2011-07-11 07:32:18Advice from Joe Romm on all the things SkS is doing wrong
John Cook


Okay, my subject header is a little misleading, I just said it like that to get everyone's attention :-) But I just had a long skype call with Joe Romm who's been looking at Skeptical Science and wanted to give some advice on how we could be doing things better. A lot of it is consistent with issues I've been thinking about (and posting on the forum). Here's the general gist and I exhort all SkSers to read through this and absorb it - if your desire is to have an impact with our work here on SkS, following this advice will deepen your impact:

  • His main point was to avoid cute, cryptic headlines. Instead, our headlines need to be compelling, meaningful, containing the core message of our posts. A good way to think about it - if the headline appears as a tweet, will it compell people into clicking on it (and importantly, retweeting it). Similarly, will it lead to people liking it on Facebook - which then makes the article appear on their own Facebook page.
  • He also says the first 2 lines of our blog post are crucial and should also contain the core message. He has a sticky note on his monitor saying don't bury the lead - always reminding himself to find the key message in each article and make it the first thing people read.
  • He recommended I have more content on the homepage. Eg - more blog posts. That's easy enough for me to reprogram so I'll get on that.
  • He said we should show more content from each blog post on the homepage. Currently I only show the first paragraph automatically. But I will need to add more functionality to give SkS authors more control on where the homepage display ends. He says headlines are more effective if accompanied with a graphic or graph. So he tries to put a graph near the top of each blog post and make sure it's displayed on the homepage.
  • He reminded me that many readers don't click links - this is why the homepage should show the core message in the first few lines and a graph/graphic - so we make sure people get the message even if they don't read our post (and if they do read the post, increases the chance that our core message is communicated successfully).
  • Think of someone arriving at the SkS homepage for the first time.
  • He suggested, if you want a good example of compelling headlines, look at the environmental headlines at Reddit.
  • Lastly, he suggested SkSers should look at Climate Progress as a good example of these principles in action!

This is all sound advice and consistent with the lessons we've been learning from the Made To Stick book. I've noticed a tendency towards a "just communicate the science" mentality among science communicators. A common misconception is that it's good enough just to get the facts out there. It's not. We can't just be smart about the science. We need to be smart about communication. We need to be as effective as possible with the limited resources we have, getting maximum bang for our buck. The difference between noone reading our work and it going viral could be something as simple as a more thoughtfully worded headline.

2011-07-11 07:49:09In an ideal world...
John Hartz
John Hartz

the initial paragaphs of an Advanced rebuttal would constitute the Basic rebuttal, and about one-half to two-thirds of the text of an Advanced rebuttal would constitute the Intermediate rebuttal. (I've been wanting to post this for queite some time now. John provided the perfect opportunity.)

2011-07-11 08:08:18
Rob Painting

Hat's off to Joe Romm and all the great work he puts in, but:

-His newly revamped site sucks in terms of user friendliness. I wanted to correct his post on jellyfish and ocean acidification, but commenting is a PITA. I realize I'm not the 'average' reader though - I don't do Facebook. 

-I find his some of posts tend to ramble a bit, and others come across as manic. Is that a turn-off to casual readers?

All good advice though.



2011-07-11 08:15:45
Paul D


He said we should show more content from each blog post on the homepage.

I agree with that. I don't know what has happened recently, but some posts only have one line on the home page before the read more link???

You need a few paragraphs to get some interest.

2011-07-11 08:53:18
Dana Nuccitelli
Good tips. I like the idea of having more control over where the text is cut off on the front page. Often our leading paragraph is only a couple sentences, so very little shows up on the front page. Leading with the key information is something I'm working on. Trying to get a graphic to show up on the front page would be helpful too.
2011-07-11 08:55:40Speaking of graphics...
John Hartz
John Hartz

When will the SkS banner be inserted into the Daily Digests?

2011-07-11 09:29:25
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey

Romm gives good advice, but his new format is much less readable and comment-able than before (I don't FB either).

Quite frankly, for me his blog is now an afterthought, read-it-if-I-have-nothing-better-to-do than the on-my-short-list-of-must-reads of every session.

But that gives me more time for SkS and Neven's Arctic Sea Ice blog (if I just had a computer of my own...).

2011-07-11 12:44:25Commenting on CP
John Cook


Joe commented that he wasn't aware when merging with Think Progress that the new commenting system requiring Facebook came with it. He's not a big fan of it either.

I personally agree that Joe's posts are a little long for my liking. I like to keep blog posts shorter, keep them more focused. I've found the longer the post, the easier it is for deniers to pick some random detail to obsess over, distracting from the core message.

And of course he's a lot more partisan than SkS - different strokes for different folks.

But the key points outlined above still apply (and happen to mesh with points I've been making over the last few weeks anyway).

Badger, the daily digest header will come this week. If I don't have it up by Friday, feel free to nag me endlessly.

Re deciding how much content from each blog post to display on the homepage, can anyone with experience on other blog systems how it's done elsewhere? I presume it's putting some kind of marker within your blog post for my code to look for. Is it as simple as adding a [BREAK] or something to that effect?

2011-07-11 14:34:31
Ari Jokimäki


Wordpress has an excerpt box where you can insert an abstract. I haven't used it but I'm thinking about it.

2011-07-11 17:05:24


I like the idea of putting a graph on or near the top of the post that will also show up in the homepage, it tells you what the post is about and stimulate your curiosity.

John, wordpress inserts the tag <!--more--> which shows up in the editor as a line to mark the break point.

2011-07-11 17:20:55Okay made two changes to SkS homepage
John Cook


I've gone with Riccardo's idea of the tag and applied it to the first half dozen blog posts on the SkS homepage so they now show more info. So if you want to get more of your blog post's action on the homepage, do this:

  • In the WYSIWYG editor, click on the HTML button
  • Find where you want the break to go (sorry, you'll have to get used to navigating HTML)
  • Add the code <!--more-->
  • Save your blog post changes
  • If you don't use this, the system automatically defaults to only showing the first paragraph. Eg - it stops when it first encounters a </p> tag

For future reference, I've added this info to the Welcome to the Authors Forum thread on the Authors forum. That way, weeks from now when you're thinking "where is that thread that gave instructions on how to put a break in my post?", just go to the Authors Forum and it will be the first thread, which is now becoming a reference manual for Authors.

Also increased the number of blog posts displaying on the homepage. That should keep Joe Romm happy but let's keep on the ball with our headlines and opening paragraphs also, lest I get another skype call at 6.30am.

2011-07-11 18:21:53
Rob Honeycutt


I think the two most important comments from Romm there are "Don't bury the lead" and "Use a graph near the top."

Headlines? Meh, Romm is very newsy-oldschool.  I think his headlines are for the already converted.  He has a tendency to, IMO, push people off to the other side of the fence.  I think SkS headline style is fine.  More fun and friendly.  Designed to draw fence-sitters in to look at the actual science behind climate change.

I find myself reading less and less of Romm all the time.  I appreciate his being there as the anti-Watts, but it's very tiring after a while.  At CP pretty much the only things I ever read are related to new developments in renewable energy.

2011-07-11 18:27:41
Rob Painting

Actually I'm employing Joe Romm's advice right now on a post about ocean heat content. I've put a graph of ocean heat from 2005-2010 right at the top of the post. Hard to miss. Especially as I've coloured it bright red!

2011-07-11 20:54:27
Paul D


To be honest, the web site could do with a make over.
It's getting somewhat cluttered and disheveled.

From an accessibility POV the icons for Monkton Myths etc are difficult to read even with good eye sight.

2011-07-11 21:00:28
Rob Painting

It's funny, I never visit the home page, but I see exactly what Joe Romm is on about. Without strong headings or images, there's no hooks for the lurkers when scrolling down the page. Assuming most vistors access the site via the homepage that is.

2011-07-11 23:38:32
Glenn Tamblyn


"Think of someone arriving at the SkS homepage for the first time"

To me this is the most critical observation he makes. We have all sorts of regulars, both commenters and lurkers. But if the links to SkS are growing all the time, what grabs the newcomers. We have a 'newcomers start here' type approach, but it is pretty generic. Then it is 'dive into the daily blogs' and try to catch up.

If you start a new job, you hope there will be some sort of transition package that lets you get up to speed quickly. Otherwise you might be lost for a long time.

To some extent SkS seems to operate in a closed world of the afficionadoes - WUWT and everyone else does the same. We are having our daily conversation with the usual suspects about the topic of the day. "Muller over at BEST said...". And for the insiders this is all grist to the mill. But for a 17 year old who meandered here from a WOW blog, or a concerned granny from the realm of professional tatting who is worriedd about her grandchildren beyond making doillies for them, where do they start?

Creating a structure and narrative to peoples experience of SkS is one part of extending its appeal and usefullness hugely. Thats why I suggested the Index. Automatic structure. Built in learning experience. Perversely things like this may be more important than the'blogging topic of the day'.

2011-07-11 23:59:03
Ari Jokimäki


Have there been an introductory post on the skeptic arguments? I mean that it might be good to have a post going through the body of skeptic arguments and briefly describing why they are wrong (with links to proper places for more information). You know, sort of the whole thing in one brief article. Perhaps the Guide is it, but it might be too long for that. It should be short enough so that Glenn's concerned granny would read it through.

2011-07-12 00:16:46Hold your horses...
John Hartz
John Hartz

Rather than imagining what users are looking for when they come to the SkS website, let's fibnd out by asking them.

See my previous post: http://www.skepticalscience.com/thread.php?t=1974

2011-07-12 00:19:47



Have you created the list of proposed activities that we can look at and prioritize?

2011-07-12 00:26:48
Rob Honeycutt


That's a really good idea, Badger.  It's more than once that I've had my own "expert opinion" on a matter totally dashed by actual information.

2011-07-12 01:33:22
Same Ordinary Fool


More blogposts on the home page...............by itself isn't enough for users like myself who want to scroll backwards looking for something seen before, but can't remember the subject of the article it was in, yet may recognize it if seen again...from last week.  Such a backwards scroll is also the usual browsing technique.

It would be helpful if we had the ability to scroll down the home page, and then click to the next older page, and the next, etc..  At Climate Progress it is now possible to thereby scroll backwards about 32 days.

Thanks to Joe Romm for now making this possible there.  Until recently it could only be scrolled back several days.  Then the next choice would be from February.....There's too much at Climate Progress that I wouldn't encounter anywhere else for me to stop visiting.  But I, also non-FB, agree that it is sad about the comments.

If, since there's no suggestion that this is possible, I'm asking too much;  let this be a vote for as many blogposts on the home page as possible.

2011-07-12 02:13:07


I think Joe makes some good points, but why does he know best.  Did you provide any tips for him?

Joe's old blog was one of the most user unfriendly sites around, since it was almost impossible to cut and paste to reference what he has said. Thank goodness he has finally changed it, although even now it doesn't fit on the screen widthways without scrolling. 

I also suspect he is a littleoverzealous with regards to promoting all things 'environmental', and could be a little more balanced and discriminatory in his conclusions.  It could be potentially classed as a green propaganda site.

2011-07-12 04:38:07
Andy S


I've become bored with Romm's site, although I do skim the headlines every day because he often has a scoop on the latest news. I find his scientific articles to be generally very good but it's his hard line on politics that turns me off. Sometimes he seems harder on people who agree with him 90% than he is on the outright deniers. The narcissism of small differences and all that. (I'm sometimes reminded of my university days when the Trotskysists, Leninists and Maoists used to fight more viciously amongst themselves than they ever did against the Conservatives.)

Still, his comments about headlines and opening paragraphs are spot on. Putting a graphic upfront is a bit more tricky, since, in that context,  it has to be a self-explanatory, simple graphic and that often involves original drafting rather than borrowing from elsewhere.

I have noticed that several blogs (Rabbett and Romm, for example) have, like SkS, opened up to new authors. While this is great for expanding and diversifying content, the predictable and original voice of the blog is lost. One of the things that drew me to SkS was the consistent and measured tone of JC's posts. I'm not sure what can be done about this but I'd encourage JC to post more and perhaps exert more editorial control to maintain the "brand" of this blog.

One specific suggestion that Romm made on his blog (and which he doesn't seem to have followed through on) is to elevate particularly good comments into the original post. Perhaps we don't need to cut and paste the comment itself but we could sometimes append a box to the end of a blog post highlighting a valuable comment, with a link. This would be useful in its own right (the comments threads can sometimes be hard to navigate) and would also help promote constructive  commenters to become authors.

2011-07-12 05:09:52




- I share your perception of Romm's attitude towards fellow travelers: He's accused me of lying, because my perspective was 5% different from his. Then he puts my comments "on ice" forever.

- I think JC tries to keep consistency by promoting good standards for communication, clarity, etc. In the last year, there has been a tremendous amount of material added, but not at a consistent level of comprehensibility. I think the solution, as I've mentioned before, is to institute some kind of ongoing review/revision process, so we can produce 2nd or 3rd generations of articles that are more polished: Easier to understand, more focused, and at a consistent (and generally lower) reading level.

2011-07-13 05:10:38
John Mason


I miss the old Climate Progress and said so to Joe the other day. He agreed with me in response - hopefully it might be restored at some point. Classic case o the old adage - "if it ain't broke then don't fix it!"


Cheers - John

2011-07-13 05:38:01Recommendation re SkS Home-page
John Hartz
John Hartz

Now that John Cook has vertically stretched the SkS home-page, I recommend that it be refomated into two columns by moving the contents of what is now in the left-hand column to the right-hand column. Doing so will provide wider window for the articles allowing more article content to be shown. In addtioin, a two-column format will be more visually appealing than the current set-up.