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?