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Information levels

Filed under: — gavin @ 10 July 2010

Rasmus’ recent post on the greenhouse effect raised some interesting points concerning the technical level at which posts or other public communications should be written. This was a relatively technical article as these things go, eschewing the very basic ‘the greenhouse effect is like a blanket’ but not really approaching the level of a technical paper on the subject (no line-by-line calculations for instance). 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). In these discussions there are clearly the outlines of a common debate, and perhaps a way forward in the future.

An anecdote is maybe relevant. I was on a panel with a long-time science writer from New York Times and we were discussing the information content in science columns versus sports columns (the latter having far more because the writers see no need to waste space to explain the rules, introduce the players, or even explicitly state what the actual sport is!). 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. I took issue with this (of course), because I think this ‘mainstream media’ mode of communication leaves a lot of people very unsatisfied and indeed, RealClimate is in part a response to that.

Both these examples suggest that there is a very widespread feeling that there is only one level at which public communications must be conducted (though people often disagree with what that is). But this is rather a pointless argument to be having. Particularly in the new landscape of disaggregated media, the idea that there is only one anything seems completely anachronistic. It might have been ok when the daily paper was the only information source that some people had and its audience could be assumed to be relatively homogeneous, but these things are certainly no longer true (if indeed they ever were).



Instead, I think we should be explicitly thinking about information levels and explicitly catering to different audiences with different needs and capabilities. One metaphor that might work well is that of an alpine ski hill. There we have (in the US for instance) 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. No-one accuses ski resorts of being patronising when they have green runs interspersed with the more difficult ones, and neither do they get accused of elitism when one peak has only black runs going down (as I recall all too painfully on my first ski outing). People self-segregate and generally find their way to the level at which the feel comfortable – whether they want a easy or challenging ride – and there is nothing stopping them varying the levels as their mood or inclination takes them.

I think this is exactly what we need in science communication. Explanations and stories unapologetically pitched at all sorts of different levels (and not just at a fictional ‘Mr or Ms. Average Newspaper Reader’) actually already happens in many environments (though not in newspapers, TV or institutional websites), however, where the analogy breaks down is that there is no signage. There is no Google icon that tells you whether the link is a green level explanation or an experts-only-you-will-get-hurt-if-you-don’t-know-what-you-are-doing technical discussion. There is no Wikipedia sliding scale to direct you to the information level appropriate to your level of competence or background knowledge.

Thus we often find that beginners are confused or turned off by inappropriate (for them) complexity, and old hands demanding something more challenging, and people in the middle despairing that we aren’t reaching the ‘right’ people with whatever level we adopt.

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?


190 Responses to “Information levels”

  1. 1
    Chris Colose says:

    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…

  2. 2
    Kevin says:

    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.

  3. 3
    carrot eater says:

    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.

  4. 4
    Chris Colose says:

    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.

  5. 5
    Joel says:

    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.

    http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming
    http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_effect

  6. 6
    Tony O'Brien says:

    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.

  7. 7
    Gilles says:

    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…

  8. 8
    John Mashey says:

    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.

  9. 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.

  10. 10
    Greg Leisner says:

    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.

  11. 11
    Nick Savage says:

    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!

  12. 12
    Larry Edwards says:

    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.

  13. 13
    Larry Edwards says:

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

  14. 14
    James McDonald says:

    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?

  15. 15
    Mark J. Fiore says:

    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.
    markfiore50@hotmail.com

  16. 16
    HappySkeptic says:

    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.

  17. 17
    Mike Ellis says:

    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.

  18. 18
    Les Southwell says:

    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)

  19. 19
    Bruce Tabor says:

    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.

  20. 20
    Glenn Tamblyn says:

    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.

  21. 21
    adelady says:

    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.

  22. 22
    Spencer says:

    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 http://www.aip.org/history/curie 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.

  23. 23
    Frank says:

    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?

    yours
    Frank Johnston

  24. 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.

  25. 25
    noiv says:

    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.

    http://ice-map.appspot.com/?map=Arc&sat=ter&lvl=8&lat=73.898165&lon=-110.012641&yir=2010

  26. 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” http://www.sfn.org/index.aspx?pagename=brainbriefings_main, 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.

  27. 27
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    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.

  28. 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

  29. 29
    barry says:

    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.

  30. 30
    Didactylos says:

    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.

  31. 31
    Alexandre says:

    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.

  32. 32
    Richard says:

    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.

  33. 33
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  34. 34
    Icarus says:

    I like Spencer Weart’s approach on the <a href="http://www.aip.org/history/climate/co2.htm"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…

  35. 35
    flxible says:

    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”.

  36. 36
    Fred Moolten says:

    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.

  37. 37
    Paul Middents says:

    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.

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/ct-oped-0711-page-20100711,0,2704150.column

    Paul Middents

  38. 38
    Brian Lux says:

    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!

  39. 39
    Geoff Wexler says:

    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.

  40. 40
    John E. Pearson says:

    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.

    AND IN THE ARTICLE:

    “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!

  41. 41
    Hugh Laue says:

    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?

  42. 42
  43. 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.

  44. 44
    SecularAnimist says:

    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.

  45. 45
    Ani says:

    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.

  46. 46
    RichardC says:

    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.

  47. 47
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  48. 48
    jyyh says:

    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.

  49. 49
    Thomas says:

    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.

  50. 50
    Neal J. King says:

    #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.


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