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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 51 to 60 out of 60:

  1. John C: "Re the translator forum, yes, will probably have one for each language." I think we shouldn't do one for each language, but one large main forum (accessible to all) with subsections for each language (also accessible to all. Translators who don't know a certain language won't visit that particuar subsection anyway). So you'd get: - Forum --- General (in English): news, announcements, technical stuff (mostly by John C) --- Discussions (in English): things other SkS workers deem important --- Off Topic (in English): since even SkS workers need to goof off and blow off steam sometimes --- Chinese --- Czech --- Danish --- Dutch --- French --- Finnish --- German --- Icelandic --- Italian --- Japanese --- Polish --- Portuguese --- Slovak --- Spanish --- Thai *has some experience handling large forums* ;)
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  2. I also vote for tabs instead of a slider. (OK, I'll admit it, I even clicked on the tab image above.) :D Tabs are also slightly more RSI friendly.
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  3. This thread sort of ties in with something I’ve been thinking about recently. Several recent posts have struck me as better and/or more accessible responses to an argument than the text on the relevant rebuttal pages. Here are a few ideas for posts that might be adapted to be alternate versions of existing rebuttal pages: • “Visually depicting the disconnect between climate scientists, media and the public” could be an “easier” (more accessible) version of the “no consensus” rebuttal. I think infographics are always good at getting the important messages across. • “10 Indicators of a Human Fingerprint on Climate Change” could be used as an “easier” version of the existing “It’s not us” page. • I definitely recommend doing the same thing with “10 key climate indicators all point to the same finding: global warming is unmistakable” and the “It’s not happening” rebuttal. • “Assessing global surface temperature reconstructions” could be a more in-depth version of the “Temp record is unreliable” page. This was actually a guest post by Ned, but I expect he and John can sort it out. (I also noticed the same page contains basic responses to “3 of 4 temperature datasets are interdependent”, “Airports inflate warming trend”, and “NASA GISS adjustments introduce warming bias” – none of which have a rebuttal page yet.) • “3 levels of cherry-picking in a single argument” could be an “easier” version of the 1998 page. (Also, from memory I think that the former might be slightly more up-to-date.) • “Return to the Himalayas” (another guest post from a few weeks back) might be an alternate version of “IPCC were wrong about Himalayan glaciers”. • I think that somewhere in the archives there is a simplified version of “Climate’s changed before”, but I can’t find it.
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  4. Have you seen the format used by ESPERE? Hard to beat the simplicity of 'Basics' and 'Read more'.
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  5. Re Doug's various posts. I routinely get into discussions with very open minded folk who have NO conection to the science, or even any awareness that blogs like this exist. The proposed app would not only allow me to mount coherent & referenced arguments in pubs, but would also let me spread the general awareness of the availability of the information.
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  6. Excellent, Excellent!!! I love the evolution of this site. Even if I don't own anything besides an ancient cell phone and my trusty MacBook. I totally support you making information available at three levels. Keep on truck'in :-)
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  7. I think this is a great idea. It will allow people to get the intuition before they get into the nitty-gritty. In my experience as someone who loves learning about science, having that intuition explained in simple terms before diving into the real deal can really help steepen your learning curve, because when thrown in at the deep end, some people might struggle to understand the issue and give up in frustration, or at the very least, take a lot longer to figure out what is being said. It's something I frequently wish more textbook authors would do.
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  8. Please see my related comment today on the “What do you get when you put 100 climate scientists in a room?” thread.
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  9. I find in reading those sites that say that climate problems are a myth that their evidence is very sparse and inconclusive. Recently I read Book 1 of the free e-book series "In Search of Utopia" (, it blasts their lack of evidence relative to several myths. The book, actually the last half of the book, takes on the skeptics in global warming, overpopulation, lack of fresh water, lack of food, and other areas where people deny the evidence. I strongly suggest that anyone wanting to see the whole picture read the book, at least the last half. There is also up to date information at:
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  10. - I think tabs make more sense than a slider: Discrete choices vs. a continuous range. - However, I think the choices should be: 1) The one-liner 2) The "basic" explanation 3) The "in-depth" explanation I think it's going to be hard to do a really good job on the previously discussed "advanced" explanation, because you're really talking about an expert's level of understanding re-packaged in layman's language. The most I would do for this site is to find pointers to appropriate existing discussions (if any). So this should be a 4th tab, but mostly with pointers. - With respect to writing style: 1) One-liner: From what I've seen of the examples, they look about right. 2) "Basic" explanation: Should really aim for an 8th-grade level of language use. I think this is about what writers aim for in documentation that they really need people to understand. As I've remarked elsewhere, this doesn't mean the argument is "dumbed down", just that the style is trimmed and the vocabulary not too extensive. 3) "In-depth": I think the current level of writing is about right. 4) Pointers to advanced presentation: Same level as 3). - Just one more comment on the importance and dignity of explanation at the audience's level: The great experimental nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford once remarked: "If you can't explain to a barmaid what you're doing, you don't understand it!"
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