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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. 51
    L. David Cooke says:

    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

  2. 52
    Tim Croker says:

    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.

  3. 53
    Leonard Evens says:

    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?

  4. 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.

  5. 55
    David Horton says:

    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.

  6. 56
    Geoff Wexler says:


    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.

  7. 57
    John Carnahan says:

    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.

  8. 58
    Daniel the Yooper says:

    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

  9. 59
    Adjunct Professor John Barker says:

    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

  10. 60
    catman306 says:

    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.

  11. 61
    Chris Dudley says:

    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.

  12. 62
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    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.)

  13. 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.

  14. 64
    w kensit says:

    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.

  15. 65
    John Mashey says:

    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.”

  16. 66
    John says:

    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.

  17. 67
    John says:

    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.

  18. 68
    Eric Davies says:

    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.

  19. 69
    Geoff Wexler says:

    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.

  20. 70
    EL says:

    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.”

  21. 71
    CM says:

    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.

  22. 72
    C. W. Dingman says:

    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

  23. 73
    Sarah says:

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

  24. 74
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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.

  25. 75
    Geoff Wexler says:

    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.

  26. 76
    John Mashey says:

    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.

  27. 77
    Duane says:

    “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.

  28. 78
    Jack Kelly says:

    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.

  29. 79
    George W. Collins, II says:

    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.

  30. 80
    llewelly says:

    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.

  31. 81
    llewelly says:

    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.

  32. 82
    EL says:


    “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.

  33. 83
    llewelly says:

    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*.

  34. 84
    jyyh says:

    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.

  35. 85
    John from CA says:

    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

  36. 86
    Adam R. says:

    @ 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:

  37. 87
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    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.

  38. 88
    John from CA says:

    @ 86: Thanks Adam R.

  39. 89
    Thomas says:

    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.

  40. 90
    Ray Ladbury says:

    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?

  41. 91
    mike roddy says:

    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.

  42. 92
    Radge Havers says:

    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.

  43. 93
    jyyh says:

    #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]

  44. 94
    Steven T. Corneliussen says:

    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.

  45. 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.

  46. 96
    Matthew L says:

    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.

  47. 97
    Buzz Belleville says:

    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.

  48. 98
    msc says:

    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.

  49. 99
  50. 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.