Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Elocution Lessons

Ethon brought in the mail on his way back from Boulder. In it was Eli's copy of EOS, the AGU membership magazine (pay the damn $20.00 dues, you can't even get a decent bunch of carrots for that these days with the $ in the toilet) Susan Hassol, one of RP Sr and Jrs. favorite punching bags, has written an elocution letter for scientists

. . .stop speaking in code. Words that seem perfectly common to scientists are still jargon to the wider world and always have simpler substitutes. Rather than “anthropogenic,” you could say “human caused.”
Your neighborhood Rabett has been very strong on doing this, although, as always there are lapses. BTW, don't just read the Boulder Post, read the comments esp that from Ben Santer to Jr. and watch for deployment of the Patented Pielke Aggressive Cringe. Hassol goes on
Instead of “spatial” and “temporal,” try “space” and “time.” When you talk about trends in degrees per decade, you are asking people to do math in their heads. Instead, try giving the total change over the full period of time. And know your audience; always use Fahrenheit for Americans.
Well yeah, but no ethical scientist uses Fahrenheit. Yet then we come to the most important part.
Clearly state the settled scientific conclusions. Do not overdo “weasel words” and caveats. We know it is warming and we know it is due primarily to human activity. Say so. Saying human activity “contributes” to global warming makes it sound like human activity might be only a minor contributor. It would be more accurate to say “most of the warming….” Clearly distinguish settled science from the details on which scientists frequently focus their attention. Avoid using the word “debate” in connection with climate change. It reinforces the mistaken notion that there is a debate about basic issues that are settled science. When referring to the whole issue, try something like “the urgent challenge of human-induced climate disruption” rather than “climate debate.”
Word choice is very important, Hassol makes some excellent suggestions
  • to lay people, enhance means to improve or make better... So the “enhanced greenhouse effect” or “enhanced ozone depletion” sounds like a good thing. Try “intensify” or “increase” instead.
  • “Positive” connotes good and “negative” connotes bad to nonscientists. So “positive trends” or “positive feedbacks” sound like good things. Instead of “positive trend,” try “upward trend.” Instead of “positive feedback,” try “self-reinforcing cycle.”
  • To people unfamiliar with the scientific method, a “theory” is just an unsubstantiate hunch, opinion, conjecture, or speculation. Instead of saying “according to theory,” you might say, “according to our physical understanding of how this works,”
  • I suggest avoiding the use of the word “theory” to refer to things as well established as the greenhouse effect or the human intensification (not enhancement) thereof.
She comes up with a very nice analogy for discussing hurricanes
The ever popular metaphor of loaded dice provides a good response to the question of how global warming is affecting various weather phenomena. When people ask if global warming is responsible for the recent streak of heat waves, floods, wildfires, and intense hurricanes, you can say that by loading the atmosphere with excess greenhouse gases, we are loading the dice toward more of these extreme weather events. The data show this is already occurring for many
phenomena; and models have long projected these changes
And how to deal with the ill posed question:
Rather than accepting the premise of a poorly framed question, reframe it. When people ask if global warming can be blamed for a particular hurricane, heat wave, fire, or flood, a simple “no” does not respond to the essence of the question. What they really want to know is whether global warming is having an effect on such events, and the science suggests that it is. You can reframe such questions to explain that global warming is increasing the chances of such events occurring, and you can also explain some of the connections.

1 comment:

Mark said...

We've been told to write our reports at a sixth-grade level. But I get into trouble because I was in sixth grade many years ago, and I attended a good school. So I have to try and remember to write at a third-grade level so that even politicians can understand my reports.