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Trump should inspire us all, but not in the way you might guess

Posted on 27 June 2018 by John Abraham

Scientists like me – and really, everyone – can learn from President Donald Trump’s mastery of viral messaging.

True, he has turned the United States into a pariah nation, one reviled for ripping immigrant children from their parents and from withdrawing from our only real chance at stabilizing the climate, the Paris Accord

But Trump’s success at creating and maintaining a political base is not because of his incoherent policies. It is solely because he is able to communicate with people in ways that that evoke emotion, go viral, and make people think he understands them.

The way super-communicators like Jesus, Shakespeare, Oprah, or even Trump work their magic was unpacked by Dr. Joe Romm in a must-read book, How To Go Viral and Reach Millions.

The cover of ‘How to Go Viral and Reach Millions’ 

The cover of ‘How to Go Viral and Reach Millions’

The job for scientists, for all of us, is to learn the techniques that make our messages clicky and sticky, but use the techniques in a way that keeps the science true and the facts straight. Be a Jedi, not a Sith Lord.

Yet it’s more than just that. Many of us – scientists included – downplay the importance of catchy writing, memorable phrases, and captivating metaphors. Using purposefully compelling language is somehow ‘dirty.’ I am a scientist for crying out loud. Can’t I just stick to facts, show my graphs, and let the data speak?

No, you can’t; not if you want anyone to hear you or listen to you.

And if no one is listening to you, why are you here? 

Let me be clear to my colleagues, all so-called pointed-headed, ivory-tower intellectuals who think they have something important to say. Listen up. Are you listening?

There is nothing special about you and your message.

Audiences are fire-hosed with information from all sides. We have very little time to really dig deeply into issues. Communicators are competing with many other voices, and most more interesting than you. So, if you are not going to learn techniques to communicate quickly and compellingly, you might as well just stay home.

So how does Dr. Romm’s book teach effective communication? I won’t spoil it too much – you need to read the book. But I will tell you that he has five basic rules that he leads with. I will also tell you that he teaches everything from word choice to how to recast your scientific stories in ways that connect with people emotionally. He tells the importance of long-successful tools such as repetition, use of irony, metaphor, and foreshadowing.

But perhaps the most important chapter is the one devoted headlines. How the first few words a reader sees or hears are all-important in determining whether they will devote any mental energy to your message. Whether they will click on your headline, read any part of your article, keep the channel tuned to your station, or just tune out and turn off. 

Throughout the book, Dr. Romm weaves in evolutionary biology, art, and history to reinforce his message. He discusses how the human brain evolved to be able to process huge amounts of data. The processing amounts to quickly assessing whether a situation warrants our attention; think of these as “mental shortcuts” that we use, subconsciously, to determine whether and how we digest a message. He shows how the world’s greatest artists and communicators have used the very same strategies throughout history to go viral, to get their message to spread and endure.

In a nutshell, Dr. Romm teaches techniques to become a force of good in this world using time-tested techniques. We can be Luke Skywalker, not Darth Vader.

I asked Dr. Romm why he wrote this book and he told me:

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. I'm glad this topic came up. I have a website - - that I could use some feedback on. I've tried to make the topics as simple and short as possible. I'll be open to any constructive criticism.

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  2. This is a plea for help.

    Does anybody know of a serious study that compares Aryan Physics (Arische Physik, Deutsche Physik, et alia) with Modern Republican Climatology?

    I do apologize for leaving an off-topic note; I do not know where/how to properly submit the question. Thanks for the patience!

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  3. Trump is a completely 100% useless president, and mainly won because Hilary had so much baggage from her past. So I wouldnt copy his style of oratory too much. The only useful takeaways are his confidence and simplicity of messaging.

    However science discussions are often long discussions by nature. The main thing is get a brief, simple summary at the beginning of long discussions, and make it a little bit provocative and attention grabbing.

    Humour helps in the middle of lengthy discussions.

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  4. Nice intro. on your website Vilabolo.

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  5. Nigelj #4,

    Thank you. I hope the rest is as good.

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  6. I agree that you need to be sure you have the attention of someone. But I question the ability of emotional appeals to change the minds of people who have developed a dislike for climate science because of the changes/corrections of what has developed that it indicates are required.

    A major barrier to getting the attention of many people is that people have brains evolved to develop a non-human (instinctive animal type) quick response that gets applied to everything before they do the Human thing and "Think about something" (understanding I got from many sources including Guy P Harrison's "Think" and "Good Thinking", Susan Cain's "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking", and Sean Carroll's "The Big Picture"). And that quick response is governed by their instinctive and developed interests and desires. It can keep them from thinking helpfully about an issue, keeping them from becoming more aware and better understanding, stopping their mind from being drawn into attempts to improve awareness and understanding.

    Socioeconomic systems that develop based on the easy to appeal to selfish desire for the 'freedom to believe whatever you want and do as you please' (with the responsibility to be aware and understanding how to be helpful rather than harmful conveniently disconnected from the desire) in 'popularity and profitability competitions to perceive yourself to be the winner relative to others' create a large number of people with developed personal interests that are contrary to 'helping to develop sustainable improvements for the future of humanity - preferring a better present for themselves any way they can get away with'.

    Unless those people shift their attitude from selfishness to altruism they will never care to be more aware or better understand an issue like climate change.

    I am trying to figure out ways to attempt to start a conversation based on focusing on any 'helpful to humanity' desire that a climate science denier (someone quick-triggered against becoming more aware and better understanding of climate science) may have. I think that using the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals provides an effective means to link the requirements for climate action to almost any other altruistic interest (but it is a UN document which is an immediate Red-Flag to many of those quick-triggered deniers).

    An emotion triggering Headline, or snappy emotionally appealing message, about climate science can be expected to be quickly dismissed by a person that has developed desires and understands how the required climate action corrections are contrary to personal interest in benefiting less ethically, less helpfully, more harmfully for as long as they can get away with.

    I wonder if "Helpful Thinking" can be triggered by attempting to resurrect the importance of Ethics (Ethics has taken a beating in the competitions for popularity and profitability). Ethical behaviour undeniably needs to over-rule popularity and profitability. And Ethical behaviour needs to be more valuable than 'Legal behaviour'. Legal actions (creating, correcting and enforcement of laws) need to be governed by the ethical good objectives of helping to sustainably improve the future of humanity.

    Without that good ethical guiding objecting over-ruling everything, less ethical behaviour is likely to continue to win, to the detriment of the future of humanity.

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  7. Yes I also seriously question excessively emotive appeals, or anything that tries to be too clever or manipulative, or any form of spin or exaggeration or dishonesty. We expect this from politicians, but not scientists. It wont work, and I think it would backfire on scientists and reduce their credibility.

    But obviously dont be totally boring, pedantic and dry. Strike a balance. Be human. There are excellent books on public speaking.

    What happened to ethics in our considerations? Could be a good opening line. And indeed, what has happened to ethics? Where the hell has it gone?

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  8. I believe thermal imbalance of global warming is poorly explained in units of watts/m2. I think these units are in a foreign language to the average non-technical person (even to the semi-technical person). When I put the thermal imbalance in units of hiro atom bombs per hour, and then, more so, compared that to how much energy all of man hourly consumes (also in the same units), this had a profound visceral impact on me (I am a chemical engineer).
    I have used this type of language in this following linked document: 

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  9. Thanks for the reading recommendation. Yes, credit where credit's due, our president moved slipstream into cultural rhythms long alive in the US and in need of a voice. On the topic of influencing a mediated culture, I'd strongly recommend Jonathan Haight's book, The Righteous Mind. For those of us who have the skills to shape meaningful acceptance of climate science's conclusions, Haight points to where the levers are. Trump (and Bannon) certainly did their homework - and won.

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  10. @ sauerj #8

    "When I put the thermal imbalance in units of hiro atom bombs per hour, and then, more so, compared that to how much energy all of man hourly consumes (also in the same units), this had a profound visceral impact on me (I am a chemical engineer)."

    Unfortunately, the Hiroshima bomb metaphor is likely to turn off many readers since it gives the impression that AGW is setting of powerful explosions throughout the world. Since the warmest day does not translate into a searing thermal pulse of a nuke the typical reader will imagine.

    I'm hard-pressed to figure out a metaphor that the average person can understand but using an incredulous (No matter how technically correct) metaphor is likely to be a turn-off. 

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  11. 3. nigelj at 08:14 AM on 28 June, 2018:

    [Trump] won because Hilary had so much baggage from her past.

    A very large fraction of which consisted of lies promoted relentlessly by a cottage industry of right-wing authors and pundits who spent decades smearing the Clintons. It's not so much that Hillary has "baggage" but that much of the public has been duped into believing she does. The Clinton-smearing cottage industry has proved once again that if you repeat a lie enough times, it sticks.

    A number of factors helped Trump win the Electoral College (he lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, remember - due to America's continuing rapid population growth, Hillary actually won more votes than any Presidential candidate in history). One of the most critical factors was Trump's theocratic appeal to America's white Evangelical Christians, who have long been a reliable voting bloc for Republican Presidential candidates. An even higher percentage (81%, I read) voted for Trump than for any other recent Republican candidate. These are people who believe, for the most part, in the literal truth of Noah's Ark. They are horrified by things such as abortion, gay marriage, and the teaching of evolution in schools (not that it's taught much in the USA, thanks to their efforts). Trump promised to stack the Supreme Court with theocrats, so Evangelicals showed their true colors by voting for Trump despite his vulgar boasts about sexually assaulting women.

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  12. It's useful to distinguish between having an inner game and an outer game. In science, the inner game is what scientists learned to do in school: read science journals, design experiments, collect data, construct theories, test theories, write and publish results, and share information with a "friendly" audience of fellow scientists. (Yes, scientists can sometimes be contentious, even bitter rivals, but they are friendly compared to anti-scientists who reject the scientific method and norms for truth. Scientists for the most part can be persuaded by evidence. Talking to people who do that is very different from talking to people who won't.)

    The outer game is conveying science to the non-scientific (and often anti-scientific) masses. Wherever science collides and conflicts with pre-existing ideas, beliefs, behaviors, or economic interests, the outer game must necessarily include persuasion. Climate change has an especially tough challenge, because virtually every person on the planet is either fully dedicated to a climate-raping lifestyle, or (if poor) aspires to become rich enough to have one.

    It goes pretty much without saying that scientific training almost wholly neglects the outer game. So here we are as a species, careening along with our fossil fuel global suicide pact. Interestingly, the Fermi paradox suggests that no other technological species in the history of our own galaxy, or possibly even in the entire observable universe, managed to solve the tragedy of the commons in time to avoid wiping itself out before becoming a spacefaring species.

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  13. But how to get information out, as in @ villabolo #1 and @sauerj #8, in front of the general public as easily as Trump can ( obviously, never will be quite that easy). The "war" being waged between science and denialism mostly out of sight of the average American. 

    Really liked those two posts. Had a thought that maybe a little more background about "natural" CO2 levels (in atom bombs, maybe(?)) that not only allows life as we know at to exist on earth at all, but the relatively stable levels since the last ice age that has allowed human civilization to thrive over the last 10,000 years. Human populations going from 1M to 1B by the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, due to the introduction of farming. There has been a price to pay for that. Now it's gone from there to 7B in 200 years.

    The denialist constantly claim climate change is "natural" and is always happening. Sure, over a range, but we're talking about radical changes driven by extreme events such as volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, ice ages (glaciation) driven by significant solar events. And now burning fossil fuels is taking us out of that "natural" range.

    i'm sharing the two posts with my denialist friends. Probably won't do much good. 

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  14. Daniel Mocnsy @11, I agree entirely. I would add that Hilary Clintons 'baggage' comprised a set of false accusations, and she was cleared of wrong doing by the courts and various investigations. Unfortunately mud sticks, and it I think it made her the wrong choice to be a candidate. This is the hard reality.

    The email issue clearly cost her votes.  That was my point about baggage, and perhaps I should have explained it more.

    Imho she is largely a sensible moderate, although not a terribly great candidate either. 

    The important thing is not to jump to the conclusion that Trump's "oratory" won him the election. It was more about Hilarys baggage and Trumps ability to use immigration as a scare tactic etc.

    While its very important to talk in a concise way and get peoples attention, imho insults, bullying, misleading and inaccurate information will not work as tactics for either the Democrats or scientists. It will all become a shouting match and would backfire on them.

    Having said that, scientists do sometimes get lost in detail and nuance and sometimes take ages to get to the point. Theres a sensible middle ground! J Hansen is a very good communicator in terms of style.

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  15. Johnboy @13,  I hear you, but I dont think theres a magic answer to this.

    Clearly any president is going to get more exposure than scientists, its the way of the world. Scientists have to grab every opportunity possible and make it count by speaking clearly etc. And many do this rather well,  and they are the ones to learn from.

    Like DM pointed out science and technical people  are backroom people and not always well trained in public speaking. I work in a technical field, and used to dread public speaking, almost a phobia, but because I deal with so many people I had to learn the arts. Even just an hour reading a good book on communications skills, or some time with a public relations expert can be transformational. It's really important because we absolutely have to convince people.

    Having said that, there are many fine well written books and websites on climate science that are suitable for the general public. Its always possible to do better, but again theres no magic bullet. Talking about watts / m2 is complicated, talking about atomic bombs is emotive and would totally alienate the Republican side of the debate.

    The book "An Inconvenient Truth" was well written, if a little light on the "denialist" side of the issue. It's hard for me to see how it could be "significantly" better written, and kept at a sensible size. Unfortunately Al Gore was a politician, and this probably coloured perceptions of the book.

    Let me try to bring this together. We  can all learn to communicate better, and this is really important,  but at the end of the day there are limits to what communication can do. Scientists have spelt out the science pretty well, and cannot be blamed for the ignorance of many in the public and their desire not to listen, and their preference for conspiracy theory ideation, and their inability to recognise red herring arguments and cherry picking. Scientists cannot be blamed for the  denialist campaign, and some of its people have no shame!

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  16. One Planet Only Forever @6: I tend to agree with you.

    Romm's book - which I haven't read, just going by the article above - might be all well and good when one is referencing a debate with opinions on each side.

    But the climate "debate" is an entirely different animal: the deniers' "side" is 90% opinion (perhaps 10% regurgitated fake or wrong science) and the "side" of the scientists is - or should be - fact and data driven.

    So n'er the twain shall meet.

    We, the general untutored-in-climatology-and-the-relevant-disciplines public accept all sorts of science in our daily lives without blinking. We climb onto a 400 tonne aircraft with 400 other souls accepting that it was designed on computers and tested mainly on models before real life test flying. The science is taken for granted. Yet for probably deep seated psychological reasons the same acceptance of the relevan science is not there with climatology.

    Romm's method will backfire, I suspect: the subject is far too complex to promote in a semi-conversational way.

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  17. Not wanting to take this too far down the path of politics, but in my view the election of Trump was the result of years (if not decades) of building anger in America. A lot of people have been angry that society has not brought them to the promised land (be it religious or economic).

    They are angry at the "elites" (whoever they are thought to be), the system, the government, etc., and this anger has been encouraged by outlets such as Fox News, parts of the print media, the Internet, etc.

    Angry with the establishment, both Democrat and Republican voters flirtedwith rogue candiates that were seen to challenge the system. Hillary managed to beat Bernie Sanders, but the Republican core lost to Trump. And in the election, the angry voters rallied behind Trump.

    I have relatives on my wife's side that live in the U.S. that cannot see there way to vote Democrat due to keystone issues such as abortion. In the last election, they held their noses and voted for Trump, and really just don't like talking about it. For at least some, I think they are embarrassed by him.

    Trump sends a message than many want to hear. It does not matter if it is lies. It's the opiate of the masses.

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  18. This is why H.R.C. 'lost'?
    “And it’s deadly. Doubtless, Crosscheck delivered Michigan to Trump who supposedly “won” the state by 10,700 votes. The Secretary of State’s office proudly told me that they were “very aggressive” in removing listed voters before the 2016 election. Kobach, who created the lists for his fellow GOP officials, tagged a whopping 417,147 in Michigan as potential double voters.”

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    Moderator Response:

    [JH] The rehashing of the 2016 US Presidential election is veering off-topic. Let's close it down.

  19. @ villabolo #10

    Thanks for the feedback. Very good point! Yes, from one person, I did encounter the reaction you describe.
    Outcome of a small sample of verbal reactions: I have verbally given my "atom bomb" story to about 10 people (though I think it works better in written form, as in my FB note, linked above). Side Note: Most of these 10 people are either technical people (chemical engineers), or else folks already immersed in climate science & action (so, a very skewed slice of the overall population). It did "move" about half of them; "ho-hum" for another 1/3. But, for one notable person, my wife, it caused the exact same reaction that you described. She adoringly said, "You don't mean for me to believe that there are actually 10,000,000 atom bombs exploding all over the world every hour?" (so she got hung-up, right away, on step #1 of the story; without even getting to step #2, the thermal imbalance part (18k/hr); or step #3, man's consumption part (1k/hr)).

    To clearly describe the steps of this story (if you haven't yet read the FB note):
    Step #1: The sun delivers to the earth 10mm hiro atom bombs of incoming energy per hour. All of this energy must leave for temperatures to remain constant [This latter part is another sticky, somewhat technical point, that I had to figure out for myself, as I was hung-up on the photosynthesis chemical energy (no-heat) part. But, eventually it dawned on me that even this chemical energy does become thermal energy, assuming equal bio-mass over time [when the chemical energy is converted to thermal energy by biological processes]. Presently, my write-up doesn't address this photosynthesis part of the energy balance story.]
    Step #2: 18k hiro atom bombs per hour of the sun's incoming energy is restricted from getting out due to the increase in GHG's (primarily CO2). This part is easy to understand.
    Step #3: 1k hiro atom bombs of energy is all of the energy that man consumes in 1 hour. … This puts #1 and #2 into perspective (which my write-up then goes on to give examples of perspective). This #3 perspective part is usually what gets a reaction out of people; here they start to put the scale of the thermal imbalance story into mental terms that they can viscerally relate to. And if they follow along so far, then, all of a sudden, the science becomes not just dry non-visceral words on the page, but a real, tangible kick in the gut, hopefully enough to ignite more impassioned energy toward climate action.

    My wife's reaction was not something that I had anticipated; it was completely different compared to my reaction in how this sequence (#1, #2, #3) profoundly (viscerally) affected me.

    To fix this, I could try to explain the scale of what real, point-concentrated hiro atom bombs going off would be like. One option: Proportionally scale the sun's energy (10mm/hr bombs over the sunny side of the globe, 1/2 of its surface) down to 1 sq mile (the coverage of 1 real hiro bomb) and also down to 1 second (its blast duration, being conservatively long). How many hiro atom bombs of energy is the sun delivering to that 1 sq mile in 1 second of time? Answer: 0.0000283 equivalent bombs (or, maybe better said, 1/35000 of a real hiro bomb).
    Another wording (I might try to figure out how to wiggle this into the document): "The sun delivers to a sq-mi plot of land in 10 hours what a real hiro atom bomb would deliver to that same sq-mi plot in 1 second." For me, that makes the sun's energy density sound like a lot; but, quite frankly, it is! But, obviously, NOT enough to decimate the land.

    Until I came up with the #1,#2,#3 atom bomb story, I was a bit foggy in having a deep technical understanding, in a visceral way, of the thermal imbalance, which is the fundamental basis for understanding what is causing global warming. I understood it in my head, but not in a scaled perspective sort of way, and also not in a way that I could convincingly explain it to others. Hansen has a picture of his grandchild (in his 'Storms' book) holding a 1-watt xmas tree light bulb, and he points out how this amount of thermal imbalance per sq meter is enough to cause huge instabilities to climate change. … This was a very endearing & tender picture, but this really didn't help me put the scale of the total thermal imbalance into clear perspective of scale. Was he trying to say that it was a lot of energy per meter, or that it wasn't a lot of energy per meter? … Now, with the help of the epiphany of my atom bomb story, I now know that 1-watt/sq-meter is not a lot of energy for that sq-meter, but is a lot of total energy over the whole globe (18k atom bombs/hr, and, more so, is 18x more than all the energy that man consumes) … [NOTE: 18k atom bombs is technically 0.6w/sq-meter (which I am getting from HERE).] But, without this, the lack of scale of perspective made it hard to put Hansen's story into relatable, useable or meaningful terms for me.

    Although the atom bomb story (as stepped thru above) may not be effective for everyone, I have hope that it is effective for some people (maybe even many people). Enough so that it is one possible viable tool to help viscerally explain the fundamental science of global warming, yet still in a very scientific, factual way (no hyperbole). If it does work for anyone, it does so by giving people a meaningful scale of perspective that they can tangibly relate to and therefore internalize. … However, your constructive concern is very valid and is probably more of an issue than my small sample bias (w/ a skewed population) would lead me to believe. Thanks for the feedback!

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  20. @ sauerj #19

    I just came up with a much simpler comparison to illustrate the thermal imbalance.

    Imagine you're sleeping at night and a single blanket is enough to keep you comfortable. Then another blanket is added, then another and another. Eventually, you'll feel uncomfortably hot. 

    Then a skeptic tells you, "If you remove those blankets you'll feel cold." Then you respond by saying, "One is good enough."

    Simple enough analogy. Otherwise, with the nuke analogy, you end up having to explain the analogy itself and thus lose track of what the point is in the first place. An analogy should be of utmost simplicity and intuitively obvious to the person hearing it without having to give any further explanation.

    That is why I strongly suggest removing the Hiroshima analogy counter to keep the uninformed public from getting confused and turned off by what they would erroneously but understandingly perceive to be an absurd comparison. 

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  21. The atomic bomb analogy is interesting, but perhaps too complex and long for most people. Some people may not understand it, and  If you try to explain a complicated process with a complex long analogy,  you will probably lose peoples attention. I would only use it if someone is open minded and well educated. 

    Blankets are a good analogy, because it's a simple analogy using something everyone has experience with, so is easy for almost anyone to grasp.

    Analogies have a long and interesting history.

    However analogies are easy for stupid politically motivated people to attack and ridicule. The longer they are, the more open they are to attack. You can explain the greenhouse effect in a simple way by describing the effects of clouds at night compared to a clear sky and how its colder with a clear sky.

    I think only use analogies when you have to. They are of no use trying to convince hard core denialists, who in my experience just pick them to bits and ridicule them. They seem to work more for open minded people.

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  22. @ villabolo #20 and nigelj #21:
    Thanks for the feedback! ... The part I like about the atom bomb analogy is that it 1) scales the rate of warming with respect to how much energy man consumes (a type of yard stick they can relate to) and 2) that it puts the warming into units that may help people better relate on the sheer magnitude of it. ... You are probably very right that it is not nearly as effective on most people compared to what it was on me when I first derived the numbers on my own. But, certainly for some people that have read it on-line & that I have verbally explained or emailed it to, it has shown to be helpful & effective in giving them a perspective of scale to how much the globe is warming.  ... And, yes, it would only be effective (like any sort of climate change apologetics) on people with open minds, that is a given across the board. ... Thanks for the feedback!

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