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Communicating climate science in plain English

Posted on 4 August 2010 by John Cook

A few weeks ago, I received an email from Australian astrophysicist Michael Ashley who had just read a post on Real Climate about the need to communicate climate science at different levels. He was particularly struck by one comment that proposed having a slider at the top of climate articles where the reader could select the technical level of the article. Michael suggested the Skeptical Science iPhone app could have a similar slider allowing people to choose the level of explanation. My initial reaction was horror at the sheer amount of work involved in such an endeavour. But over the next few weeks, the idea grew in my mind to the point where it became irresistable. I think I just got inceptioned!

So against my better judgement, I'm now planning to completely overhaul Skeptical Science. For all the skeptic arguments, there will now be three different levels for each rebuttal. I'm not sure what headings will be used for each level but it will be something like this:

  1. Easy: explaining the climate science in plain English, the way you'd explain it to someone in an elevator or at a pub. So the response needs to be short, simple, understandable to the average person
  2. Medium: this goes a little deeper, discusses the evidence in more detail, provides links to peer-reviewed papers without necessarily going into the nitty gritty of the methodologies or technical aspects of the science.
  3. Hard: this might contain detailed mathematics, equations, methodologies on how measurements are taken, the nitty gritty of data is processed, etc.

Currently, I'd rate all the current rebuttals at 'Medium' level. So the most important stage of this new system will be to parse all the existing rebuttals into shorter, simpler versions written in plain English. I already went through this process with a handful of skeptic arguments for the Irregular Climate podcast. It's been an interesting and learning experience, trying to boil  several pages of dense content into a few paragraphs of plain English that you can read out aloud without sounding like a robot (well, at least I hope I don't sound like a robot). A good example of 'Medium' versus 'Easy' would be the blog post on 1998 cherry picking versus the boiled down podcast transcript.

I'd also like to include hard/advanced versions of each rebuttal. Websites that operate at this level are Tamino's Open Mind, Real Climate and Kelly O'Day's Climate Charts & Graphs. Kelly O'Day has already graciously agreed to adapt some of his blog posts into more technical rebuttals. I'm hoping some of the other more technical climate bloggers might also be willing to adapt their blog posts into rebuttals (hint, hint). Probably the closest thing to this level at Skeptical Science would be some of Peter Hogarth's posts, as Peter likes to delve into the technical aspects of how measurements are taken (which is understandable as that's what he does for a living). Often his blog posts read like a peer-reviewed review paper. However, I've been constantly holding him back, asking him to trim his text, remove the technobabble, keep it simple. Well, Peter, the leash is coming off :-)

How the tabs might look with the 3 level system.

Restructuring the database and reprogramming the website to include tabs (as shown above) is fairly straightforward. The iPhone app on the other hand is another matter. I asked Shine Technologies whether it would be possible to incorporate a slider system in the iPhone app and they said yes but create the data first. So first things first, I have to get to work on the content. Nevertheless, I couldn't resist doing a mock-up of how it might look on the iPhone (quick disclaimer: Shine Tech are the gurus at designing sexy iPhone interfaces):


How I imagine the iPhone app would work is the Easy option would be selected by default. They can then slide up to Medium to get a bit more meat or if they're a glutton for punishment, continue onto the Hard level. If there's no Hard version, that option would be greyed out. Now a Skeptical Science iPad app doesn't exist (yet) but I couldn't resist doing a mock-up of how it might look here (a guy can dream):

So I have two requests from Skeptical Science readers:

  1. Feedback on the slider system: I welcome suggestions on how this might work. Is there better terminology than "Easy/Medium/Hard"? I like the more whimsical "Plain English/Slightly Technical/Boffin Technobabble" but it's both too wordy for the iPhone and well, a bit silly. Perhaps "Basic/Intermediate/Advanced"? Thoughts on this and the 3 level system in general is welcome.
  2. Help write the different versions of the rebuttals: there are currently 119 skeptic rebuttals which need to be parsed into Easy and Hard versions. Other rebuttals of these same skeptic arguments exist on other blogs so if you're a blogger who has already written a simpler or more technical version and don't mind reposting on Skeptical Science, your contribution would be much appreciated (and credited, of course). Or if you'd like to help convert my rebuttals into simpler, plain English, your help is very welcome!

I know what most of you are thinking: "I'm not qualified to write about climate science". I've learned over the years that it's often the non-scientist who is best able to express climate science in a way that the average person can understand. No offense to any scientists reading this but sometimes you boffins have trouble boiling down your science into plain, simple terms (Kevin Judd is an exception to this rule). Making climate science accessible to the general public is of crucial importance these days so I urge you all, scientist and layperson, to consider contributing to this effort.

Currently, I'm programming a discussion forum for Skeptical Science authors. What will happen next is if anyone volunteers to help out, I'll grant you access to the forum where there'll be discussion on how to approach this whole process and coordinate our efforts. This will also be a place where we can post our attempts at plain English climate science and other authors can give feedback and suggestions, as well as discuss the general issues of climate science communication. 

If you're interested in helping, please either post a comment below or directly email me.

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 60:

  1. Phew, and I thought you guys were busy enough already. As far as classifications are concerned, basic/intermediate/advanced sounds good to me.

    Given that the current rebuttals might be characterized as intermediate. What amount of information might the basic version entail?
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    Response: My 'Debunk of the Week' on the Irregular Climate podcasts are good examples of 'basic' versions of the 'intermediate' rebuttals. When I kick this off, I'll start by using the half dozen or so podcast debunks.
  2. John,

    I am starting to think you are not human. Do you sleep? :)
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  3. I will give it a shot but it is true that it is very hard to bring things down to the easy level...
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  4. At the risk of being expelled forever from this august list, which I read several times a day, let me submit a very heretical view: I'm against dumbing down this excellent website, in any way, shape, or form.
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    Response: On the contrary, this system would actually free up more advanced content. I've often held back on publishing more detailed content in order to keep things simple. With this system, having a simpler presentation gives me more license to go into more detail on the higher levels without fear of "beginner" readers.
  5. Dappledwater, I would think the basic version would start with the one-liner response, and then provide a few paragraphs expanding on that a little - possibly covering a few more bases, or explaining some of the caveats (carefully, to avoid confusion!).
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  6. How would this work for the comments? It would seem to be very redundant to have three parallel sets of comments for each of the arguments. On the other hand, it would also seem hard to have a discussion in the comment threads among people who are viewing three different versions of the source material.

    I could also imagine in a lot of cases people asking questions about the easy and medium versions of an argument and being told to view the hard version.

    That said, John, I applaud your tireless efforts to make this site more and more useful in communicating and discussing science.
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    Response: Hmm, haven't worked that bit out. Most likely option - have different comments for different levels. Bit messy but seems like the best solution. All current comments would apply to Medium level.
  7. I think terminology more like "Basic/Advanced/Technical" would be appropriate. It gets across the point better for what each level encompasses, making each sound more like a user is selecting their desired detail level rather than their intelligence level.
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  8. For the three levels, perhaps "Basic", "More in depth", and "Expert take". Or "Introductory", "Advanced", "Expert".

    Snarkier version: "High School", "College", "Graduate School".
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  9. How about "bottom-line"/"in-depth"/"Gory Details"?
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  10. I think , basic, easy, introductory etc.......are not necessary; all people concerned by this item don't believe and will never believe in AGW
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  11. How about a 4th level called haiku :)
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  12. I would agree on a need for a really really short response, the 'one-liners'. Maybe call that one "Snap!", or "Bar discussion"?
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  13. I think it is a great idea on your part. People may pooh-pooh the "Easy" explanation as dumbing down, but it actually requires probably even more clarity of understanding and discipline of message to formulate an explanation that someone without a background in the concepts/jargon can grasp. I'm an anthropologist who works on this very issue professionally, and so I have a lot of experience in the challenges and pitfalls of this!
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  14. As someone who takes technical papers and concepts and translates them into plain English for the laymen (which is what most doctors are, believe it or not), there is a huge need for this concept, John.

    In terms of the tab parlance, something along the lines of:
    1. Basic
    2. Medium
    3. In-Depth

    The nomenclature used won't really matter, but the K.I.S.S. Principle (Keep It Simple [or you're] Stupid) applies to the tab labels as well (even or the In-Depth level tab). And readability on a small screen is paramount.

    The impact of this will be immense.

    You must sleep even less than me,

    The Yooper
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  15. Another vote for the "Basic/Intermediate/Advanced." "Easy/Medium/Hard" feels odd, since what we're really talking about is the language involved, not the science. And "easy" or "hard" language doesn't communicate as much as "basic" or "advanced."

    I'm not sure I'm as superhuman as you are, but I'd be happy to have a go at drafting a few "basic" articles. I don't know the science as in-depth, but maybe that's a good thing.
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  16. Any plans for Android love as well?
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    Response: I'm taking the apps one step at a time, very conscious of the fact that Shine Tech are spending a great deal of their resources on developing these various apps, free of charge. So no plans yet.
  17. I think "Basic/Intermediate/Advanced" are good categories.
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  18. I like Yooper's Basic / Medium / In-Depth. It has a certain "je ne sais quoi". ;)
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  19. This seems like a workable idea for the App, and for the skeptic arguments page. I just don't see it working on the regular posts, though. Actually, it could work on the posts but not for the comments -- I think any discussion would be far too fragmented, and confusing as different people would be talking about different versions of the same thing. Chaos.

    So I would vote for using it on the archived skeptic arguments, and using Basic/Intermediate/Advanced as the terminology.
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    Response: Multi-levels would definitely NOT be used for blog posts - this is solely for the skeptic argument rebuttals.
  20. A vote for "thorough" for the third category, rather than words like difficult or hard or even technical.

    Rather than worrying at this stage about the exact labels, it might help to set out in more detail the characteristics of each category. This would help us all to start thinking along the same lines and have a clearer idea of what is in your mind, rather than just our interpretation of your headings.

    We will know better what to call each category when we have a clearer idea of what they look like.

    For example, the first category might (only might, note! I have only spent a few moments on these scribbles.) be as follows:
    - straightforward statement of the point. Two or three sentences at most, perhaps.
    - general indication of where the evidence comes from, eg. from Antarctic boreholes.
    - when this point was established, eg. CO2 greenhouse effect: demonstrated experimentally in mid 19th C.

    The second category might:
    - expand the basic statement,
    - indicate the history of the point, how the argument developed,
    - indicate the experimental history,
    - indicate the counter arguments and work on addressing them,
    The third category would then be a more thorough discussion, including the maths, the references to the key papers, etc.

    ... Sorry: being called away to something else now!
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  21. On the comments issue - I am not techie enough to know if this can be done but if one comment thread were to be used could the comment have a marker stating from which level they are commenting from?
    From a personal view the idea of splitting comments would likely cause those more knowledgeable and have a better understanding to not read and therefore answer questions or statements in the "lower divisions", which I find very valuable.
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  22. John, this is really a great idea. I used to work at a Science center in San Francisco, and I know that writing clear, concise, explanations takes a lot of effort but makes a big difference in terms of how much of the content reaches the readers. The key point is not to "dumb down" when writing the "basic" explanations, but to tie into commonsense, everyday context that everyone already has. Experts tend to tie their explanations into a context that non-experts don't possess, and thereby miss the opportunity to communicate all that they know.

    Naming the three categories must be done carefully, and is a subject worthy of the thought given by others above. You don't want your users to feel like "Dummies" when they go for the basic explanation.

    I'd be very interested to take a crack at a few of the arguments. How exactly do I submit my proposed text? As a comment?

    As to the user interface, I would suggest using three tabs instead of the slider. (A slider is more appropriate to a situation where there is a continuum of possible values. Since this particular situation is limited to three possible values, it seems like the wrong analogy.)
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    Response: I'd be very interested to take a crack at a few of the arguments. How exactly do I submit my proposed text? As a comment?

    Early next week, I'll start a forum where all the authors can get together and first discuss the general approach, terminology, etc. Then I'm thinking the way authors submit proposed text is to first submit it as a new thread in the forum. That way, other authors can offer feedback/suggestions and the text can be honed before it gets 'officially published'.

    But like any social media experiment, who knows how this will evolve - first step is get the forum going then see what happens.
  23. May I suggest using RealClimate's ski analogy and have a green circle for easy, blue square for medium and black diamond for hard and tag the comments with the symbol for the page where the comment was made as Englishborn suggested. A symbol would be easier to fit on an iphone app while text could accompany the symbol on a web page. Your site has been consistently improving over the years -- nice job.
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  24. John,

    This is an excellent idea. I'm doing a bit of blogging on climate science and trying to get things explained in everyday terms these days. As post #22 says, it's often very effective to use commonsense everyday context: analogy too can be extremely useful. The critical bit is to explain things accurately, so far as the most up-to-date science is concerned, without sounding patronising. I've worked on-and-off for some years in doing such interpretation in the Earth Sciences - especially hardrock geology - and I fully appreciate the size of the task you have set yourself from experience. I wish you all the best with it.

    I've been so disturbed by the efforts of the politically-motivated anti-science opposition that I'm determined to move from geology to climate outreach as a career-change. Climate science - indeed, Mankind - needs all the help it can get in terms of improved public understanding.

    Cheers - John
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  25. Fantastic idea Michael and John! I also have to ask what ProfMandia did @2-- when do you sleep John?

    Personally I like the terms "basic", "intermediate" and "advanced" (or in-depth, advanced might sound too snotty) levels.

    1) Basic-- a one or two liner. Didn't someone recently do that for you, or at least a few of the arguments?

    2) Intermediate-- the current level of discussion as it appears on your web-site, maybe some of the jargon and more technical stuff taken out.

    3) Advanced-- something you would expect to read in a journal; could also include a list of references.

    I like suggestions made by Davidhs @20 regarding the content for each of the three categories.

    John, I was thinking, some readers here and SS app users would probably find it useful to have access to a glossary, or even better, hyperlinks to a glossary, for some of the more technical terms (terms that we scientists might think are basic, but which are confusing or too technical for lay people, one example that comes to mind is "albedo"). A glossary might be superfluous/redundant though-- if you don't get the terminology, go down one level. So maybe a glossary would be more appropriate for the SS site.

    Wow, what a cool idea this is, wish I weren't so busy right now, or else I'd hop right in and contribute.
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    Response: A glossary has been on the to-do list for a while now. Wasn't it you that suggested it to me a few months ago? :-) Would like to get to this sometime when I get the time.
  26. How about instead of "Basic" you use "Quick." The idea being that sometimes you just have to make the point in a hurry before the denalist gets distracted by something shiny. "Intermediate" could then become "More." For those rare cases when the person you're trying to explain it to isn't an indoctrincated denialist, but is instead curious enough to want to know more about the subject after having been won over by the Quick. Then "Advanced" could become "Detailed." I think it unilkely that you would ever need this to actually explain the point to someone, but it's always good to have the information there, because it reinforces the argument. Even if it won't be understood by our newly awakened former denialist, he'll be pleased to know that the science is there. You wouldn't, for example, ever see Creationism laid out with either an Advanced or Detailed tab.
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  27. How about "In Brief", "Overview", and "Details"?

    I agree about a tab interface. I've seen several GUI's with inappropriate sliders for discrete steps, and users keep trying to place the slider between those values.
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  28. There is a well-developed body of knowledge from the museum world about how to write clear, concise explanations. The links below have some helpful information for anyone interested...
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  29. Not to be the wet blanket but I don't think the current implementation is sufficiently flawed as to require a serious upheaval and I don't think such disruption is going to produce much marginal benefit at all.

    John's explanations are quite accessible to anybody with a high school diploma and the sheer amount of work involved in redoing the site is going to be a massive distraction.

    I think discussion threads here prove beyond a doubt that going from "Easy" to "Hard" changes nobody's mind, or at least is overwhelmingly ineffective. We do that continuum every day, in a countless myriad of ways. We can witness the same futility on a number of other websites devoted to this subject.

    Once you find yourself arguing with somebody over easy science you may as well give up because you're not arguing science, you're arguing ideology or something else. More explanation, more amplification, more detail is useless.

    If a one-liner backed by an argument of the kind found in the existing rebuttals does not work you may as well give up.

    John keeps a lot of stats. I don't know if any are available on moving people from "I don't believe it" to "Ah, I see" but I suspect they're perfectly dismal whether we can produce them or not.

    Not to say there's no point to SkS, not at all. If somebody's just got the wrong impression and is curious about the subject they're going to "get it" when steered to a little information, a little being all that's necessary.

    So concentrate on getting the one liners down, concentrate on providing a path to the classic rebuttals, concentrate on tuning the classic rebuttals, keeping them fresh, that's my suggestion.

    To convey more information, to get the same effect of tabs and the like, cultivate references at the end of the standard rebuttals. The curious will certainly find them, the argumentative simply don't care.
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    Response: Ah Doug, you're such a contrarian! :-)

    "John's explanations are quite accessible to anybody with a high school diploma"

    I have various anecdotal evidence that this isn't the case. I have friends and family with high school or higher levels of education that have trouble understanding the explanations on my site. My wife Wendy (tertiary education, an Arts degree... not that there's anything wrong with that :-) often complains that it gets too technical. The climate communication workshop run by Jan Dash also suggests the detail is too complicated for the average person on the street.

    So there is a definite need for plain English versions of the rebuttals. The emphasis here, the most important element of the multi-level system, is the Easy version. In my mind, the Hard version is almost an optional extra (although when I suggested having just the Easy and Moderate versions, one scientist I was speaking too insisted having the Hard version was important too).

    Believe me, I don't go looking for more work to keep myself busy. When this idea was first suggested to me, I tried to put it out of my mind. Too much trouble! But the more I thought about it, the more I saw the need for plain English versions. We need to be communicating the realities of climate science to the general public in a way they can understand. If we're not reaching the average person, then what's the point?
  30. Should also note, detailed discussion here over tabs versus sliders, terminology etc. seems to have skipped an important step, namely "does this need to happen."

    That's a question the folks at Coca-Cola might have paused on before deciding on "New Colk" vs. "Updated Coke" vs. "Slightly Different Product in a Slightly Different Can."
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  31. Finally will note, an increasing body of research indicates that the communications difficulties w/regard to climate science are not about failure to be able to understand science, they're about defensive postures on the part of the person refusing to acknowledge the science, protection of attitudes and beliefs having nothing to do with science.

    There are also indications that repeated or amplified explanations actually are counterproductive to changing beliefs, something that would call the notion of graduated explanations into question.

    If something can be done to the site that -rationally- attacks the underlying problem of dealing with "skeptic" psychology, that would be worth effort. A rearrangement hinging on what we thought we knew about skeptics 10 years ago not so much.
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  32. I hope someone comes up with a Blackberry app sometime.
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  33. doug_bostrom at 02:44 AM on 5 August, 2010 says:

    "John's explanations are quite accessible to anybody with a high school diploma..."

    I'll go you one further, Doug. I never earned even a high school diploma and I find his explanations very accessible :-)
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  34. Yeah, sorry NickD, I get your point.

    As far as I can tell, the most useful thing I learned in high school was touch typing. The important stuff happened earlier and elsewhere. My Dad refused to directly answer questions, always gave me some pointer in the direction of finding out by myself.
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  35. Oh, oh, I see a lot of work coming soon for the translators ;-)

    Speaking of which, will the translators be included in the group given access to the discussion forum? I think it might generally help us to discuss strategies for translating the arguments and to try and keep the translations as current as possible.
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    Response: Sure, I can give translators access to the forum. Was thinking about setting up a forum specially for the translators also - once the forum is programmed up, easy to add new forums for special topics.

    Haven't really thought through how to approach translations with the new system. Don't want to put too much stress on you guys :-) That'll be something to discuss on the forum.
  36. @ BaerbelW: Maybe we should ask for a raise... how does 20% sound? :D
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  37. It has always been my opinion that this site could have used two levels of explanations. The third, most advanced one, though would not be worth the trouble. It would reach only a small number of your potential readership and take a lot more effort out of proportion to its benefits.
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  38. #29. doug_bostrom at 02:44 AM on 5 August, 2010

    John's explanations are quite accessible to anybody with a high school diploma and the sheer amount of work involved in redoing the site is going to be a massive distraction.

    Unfortunately a High School diploma does not mean much nowadays as far as level of education is concerned.
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  39. I agree with Doug. Implementing this idea as proposed will lead to tripling amount of work and fragmented discussion.
    I think that desired effect can be achieved with lower effort and without disadvantages by changing format of the articles.

    It should start with "Executive summary" - which is basically a simplified and highly compressed version of the main article. Then the normal article would follow, written in the "middle" level. If a more technical description should be useful for some part of text, then one can use boxes, or hyperlinks to supplementary material containing in-depth technical explanations.

    In this proposed scheme everything is in the single place, the discussion can be coherent and one can simply skip unnecesary fragments.
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  40. Naturally I agree with pohjois! :-)

    Regarding fragmentation, whatever you do don't divide comments. Their only practical utility in terms of improving public understanding is to serve as an illustration for lurkers of who has the more coherent grasp on reality so to that end they're worthwhile. Breaking 'em up would vastly increase the amount of effort needed to derive any benefit from comments threads.
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  41. One (final? hah!) actual concrete suggestion would be to do some research on cognitive dissonance prior to making any substantial changes to the site, then ask whether such changes as can be made will address that fundamental problem.
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  42. Excellent idea, John.

    Putting on my advertising copy-writer hat, I'll go for 'in brief / in full / in depth' as short labels for the three tabs. The problem with 'easy' is that it makes the reader feel rather inadequate. I prefer 'in full' for medium as it suggests that this is a comprehensive answer, while 'in-depth' suggests no stone is left unturned.

    I'll do my best to come up with some easy versions of some of the rebuttals for consideration. I'll leave the in depth explanations to others!
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  43. I do kinda like the in brief/in full ...etc...
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  44. brief / more info / detail ?
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  45. Hi John,

    You might want to reassess the "need" for an advanced highly technical section.

    People who are interested in the "in depth" stuff should be following the links to the peer reviewed papers themselves (rather than just taking our word for it). I suspect the "need" for higher detail is more of a "want" belonging to the author and a small group of regular commentators.

    There is however a definate need for easy and medium levels of explanation, as this site is an excellent gateway for regular people to understand climate science.
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  46. I've heard it said that you don't really understand your subject if you can't give a broad explanation to an intelligent twelve year old (I think I've been in a steady cognitive decline from age 12 onwards!!!!).

    I think the greatest strength of this site is its engagement of folks variously placed on the 'alarmist-warmist-sceptical-denialist' spectrum in respectful dialogue.

    Keeping the language simple and accessible is in fact a major intellectual challenge not to be underrated.
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  47. Great discussion.

    1. Tabs seem to make more sense than a slider
    2. One comment section linked to the 3 tabs, if doable, would minimize confusion while accentuating the discussion. Not everyone on each of the 3 levels of understanding will have a question needing answering. One comment thread should do.
    3. There will still be a need for an in-depth as possible level, even for those who have a deeper level of knowledge and understanding than most. How many times is it in these discussions that the ones who have the background and training to know better are the ones most confirmed in their "skepticism"? Plus, some have a near-terminal case of D-K Syndrome.
    4. No matter how foolproof and complete you make this site (love all the hyperlinked sections), you can't make it damnfoolproof, as those types are so ingenious. Plus, the intractable ones never RTFM anyway.

    The Yooper
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  48. You're really admirable, John. From the very beginning your site was great, but you're just endlessly improving it! Arguments, blog, apps, papers database, translations, difficulty levels... There are so many things here I almost get lost even without working on it.

    If there is a forum for translators, it would be interesting to have a specific sub-forum for each language.

    Regarding the terminology, I'm not a native English speaker, but I would choose "Basic/Intermediate/Advanced" (I also prefer tabs rather than a slider).

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    Response: I'm getting the hint that tabs over sliders are the way to go. I'm a bit grumpy about it, I like the look of the slider, but I recognise tabs are more appropriate.

    Re the translator forum, yes, will probably have one for each language.

    Re the many features, I'm getting lost too - it's really getting to the point where I can no longer put off adding drop downs to the navigation links.
  49. For what it is worth, I like Andre's aforementioned idea of using ski symbols:

    Green circle
    Blue square
    Black diamond

    especially due to the irony of using ski symbols to denote Global Warming technicalities. More importantly, aren't these symbols universal? (chime in all continents)

    While Doug Bostrom makes valid points for the mature/set-in-their-ways (stubborn) audience, I would pose that this level of classification will be beneficial to youth seeking to learn more on the topic. They can start where they are comfortable and delve in as deep as they'd like. And the importance of reaching youth cannot be overstated.
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  50. Re the many features, I'm getting lost too - it's really getting to the point where I can no longer put off adding drop downs to the navigation links.

    Oh, please, no, or at least make 'em require a click. Automatic drop-downs are the equivalent of cheesy embedded audio, spontaneous browser behavior almost invariably aggravating.

    I'm "Mr. Negative" today, looks like. How about a straw poll on drop-downs? Everybody agrees with me that the site should not pulse and shrink like a puffer fish as we move our mice around, right? :-)
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