2011-08-29 03:25:39What do Joe Romm's readers say about SkS?
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

See for yourself by going to the comment thread to Romm's open-ended article, "What topics would you like to see Climate Progress cover?" posted on Aug 27.

2011-08-29 04:39:25
Andy S

skucea@telus...
66.183.179.249

Yes, there were a few comments that SkS articles are too technical and hard to understand. I think that many of us are guilty of writing articles at a level that we would like to read, rather than a level that our target audience needs.

Romm's readers commenters are probably even more politically pigeon-holed than we are (I mean, as evidenced by the Political Compass thread). I wonder if not only do we have a tendency to pitch our articles at the technical level of our own peer group but if we also using the discourse and assumptions of our own political peer group/habitus, ie, left-libertarian, as defined by thePolitical Compass survey.

We are mostly a group of politically leftish, free-thinking, prosperous, educated, white people trying to reach an audience who do not have one or more of those attributes. I am raising this not because I am criticizing anyone here and neither do I have any solutions in mind. I'm just wondering if we are being as effective as we could be in changing people's minds.

Recent opinion poll here.

2011-08-29 04:55:34Andy S
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

I concur with your assessment of the comments on Romm's ope-thread and on you take on SkS.

Haviing said that, I strongly object to the proposition that SkS attempt to become all things for all people. SkS has a niche on the inbternational stage and it should continue to focus its efforts on that niche.

The easiest way for SkS to broaden its reach and impact is through partnering with other like-minded websites.

2011-08-29 04:56:11List of all available "Basic rebuttals"?
BaerbelW

baerbel-for-350@email...
93.193.107.74

Would it perhaps make the information available on SkS more readily available if there were a list of arguments by rebuttal-level? This list - especially the one for basic level - would need to be prominently featured on the homepage.

2011-08-29 06:40:45
Andy S

skucea@telus...
66.183.179.249

I agree, Badger, that it would be an error to try to become all things to all people. The comments about SkS at Romm's just prompted me to doubt whether we are doing it right.

Understanding climate science at a level that enables people to counter denialist claims isn't ever going to be easy.

I think I may have posted it before but this video makes the argument that even if we are just preaching to the converted (and I don't think we are), that's a worthwhile activity in its own right.

2011-08-29 06:44:54
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
84.151.53.248

I keep pushing for an 8th-grade reading level: This is the common target for people who want their messages read and understood.

2011-08-29 10:24:20What SkS needs to do
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
130.102.158.12
I think you can liken science communication to a car that tends to veer off to the left so you have to constantly make the effort to watch your direction and keep the car driving straight. As scientifically literate communicators, our natural tendency is to write at a level higher than the average person. There are several reasons for this. Scientific language is more precise so you can write with less ambiguity. Writing in plain language introduces dangers of misinterpretation. And the biggest reason - communicating science in plain language is hard and time consuming. I think of that Twain quote where he apologizes for writing a long letter, he doesn't have time to write a short letter.

I'm reading a lot of communication research at the moment. Some of it is stating obvious stuff (Wendy likes to exclaim "they spent thousands of dollars researching that?! I could've told you that for free!") For example, when trying to persuade people of a fact, they're more likely to accept it as true if it's easy to understand. If it's difficult to process, they're less likely to accept it. Which is basically saying the obvious - if you want to successfully communicate the science, make it easy to understand.

So the point of what I'm saying is SkS posts have a tendency to veer away from plain English and it takes effort from the author and the rest of us commenting on the forum to break it down into simpler terms. I concur with Neal that we need to continue to make that effort, to push for a high school reading level. The ideal situation is we use the multi level rebuttals to have our cake and eat it - explain in plain English and at a technical level. Example - what would have been ideal is when we reposted TWTB's CERN blog post, we also wrote a basic version and posted that as the blog post, while having a green box at the end of the post linking to the basic rebuttal and TWTB's intermediate rebuttal. That way, we hit multiple audiences, cover the technical stuff but also reach the lay audience. I didn't have time to write a basic rebuttal when I reposted TWTB's post but we still should write it. In fact, in the interest of repetition (another powerful tool for educators), if someone wants to write the basic version, we'll still post it as a blog post and create a new climate myth at http://sks.to/cern to make this a long standing resource.

2011-08-29 10:26:42
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
dana1981@yahoo...
198.217.64.127
I think there's a wide variety of technical levels in our posts. Some are highly technical, some are basic enough that the general public can follow them. Maybe Baerbel's suggestion to make the basic rebuttals more prominent and easily accessible is a good idea, but some subjects are technical by nature and difficult to address with a simple response. And ultimately, we do have basic levels in almost all of our rebuttals.
2011-08-29 10:29:49
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
dana1981@yahoo...
198.217.64.127
Re: John's point, I agree it would be ideal to always have a basic version when we publish a more technical post. The problem there is the manpower needed to accomplish that. Easy to say, harder to get it done! Regarding CERN, I can maybe do a basic version on Thursday if nobody else has tackled it by then. But if somebody else wants to step up and take it, please do. John has a good point that it takes more work to write about scientific issues at a basic level. I know sometimes I get lazy and don't make the effort to simplify every point I write about :-)
2011-08-29 10:40:18Suggestion
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

Perhaps Neal could review all of the currently posted Basic Rebuttals and tell us which meet his 8th grade reading level criteria* and which do not.

*I suspect that the criteria will differ by country with the USA being somewhat lower than say, China.

2011-08-29 11:10:09
Tom Curtis

t.r.curtis@gmail...
112.213.157.13

I have spent many years debating evolution, politics, philosophy, and now climate change, on the internet.  Initially my habit was to be colloquial and susinct.  I found an immediate problem with that, that I was deliberately misinterpreted by my opponents to make my views seem ridiculous.  I say "deliberately misinterpreted" because almost universally, corrections and clarrifications where not accepted.  The consequence was that where I had abbreviated from three down to one paragraphs to make the message brief and readable, I ended up with 20 paragraph long back and forth discussions just clarrifying the deliberate misunderstandings.

 

We are not in the position of writting to explain difficult concepts at a popular level to people who want to learn.  Rather, for the most part, we are explaining simple concepts to people in the face of a sustained campaign of misinformation - a campaign that is carried onto the comments at SkS.

 

Given that, I think an attempt to be more popular in our style of communication is a mistake.  This does not mean there is no room or need for popular communication of climate science.  I think the system of basic, intermediate and advanced rebutalls is a very good one.  But any basic level rebutall (or blog) should be paired with an advanced level rebutal (or blog) 

2011-08-29 11:14:34
Doug Mackie
Doug Mackie
dougmackie68@gmail...
202.154.144.146

neal. You make a good point. But I think 8th grade is too low. Grade 8 is appropriate for the "entry level" stuff but to me one of the purposes of SkS is to be a resource for people reading at or above Year 10-12 to take and use to educate people at or below Year 10.

It is not the words that confuse people, it is the concepts. Take our piece on logs; "log" qualifies as an easy word (1 syllable) and though I was taught the maths behind the concept in 10th grade, I think many adults will have difficulty.

(I see that our OA not OK series comes in with a Flesch reading ease of 52% and a Flesch-Kincaird grade level of 10.4. I know grade levels are not easily compared between countries but I had been aiming at what we call Year 11 because the major daily papers aim at what they call a reading age of 12. In comparison my papers seem to typically come in at 25 reading ease and grade 15).

2011-08-29 11:32:38
Andy S

skucea@telus...
66.183.179.249

Regarding Tom's point, perhaps we could try, for blog posts, a simple, two or three sentence summary at the start of an article, perhaps in a green box. In this way, we could get the main point over (it would be above the fold also, so it would show up on the front page) without sacrifying any precision in the main article. This could even be supplied by someone other than the author. (I'm looking at you Neal!)

2011-08-29 11:51:36
adelady

amgnificent@gmail...
124.171.85.132

The other thing we have to bear in mind is that, regardless of reading ease by the common criteria, we're dealing with number based concepts.

I think the 'hair-dryer' concept for OHC was excellent for this purpose.  Having taught/tutored maths to many primary, high school and tertiary students (and dealt with their parents), the biggest issue is _size_ of numbers.   As soon as we're into infinitesimally small or unbelievably large numbers, we're already dancing with the possibility of incomprehension, even with competent-undergraduate-standard readers.  Then we get to describing those numbers by powers of 10, move on to logs and other 'basic' functions along with horrors! percentages and ratios.   

No need to get depressed.  Just bear in mind that it's a really, really good idea to use a vivid analogy if you can come up with one.     Even if people can't get the maths straight in their heads, the visual or visceral impact of a well-constructed concept will support them through the thinking they can get done. 

As for words.  We have choices.  Short is usually better than long. Anglo-Saxon is usually better than Latinate. Active voice is usually better than passive.   (This last is the hardest to avoid for people used to objective writing in the traditions of science, academia, law, public policy.)

-----------------------------------------

Okaaaay.  Just fell foul of one of my own rules.  

I said "We have choices".  That's passive.  "We can choose" is the active version.  

2011-08-29 11:56:00The dangers and benefits of abbreviating
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
130.102.158.12
I understand where you're coming from, Tom, because I once held the same position. The first few years of SkS, I tended to avoid using metaphors in my explanations because I found people would often go off on tangents torturing the metaphor to the nth degree. Far more precise and to the point to simple explain the science exactly as it is, in precise, clear terms. But in so doing, I missed out on the many benefits of metaphors - using existing concepts (or schemas) that people already have in their minds to explain climate science. Making abstract concepts concrete and tangible. And basically, getting the message across more effectively, making the science "stick" in people's minds. I opened myself to the danger of convoluted discussion but the benefits outweighed the risks.

Similarly, I always sought to make my communications bullet proof to denier attack. Attach caveats, disclaimers, qualifiers, definitions - cover all bases in my writing to ward of every possible avenue of attack. And maybe you can preempt most denier attacks this way. But you also blunt the effectiveness of your message by bogging it down with minutae. So I've had to become willing to take a risk, open myself up to some risk of attack, in order to publish a more effective message. A simple example - the consensus infographic that says "97 out of 100 climate experts agree humans are causing global warming". For the average person, this is clear. But I got grilled by this statement at a public talk by my old Dean of Physics (crusty old dean!). So I told him, if I wanted to be more precise in my language, I would've said "97% of climate scientists actively publishing climate research in the peer reviewed literature agree that humans are causing global warming". but that mouthful doesn't make for effective messaging.

Of course our Basic/Intermediate approach only works for rebuttals, not stand-alone blog posts. And our resources are limited. So it's an aspiration to aim for basic versions of all our messages, not always a practical goal. But we should always keep the aspiration in mind lest our car drift too far off the road.

Re Andy's suggestion, we don't necessarily have to start every post with a green box. But I think there needs to be more thought gone into what is the core message of every blog post and then the opening paragraph should emphasize the core message. Good old fashioned journalism - don't bury the lead. Encourage all authors to dwell on this when penning your posts and all SkSers to keep this in mind, when commenting on draft blog posts. Exhort each other to define and lead with the core message and offer suggestions if the post doesn't yet do that.

I'm not sure exactly what year level we need to pitch at but am quite interested in the web services that analyze an article's reading level - if these services are accurate and instructive, might be worth incorporating into our editorial process more actively.

2011-08-29 12:53:57
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey
yooper49855@hotmail...
97.83.150.37

It sounds like we need to write an accessible abstract - 1 or 2 paragraphs long, perhaps in a green box - at the start of each blog post that serves as a summary of the findings of the blog post.

This is the format that pharma uses to share the gist of a clinical study with primary care medical practitioners and medical specialists (essentially:  lay people):

SOAP

Perhaps something like this format could be adaptable to such an abstract (1-2 paragraphs).

An example of a SOAP:

SOAP Example

2011-08-29 16:00:47Abstracts for blog post
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
124.177.173.40

I don't think we need to be so structured that every blog post needs a green box abstract (although if some authors want to do so, sure, give it a try). That would be a little restrictive for certain types of blog posts and there is an element of creativity in some posts. But it would be a good idea for all authors to consciously seek to emphasise their core message in their opening paragraph.

2011-08-29 18:23:22
Paul D

chillcast@googlemail...
82.18.130.183

You can't ignore your audience. SkS is a product, if you want it to have an impact on those that are less scientifically aware then some articles or a section of SkS should speak in their language.

2011-08-29 20:34:12
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
84.151.37.22

I think an 8th-grade reading level is a valid goal, and a 10th-grade level is generally attainable. I remind you of my by-now-worn-out quote from the nuclear physicist (and Kiwi!) Lord Rutherford: "If you can't explain, to a barmaid, what you're doing, you don't understand it."

I do not accept that the technical material with which we're dealing is so complex that it cannot be presented at a commonly understood level. We are talking about language and phrasing here, since the mathematics must ALWAYS be talked around unless you are dealing with an expert audience. I have heard Richard Feynman present theoretical high-energy particle physics at a level that was insightful, comprehensible and enjoyable, simultaneously, to an audience of physics professors, graduate students and freshmen science students. It takes real effort to do it, and a clear understanding of which ideas are most important and which are details.

When we were discussing the prioritization of SkS activities, I strongly promoted the revision of our basic-level articles. This would be a difficult and somewhat contentious activity, because the degree of re-writing would be in some cases quite considerable; and the original authors will have an understandable pride of authorship. It will be a considerable commitment of time, even for one article, to re-write it and get it approved. The goal would be to produce something like a cruise missile, that unerringly finds the misconception and then destroys it; so it has to be a seamless shaped charge mounted on an accurate delivery platform.

Are we really up for this?

2011-08-29 23:58:08nealjking
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

How about reviewing all of the currently posted Basic Rebuttals and tell us which meet his 8th grade reading level criteria* and which do not? This will get the ball rolling.

 

2011-08-30 00:00:43The Time to Act is Now!
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

As we have discussed extensively on previous comment threads, the care and feeding of the SkS rebuttal articles should have equal priority to cranking out new blog articles. The rebuttal articles are, after all, what makes SkS unique. They are our bread and butter. They are our reason for being.

I'll repeat my suggested action plan here -- John Cook should immediately create a small team of SkS authors to triage the existing undiverse of rebuttal articles in order to identify those that need attention (rewrites & updates) immediately.

"Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!"  

2011-08-31 09:11:02
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
84.151.33.152

I think that most of the articles could stand to be reviewed and re-honed. I think the question is, Are we up to the stress?

 

Stages:

1) Review the original, to see if it should be updated with new information, insights or relevant details

2) Re-written proposal

3) Shock when the re-write looks different than the original

4) Some process of reconciliation & compromise

5) Agreement for a revised version

 

The hard part will be 4).

2011-08-31 12:52:51nealjking
John Hartz
John Hartz
john.hartz@hotmail...
98.122.98.161

The first step has to be the creation a small team of SkS authors to triage the existing undiverse of rebuttal articles in order to identify those that need attention (rewrites & updates) immediately.

The second step would be to solicit volunteers to draft the rewrites/updates of the bucket of articles that are in the worst shape.