanks again RC and all the contributors for another stimulating discussion.

    Comment by Ammonite — 13 Jul 2010 @ 4:33 PM

  107. I want to propose a better metaphor than the ‘blanket’ to explain the greenhouse effect to a general audience.
    – The idea came to me two weeks ago and I wanted to make a video about it but prolonged technical problems are forcing me to write it down now that the topic is still hot here.
    – The metaphor is free to be used by science communicators, debaters, teachers, etc. Please improve it, make suggestions to make the metaphor as effective as possible (and as exact as possible).
    – I think it can also explain the saturation issue and stratospheric cooling, although I have limited understanding of these issues and the history of scientific understanding about water vapor*.

    Here goes: You are standing down a steep hill moderately covered with trees. As you look up through the trees you can still see patches of blue sky. (sky=earth’s surface, observer=i.e.satellite, trees=GHGs). Your friend is standing uphill and drops 1 ball per second (or any number). (For the perfectionists: the balls have perfect bounce and are not subject to air resistance or gravitational acceleration.) The balls bounce through the forest and after some delay, you will be receiving 1 ball per second on average. Now all of a sudden, lots of trees pop up out of nowhere. You will see the balls taking more time to make it through the forest. As long as trees keep popping up, you will be receiving less than 1 ball per second (to idiots who say less than 1 is 0, you just say it takes more than 1 second per ball). Tadaah! There’s your stratospheric cooling! As you look up, you can no longer see patches of sky (optic depth-saturation), does this mean adding even more trees will make no difference? Of course not. Now, if you could take a picture from above, you would be able to count the number of bouncing balls and verify that their number at any given time has increased compared to when there were fewer trees. The number of bouncing balls is the temperature (to be added to the black body). You could measure their number by measuring the sound coming from the forest.
    An alternative scenario that would be great class-room material is the kind of table with nails in it, through which you drop marbles and see where they end up and along which path (great material for chaos theory). Pin-ball tables are also great because they bounce so well and are very noisy. You could build in the possibility to add more obstacles on the way during the experiment. In this case, the louder noise would be an unforgettable demonstration of why the troposhere is warming.
    – If anyone can think of a three-dimensional version that’s as clear, it would be even better because it comes closer to reality.
    – Add animals, bush and gnomes and whichever forest attributes you like to the story to represent the other GHGs and especially the water vapor feedback. (more trees means more animals being hit by the balls…)

    So, I hope that’s understandable. Please send me your comments. Please use it. Those among you who are good at lego and building racing soapboxes, feel free to make compelling visual and auditive demonstrations of this idea.
    We need more of these: see Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock’s ‘greenhouse effect in a bottle’ on YouTube.
    I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this, but I’ve never seen it used anywhere, so sorry for ‘stealing’ the idea. I sincerely hope, this may contribute to pushing us in the right direction.

    Comment by Arne Perschel — 13 Jul 2010 @ 5:24 PM

  108. Kevin @2,

    WOW! That idea definitely qualifies as the most mind stretching concept I’ve read today.

    I have no idea one might build such a thing but what popped into my mind was something like a hyperlinked virtual tensegrity structure.

    Imagine, say a virtual mapping of a very high frequency information geodesic which might include all the information at the most advanced technical level.

    As you reduced the frequency of the virtual tensegrity of hyperlinks your virtual information geodesic would contain fewer and fewer information facets.

    Therefore your virtual information sphere would contain less complex information as you reduced the frequency of the virtual structure while still allowing you to perceive the basic underlying structure which in this case might be say a simpler underlying platonic solid such as the basic icosahedron, and would contain the most simple and elementary level information.

    Maybe you could have a user interface that allowed you to choose the frequency of the information geodesic that you wanted to access…

    Sorry, if I sound a bit like I might have gone off the deep end there for a moment >;^)

    Comment by Fred Magyar — 13 Jul 2010 @ 6:20 PM

  109. Mike, Gavin,

    My two cents/sense.

    Without attempting to tackle the myriad challenges of a Google contexting search engine for relevance I would say that in order to eliminate the arguments here on RC about too hard or too simple, just go ahead and use the ski symbols with a key of course in the about :)

    There will always be the guy that says well I didn’t think that was a diamond run, while someone else on the same run says they should have put double diamond on the top.

    A Climate Minute The Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 14 Jul 2010 @ 5:06 AM

  110. Re : #107

    I’m sorry but I would prefer if you were to make it more complicated. Otherwise your version would only be telling half the story (or less)

    I think that you need to make sure that your picture includes the main mechanisms and I am not sure that a single carrier picture and a single greenhouse mechanism can ever provide enough insight.

    1. Two distinct carriers for transport of energy , arising from short wave source from above (below in your picture) as well as long wave source from below (above in your picture).

    2. Also greenhouse gases involve two distinct physical mechanisms absorption and emission which are not necessarily of similar magnitude.

    3. There are not two but three effects to explain (a) global warming, (b) and (c) the rough vertical distribution of the warming/cooling of the atmosphere.

    Those are the ingredients. Sorry but this comment does not include the recipe.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 14 Jul 2010 @ 6:34 AM

  111. About climate-change communications — thought this article, posted this morning, may be of interest. It’s an interview with Penn State’s Michael Mann, who analyzes the origins and nature of the “Climategate” ordeal and attacks on his work.

    Here’s a link:

    Comment by Adam Smeltz — 14 Jul 2010 @ 10:35 AM

  112. re: #2 and #108

    A simple way to achieve might be a presentation with links on each page to, say, five versions of the same info. They could be designated in any number of ways, e.g., education levels: Young Learners, elementary, high school, college/uni, post-graduate. Or stars. Or… whatever.

    Viewers could choose their level at the beginning, but view any given page at any level by clicking on the key/symbols/whathaveyou.

    If this is already under discussion, sorry.

    Comment by ccpo — 14 Jul 2010 @ 11:20 AM

  113. Simplification requires omission, but omission provides opportunity. Starting with the simplest explanation provides the listener a chance to ask questions as his or her understanding grows. Adding detail increases the richness of the conversation. Now, you could be playing the why game with a four year old or a denialist, at which point you simply stop, or you can quickly reach saturation with some who doesn;t need more detail, at which point their eyes start to role, they look at their watch, and you invite them for a beer (or if you are already having a beer, you ask if they want another), or, and this is an ideal outcome, they get so interested they start reading Rabett Run (YMMV) and go on to graduate school.

    Comment by Eli Rabett — 14 Jul 2010 @ 12:11 PM

  114. #111–Thanks for the link!

    Methinks Dr. Mann is clearly correct. . .

    Comment by Kevin McKinney — 14 Jul 2010 @ 8:13 PM

  115. Re #111: Thanks for the link.
    Unfortunately, all four of the on-line comments at this point are negative. Looks like it needs some positivity.

    Comment by AlC — 14 Jul 2010 @ 9:34 PM

  116. I would like to see a list of the textbooks that Climate Science students use, at least. I would like to be able to take a degree in Climate Science free on line. Is that too much to ask for?

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 15 Jul 2010 @ 1:16 AM

  117. Re #110:
    Thanks. I’ll be trying to figure how that can be fit in. It seems like a tough job.
    I’m not sure whether I understand the three effects there are to explain from your comment.
    Is there something I missed?

    Comment by Arne Perschel — 15 Jul 2010 @ 4:54 AM

  118. EG,

    Start with Dennis Hartmann’s “Global Physical Climatology.” Next, John Houghton’s “The Physics of Atmospheres.” Finally, Grant W. Petty’s “A First Course in Atmospheric Radiation.” For all of them, of course, work the problems.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 15 Jul 2010 @ 6:22 AM

  119. Re #117 (#110 and #107)

    I’m not sure whether I understand the three effects

    [This may involve repetition.]
    You could isolate 3 or 4 effects.
    The usual argument is to carry out some sort of energy balance at the top of the atmosphere i.e. at the boundary of the climate system. (The bottom of your hill). Short wave energy goes in and long wave energy comes out. Start with equality > climate roughly steady. If for any reason the latter is reduced there is an imbalance, so the energy content within the atmosphere begins to rise > rise in average temperature.

    If the cause is the greenhouse effect the discussion would include the enhanced downward radiation from the greenhouse gases > warming of surface.

    Thats one or two effects to start with.

    What happens to the air? (at least two more effects) This is the subject of the previous thread about a “simple recipe”.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 15 Jul 2010 @ 8:43 AM

  120. Gavin or someone,

    Can you point me to annual time series for the IPCC projections for CO2 level?

    [Response: Here. – gavin]

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 15 Jul 2010 @ 10:13 AM

  121. I was going to respond to the “hell on Earth” comment by SecularAnimist, but it would have been another snarky post in which I blamed =true= alarmists for much of the present problem, in terms of providing additional fodder for denialist arguments. Hands and gloves, as it were.

    It seems that some kind of hyper-card stack of arguments and counter arguments might be useful. Many of the arguments are circular, in the sense that A, B and C are all rebutted, only to wind up back at A. If there was a way to detect that they’d “backtracked” on an argument, that could be pointed out.

    Comment by FurryCatHerder — 15 Jul 2010 @ 11:07 AM

  122. I’ve typed about five different comments for this thread, and each time deleted before posting, but here goes:

    This issue is a keystone in the current situation, but the conversation here has tended towards technical solutions (it’s spelled “t-e-c-h-n-i-c-a-l”, but it’s pronounced “geeky”).

    I myself am a computer geek, and I love complex, geeky… erm… I mean technical solutions, but I’m also a professional problem solver, and a key to solving problems is to focus on the goal, not the tools.

    Gavin said:

    Instead, I think we should be explicitly thinking about information levels and explicitly catering to different audiences with different needs and capabilities.

    The problem at hand has multiple facets. Certainly, finding a way to easily present the data simultaneously at multiple levels comes in, which is where all the techno-talk comes from. In truth, however, ordinary HTML links and open source wiki’s provide more than enough tools for a single site to do so.

    Cross-world solutions are desirable, but probably beyond our grasp. It would be a coup just to get Wikipedia to adopt such a convention on their pages, let alone to get something built into meta tags, search engines, browsers, and such. Look how long it’s taking just to get to HTML 5.

    Beyond this, however, is the problem of the extra work load in writing any explanation at four or five different levels, while simultaneously structuring all of the cross references and “level hops” (e.g. “Gee, I get this bit, but I don’t know much about latent heat, let me take a green circle on that and get up to speed before I continue”).

    But what really lies at the core of this hearkens to what the Great White Rabbit (i.e. Eli) just said (#113) [Please note that I think Eli is really cool, mostly because Eli speaks of himself in the third person… I’ve always imagined a rather fanciful conversation between Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Yogi Berra, and Eli… but I digress]:

    Simplification requires omission, but omission provides opportunity. Starting with the simplest explanation provides the listener a chance to ask questions as his or her understanding grows.

    Hyper links are the web’s way of programming in questions and their answers. But the important point here is that “simplification requires omission.”

    Specifically, writing at different levels is hard to do. Most people that understand a subject thoroughly actually can’t imagine comprehending (or mis-comprehending) it at a lower level, as a stepping stone to building knowledge. It rankles them to cut out pieces that they know are so important, but really are clouding the issue for the student. Geoff’s comment (110) is a good example of this (IMHO). For this reason, the best teachers are rarely the best, or even more than merely competent, in a field.

    This is why there are so few good teachers in the world. Teaching is about organizing and presenting thoughts, often wrong thoughts (see Lie-to-children), in just the right way, with just the right amount of omission, simplification and repetition, to advance the student. You can’t get them to the top of the mountain in one leap, and in fact sometimes they have to wander through a few valleys and swamps in order to get there. If you can’t accept that, you can’t help them.

    Anyway: my proposal is that it would be worthwhile to establish a climate science wiki. There are lots and lots of open source wiki software tools and even free hosting sites (, for example).

    To make such a wiki popular, it should as much as possible avoid any points of contention. Proven science only. Specifically highlight anything that is proposed or at all in doubt. People can argue about whether GHGs are affecting climate, but not about how a CO2 molecule absorbs electromagnetic radiation of the right frequency and translates that into vibrational energy (or, to grossly simplify, “how a molecule absorbs radiated heat”).

    The easy part will be setting up a predefined structure (i.e. rules!) to help atomize and level the presentation of concepts. The hard parts will be (a) enforcing that structure and (b) getting people with the talent to write down to the level needed.

    That and (c) finding enough people with enough time to get the project somewhere.

    I think it would be a worthwhile endeavor, though.

    Comment by Bob (Sphaerica) — 15 Jul 2010 @ 11:30 AM

  123. I don’t think writing at all levels simultaneously is necessarily implied. Just, if you’re writing a blog post, consider you audience. Carefully.

    Some have suggested opening with a sketch and filling in increasingly difficult material deeper into the article, which isn’t a bad idea either for some types of reporting.

    In any case, disciplining your messaging should have a cumulative effect in the long run. Having a comprehensive expert system available would be nice but isn’t the only option.

    As it stands, some seem to have been caught unawares by the appearance of the concept of optical depth in a basic summary. It seems to me that this speaks to part of the problem; that expert opinion is somewhat chaotic on what even constitutes the fundamentals for public consumption, let alone the level of technicallity.

    Comment by Radge Havers — 15 Jul 2010 @ 12:18 PM

  124. BPL: Thanks for the book list.

    RC: Link to the NOVA movie on GW or try to put it on the web. Demonstrate or simulate a lot of experiments. Laboratory is what is missing. Most people may not realize that science is all about experiments. They can’t understand that “it just doesn’t work the wrong way” because they can’t try it themselves. They have no way to create laboratories in their garages.

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 15 Jul 2010 @ 1:09 PM

  125. FCH wrote: “… another snarky post in which I blamed =true= alarmists for much of the present problem …”

    If by “true alarmist” you mean someone who is truly alarmed by that which he understands to be truly alarming, then that’s me, alright.

    In all honesty, I cannot think of one single thing about our ongoing GHG emissions, and the ongoing rapid and extreme warming that they have already caused and will continue to cause, and the ongoing rapid, extreme and obviously dangerous effects that warming is already having and will continue to have, that is NOT alarming.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 15 Jul 2010 @ 1:27 PM

  126. Black & blue, eh?

    I certainly find atmospheric physics distinctly difficult and am looking forward to reading Ray Pierrehumbert’s book on the subject.

    Comment by David B. Benson — 15 Jul 2010 @ 1:30 PM

  127. Gavin 120,


    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 15 Jul 2010 @ 1:32 PM

  128. Good point, as are many here. It strikes me that one web site cannot possibly accommodate all these levels of learners. Some who post here have taken it upon themselves to develop their own web sites that explain various parts of the science at various levels. This should be an inspiration and a goad to the rest of us. Each of us have a particular way of understanding and getting across info to a variety of audiences, and we all need to be trying to do so.

    This site could act as a kind of clearing house and vetting of web sites.

    Another point I tried to make in the previous thread was that the conversation following the posts can serve as a way for those who could not follow some aspect of the main post to ask questions or sort it out by following the discussion–as long as the discussion does not devolve into troll feeding/baiting, or doesn’t go into very tangential, technical details of little relevance to the main topic (both of these happen all too frequently, IMVHO).

    The following video has recently been pointed out to me as a good way to introduce a general audience to recent findings, one that goes a bit beyond the “Inconvenient Truth” level. I would be interested in what people thought of it:


    Comment by wili — 15 Jul 2010 @ 2:00 PM

  129. Re: 50
    Neal J. King says:
    11 July 2010 at 3:39 PM
    “…weakened (maybe destroyed) by the Climategate.”

    I see Climategate as more of a symptom or indicator of the state of the public, rather than a cause. Looking into depth at any of the accusations, there was nothing very interesting in any of them. Yet, the accusations fell on fertile ground with the public, and all sorts of meanings were attached to them.

    Hiding the decline? Please, one read through the original article (admittedly a bit of a technical wade) and you realize that the ‘decline’ that was ‘hidden’ was mentioned by Mann. Pointing it out to the reader is an odd way to ‘hide’ anything. Clearly, ‘trick’ and ‘hiding’ were just a turn of phrase, meaning about the same as if one of my fellow programmers looked at a solution and said, ‘Hey, that is a neat trick.’ The public that listened to the climategate accusations _wanted_ to believe them.

    Anecdote: I once heard it said of someone that they had an encyclopedic memory for Scientific American. In the circle it was used, that was intended, and understood, as an insult, meaning the person had a good breadth of knowledge, but quickly got over their head when real experts were engaged in conversation. At the time it struck me that, in other circles, that would have been a bit of a compliment.

    OK, the point is that I think people already gravitate to the media source that fits their level of skill. Sources like BBC might be a green, Scientific American a blue, Science Daily a black, and journals like Science and Nature a double black.

    I’m not sure that there is as much of a problem with how the accurate science is presented as there is with sources where incorrect science is presented and feedback loops are established amongst people who are reluctant to accept unpleasant realities, reinforcing their belief that there is nothing unpleasant in the reality around them. There are plenty of good information sources, this site included, available. However, once someone gets too far into the denier feedback loop, they start to say things like, “Don’t bother showing me any links to RealClimate blogs.”, as though you are part of some global conspiracy.

    How does one know the difference, and which is the more accurate reality? For me, if I can extend the physics I learned in college to include new info I’m presented in a consistent manner, then I judge that to be more believable than someone who ‘proves’ that climate change can’t be real by using concentration (ppm) in a formula that requires density (units/volume), and isn’t really applicable anyway. I have basic physics in my toolkit, but for someone who doesn’t, it’s a bewilderment.

    So, what’s the answer? I wonder if it is necessary not just to make information available, but also, to try to interject hard bits into the feedback mechanisms, to go to the denier sites and engage them by pointing out where what they are saying is not consistent with the known laws of physics. I’m not speaking of Gavin, Rasmus, et al; it doesn’t take their level of expertise to do this. However, I tried this a few times and did not perceive any good coming from it. ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.’ kept coming into my head. But, you never know; maybe someone still trying to figure it out got something out of it.

    Comment by Chris G — 15 Jul 2010 @ 2:02 PM

  130. Here at RealClimate information levels are handled well. You get everything from generalized statements to references to peer-reviewed papers and the pages of technical books.

    Comment by Septic Matthew — 15 Jul 2010 @ 2:54 PM

  131. It is natural to think that education is the key, after all, all of the scientists involved and the vast majority of people a realclimate in general have spent their lives in one form of educational setting or process or another.

    But most people aren’t looking to become climate experts or even “informed” they want to know what the current scientific thinking is on things and get confused when there is talk of “debate”.

    I suggest a three teared system to address this then.

    Tier One: Make simple definitive statements like “The Earth is Warming up because we are burning fossil fuels like coal and oil. The highest level scientists in the world agree this is happening and we need to take action to fix it now or horrible things are going to happen. Some bad, greedy people, often working directly or indirectly for the fossil fuel industry and others that simply lack the scientific data to see what is going on have been spreading lies and disinformation about this topic, but rest assured, the science is in, and it says Global warming is real.”

    Blunt, leaving no wiggle room and commanding. You don’t engage in debate with the crazy “preacher” on the corner, do you? Well, most people expect that no science discipline would spend years “debating” with the same type of people either. Just dismiss them and let them eat it.

    Tier two: The base level set here by RC. Tell people what is going on, add some of the math where needed to show how things work and let people that want to learn and figure thingsout.

    Tier three: Peer reviewed science track. Demand high level work and call people on it if they are wrong. SOP as far as I can tell.

    Basically, we are only missing the blatant tier one activities right now, but that is the tier that holds the largest audience!

    I suggest a group of Climate scientists, some of the top people, get together and put out such statements for the press regularly, perhaps even weekly. The loudest voice in the room gets heard as the authority if no one else speaks up just as loudly, even if what they are saying is obviously wrong.

    I think there are enough top Climate scientists here to do this, and it would take everyone involved minutes per week to do. I admit it is not the way things are commonly done, but the other side control this tier right now, and it seems we will all be better off if they did not.

    If anyone is interested in getting such a thing together, *I will help write the statements and get the word out to the press via releases.

    *Just so that no one thinks I am just trying to pass the buck.

    Comment by Dale Power — 15 Jul 2010 @ 7:02 PM

  132. 116: You might also look for the open university online courses, MIT has done a pretty good job of making notes available on a lot of technical subjects. Perusing the lists, and selecting interesting subjects is a great way to broaden one’s background. I’ve lost the link I had, but you should be able to find these sources. They aren’t perfect, printed class notes mainly, but compared to a hundred dollars or more per textbook, they are a great resource.

    Comment by Thomas — 15 Jul 2010 @ 8:45 PM

  133. Without RC some of those advanced climate based textbooks and very complex papers I have been reading over the past few years would not have been as understandable and the context of them would have been difficult to discern. I have a considerable chemistry, math and biology background, but the multi faceted ways in which all of these parts have been applied in interpreting data and designing the graphs would not have been known by me without heavy doses of reading RC. I also think that having the various introductions for various levels of technically minded (or not so minded) readers like beginning with the RC Wiki is a great idea. I never will like straight Wikipedia itself, but the RC Wiki helps the “average Joe,” and the more advanced sections of RC have helped me to see how and why a conclusion was made, say based on sediment findings, or why ARGO floats had to be recalibrated, or why even though some errors of late have been found the science is still grounded in near certainties…etc… these are areas that without more focus and technical understanding just are not going to be known by people just reading the NY Times or the Economistl; it just is not possible,unless one already has advanced degrees and knowledge directly of climate science (but then what would be the point?)

    At any rate, RC is already accomplishing its mission in my book and I second all of Chris’ thoughts in post 1 and post 4!

    Comment by Jacob Mack — 16 Jul 2010 @ 1:24 AM

  134. Gavin,

    off-topic but I am looking for the paper/graph of results which show that averaging over many IPCC models provides better skill than any single model on its own. If it helps, you showed it in your presentation here at UW-Madison when you visited not too long ago.

    Comment by Chris Colose — 16 Jul 2010 @ 1:36 AM

  135. See article below from Melanie Philips which is beyond parody. She is one of the most vociferous anti-AGW voices in the UK. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Could you guys not write an open letter to the Spectator and at least put her right on the science. She actually quotes the Gerlich paper!

    Keep up the good work!

    [edit – replaced quote with link]

    [Response: Never a truer word: “When people don’t want to admit certain unpleasant things about themselves, they project these unbearable characteristics onto other people instead.” but she has the sense all wrong. Oh dear. – gavin]

    Comment by Jim Ryan — 16 Jul 2010 @ 6:30 AM

  136. # 131

    I don’t agree with all of your suggestions in tier 1. Environmentalists may and perhaps should use appeals to authority such as

    The highest level scientists in the world agree this is happening

    but researchers and climatological experts are not the same as environmentalists (although there may be an overlap) even when writing tier 1.

    The authority to which researchers should always appeal is that of the evidence. Otherwise the quoted phrase sounds a bit like a choice between :

    (a) We are not the proper experts but are appealing to the opinions of yet another group of high level people.


    (b) We are the highest level experts in the world and so we do not need to provide you with anything except our conclusions.

    The result is a hole in the argument. By all means refer to Oreskes work on the weight of scientific opinion but that should not be at the expense of the discussion.

    Also excessively confident assertions (such as yours) which omit all uncertainty are pointless and are at variance with the IPPC summaries. People have got to get used to some uncertainty right from the start, its part of learning about science.

    I was once asked whether I agreed with AGW.I only had about 1 second so I said yes because of “very strong theory and a lot of observations”. This person knew the scientific meaning of the word theory.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 16 Jul 2010 @ 6:30 AM

  137. #135

    Yes, the Spectator has become one of the most extremist of the sources of climate misinformation in the UK. Last year they had Delingpole relaying and amplifying Ian Plimer. The trouble is that many people, including some good scientists, use it as source of ‘information’. There is also a multipier effect because reporters and journalists (e.g. on the BBC) read it. Most other weeklies are hard to buy in the UK so it appears to have almost no competition in many newsagents.

    Ian Plimer is famous for his ‘gish gallop’ (see wikipedia) technique. However Melanie Philips used it before him to dominate BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze.The Specatator article adopts another propagandist technique which is to pad out any references to science with lots of anecdotes about persecution and bad behaviour which are almost impossible to check. It might require a few more investigations by Muir Russell.

    But it is possible to discuss Gerlich and D. Tscheuschner. The so called up-market Spectator should be informed that it is making a fool of itself. Perhaps the best person to do this would be Ely Rabett. If G & T had been right about thermod. I suspect that many solid state devices such as bipolar transistors would have to be uninvented.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 16 Jul 2010 @ 9:40 AM


    Rasmus, Gavin, Jim and Mike and other busy ones here at RC, hats off, June 2010 4th consecutive month of all time global warm temperatures is in a way proving you very right. With the other ‘anti science’ like contrarians a sleep at the switch of reason, not laughable but at best incapable of seeing reality as it storms in front of them. Now is the time to reason some more in a simplified way:

    2010 warmest in history records, does that mean “Global cooling”? Does it mean “the greatest hoax in history” is still being perpetuated?

    Comes a time when contrarians must simply attack some other conspiring
    irrational topic. Because this one is becoming more and more proven. The truth
    is out there, errr, your house, right now, no need to go any further…

    Comment by wayne davidson — 16 Jul 2010 @ 10:49 AM

  139. Why is this a difficult story to convey? Ignoring denialists, at its heart is the contention that there are enough individuals on this planet using sufficient fossil fuels that their collective action over decades can change – has measurably and (opinion here) detrimentally changed – the energy balance of the planet.

    The pace of change is, on an individual level, a barely detectable temperature change per lifetime. The scientific view that a change of 0.05C change per decade is a potentially catastrophic is a tough sell to most individuals, particularly in regions where snow and ice are still annual events.

    Most of this thread discusses how hard or how easy should be the articles describing why the situation is dire. The link between cause and detrimental effect is long and many-branched.

    By analogy, consider why does an obese person makes the choice not modify his or her lifestyle to minimize the risk of obesity-related disease, such as heart failure or diabetes. Exercise and diet modification are hard choices to make.

    The current world-wide model of adult behavior is to strive to command more resource and to pass that command on to the progeny. The proposed replacement model for adult behavior is to minimize resource consumption now to maximize resource available to the progeny later — MUCH later.

    Austerity is a tough sell.

    Comment by Jerry — 16 Jul 2010 @ 2:41 PM

  140. Jerry wrote: “Austerity is a tough sell.”

    Abundant, endless, free wind and solar energy is not a tough sell.

    Which is exactly why those who profit to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars PER DAY from perpetuating the use of fossil fuels falsely claim that eliminating the use of their products means “austerity”.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 16 Jul 2010 @ 3:39 PM

  141. RE: #136:

    You are correct, when dealing with people that have time and desire to learn more about what you are saying. But then you have tiers two and even three available for them for that.

    So, no holes in the argument.

    What is happening right now is simply this: For the most part, those that have a sciences background (except Geologists for some reason?) understand the data and you don’t have these silly arguments with them over what is what.

    Those that don’t have the science already are made up of those that don’t want to be bothered and those that are striving to learn it. The later group is about 2-10% though. (Based on a guess, so take the numbers for what they are worth to you!) The rest of the people, which is still the majority of all people, just needs to know what to think and who to believe.

    WE have all been conditioned to except being told what reality is by others and if we try to change that system now, people will be confused.

    Think about how a teacher would instruct an Elementary School class if they did not want to speak down to them, but also had to impress a point rapidly.

    That is about the “base” level of what people care to hear.

    A few raw facts, stated over and over and don’t leave room for the Oil and coal companies to cast doubt.

    I believe very strongly that this is the area where communications have broken down for climate scientists. They assume that everyone is willing to learn, and not learning means they can’t be reached. Both are false ideas.

    Tier two is for those (like most of us here?) that want more information.

    It is different than what has been being done, possibly scary, as it seems too bold and forward, but scholarly hasn’t been working well lately due to the loud and bold opposition.

    Comment by Dale Power — 16 Jul 2010 @ 6:57 PM

  142. Chris Colose (#134):

    James Annan’s theoretical thoughts on the subject of your question is on his blog, e.g.

    Comment by Kooiti Masuda — 16 Jul 2010 @ 8:03 PM

  143. Yes, another record month. And now the National Academy of Science has come out with a new, dire report (topic of a future thread at realclimate?).

    @139 “Austerity is a hard sell”

    Not for these folks:

    On another front, I have a atmospheric chemistry question: A GHG like methane with positively charged hydrogen pointing out everywhere is likely to form weak bonds with, for example O2. (If I am way off here, please let me know.)

    Do these weak bonds play any role in absorbing and emitting heat waves the way the strong bonds between the carbon and the hydrogen do in the methane atom?

    (Apologies ahead of time if this is just totally mindlessly stupid in some basic way that I missed. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve made a bone-headed fool of myself very publicly.)

    Comment by wili — 16 Jul 2010 @ 9:16 PM

  144. social scientists working on it:

    lawyers working on it

    Be sure to go to
    every day and make a comment.

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 16 Jul 2010 @ 11:42 PM

  145. I think that RC generally does a great job of clarifying ideas to a relatively narrow audience. “Narrow” in the sense that most seem to be already well informed and prepared to follow the rules of scientific discourse. As is the nature of blogs, a number of thought streams emerge, but, in general, the knowledge is cumulative in that later contributions heed and build on earlier ones- that’s “science”.

    However, I feel that this particular effort is below par. Gavin’s issue seems clear enough to me, and he ended with:

    “So how should we move forward? Can we institute a some kind of information level meta-tagging that would eventually be recognised by Google? (does that even matter)? Does such a system exist already?”

    This seemed to be a trigger for almost everybody to throw in their two cent’s worth on the issue of science communication, with little heed to Gavin’s question and little or no cumulation of knowledge on the subject.

    I suspect that this means that the subject is more difficult than most people realise. As I indicated in #59 above, I have found very little evidence of the issue being addressed systematically by educationists. Gavin posits that there could be “levels”. But what do these levels look like? How can we construct them, given a mass of information on a topic? How can we analyse an effort at explaining a concept and systematically identify flaws in the effort? The emphasis here is on “systematic”- a coherent and logically consistent framework, with some axiomatic basis.

    By the look of it, resolving this problem is beyond the scope of the blogosphere and needs to be handed to a team comprising logicians, linguists, psychologists and some scientists, who deconstruct a range of presentations of concepts and develop a framework that can be operationalised.

    And while we are at it, maybe we can come up with a similar system for dealing with the Plimers of this world- they are simply not playing by the rules of modern empirical discourse. They are preying on the weakness afforded by its open-ness and the tacit assumption that everybody who is participating is genuinely interested in the “truth”- ie a consensual “public knowledge, as John Ziman called it.

    Comment by Adjunct Professor John Barker — 17 Jul 2010 @ 3:18 AM

  146. #141 (#137 and #131)

    WE have all been conditioned to except being told what reality is by others and if we try to change that system now, people will be confused.

    My impression from speaking to people is that they are already confused. Most of them have been exposed and remembered the tier 1 proposals to which I objected in #136. But they have more frequently read about a rival reality dished out by the media. They have to be helped to choose between these versions on a rational basis; reading ex cathedra pronouncements has just left them free to follow their prejudices.

    Consider the success of Channel 4’s Swindle. This deceitful program owed much of its success to the way it asked for the evidence apparently for the first time . The lay public who had been starved of evidence, and lapped up the ‘information’ in spite of the fact that it had been poisoned. It started with Nigel Calder’s “you have been told lies” and went on from there.

    An analagous problem exists with the Russel Muir report. ‘Tier 1’ might consist of some headlines. It might perhaps have been backed up by authority e.g. ‘senior civil servant + distingushed advisors have concluded…’ Its to easy to cancel this by unsubstantiated accusations of whitewash. After all whitewash has occured in the UK over miscarriages of justice i.e. in a completely different area. So once again people are choosing their reality on the basis of prejudice and some experience of politics. It may not be impossible to deal with. How about considering the evidence ? That where RC has been so helpful.

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 17 Jul 2010 @ 5:36 AM

  147. Hi. I’d like to make a suggestion, if I may. Being part of category 3, might I ask for more pictures? This is a serious request. I’ve enough science background to understand everything but the higher math. I also have a very visual imagination; I “see” things to understand them. If I can’t “see” something, I don’t understand it. That’s personal. It’s also the fact that the eyes give humans the bulk of all information about the world. Eyes are far and away our most sophisticated sense organ, with an amazing amount of processing ability devoted to their inputs.

    So I’m very serious about pictures. For example, there’s an iconic energy balance diagram that shows a very simplified breakdown of incoming and outgoing energy. That would be an excellent starting point for a multi-layer explanation of the greenhouse effect, based on a series of related, very similar diagrams of lesser and greater depth. Use a lecturer/text and include math, in the last minutes of each segment/in sidebars, Start the science and math out at basic and go up to the key equations used to create the models.

    There are a number of ways you could show increasing complexity in this energy in-energy out example.. Two obvious ones are splitting the main flows into ever-finer lines visual by visual, and zeroing in on specific spots in the general flow, expanding and expounding on each particular location, more and more, each with its own series of visuals. This, in microcosm, seems to me to be the sort of thing you are striving for, collectively. But who’s to do it? Clearly, the people that do the real work should only vet something like this.

    I’m not trying to be presumptuous [even if I am succeeding] and I’m not trying to run on too much, so I won’t flesh out a possible training program. But my other hat at work was Automation guy. Guess I was good enough, got sent all over the Northeast US to learn and teach. I could understand and translate between “tech” [an early form of modern “geek”] and “normal/human”, use the info to design training classes complete with teacher and student course materials [in an industrial setting], then give the classes, from 1 hour intros to 3 weeks with the new crews that would run 70 foot long machines. [And yes, I did the same for my office, then headed up that local operation, so I did “suffer the consequences” of my playing expert. Wouldn’t have it any other way.]

    Anyway, there’s lot’s more, yadda, yadda, I did good, yadda, yadda, and the point is there are people like me who can do the same for the science of climate change. You don’t want scientists for this, you want interpreters, good interfaces between science and citizen, middlemen. They will [need to] be creating, if not teaching, a science course and a math course in miniature. Maybe you get a few good presenters to read the script convincingly for online or visual media publication.

    There is much that can be done, but I think some of the emphasis is wrong. You need to simplify to nothing, and you need to complexify up to where you can safely refer the student [for they will be at this level of interest and ability] to specific literature [*free* and easily available], which means you will be presenting things on levels up to graduate, but just barely touching it. I believe you’d want a basic undergrad-level exposition for your top level. Still, you’d want a basic info section, being the bulk of each segment, right up front, with complexities relegated to the [skippable] back of each segment.

    I’d put a specific controversies section right before the last – math – section, and only answer half of the controversies in that section. Answer the other half in the next level up’s basic info. Always make plain you are going from simple to complex, step by step, both with and without math. Be heavy on visuals, and work the initial visual to death, repeating it in greater of lesser detail in every section. People like easy and simple, they like explanatory pictures, they love controversy, and they like to be able to dodge the math. Cartoony pix, bright colors, absolute truth* with error bars – *as best we know it.

    People in the US seem to have lost faith in a lot of “certainties” [though there is no such thing, and to an extent, questioning is good]; one is the concept that science exists to help people. With that went the aura of “rightness” that science had, and does not now seem to have any more. For successful methods that work to educate people about science, you have to restore the general populace’s sense that scientists are working for the benefit of society, and know what they are doing, or at least have a much better chance of knowing what they are doing than non-scientists who guess at things.

    To restore that sense, I suspect they must be given a full dose of what makes science science. Show what, not merely who, but what scientists are today, and how science got to this stage, using climate science as the viewpoint. That means chunks of the history, showing the confusion and warts as well as the successes. Illustrative history, probably written with 5th grade level English, telling a series of entertaining stories about the people and their challenges. While telling stories about people, it can explain the scientific method, the basic ideas, and the arguments used to advance or deny the ideas of global warming, as a companion text.

    Basically what I’m saying, I think, is that science must show what it means to be scientific professionals, and what “Big Science” really is, which is not a handful of isolated geniuses working alone and making great discoveries, but thousands and tens and hundreds of thousands of people all doing bits of the work. Skeptics seem to believe all of global warming is created by a handful of people who control like puppets a hundred or two morons who are the regular scientists, ie: people who couldn’t make it in the real world. You need to flex science’s muscles, repeatedly, until the general population gets the message that there is no balance, there are not 2 equivalent sides…

    Well, I’ve probably gone on way too much. Hope some of this makes sense. Sorry I can’t comment usefully on Gavin’s idea of “tagging”. I looked at doing it in the field of chess variants, and quickly realized something like that is a job for a trained and dedicated group. I’ll settle for good pictures and a few general tags – and wish for what Gavin wants.


    Comment by Joe Joyce — 17 Jul 2010 @ 9:18 AM

  148. I commend to your attention this past Thursday’s broadcast of the radio program On Point, entitled “Heat Waves: The New Normal?” in which host Tom Ashbrook interviewed Noah Diffenbaugh of Stanford University, the lead author of a new study which found that “exceptionally long heat waves and other hot events could become commonplace in the United States in the next 30 years … posing serious risks to agriculture and human health.”

    Guests on the program were:

    Noah Diffenbaugh, author of a new study that says heat waves could become commonplace by 2039, with devastating consequences. He is an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

    Jonathan Patz, professor of environmental studies and population health sciences at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He studies the impact of climate change on public health.

    Bill Easterling, dean of the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. He is an economic geographer and climatologist who studies the impact of climate change on agriculture.

    Bjorn Lomborg, academic and environmental writer. He is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, which establishes priorities for advancing global welfare. His 2007 book is “Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming.”

    In my opinion, there are plenty of examples of both good and bad science communication by Professor Diffenbaugh.

    On the whole, he seemed focused on a rather dispassionate and technical approach to communicating the scientific content of his study to a lay audience — which struck me as reminiscent of the RealClimate approach — and this he did fairly well.

    With one exception — which prompts me to appeal once again to all of you scientists who are trying to communicate about AGW with the American public: PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE give temperatures in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius. I know that C is the scientific standard. But ordinary Americans think of — viscerally — the weather in degrees F.

    When Diffenbaugh talks about a “2 degree” temperature increase (without even stating whether he means C or F), his US audience is thinking of how a 2 degree F temperature change feels, and not how a 3.6 degree F temperature increase feels, which is what he’s actually talking about.

    Aside from that, I found two problems with Diffenbaugh’s presentation:

    First, he seemed reluctant to express any urgency or — dare I say it — alarm — about his findings (although Patz and Easterling did, when they spoke to the impacts on health and agriculture).

    Second, just before Ashbrook introduced Lomborg, he asked Diffenbaugh a question about what could and should be done. Diffenbaugh took a lot of words to very reluctantly express a general opinion that something should be done — and then concluded with a HORRIBLE message that dealing with AGW would have great costs, and many “difficult” trade-offs, and thus “hard decisions” about what to do.

    Which was certainly a nice lead-in to Lomborg, but it is absolutely NOT true, and is in fact nothing more than obstructionist propaganda.

    The decisions are not “hard”, the so-called “trade-off” of the fossil fuel corporations’ billion-dollars-a-day profits for a sustainable clean energy economy and the survival of human civilization is not “difficult”, the costs of dealing with AGW are far exceeded by the (potentially catastrophic) costs of not doing so, and indeed the transition to a hyper-efficient renewable energy & organic agriculture economy is not only the solution to AGW but the foundation of the New Industrial Revolution of the 21st Century and sustainable prosperity for all humanity.

    So, very unhelpful messaging from Prof. Diffenbaugh there — on a subject that is well outside his area of expertise. (I wonder how many climate scientists who know better than to fall for fossil fuel corporation propaganda about climate science, also know little enough about efficiency and renewable energy technologies that they easily fall for fossil fuel corporation propaganda about “we can’t survive with wind and solar alone” etc).

    As for Lomborg, I was sufficiently dismayed by that comment from Diffenbaugh, and sufficiently disinclined to listen to Lomborg’s predictable, scripted, deliberate lies, that I turned off the radio at that point.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 17 Jul 2010 @ 10:53 AM

  149. SecularAnimist writes:
    “Diffenbaugh took a lot of words to very reluctantly express a general opinion that something should be done — and then concluded with a HORRIBLE message that dealing with AGW would have great costs, and many “difficult” trade-offs, and thus “hard decisions” about what to do.”

    Dealing with global warming will have large costs and trade offs. His assessment was fair.

    Comment by EL — 17 Jul 2010 @ 3:53 PM

  150. The subject is difficult. On the other hand, to take the simplest approach, the RC team could get together over lunch, sketch out some guidelines for categorizing entries, and then start marking posts that afternoon. Refinements would be an on-going project. If true to form, commenters would not be shy about expressing themselves on the subject of the actual helpfulness of markers.

    Speaking generally, if the idea is a good one and would meet a real need, it’s worth exploring a bit before giving up in despair over the magnitude of an imagined perfect vision. I haven’t really seen any compelling arguments that it’s not a good idea. There does seem to be a tendency in some of the comments to defend the status quo, as though threatened by the prospect of newbies who might boot-up faster with better organized information than their predecessors. If the present system works for you, great! This may not be so for everybody. Certainly a screw-you-I-got-mine attitude won’t win any friends in most circles and just sucks the life out of a room.

    Comment by Radge Havers — 17 Jul 2010 @ 5:24 PM

  151. First, thank you Real Climate for all the wonderful work you’ve done. I am a medical practitioner and have always had an interest in science and astronomy, well outside the medical field – I feel this has been a great help to me in understanding global warming science, in a basic but robust way. But as I posted earlier, such training doesn’t always bring enlightenment as one of the worst global warming deniers I know is a medical colleague.

    I live in New Zealand. I can reasonably confidently state that in the last five years, at least, on either of the two major local broadcasting channels, TV1 and TV3 (this includes a nominally national programme, partially tax-payer funded, who’s charter is supposed to ensure coverage of important social issues), there has not been a single programme, documentary, discussion or debate on global warming. This five years represents nearly 20,000 hours of prime time programming for these two channels, and during that time not a single hour on the single most important environmental and social problem facing us all.

    Sorry, I need to correct the above paragraph, there was one documentary broadcast on TV3 about two years ago, yep, you’ve guessed it – “The Great Global Warming Swindle”! I wrote to the company complaining about this wilfulness but I wasn’t even given the courtesy of a reply.

    It is also well accepted that at least 70% of the population depend on television for the news and current affairs information. So 70% of the New Zealand public’s understanding of global warming comes from a few news snippets, and one hour of global warming contrarianism.

    There has to be reason why global warming is off the agenda for our main broadcasters’ examination – the most obvious is that at least one third of peak-time advertising revenue is car/road/oil related. I am cynical enough to believe that these two broadcasting companies have promised these advertisers never to show a documentary or discussion on global warming so as to maximise their revenue.

    I can add that is my personal experience that the majority of New Zealanders believe global warming is something to do with the ozone hole.

    Our local newspaper, The Dominion Post, published in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is staunchly and proactively anti-global warming. Editorials regularly appear downplaying the science of global warming, downplaying New Zealand’s contribution to global warming, and the paper loses no opportunity to publish global warming doubting or undermining articles, often sourced from “The Times” in London.

    New Zealand’s present government, whilst it has introduced a watered-down ETS legislation, has shown its contempt for global warming by pressing on with oil exploration and eyeing our vast brown coal/lignite reserves for development. A home insulation scheme was scrapped, only to be reinstated, partially, due to protest. Instructions by the previous administration for new electricity generation by renewables only was scrapped. Several of the ministers in cabinet are known as global warming sceptics/deniers.

    In the face of these antipathetical established and powerful vested commercial interests, this discussion about how to pitch the science is moot, to say the least. Not that it shouldn’t happen, no, I appreciate this discussion. But surely science is also about putting things in their true perspective, which is what I am trying to do here.

    Do I leave my posting here, loose-ended, or do I go on to indicate what I think we could do about it? If the latter, I can only repeat what I’ve stated before, that I don’t think there is, or will be an answer, that we will eventually employ all the fossil fuel resources that the planet has endowed us with – the planet will obviously survive, so will humanity, but there will be such massive changes to both that, as we stand now, it will be impossible to predict them.

    Comment by John Monro — 17 Jul 2010 @ 5:36 PM

  152. 151 Dr John Monro: Please read “Storms of My Grandchildren” by James Hansen all the way to the end. There are lots of other books I could list that say the same thing. Your last sentence “the planet will obviously survive, so will humanity” is false.

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 17 Jul 2010 @ 8:31 PM

  153. Edward, thank you for your input. I haven’t read the book you reference. Perhaps in view of New Zealand’s eagerness for ignorance, perhaps I’ll have difficulty sourcing a copy here, but I will try to get hold of one. Of course, I much respect James Hansen as the doyen of climate scientists researching global warming, as I also respect James Lovelock, who is almost apocalyptic in regard to our possible future. I think it is possible to alarmed about global warming, without necessarily subscribing to the most extreme scenarios. That doesn’t of course mean they are wrong, how would I know, hence my last comment about massive changes and the impossibility of predicting exactly what they would be. My relative sanguine prognosis for the planet is that complicated life has survived in one form or another for at least 600 million years, despite the most massive and extreme assaults of nature and climate during this time; I feel quite confident it will survive our feeble attempts to kill it. In addition, I believe our species to be adaptable enough to survive, but there’s an enormous difference between surviving and prospering, which I thought I made clear in my posting. If James Hansen is predicting the extinction of the human race, or indeed the extinction of life on this planet, he’s making claims which to me sound extreme, and if so, extreme claims need extreme evidence. Is he able to provide it? Are others posting here who may have read “Storms of My Grandchildren” able to comment?

    Comment by John Monro — 18 Jul 2010 @ 1:00 AM

  154. OT – New ‘Climate Minute’ video: The Natural Cycle

    This was a challenge due to a six week delay in production because I could not seem to get off the road and back to work and the fact that squeezing enough pertinent and contextually relevant info into 60 seconds to paint a clear picture was aided by a lot more input from scientists, which helped the production tremendously.

    I added labels and arrows to highlight points on graphs in the narration flow so that those points would stand out as well.

    I hope you like it. Please feel free to embed and share.

    A Climate MinuteThe Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 18 Jul 2010 @ 3:36 AM

  155. #148 SecularAnimist

    I certainly appreciate your considerations. If it helps to understand the context from the scientific perspective regarding how to state things, here is my perspective on that: they tend to discuss from their area of expertise for good reason. It may be advantageous to speak some opinion perspective as they did in the talk, but with appropriate caveats regarding such perspective. I think that Diffenbaugh mentioning difficult trade offs and had decisions is a fair way for a scientists to warn policy makers and the public that there will be costs associated with this.

    Scientists need to be protective of what they say for good reason as the EAU/CRU situation clearly illustrated. But even before that, they have always been cautions to not overreach outside of expertise for good reason. By overreaching, they could erode actual confidence (vs. perceived confidence) in opinion vs. science.

    This is precisely what we have seen Pielke Sr., Svensmark and others do. These types of overreaching in claims outside of the science is actually what erodes confidence in the science.

    I would say that it is fine for scientists to ring in on their perspective as long as they let people know that it is an opinion based on their view and understanding.

    Policy is a tricky area. Stepping into it can easily get mud on your shoes or gum that is even harder to clean off. I would love it if more scientists would sign the petition. But they won’t until they have a good understanding of how important it is. Some have though and they have obviously reviewed the available policies and decided this is a good direction to go.

    It takes time though. One scientist friend of mine and I have had several talks over three years about the policy issue and it was only this year that he said I really am starting to like Hansens approach with Fee & Dividend.

    I do believe it is important for scientists to protect their reputations via integrity on the science and in their perspectives. Something that in my opinion, Pielke Sr. and Svensmark and those in that crowd have clearly neglected. In the end, they have only tarnished their own reputations in the more important world of integrity of science. S. Fred Singer, John Christy, Ian Plimer, Richard Lindzen and a handful of others in the public eye have also fallen into this trap (that of making statements beyond what the science shows that can mislead the public about what the science says.). This is a serious risk to the integrity of those I consider scientists that have integrity form this perspective.

    As to Bjorn Lomborg, he has dug himself a hole also that in order for him to attempt to sound credible he has to dance around carefully. His message is evolving even if only so slightly. In this interview he did not concentrate on other priorities but rather said people should not use scary talking points. The moderator did a good job of saying but if you agree the data is good and as the scientists say based on the study that we will be getting all these heat waves, well that sounds scary. Point being, why shouldn’t scary things be called scary?

    Bjorn of course went off onto another tangent at that time. I liked the way the moderator just cut him off in the end and faded out his microphone.

    Bjorns latest red herrings include:

    – Missing the context of economics and infrastructure and ambiguously uses the act of increased precipitation

    – more heat deaths, but fewer cold deaths showing that he does not understand existing infrastructure based on relative climate of the Holocence.

    – ‘not making light of’ but continues to say we need to discuss…

    – continued reliance on avoiding alarmist talk ‘scary’ points, which of course gets him on right wing talk shows like Glenn Beck etc.

    He truly is a master of ambiguity pertaining to the relevant contexts.

    A Climate Minute The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 18 Jul 2010 @ 3:47 AM

  156. Defensive writing and simplifications.

    Simplification is a necessary part of education. The version of calculus to which children are exposed is quite different from the ‘Real Analysis’ *, or some such, which maths undergraduates receive.

    The trouble comes when having to write defensively. Keep in mind that the part of anti-science propaganda which is not outright deception often consists of picking holes in simplified arguments as if the propagandists are revealing a blunder or fraud.

    This came up with Al Gore’s slideshow but also with the nonsensical paper disproving the natural greenhouse mechanism (#135,#137).

    The science in that paper might be worthless but the paper provides a lesson in propaganda. In addition to their revision of the 2nd law of thermodynamics,my version (v.4) of their document includes a ‘review’ of discussions in text books and papers. It could almost be called a review of simplified explanations. Of course the paper is not really being addressed to colleagues but to the lay audience who will receive it via the echo chamber. The trick is to suggest that these simplications are the whole story.

    For example, they spend many pages reminding us of the well known fact that the glass greenhouse is an inaccurate analogy to the atmospheric version, in order to hide the truth that they themselves use it as an analogy. Another example is how they jeer at the phrase “infra red radiation will be trapped”. The ‘scientific correspondent’ of the Spectator must have been completely won over.
    * Even this was once a controversial area in the 1930’s (see p.250 of Corrupted Science by John Grant)

    Comment by Geoff Wexler — 18 Jul 2010 @ 6:35 AM

  157. Comment 19 spoke for me when it congratulated you on “pitching
    climate science at the level I need – that of a university educated
    scientist” (albeit one no trained in earth sciences). I know of no other
    source that does this, and I find it extremely helpful. However, the
    posting makes a good case for grading submissions, perhaps following the
    widely recognized symbols found on ski slopes. Perhaps these could be
    ranged in by associating them with the levels of detail that would be
    expected in school: green for high school or below; blue for undergraduate
    college; black for graduate school and double black for rough equivalence
    with journal articles. Your upper level postings do not simply duplicate
    journal articles, because they digest and discuss the material as a (very)
    great convenience for readers.
    An implied criticism of the original posting was that it was
    pitched beyond the comprehension of the man-on-the-street. This is a fair
    critique, but those of use who are a little beyond that stage need
    information too, and perhaps we help nudge the general populace forward
    when we provide informal endorsements of climate change science when
    talking to Aunt Bessie over Christmas dinner.

    Comment by Gordon — 18 Jul 2010 @ 10:05 AM

  158. I have always thought that a scientific article for the general public should be in three sections;

    1. The “executive summary” that says what the technical parts of the
    article say in an 8th-grade vocabulary level and in preferably less than
    2000 words, no maths at all unless you cannot make rational sense without

    2. The deeper dive for the educated layperson, use the real words for
    things, present basic formulas, perhaps show an example of a specific case
    worked out, note where the basic formulas are approximations, but keep the
    maths to high school algebra.

    3. The level for the professional non-specialist. Show the whole
    exposition, use calculus and other higher math, but also explain what the
    equations mean as you do so.

    In this way such articles can be a guide for those who are just teaching
    themselves a subject, and will leave almost nobody behind.

    Comment by Ben — 18 Jul 2010 @ 10:26 AM

  159. #145 John Barker calls for educationists, psychologists and other experts to give us a format and difficulty-level system that will be educational and persuasive. Well, one can dream. What little science of factual persuasion I know of is not very encouraging:

    In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

    As many commentators have mentioned (#19, #47, #53, #55, #89, #129, #151) ordinary ignorance is not the main problem here. Motivated reasoning and outright lies (in that order, IMHO – call me a wild optimist) are the problem.

    In the spirit of using available scientific knowledge when it comes to facts and persuasion, this bit of the above-mentioned article is important:

    There are also some cases where directness works. Kuklinski’s welfare study suggested that people will actually update their beliefs if you hit them “between the eyes” with bluntly presented, objective facts that contradict their preconceived ideas. He asked one group of participants what percentage of its budget they believed the federal government spent on welfare, and what percentage they believed the government should spend. Another group was given the same questions, but the second group was immediately told the correct percentage the government spends on welfare (1 percent). They were then asked, with that in mind, what the government should spend. Regardless of how wrong they had been before receiving the information, the second group indeed adjusted their answer to reflect the correct fact.

    Finally, though I have no psychological or educational experiments to prove its effectiveness, I still think the many suggestions to take advantage of html format are well taken. As others have pointed out, there is no need to write different versions for different levels. Using popups, the html spoiler function and so on, the very same “executive summary” can become the “double diamond course” by clicking open more explanatory material. The work can be crowdsourced, except for the final review (#54).

    Comment by Paul T — 18 Jul 2010 @ 11:30 AM

  160. The last para of the article on “the science of factual persuasion” to which Paul T #159 refers summarizes our dilemma:

    “Fast-talking political pundits have ascended to the realm of highly lucrative popular entertainment, while professional fact-checking operations languish in the dungeons of wonkery.”

    We have got to face the fact that “the dungeons of wonkery” are our natural habitat. But we can take comfort that Socrates and Galileo are our spiritual compatriots in the dungeon. “Eppur se muove”- “And yet it turns”, said Galileo. It took his opponents 350 years to let him out of the basement.

    In the case of global warming, we haven’t got 350 years to win over the the populace. Galileo didn’t need that time, either- he presented the verifiable facts and ordinary people used them and integrated them into their daily life. We used his science to get to the moon before the naysayers got with the program.

    The point that I’m making is that science is our product and it’s a good one. It is pointless to abandon it simply because some people have been so conditioned into some fear-based ideology or another that they only need “trigger words” to make them responds like Pavlov’s dogs. That’s why Socrates said “don’t repeat the lie”- if people are mentally entrenched any discourse only entrenches them more.

    So what should we do? Do what we do best- science. But we should nurture those people who are amenable to accepting our product, not further antagonise those who are resistant. Our best clues to a marketing strategy come from Everett Rogers seminal book “The Diffusion of Innovations”. In order of idea acceptance, we have “lead users”- inventors, innovators and early adopters, “major market segment”- ordinary people who respond sensibly to clear demonstrations, and “laggards and luddites”- people who will only adopt an idea under coercion. Thios latter group only respond when they feel the heat- not when they see the light.

    We need to figure out where we are on the diffusion spectrum for the “innovation” of the idea of climate change. I would guess that we are still really at the lead user stage- and trying to take on the laggards and luddites. We should be focussing on the front edge of the major market segment- by using lead users who relate to that group. The major market segment essentially comprises sensible people who are simply ignorant of our product and won’t adopt it until they are convinced- but they are open to conviction- they do respond to facts and reason if they are presented in a language that they uderstand.

    Which brings us back to Gavin’s call for some systematic way of getting our message to an amenable market. Can we apply our scientific abilities to the methodology of presenting science. I think that we can. A lot of the basic information is there.

    …and we shouldn’t be distracted by the fast-talking, highly paid laggards.

    Comment by Adjunct Professor John Barker — 18 Jul 2010 @ 6:49 PM

  161. “As many commentators have mentioned (#19, #47, #53, #55, #89, #129, #151) ordinary ignorance is not the main problem here. Motivated reasoning and outright lies (in that order, IMHO – call me a wild optimist) are the problem.”

    As far as the general population is concerned, I think ignorance is the largest factor. As far as decision makers who rule the general population, I agree with you.

    I think there is a general push from governments to find a new role for science in policy making. Instead of making policy based upon science, governments want to make the policy and find science to support it while ignoring science with inconvenient evidence. Such manipulations are easy to perform when the population is ignorant of the topics.

    Information needs to be concentrated for engineering and research backgrounds so that people with these backgrounds are encouraged to find solutions.
    Information needs to be concentrated for the general population so that they can put political pressure onto governments.

    I think both audiences need to be targeted, and they will need to be targeted separately. If both audiences are targeted within one document, both will walk away frustrated. The layman will be frustrated from the technical wording, and the tech will be frustrated with the layman wording.

    Comment by EL — 18 Jul 2010 @ 11:06 PM

  162. I agree with those who want to protect RC’s reputation and the things that make it the success that it is, easy access to top notch, working scientists and high quality, relatively sophisticated information — that (thankfully) loads into your browser rapidly without a lot of junk.

    Lacking expertise and stats to back my opinion, it does appear that RC sits pretty much at the apex of climate sites. That gives it a greater megaphone and makes it a magnet for people of all levels. I’ve seen on other blogs that commenters routinely refer people here to get the straight story. It makes for a heavier responsibility, a unique opportunity to inform, and no doubt a greater burden. In that respect, I suppose RC could become a victim of its own success.

    I would think labeling articles by level would be a simple handle for busy readers skimming over entries and an assist to writers seeking ways to better interact with their diverse readership.

    Comment by Radge Havers — 19 Jul 2010 @ 11:35 AM

  163. SecularAnimist @ 16 July 2010 at 3:39 PM (#140) refers to

    “Abundant, endless, free wind and solar energy”.

    Those energy sources are “free” in the same sense that coal and oil are free. Namely, in the sense that they are (more or less) all around us, and we need only take certain steps to make use of them, and those steps include, but are not limited to, gigantic engineering projects, use of considerable auxiliary resources (for example water), societal agreement on costs and benefits, with concomitant immensely complex economic structures replete with unpredictable feedbacks.

    The thinking reader will have noticed by now that the sense in which any of these resourcs are free is a vacuous sense. Most of the readership here got over this hump a long time ago, and it’s time you did too.

    The main difference between fossil fuels and various forms of solar energy including wind, besides the obvious sustainability problem, is that solar energy is very diffuse, and therefore extremely difficult to harvest with a decent EROI. If you don’t think so, try harvesting solar energy without using any fossil fuels, including while building infrastructure. No one has ever done that so far, except via traditional technologies (think woodburning) that have never supported a modern industrial civilization.

    You could avoid the need for folks like me to post such wearisome repetitions of what should be obvious by now merely by resisting the temptation to toss off that kind of unthinking and damaging comment.

    Comment by Ric Merritt — 19 Jul 2010 @ 11:57 AM

  164. RM: The main difference between fossil fuels and various forms of solar energy including wind, besides the obvious sustainability problem, is that solar energy is very diffuse, and therefore extremely difficult to harvest with a decent EROI.

    BPL: Much of Europe seems to be doing it.

    RM: If you don’t think so, try harvesting solar energy without using any fossil fuels, including while building infrastructure. No one has ever done that so far, except via traditional technologies (think woodburning) that have never supported a modern industrial civilization.

    BPL: “Never has” is not the same as “never will.” Talk about vacuous arguments.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 19 Jul 2010 @ 2:14 PM

  165. Ric Merritt wrote that solar and wind energy are “free in the same sense that coal and oil are free”.

    That’s silly. Coal and oil are “free” alright — as long as they stay in the ground and no one has to pay the cost of mining, refining and transporting them. (Let alone the cost of the mass destruction that mining, refining, transporting and burning them causes.)

    If I put up solar panels on my roof — or a utility builds a concentrating solar thermal power plant in the desert — the solar energy streams down on us, FOR FREE. There is no bill to pay for the sunlight, ever.

    But according to you, if I put a gas furnace in my basement — well then, the natural gas flows through the pipes into my house, FOR FREE. There is no bill to pay for the gas, ever. It’s “free” just like sunlight. Right?

    But according to you, if the utility builds a coal fired power plant — the coal just flows into it, FOR FREE. There is no bill to pay for the coal, ever. It’s “free” just like sunlight. Right?

    OF COURSE the technology for converting the chemical energy of fossil fuels into useful energy is not free.

    OF COURSE the technology for converting solar energy into useful energy is not free.

    But with solar (and wind) there is no FUEL to be mined, refined, transported and sold. The primary energy — sunlight and wind — is abundant, ubiquitous, endless — and free.

    Ric Merritt wrote: “… solar energy is very diffuse, and therefore extremely difficult to harvest with a decent EROI.”

    With all due respect, you don’t know what you are talking about. Try learning something about the modern solar energy industry. Go and look up the EROI for modern photovoltaic installations (from small residential scale to utility scale) and modern concentrating solar thermal power plants (which, by the way, are typically sited in deserts were solar energy is anything but “diffuse”).

    Ric Merritt wrote: “You could avoid the need for folks like me to post such wearisome repetitions …”

    With all due respect, I don’t feel responsible for the “need” that some people seem to have to argue with what is obviously and simply TRUE, and to post wearisome repetitions of dismissals of the vast potential of wind and solar energy, based on ignorance of what is actually happening with those industries today.

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 19 Jul 2010 @ 3:38 PM

  166. SecularAnimist, 165:
    “Go and look up the EROI for modern photovoltaic installations”
    Where? Any reliable source?

    Comment by Naindj — 20 Jul 2010 @ 8:32 AM

  167. Speaking of the greenhouse effect, could someone who understands atmospheric physics make a useful comment in this thread on recent thermosphere collapse?

    Comment by Antiquated Tory — 20 Jul 2010 @ 11:37 AM

  168. To BPL and SecularAnimist:

    I stand by my brief argument 100%. You are evading all the most important points particular to my comment, and making up disagreements we don’t have. BPL, Europe is most certainly not “doing it”, if by “it” you mean what I clearly said, which is harvesting solar energy using an infrastructure built without fossil fuel. Harvesting solar energy using an infrastructure heavily dependent on fossils is, in all the deepest and most relevant senses, harvesting fossil energy + a bit of solar energy. This is what makes a decent EROI for true solar difficult. I didn’t say no one ever would, so your crack about “never will” is a straw man. Please don’t do that.

    SecularAnimist’s reply is lengthy, but very little is worth discussing. I can’t look up the true EROI of sustainable PV, because it would have to be built without using fossils, and that is the part that is hard and unknown. And I never ever dismissed the potential of solar, including its other form wind, so that’s a straw man too. Please don’t do that.

    Comment by Ric Merritt — 20 Jul 2010 @ 11:58 AM

  169. Ric Merritt, you wrote that solar and wind energy are “free in the same sense that coal and oil are free”.

    That’s a pretty straightforward and unambiguous statement, and you say above that you stand by it 100 percent.

    I suggest you make a little spreadsheet.

    In one column list all the costs of building a typical 1-gigawatt coal-fired power plant and operating it for its serviceable life, perhaps 50 years. Be sure to include capital costs of construction, and costs of maintenance, costs of personnel to operate it, etc.

    And oh yes — note that one line item in those costs, ie. one row of the spreadsheet, will be the cost of the coal that it burns for fuel over a 50 year period.

    Now, in the next column, list all the costs of building a 1-gigawatt concentrating solar thermal power plant and operating it for 50 years. As with the coal plant, be sure to include capital costs of construction, and costs of maintenance, costs of personnel to operate it, etc.

    And on the same line where you recorded the cost of the coal for the coal-fired power plant, list the cost of the sunlight that powers the CSP power plant for 50 years.

    Now … as you were saying?

    Comment by SecularAnimist — 20 Jul 2010 @ 1:17 PM

  170. Only a scientist would write such a post! A call for how simplified one should make his posts is just like a technically-minded individual. Gather the data, analyze the results, proceed accordingly. It was readily apparent from the response to the greenhouse effect article that it was far too complicated for the average reader. You have all the data you need right there!

    There is a huge demand for very simple climate science information – this entire blog could be dedicated to nothing but “green slope” articles and it would still not satiate the general public’s thirst for basic climate information. When you start getting flooded with comments that the information on this blog is simply too elementary, you’ll know it’s time to start posting “blue slope” articles. Until then, 95% of the world (maybe more!) has no idea what you’re saying. So much for making an impact!

    Quit preaching to the choir and write more articles about the basics of climate science in easy-to-understand, simplified language. You’ll feel like you’re patronizing us, but it’s actually exactly what we want. Use stories. Use analogies. Put up lots and lots of pictures (not graphs, pictures). Until this blog has an entire section of literally hundreds of posts that read like a children’s books, then you haven’t done your job of laying the foundation for the more challenging posts. I know that’s a lot of work, but climate scientists are the only ones who can do it. And, as you have likely noticed, we have a bit of a crisis happening before our eyes that no one is doing anything meaningful about – so you should probably get cracking.

    [Response: Maybe, but actually scientists aren’t the only people that can do that, and indeed, we are often not even very good at that. Compare our stuff with this list of one-line rebuttals to common skeptic arguments. – gavin]

    Comment by Joe — 20 Jul 2010 @ 4:56 PM

  171. [Response: Maybe, but actually scientists aren’t the only people that can do that, and indeed, we are often not even very good at that. Compare our stuff with this list of one-line rebuttals to common skeptic arguments. – gavin]

    Well, what is an easily rebuttable skeptic argument other than a comment that ignores a basic tenet of climate science? For example, one of the arguments is “It’s cosmic rays,” and the rebuttable is something to the effect of “Cosmic rays show no trend over the last 30 years,” with a link to a more detailed explanation. That’s not what the average person needs!

    How about a post that lists out every factor that possibly effects the Earth’s temperature over a certain time period (let’s say 100 years). Then next to each factor assign a percentage (or maybe a range of degrees) that represents how much it would affect the Earth’s temparature. In the end, you would have a list that equals roughly 100% of the Earth’s temparature variation. Now put the actual temparature change percentage (or range of variation in degrees) over the last 100 years to the right of that list. Draw a line across the list, below which is every factor that is less than the actual percentage of temperature change. You’ve just illustrated that everything below that line cannot explain why the Earth’s temperature has changed as much as it has.

    Now you say scientists aren’t the only people that can do that, but who else could reliably generate the right percentages? And since when are scientists not good at making a list? There just needs to be more stuff that you can put on the back of a cocktail napkin that will explain why climate change is real. But it needs to be unassailably correct, which is where scientific expertise is absolutely necessary.

    Here’s where you likely provide me with a link of exactly what I just described and make me feel like an idiot:

    Comment by Joe — 20 Jul 2010 @ 7:35 PM

  172. Joe (170), pictures of what??

    Comment by Rod B — 20 Jul 2010 @ 10:49 PM

  173. #170 Joe

    Why don’t you collect the information and do a wordpress site with it? Scientists are not the only ones that can put data together. And, as you have likely noticed, we have a bit of a crisis happening before our eyes that no one is doing anything meaningful about – so you should probably get cracking.

    Or, just wander around


    Lot’s of simplification work done on both sites.

    A Climate Minute The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 21 Jul 2010 @ 6:59 AM

  174. #171 Joe

    Your statement “Well, what is an easily rebuttable skeptic argument other than a comment that ignores a basic tenet of climate science?”
    Contradicts what you are asking for. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you want extreme simplification for people that don’t have science degrees, you can’t cloud it with the very science that substantiates it without blowing away the concept of simplification.

    Simply put, the one line rebuttals are accurate.

    The work you are asking to see is all available. That’s what GCM’s basically are. Models that put together the known major factors of climate and show what would happen under those scenarios.

    Now, the GCM’s and expectations are showing that they match the observations in the real world, which of course confirms that we are warming and it is human caused.

    So your question really has been answered, you just need to do some digging.

    As to your accusations and inferences about lists and such, it’s really a matter of time. Climate scientists are very busy these days doing the actual science. The responsibility for learning it, in this case and perspective, is yours. The information is available. you just need to do more research and check the references to make sure you are looking at the good stuff.

    If you want some good napkin stuff try the images here:

    A Climate Minute The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 21 Jul 2010 @ 7:11 AM

  175. SecularAnimist, yes, I wrote that solar energy is “free in the same sense that coal and oil are free”, namely that nothing is free. Solar radiation consumes no fuel that we pay for, but that is so obvious as not to need repeating. Other costs of *using* solar radiation are huge. Today, those costs, in the case of large solar uses suitable for modern industry, ***always***, ***always*** include indispensable and large fossil contributions, for infrastructure and so forth. These will perforce gradually cease. That is what makes future industrial-strength uses of solar energy and its derivatives such as wind hard and unknown.

    The easiest uses are probably solar energy for heating water and living space, as this can happen in small, distributed, and relatively low-tech ways. (I am not an expert, but I think that’s reasonable to say.) We note with regret that today we lack solar-powered mines, road-building, ocean transport, on and on. Yes, those activities can be carried on at a lower level in a pre-modern fashion, but we are not going to support 7+ billion folks at the level to which they have become accustomed, much less improve things, without industrial-strength transport and manufacturing. The factories producing, say, PV panels, are part of a closely woven web of modern technology, and the fossil support for that will be gradually withdrawn. To stay ahead of that curve, we would need to move the industrial-strength infrastructure support over to renewables *at least as fast* as fossils go away. There’s our problem. If road-building, container ships, mines, etc cannot “go green” at that minimum rate, it won’t matter much how glistening the PV panels are, because the factory producing them will disappear amid the general decline.

    For readers here, I need hardly mention that the climate probably won’t be doing us any favors in the meantime, though it is worth noting that widespread economic difficulties, such as our current ones, do decrease carbon emissions. To carry that thought forward, you would have to get quantitative, and there I defer to experts.

    Comment by Ric Merritt — 21 Jul 2010 @ 12:26 PM

  176. Re: [#170 Response: Maybe, but actually scientists aren’t the only people that can do that, and indeed, we are often not even very good at that. Compare our stuff with this list of one-line rebuttals to common skeptic arguments. – gavin]

    As the author of these one-line rebuttals, I want to say that I use RealClimate for reliable climate science information.

    History of the one-line rebuttals – see:

    The Climate Portal for the UU-UNO (Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office) also draws on RealClimate – see:

    Jan Dash
    Director, UU-UNO Climate Initiative

    Comment by Jan Dash — 21 Jul 2010 @ 1:48 PM

  177. Hi, I am an academic (Philosophy) but with little understanding of science. In Philosophy we are taught that the best philosophers always keep an open mind. I have approached the Climate Change debate on that basis, and have attempted to understand the views of both supporters and skeptics. This, I may add, is the most intelligent site I have found on the issue. It seems that many skeptics appear to be afraid of the anticipated effects of climate change and express their fear in a reactionary way. As I have been trained to keep an open mind, however, I am still prepared to give consideration to their argument, and try and understand if there is any veracity in it. I have read Gareth Morgan’s book, ‘Poles Apart’, which interviews both climate-change scientists and skeptics, and comes out in favor of the scientists. I have also read James Lovelock, note his previous considerable scientific achievements which gives him (apart from his early conclusion that ozone depletion was not be harmful) and now have several questions I would like to put to Gavin, and other climate scientists who contribute to this site – a) what do they make of Lovelock’s claim that we only have 10 to 20 years before there are serious non-reversible climate-change impact. Do you consider Lovelock’s position is too extreme? b) Lovelock claims that Garth Paltridge is the best climate-change denier because of his criticism of climate-change modeling – what do you make of Paltridge’s critique and does it undermine climate-change science and Lovelock’s own position? c) Climate-change deniers often say the earth is actually cooling – is there any truth in this? Would love to hear your views on these points. Thanks for the wonderful site. Cheers, Barbara

    Comment by Barbara — 21 Jul 2010 @ 3:19 PM

  178. #177 Barbara

    a) This is a point that requires context and there are many. Irreversible on what time scale. David Archer did an analysis that showed the earth could recover in 150,000 years, some say longer. What is your context for irreversible?

    also go to the index section of this site and review the modeling articles section called Climate modelling (it’s the 4th topic from the top)


    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 21 Jul 2010 @ 3:42 PM

  179. #177 Barbara

    I might also suggest taking a look at a video that I recently did to give you some additional context about the natural cycles, cooling, and where we are now:

    A Climate Minute The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 21 Jul 2010 @ 4:01 PM

  180. Barbara — I recommend reading “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart:

    Comment by David B. Benson — 21 Jul 2010 @ 6:06 PM

  181. “Those energy sources are “free” in the same sense that coal and oil are free. Namely, in the sense that they are (more or less) all around us, and we need only take certain steps to make use of them…”

    The Saudis OWN a big chunk of the oil “(more or less) all around us”.
    Peabody OWNS a big chunk of coal.
    Nobody OWNS sunlight.

    The “certain step” needed for using coal and oil is paying somebody, and soon a lot of us will have to pay for the consequences of all the CO2 dumped in the air. We in the US are already paying a heavy price maintaining the flow of oil to which we are addicted.

    Comment by Brian Dodge — 22 Jul 2010 @ 12:59 AM

  182. Barbara 177: Climate-change deniers often say the earth is actually cooling – is there any truth in this?

    BPL: None whatsoever. Want the numbers?

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 22 Jul 2010 @ 4:50 AM

  183. #177 Barbara

    Also, you said “I have approached the Climate Change debate”. That I believe is a primary mistake.

    Don’t approach the debate, because the debate is in the media and the public mind.

    Instead, approach the science. Essentially there is no scientific debate that human caused global warming is occurring. The scientific debate is more in the realm of figuring out the where certain things may happen, when, those things might happen and how much of those things might happen as this progresses.

    A Climate Minute The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 22 Jul 2010 @ 7:06 AM

  184. Brian Dodge:

    Sunlight may be free, but you will find that someone owns the land you want to use to capture it. Nothing is simple, I’m afraid.

    Coal is ridiculously cheap, but would it be so cheap if it wasn’t artificially kept that way? If the miners were paid properly, and provided with safe working conditions? If the extraction was done carefully, without damage to the natural environment? If coal imports had to meet the same high standards? If the mining companies didn’t get vast tax breaks and subsidies? If the cost of CO2 emissions was factored in?

    In that world, coal would be very expensive, and second choice to nearly every other energy source. Why don’t we live in that world? Why don’t we build that world right now?

    We have to try.

    Comment by Didactylos — 22 Jul 2010 @ 7:35 AM

  185. A request of RC, or perhaps (I think RC is the better place, but maybe it’s more of an SS kind of thing)…

    Pielke Sr. has a piece up on WUWT right now where he references a 2005 paper (Radiative Forcing of Climate Change: Expanding the Concept and Addressing Uncertainties).

    I have no idea how seriously to take this paper (in fairness, I haven’t had time to read it at all yet), but I’ve learned that while I can read it and understand most things, often there are many elements that will make a lot of sense until someone who knows better points out the more obscure failings. Certainly the fact that the paper was published 5 years ago and I’m only seeing it now, promoted by Pielke himself, says something.

    I’d like to see RC include a “summary and comments” section on published papers, with a very short comment on each, simply to identify which papers have been refuted, or are still open issues, or are considered to be solid, and why.

    It’s very hard to know what to trust, and despite denier claims of the innate failure of any “appeal to authority,” part of what I have learned is that I can rarely trust myself, at least until I’ve really dig in deep. There is always more to learn, and there are always mistakes to be made and pitfalls to be avoided. I’d like some expert help on hand at navigating the various citations made out in what I’m beginning to think of as the deceptosphere (i.e. that subset of the more noble blogosphere where clever people can make things look any way they choose to the unwary).

    Comment by Bob (Sphaerica) — 22 Jul 2010 @ 10:18 AM

  186. Barbara, one thing science does, perhaps more than philosophy, is cite to sources for statements made. This would be helpful, particularly as you are an academic with access to library material most of us ordinary readers won’t have.

    As an example of how this would help, you write “James Lovelock … his early conclusion that ozone depletion was not be harmful ….”

    Now that’s interesting. What’s your source cite for that? Did you check _that_ source for citations to original material? Why do you believe your source is reliable, and why do you trust your source for that?

    My guess is you got that fake fact from a “refudiation” blogger; they often misstate the history of science, and fool people repeatedly.

    “One of the things important about history is to remember the true history.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2008

    Beware people who imagine all the later science will collapse if some early work is undermined. Science grows at the new end, not from the first place it took root. Think kudzu, not mighty oak. All the early work is wrong, but productive of interesting ideas. If the later work gets better, the early work becomes respected as founding work.

    Lovelock knew CFCs were very stable–and he thought they wouldn’t be a problem for biological systems. He knew nothing about their effects on stratospheric ozone–nobody did at the time.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 22 Jul 2010 @ 12:01 PM

  187. P.S. for Barbara –

    Lovelock’s early belief that CFCs wouldn’t be harmful to biology had a basis: his experience discovering other chemicals to be harmful because of bioaccumulation from trace amounts. He invented the tool that detected that problem too. See:

    “The electron capture detector was invented in 1956 and is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytical methods in existence. Its use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment ….”

    There’s a very interesting parallel with climate change in the work done — and being done, and yet to be done, and still needed but not yet committed — to protect the ozone layer.

    Some history of this “truly global effort” is worth looking into.
    One example:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 22 Jul 2010 @ 12:18 PM

  188. Barbara ( 177), This might or might not be helpful, but in answer to your ‘is the globe cooling’ query, John P. Reisman’s general answer in #178 (to a different question) is much better that BPL’s in #182. (Not a criticism of BPL, who is pretty sharp.) There have been a few periods of decreasing temperatures since the late 1800s. Global temperatures dropped fairly steadily between 1880 and 1920 a total of about 0.3 degreesC. It dropped then leveled off between 1940 and 1970+ by about 0.3C. U.S temperatures dropped over a full degree between 1998 and 2008 — and this is where the current sceptic ballyhoo stems from. The key point is: what is the context and/or what is the statistical significance. Longer trends demand a physics answer and some have been proposed for the 1st two periods above. Shorter trends might not be anything other than is temporary deviation from a more valid longer trend. One can pick out any number of 10-year periods after 1998 where the temperature dropped for the beginning to the end point. But you have to select your starting point vary carefully, what the statisticians call cherry picking — miss it by a couple of months and the trend is no longer down but up. Secondly (and here’s the context), 2008, the low point of my latter example was also one of the hottest years ever — about the 10th hottest global temp on record.

    The proper question is not ‘is the globe cooling between this and that point’ but, even if there is, is there any significance or relevance to climate change? For the period since 1998, while not a slam dunk, nothing beyond an insignificant and normal short-term statistical deviation seems to be happening — even though there was “cooling” strictly by the numbers.

    Comment by Rod B — 22 Jul 2010 @ 1:45 PM

  189. Brian Dodge @ 22 July 2010 at 12:59 AM (#181):

    You and some others seem to delight in responding (I mean, you took the trouble to quote my literal words) without actually engaging my quite obvious and stark main points. If folks ignore my comments, I can take the hit to my ego, but I’d like to humbly request that if you bother to answer, could you please make it a real answer? Pat me on the back and agree, or illuminate the subject from another angle, perhaps pointing up a disagreement. But don’t just ignore the subject, because it’s kinda important.

    This thread is about played out, so barring anything new and amazing, I’ll bow out.

    Comment by Ric Merritt — 23 Jul 2010 @ 12:19 PM

  190. #188 Rod B

    Rod, while I was planning, and still hope to do a more critical analysis of the confidence levels in ice data, I was talking to an ice modeler just yesterday, and since I did not ask if I could quote him, I won’t, though I’m ‘confident’ he would not mind.

    I asked, let’s forget about the data for a minute and let me ask you a general lay question. How confident are you that we are losing the Arctic ice?

    His answer was simple:

    “I would say it’s a certainty that we are losing the ice.”

    I don’t know if that is the particular answer you were looking for but, from all the analysis, within the error bars, we are losing the Arctic. Even without the errors, we are losing the ice. It’s as simple as that.

    Maybe consider signing the petition now?

    Re. Barbara’s question. don’t forget that natural variation still happens, it’s just that we are experiencing natural variation on a different path.

    A Climate Minute: The Natural CycleThe Greenhouse EffectHistory of Climate ScienceArctic Ice Melt

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
    Learn the Issue & Sign the Petition

    Comment by John P. Reisman (OSS Foundation) — 24 Jul 2010 @ 3:55 AM

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