2011-06-23 14:50:39MADE TO STICK Part 3: Concrete
John Cook


Language is often abstract but life is not abstract and people generally don't think in abstract terms. Therefore, communicating with concrete imagery tends to be more effective than abstract language. Concrete language helps novices understand while abstraction is the luxury of experts. Speaking in concrete terms is not about dumbing down but about speaking in a universal language that all parties understand.

Abstractions are harder to remember while concrete images stick. Think of Aesop's fable of the fox who can't reach hanging grapes and concludes they must be sour. The reason "sour grapes" is such a ubiquitous term across cultures is because it's rooted in concrete imagery.

When explaining climate science, avoid getting bogged down in statistics and abstract concepts. Try to make it real. Global warming isn't just a long term statistical trend - it's a physical phenomenon where heat is building up in our climate system. More energy is coming in than going back out. When you put it in concrete terms like that, it makes it harder for someone to argue that it's just a natural cycle because they have to get around the physical reality of this accumulation of heat.

James Hansen is good at concrete imagery. He describes internal variability as "heat sloshing around our climate" which is a lot more meaningful than referring to it as stochastic noise. He explains the inertia of the Greenland ice sheet by saying "we can't just throw a rope around the ice sheet and pull it back". These explanations clarify understanding and stick in the mind.

It's advisable that we collect as many metaphors as possible to have on hand when required. So to this end, I've created a new metaphor database so whenever you encounter an interesting and useful metaphor, be sure to come straight here and add it to our database:


For now, the metaphors page is only available to SkS authors on the forum. We may make it public down the track, let's see what becomes of it. Or maybe we'll keep it private and climatebites.org can dip into it for their website - we'll see how it develops over time.

2011-06-24 01:07:35Sharing vivid, concrete metaphors is important, but carries risks
Tom Smerling


At the end of his post, John raises an interesting question:    Where and how should we share our best climate images and metaphors?

On one hand, when addressing general audiences, we need apt climate metaphors all the time.   As Bud Ward (Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media) put it recently:

     "This issue aches for good metaphors.    This climate change issue hurts for good metaphors."

Vivid and concrete metaphors are hard to invent, but easy to recognize.    So we should share them.

On the other hand, over-exposed metaphors lose their element of surprise (Sks Forum:  Unexpected:  Made to Stick Part 2).  They eventually become overworked cliches.  (E.g. The "canary in the coal mine" probably deserves to be put to "final rest" at this point.).    Another danger is that deniers can study them and be ready with witty retorts (e.g. "The Hockey Stick is Broken.")  

Obviously, at ClimateBites.org we've decided the benefits of sharing -- we've posted 62 "bites" so far -- outweigh the costs.   Luckily, creativity is an inexhaustible resource.     We have to keep the creative juices flowing, conjuring up fresh images to replace the old, tired ones.