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Language Intelligence – Lessons on persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga: A Review

Filed under: — mike @ 20 August 2012

Any book that manages to link together the lessons of the Bible, Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Lady Gaga (not to mention Martin Luther King, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Seinfeld), can’t be all bad. With Joe Romm’s new book Language Intelligence, it is, in fact, ALL good. There are lessons galore for the scientists among us who value public outreach and communication. The book is a de facto field guide for recognizing and assimilating many of the key tools of persuasive language and speech, something that is ever more important to science communicators who face the daunting challenge of having to communicate technical and nuanced material to an audience largely unfamiliar with the lexicon of science, sometimes agnostic or even unreceptive to its message, and—in the case of contentious areas like climate change and evolution—already subject to a concerted campaign to misinform and confuse them.
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The IPCC SREX: the report is finally out.

Filed under: — rasmus @ 29 March 2012

Some of us have been waiting quite a while now, especially since the ‘road tour’ meant to present the Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation starting in Oslo on January 24th this year. The summary for policymakers (SPM) was released already in 18 November 2011 (Kampala) and now the report is finally available (link).

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The dog is the weather

Filed under: — rasmus @ 17 January 2012

Update January 27: There is also another recent dog-based animations from Victoria (southeast Australia) explaining some of the key drivers of our climate and how some are changing.

A TV series that ran on Norwegian TV (NRK) last year included a simple and fun cartoon that demonstrates some important concepts relative to weather and climate:

In the animation, the man’s path can be considered as analogous to a directional climatic change, while the path traced by his dog’s whimsical movements represent weather fluctuations, as constrained by the man’s path, the leash, and the dog’s moment-by-moment decisions of what seems important to investigate in his small world. What might the leash length represent? The man’s momentary pause? The dog’s exact route relative to concepts of random variation? The messages in this animation are similar to the recent results of Grant Foster and Stefan Rahmstorf in ERL (see post here).

We’d also like to praise the TV-series ‘Siffer‘, hosted by an enthusiastic statistician explaining how most things in our world relate to mathematics. The series covers a range of subjects, for instance gambling theory, the Tragedy of the Commons, anecdotes about mathematical riddles, medical statistics, and construction design; it even answers why champagne from a large bottle tastes better than that from a smaller one. There is also an episode devoted to weather forecasting and climate.

Success in understanding our universe often depends on how the ‘story’ about it is told, and a big part of that often involves how mental images are presented. Mathematics and statistics can describe nature in great detail and “elegance”, but they are often difficult and inaccessible to the average person. Conversely, the man-and-dog animation is intuitive and easy to comprehend. Similarly, Hans Rosling’s Fun with Stats provides some very nice demonstrations of how to convey meaning via the creative display of numbers.

Curve-fitting and natural cycles: The best part

It is not every day that I come across a scientific publication that so totally goes against my perception of what science is all about. Humlum et al., 2011 present a study in the journal Global and Planetary Change, claiming that most of the temperature changes that we have seen so far are due to natural cycles.

They claim to present a new technique to identify the character of natural climate variations, and from this, to produce a testable forecast of future climate. They project that

the observed late 20th century warming in Svalbard is not going to continue for the next 20–25 years. Instead the period of warming may be followed by variable, but generally not higher temperatures for at least the next 20–25 years.

However, their claims of novelty are overblown, and their projection is demonstrably unsound.

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  1. O. Humlum, J. Solheim, and K. Stordahl, "Identifying natural contributions to late Holocene climate change", Global and Planetary Change, vol. 79, pp. 145-156, 2011.

Times Atlas map of Greenland to be corrected

We were pleased to hear from the University of Arizona’s Jeff Kargel that the Times Atlas folks are now updating their atlas of Greenland. As we reported earlier, the first edition was completely in error, and led to some rather bizarre claims about the amount of ice loss in Greenland. Kargel reports that HarperCollins (publisher of the Times Atlas) has now fully retracted their error and has produced a new map of Greenland that will be made available as a large-format, 2-side map insert for the Atlas and will also be available free online. Meanwhile, Kargel and colleagues have produced their own updated small-scale map and have written a paper that includes both their new map and a description of the incident that led up to it. Kargel was instrumental in pushing the cryosphere community to send a strong message to the publishers that they needed to correct their mistake. (A pre-print of the paper, currently under review and under public discussion on Cryolist, is available here.)

Figure 1 in Kargel et al. (2011) generated by a collaboration of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) and the Programme for Monitoring of the Greenland Ice Sheet (PROMICE) with the Polar Geospatial Center Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Minnesota. Contact: Michele Citterio (GEUS) for questions about the glacier outlines or Paul Morin (UMinn.) for questions about the MODIS base image mosaic.

HarperCollins is to be commended for listening to the scientific community and producing a corrected map. Unfortunately, and despite recent events demonstrating that popular allegations against climate scientists are all wrong, HarperCollins still says on their web site that it’s all the scientists’ fault for not being clear (“The one thing that is very apparent is that there is no clarity in the scientific and cartographic community on this issue”,they write). Hmm. Our own view is that anyone flying over Greenland en route to Europe from North America would instantly have recognized a problem with the Times Atlas (assuming they knew their location of course). As Kargel and colleagues write in their paper:

“Distinguishing manifest, ignorable nonsense from falsehoods that might take root in the public mind is difficult, but the magnitude of and apparent authority behind this particular mistake seemed to warrant a rapid and firm response. The eventually constructive reaction of HarperCollins, which not only withdrew its mistaken claim but also produced a new map to be included in the Times Atlas as an insert, shows the value of such a response. No less than grotesque trivialization, grotesque exaggeration of the pace or consequences of climate change needs to be countered energetically.”

Nevertheless, they caution that “scientists cannot possibly challenge all of the innumerable misunderstandings and misrepresentations of their work in public discourse.”

Well said. Of course, many scientists can do more, and we encourage all of our colleagues to speak publically about their research and, as the international glaciological research community did in this case, to try to correct misconceptions. At the same time, hopefully, HarperCollins will catch on and recognize that being scientifically literate is not just scientists’ responsibility, but is everyone’s responsibility.