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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. 151
    John Monro says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. 152
    Edward Greisch says:

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

  3. 153
    John Monro says:

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

  4. 154

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

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

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

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

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

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

  5. 155

    #148 SecularAnimist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bjorns latest red herrings include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  6. 156
    Geoff Wexler says:

    Defensive writing and simplifications.

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

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

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

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

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

  7. 157
    Gordon says:

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

  8. 158
    Ben says:

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

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

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

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

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

  9. 159
    Paul T says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  10. 160
    Adjunct Professor John Barker says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  11. 161
    EL says:

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

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

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

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

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

  12. 162
    Radge Havers says:

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

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

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

  13. 163
    Ric Merritt says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

  14. 164

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

    BPL: Much of Europe seems to be doing it.

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

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

  15. 165
    SecularAnimist says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  16. 166
    Naindj says:

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

  17. 167
    Antiquated Tory says:

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

  18. 168
    Ric Merritt says:

    To BPL and SecularAnimist:

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

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

  19. 169
    SecularAnimist says:

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

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

    I suggest you make a little spreadsheet.

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

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

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

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

    Now … as you were saying?

  20. 170
    Joe says:

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

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

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

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

  21. 171
    Joe says:

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

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

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

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

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

  22. 172
    Rod B says:

    Joe (170), pictures of what??

  23. 173

    #170 Joe

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

    Or, just wander around


    Lot’s of simplification work done on both sites.

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

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  24. 174

    #171 Joe

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

    Simply put, the one line rebuttals are accurate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ‘Fee & Dividend’ Our best chance for a better future –
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  25. 175
    Ric Merritt says:

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

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

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

  26. 176
    Jan Dash says:

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

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

    History of the one-line rebuttals – see:

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

    Jan Dash
    Director, UU-UNO Climate Initiative

  27. 177
    Barbara says:

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

  28. 178

    #177 Barbara

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

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


  29. 179

    #177 Barbara

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

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

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

  30. 180
    David B. Benson says:

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

  31. 181
    Brian Dodge says:

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

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

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

  32. 182

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

    BPL: None whatsoever. Want the numbers?

  33. 183

    #177 Barbara

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

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

    Instead, approach the science. Essentially there is no scientific debate that human caused global warming is occurring. The scientific debate is more in the realm of figuring out the where certain things may happen, when, those things might happen and how much of those things might happen as this progresses.

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

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  34. 184
    Didactylos says:

    Brian Dodge:

    Sunlight may be free, but you will find that someone owns the land you want to use to capture it. Nothing is simple, I’m afraid.

    Coal is ridiculously cheap, but would it be so cheap if it wasn’t artificially kept that way? If the miners were paid properly, and provided with safe working conditions? If the extraction was done carefully, without damage to the natural environment? If coal imports had to meet the same high standards? If the mining companies didn’t get vast tax breaks and subsidies? If the cost of CO2 emissions was factored in?

    In that world, coal would be very expensive, and second choice to nearly every other energy source. Why don’t we live in that world? Why don’t we build that world right now?

    We have to try.

  35. 185

    A request of RC, or perhaps (I think RC is the better place, but maybe it’s more of an SS kind of thing)…

    Pielke Sr. has a piece up on WUWT right now where he references a 2005 paper (Radiative Forcing of Climate Change: Expanding the Concept and Addressing Uncertainties).

    I have no idea how seriously to take this paper (in fairness, I haven’t had time to read it at all yet), but I’ve learned that while I can read it and understand most things, often there are many elements that will make a lot of sense until someone who knows better points out the more obscure failings. Certainly the fact that the paper was published 5 years ago and I’m only seeing it now, promoted by Pielke himself, says something.

    I’d like to see RC include a “summary and comments” section on published papers, with a very short comment on each, simply to identify which papers have been refuted, or are still open issues, or are considered to be solid, and why.

    It’s very hard to know what to trust, and despite denier claims of the innate failure of any “appeal to authority,” part of what I have learned is that I can rarely trust myself, at least until I’ve really dig in deep. There is always more to learn, and there are always mistakes to be made and pitfalls to be avoided. I’d like some expert help on hand at navigating the various citations made out in what I’m beginning to think of as the deceptosphere (i.e. that subset of the more noble blogosphere where clever people can make things look any way they choose to the unwary).

  36. 186
    Hank Roberts says:

    Barbara, one thing science does, perhaps more than philosophy, is cite to sources for statements made. This would be helpful, particularly as you are an academic with access to library material most of us ordinary readers won’t have.

    As an example of how this would help, you write “James Lovelock … his early conclusion that ozone depletion was not be harmful ….”

    Now that’s interesting. What’s your source cite for that? Did you check _that_ source for citations to original material? Why do you believe your source is reliable, and why do you trust your source for that?

    My guess is you got that fake fact from a “refudiation” blogger; they often misstate the history of science, and fool people repeatedly.

    “One of the things important about history is to remember the true history.” –George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., June 6, 2008

    Beware people who imagine all the later science will collapse if some early work is undermined. Science grows at the new end, not from the first place it took root. Think kudzu, not mighty oak. All the early work is wrong, but productive of interesting ideas. If the later work gets better, the early work becomes respected as founding work.

    Lovelock knew CFCs were very stable–and he thought they wouldn’t be a problem for biological systems. He knew nothing about their effects on stratospheric ozone–nobody did at the time.

  37. 187
    Hank Roberts says:

    P.S. for Barbara –

    Lovelock’s early belief that CFCs wouldn’t be harmful to biology had a basis: his experience discovering other chemicals to be harmful because of bioaccumulation from trace amounts. He invented the tool that detected that problem too. See:

    “The electron capture detector was invented in 1956 and is still among the most sensitive of chemical analytical methods in existence. Its use led to the discovery of the ubiquitous distribution of pesticide residues in the natural environment ….”

    There’s a very interesting parallel with climate change in the work done — and being done, and yet to be done, and still needed but not yet committed — to protect the ozone layer.

    Some history of this “truly global effort” is worth looking into.
    One example:

  38. 188
    Rod B says:

    Barbara ( 177), This might or might not be helpful, but in answer to your ‘is the globe cooling’ query, John P. Reisman’s general answer in #178 (to a different question) is much better that BPL’s in #182. (Not a criticism of BPL, who is pretty sharp.) There have been a few periods of decreasing temperatures since the late 1800s. Global temperatures dropped fairly steadily between 1880 and 1920 a total of about 0.3 degreesC. It dropped then leveled off between 1940 and 1970+ by about 0.3C. U.S temperatures dropped over a full degree between 1998 and 2008 — and this is where the current sceptic ballyhoo stems from. The key point is: what is the context and/or what is the statistical significance. Longer trends demand a physics answer and some have been proposed for the 1st two periods above. Shorter trends might not be anything other than is temporary deviation from a more valid longer trend. One can pick out any number of 10-year periods after 1998 where the temperature dropped for the beginning to the end point. But you have to select your starting point vary carefully, what the statisticians call cherry picking — miss it by a couple of months and the trend is no longer down but up. Secondly (and here’s the context), 2008, the low point of my latter example was also one of the hottest years ever — about the 10th hottest global temp on record.

    The proper question is not ‘is the globe cooling between this and that point’ but, even if there is, is there any significance or relevance to climate change? For the period since 1998, while not a slam dunk, nothing beyond an insignificant and normal short-term statistical deviation seems to be happening — even though there was “cooling” strictly by the numbers.

  39. 189
    Ric Merritt says:

    Brian Dodge @ 22 July 2010 at 12:59 AM (#181):

    You and some others seem to delight in responding (I mean, you took the trouble to quote my literal words) without actually engaging my quite obvious and stark main points. If folks ignore my comments, I can take the hit to my ego, but I’d like to humbly request that if you bother to answer, could you please make it a real answer? Pat me on the back and agree, or illuminate the subject from another angle, perhaps pointing up a disagreement. But don’t just ignore the subject, because it’s kinda important.

    This thread is about played out, so barring anything new and amazing, I’ll bow out.

  40. 190

    #188 Rod B

    Rod, while I was planning, and still hope to do a more critical analysis of the confidence levels in ice data, I was talking to an ice modeler just yesterday, and since I did not ask if I could quote him, I won’t, though I’m ‘confident’ he would not mind.

    I asked, let’s forget about the data for a minute and let me ask you a general lay question. How confident are you that we are losing the Arctic ice?

    His answer was simple:

    “I would say it’s a certainty that we are losing the ice.”

    I don’t know if that is the particular answer you were looking for but, from all the analysis, within the error bars, we are losing the Arctic. Even without the errors, we are losing the ice. It’s as simple as that.

    Maybe consider signing the petition now?

    Re. Barbara’s question. don’t forget that natural variation still happens, it’s just that we are experiencing natural variation on a different path.

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

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