Rebutting skeptic arguments in a single line

When I first started writing rebuttals to the various skeptic arguments, each rebuttal was a long, technical piece with graphs, detailed scientific discussion and links to peer-reviewed papers. At some point, someone suggested I write a short paragraph summary at the top of each page so people didn't have to read the whole page to get an answer to a skeptic argument. Initially, I frowned upon this idea. Firstly, it was a lot of work. More importantly, I figured if someone wanted to understand the science, they could jolly well take the time to read the full article. A proper understanding of climate requires the full picture which you can't get in a soundbyte! That's right, I'm quite the science curmudgeon.

Eventually, I began to see the need for a short summary. If Mohammad won't come to the mountain... So I began writing short paragraph summaries of each rebuttal. It wasn't easy - it's a tough ask boiling down complex concepts into a short paragraph, trying to cram as much science into as few words as possible. The result was all the skeptic arguments and a paragraph rebuttal on a single page which I thought was a fairly useful and concise summary.

In May this year, I received an email from Dr. Jan Dash, ex-theoretical physicist and Director of the Climate Initiative of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. He had just co-led a series of "Counter the Contrarians" classes at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, NJ along with an expert in science communication who had dealt with evolution deniers while working at the Denver Zoo. Participants broke up into pairs with one playing the contrarian, given a skeptic argument, and the other rebutting the skeptic argument with the Skeptical Science paragraphs as source material (I have to confess it would've been fun getting to be the contrarian). The feedback from the participants was almost unanimous. My paragraph answers were too complicated to use.

Okay, that feedback was a bit of a kick in the guts but I guess I can see why. As I said earlier, I try to cram as much science as possible into a single paragraph. Jan suggested having a one-line, short sentence as a response to each skeptic argument. Something easy to remember and not too technical. The idea is the short one-liner would enable you to "bat the ball back over the net" and then more detail could be provided in subsequent discussion.

Now I must admit my initial reaction was skepticism, similar to my negative reaction to the initial paragraph idea. It was hard enough boiling the answers down to a paragraph, let alone a single line. So I emailed back, suggesting if Jan wanted to have a go at writing some one-liners, he was welcome to. After not getting a response, I assumed Jan found it as difficult as I did.

Then around a week later, I got a reply. Jan had gone through every skeptic argument and written a one-line answer! I started reading through them, thinking "okay, this'll be interesting". After the first page, it was obvious - by George, he'd done it! As I kept reading, I found myself thinking, "hmm, wish I'd said it like that!" He'd created a fantastic resource - short, non-technical, user-friendly answers to every skeptic argument.

I finally saw my problem was trying to cram every bit of science into my short answer as possible, in order to make the paragraph bullet proof to any objection. But Jan had the right approach - just "bat the ball back over the net" and get into the nitty gritty afterwards. So I'm immensely grateful for Jan for both providing some immensely useful content and also teaching me a lesson about science communication.

I've changed most of the rebuttals to skeptic arguments to Jan's one-liners. But if you're going to complain about any particular wording, I still take final responsibility for all the content - sometimes I changed his wording and often made the one-liners even shorter than Jan's version. You can also get the one-liners in printable format. This makes a handy resource to carry in your pocket in case a skeptic jumps out at you on the street. This also goes into the iPhone app and Android app so if you have either app on your phone, you probably already have the one-liners.

But being a hoarder who has trouble throwing anything out, I've kept all the old paragraphs and indulged in a comparison between the old paragraph answer and the new one-liners. I still keep the paragraph answer at the top of each skeptic argument page. So translators, no need to go back and change everything - hold off for a little while as I'm planning to restructure the whole database to use both the one-liner and paragraphs. More on this shortly...

By the way, a while back, Rob Honeycutt (author of Kung-fu Climate and Why does Anthony Watts drive an electric car?) suggested I should write 4 to 5 word answers to each skeptic argument. I'm going to go on record here and say that's impossible! Prove me wrong, Rob!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, I welcome suggested improvements to any of the one line answers. So please post a comment suggesting how they can be better. But I do recommend rather than a "you should include something about..." in your comment, actually give specific wording, keeping it under 100 characters. If its better than the existing wording, I'll update the database. Thanks for your suggestions.

Lastly, Jan asked me to mention he prefers the "contrarians" nomenclature for people who reject mainstream climate science, following the professional climate website This is because mainstream climate scientists are the true skeptics. In general, it takes a lot of good evidence to convince a scientist. I personally agree with this assessment of true skepticism but use the term 'skeptic' so we don't get distracted into arguments about labels and instead stick to discussing and understanding science.

Posted by John Cook on Tuesday, 20 July, 2010

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