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Plain English climate science - now live at Skeptical Science

Posted on 16 August 2010 by John Cook

If there's one piece of advice I would give to those engaging in social media, it would be to "brace yourself". Skeptical Science started as a small website listing rebuttals to skeptic arguments. It has since grown to include a blog, iPhone app, Twitter page, Android app, translations into 15 languages, Nokia app and so on. I'd like to say these were my ideas but they were all suggested by others. And just to prove I'm a glutton for punishment, I recently put a call out for authors to help convert all the existing rebuttals into plain English. Today, the first of the "plain English" rebuttals has just gone live.

Less than a fortnight ago, immediately after I asked for help, a number of people generously volunteered to help write the plain English rebuttals. To get the ball rolling, I programmed up a private forum where the authors could collaborate and discuss how best to communicate the science. Immediately, the forum exploded with activity as everyone posted their ideas and commented on everyone else's content. An instant community of focused climate communicators had been created. Now I must admit, when the idea of offering multi-level information was first suggested, the deterrent of all the extra work was balanced by the importance of reaching the general public with easy to understand science. But also intriguing was the possibility of creating an environment where climate writers could work together and see where that might lead. Social media is like the butterfly effect - you give it a gentle push in one direction and it can expand in all manner of wonderful, unexpected ways. Put together a group of clever people passionate about climate and the possibilities are endless. In just under two weeks, the results have already exceeded my expectations.

Within a few days, all the authors were posting suggested plain English rebuttals and commenting on each others' work. Figuring I should get my feet wet too, I started a thread on "It hasn't warmed since 1998" using my debunk of the week for Irregular Climate. However, John Russell posted an alternative wording which was much easier to read and frankly, superior to my rendition. So for this first plain English rebuttal, we're going with John Russell's version. Graham Wayne has already written a fantastic summary of the positives and negatives of global warming which will be coming tomorrow.

How this works is we'll offer three different levels - Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. To visually reinforce the different "skill levels", I've used the ski-run icons of a green circle, blue square and black diamond, as suggested at Real Climate (h/t to Gavin Schmidt). All the existing rebuttals have been designated "Intermediate" level. As we gradually add more Basic rebuttals to the database, you'll see more and more tabs at the top of the "What the science says" boxes (note to DarkSkywise, this image is not clickable :-) but you can click on the tabs here):

When you visit a rebuttal page, the easiest level displays by default. Of course, for 118 of the 119 rebuttals, all you can see currently is the Intermediate version. But we'll be steadily adding new Basic rebuttals over the following weeks and months (hopefully not years, it better not take that long). I'm keen to add Advanced rebuttals too but that will depend on whether people step forward to help write them, or other climate bloggers grant permission to republish their existing content.

But as far as I'm concerned, the Basic rebuttals are the priority - this website is about explaining climate science to the general public. As each new Basic rebuttal is completed, it'll also be published as a blog post (a blog post of John Russell's 1998 rebuttal was published earlier today). Feel free to post your feedback, critiques and suggestions at these blog posts - I'm sure the authors will be pleased to take on board your feedback and tweak their content if it can be improved.

Lastly, we're still keen to have more people join our group of climate writers. If you find yourself reading the new Basic rebuttals and improvements or other ways to explain the science, you might be able to contribute to our Authors forum. If you're interested in being involved, contact me or put your hand up in a comment here and I'll get in contact with you. Lastly, let me express my heartfelt thanks to all the current authors - their passion and enthusiasm is amazing and I hope their efforts go a long way in making our climate more understandable to the general public.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 12:

  1. Thanks for everything you're doing. A thought: it seems to me just from reading ads that big business has come around to accepting the reality of global warming. Has anyone done a survey of the stated policy positions of major corporations as they pertain to GW and AGW? (and what they suggest as solutions?).
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  2. I'm new here and i read another debunking claim of Mann's Hockey Stick by another statistician, by McShane and Wyner. They claim the proxy data is no good in reconstructing past temperatures. However i noticed where there is empirical data on temps, it seems to correlate to what the proxy generated models show. Anything you can say about McShane and Wyner's paper?
    http://www.e-publications.org/ims/submission/index.php/AOAS/user/submissionFile/6695?confirm=63ebfddf
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  3. What struck me about McShane and Wyner's paper (besides the fact it's apparently not yet published) is the heavy load of extraneous material it carries outside of their core thesis, a well-developed perspective from the political viewpoint of the importance of their work. As well, they're working outside of their realm of expertise, as indicated by their remarks about the mysterious nature of natural variability for which they cite no references. I was struck by that because they mention their vaguely expressed worry in close proximity to their gentle chiding of climate researchers for not engaging with statisticians. Ironic.

    The "Hocky Stick" is discussed at SkS here:

    Is the hockey stick broken
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  4. Thanx doug.....Like i said, i'm a lay person, but your take corresponded with my view of it. I just want to know so i can answer the deniers. I'll read more on "Is the hockey stick broken"
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  5. Re: McShane and Wyner...

    One of the issues in one of the CRU reports suggested statisticians and climate scientists should be working together more.

    Seems like they still aren't.

    Given the importance of the subject, I often find it scary how little money is actually spent on it. Yet on the one hand many skeptics want less spent!

    Can't remember where I read it but one professor and his students had to pay for their own air fare to get to a research expedition in the Arctic. He also said that their was hardly any temperature data for the seas around the Petermann glacier.
    Obviously there isn't great profits to be made out of this research!
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  6. Here is a discussion on the M & W (as of yet unpublished) paper. I'm sure RC will do a post after the paper has passed through review and is properly analyzed. For now it's much ado about nothing until it is published. Frankly I think the hockey stick thing has been beaten to death.
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    Moderator Response: Further discussion of this would best be conducted at Is the hockey stick broken.
  7. Great basic explanation for the 1998 argument. I would suggest adding something to the end of the first paragraph:

    "What's more, globally, the hottest 12-month period ever recorded was from June 2009 to May 2010, as of June 2010."

    Or something to that effect, otherwise the information will be (unfortunately) quickly out of date.
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  8. This is an immensely valuable approach to the debate over human attribution of contemporary climate change (which, when everything is stripped away, is what all the controversy is about), but to me there's an important aspect missing, which is identifying the logical fallacies that commonly appear in skeptical arguments against AGW.

    There are some skeptical arguments that have scientific merit, for which there may be a variety of [apparently] contradictory evidence. In such cases, addressing the argument will come down to a question of listing and weighing the evidence, particularly in regards to its reliability.

    In many more cases, however, skeptical arguments against AGW entail invoking logical fallacies. Particularly common fallacies are:
    a) strawman arguments (intentionally or unintentionally misrepresenting the opposing view, for the express purpose of “disproving” it),
    b) red herring arguments (raising issues or evidence that are not relevant to the actual issue being debated),
    c) cherry picking (misrepresenting the weight of scientific evidence by focusing on evidence that supports a particular conclusion),
    d) ad hominem arguments (attacking the person who makes the argument, rather than the argument itself).
    e) etc.

    For example, the discussion about Did Global Warming Stop in 1998 makes reference to "cherry picking".
    And the discussion about The Rate of Melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet addresses what is essentially a "Red Herring" argument by Willis Eschenbach. (In other words, even if Eschenbach is correct, his argument is irrelevant!)

    These sorts of fallacies tend to occur again and again (and again!); only the specific details vary. True skeptics (i.e. those who are equally skeptical toward the arguments both for and against AGW) would benefit from learning how to identify these "type"-fallacies, as it will be easier for them to recognize similar sorts of fallacies in other circumstances.

    With regard to making the presentation easily accessible, which is the goal of this approach, one option would be to include an icon of a "red herring" or a "straw man" or a clump of cherries on the "Basic" response (or a picture of Al Gore for the "ad hominem" category ;-), which would link to a more detailed explanation of why the argument is fallacious on the "Intermediate" page.

    One potential argument against this approach would be that it presupposes a motive or intent in making a particular fallacious argument. While this may be true, my feeling is that "cherry picking is cherry picking", whether it is intentional or inadvertent. Our goal in science is an unbiased assessment of the evidence, and if a particular argument fails to adhere to this principle, the problem should be identified, irrespective of whether it was intentional or not.

    Just a suggestion! Thanks, as ever, for your efforts to shine a light on the scientific evidence relating to climate change!
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  9. Answering CoalGeologist, #8: there are already several excellent sites on logical fallacies and how to rebut them. My personal favorite is still http://fallacyfiles.org/ which is one of the very few (to give one example of its superiority over the others) to correctly describe the difference between a relevant personal attack and an irrelevant ad hominem.
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  10. John. I thought you could use this. It's got 285 words and fits on a single Word Document page. Good luck.

    ________________________________________________
    CO2 EFFECT IS WEAK

    I have re-titled this section in order to make it easier for the eye of the uninformed person, as he scans the page, to pick up on this argument because:
    1) They may have trouble recognizing the abbreviation “CO2”.
    2) They may not grasp what the word “weak” refers to.



    THERE IS TOO LITTLE CARBON DIOXIDE TO HAVE AN EFFECT ON TEMPERATURE


    A common argument made by those who do not believe in Man Made Global Warming is that, since Carbon Dioxide makes up such a small part of our atmosphere, it cannot possibly have a major effect on our temperature.

    This belief is based on the very simplistic idea that the smaller something is in size, the less capable it is of having any effect on the world in general. This idea can be easily seen to be wrong by using poison as an example.

    Imagine that you need a teaspoonful of Poison X in order to kill yourself. There are many poisons though and they are all different from each other, with different abilities. So you can now imagine Poison Y being able to kill you with just a single drop.

    Why would far less of one poison be able to kill you compared with another poison? Because their chemistry and abilities vary so very much from each other that they can affect the Human body in different ways.

    Now imagine a person who, for some strange reason, insists that Poison Y mentioned above, cannot possibly kill you, with a tiny drop, simply because he believes that there is not enough of it. You will realize, right away, that this person has a very simple minded view of the world in general. We all know that different things can have greater effects than others regardless of their size.

    [I would put the conclusion below in bold in order to make it stand out to the "plain" reader.]

    Greenhouse gases, like Carbon Dioxide, are no different. The design of the molecule, not how much of it there is in the atmosphere, is what gives it much greater ability to retain heat than other gases.
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  11. Thanks for the comment, villabalo.

    I'll add it to my list of source material and bring it to the attention of any of the authors who could find it useful. You might find it appearing somewhere.
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  12. First: I applaud the effort to boil down the arguments to the basic gist: People can always find more detail in the intermediate-level discussion.

    However: My impression is that even the basic-level discussions are written at an advanced-undergraduate level of English. If you want to get through to the majority of American readers, I think something more like 8th-grade level is called for. It doesn't mean that the argument needs to be "dumbed down", but that the manner of expression should be a little plainer, and the range of vocabulary should be cut back.

    I hope this makes sense to you.

    Best regards!
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