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Effective graphic presentation of climate-change risk information? (Science of science communication course exercise)

In today's session of Science of Science Communication course, we are discussing readings on effective communication of of probabilistic risk information.  The topic is actually really cool, with lots of empirical work on the mechanisms that tend to interfere with (indeed, bias) comprehension of such information as well as on communication strategies--including graphic presentation--that help to counteract these dynamics.

The focus (this week & next) is primarily on presentation of risk and other forms of probabilistic information in the context of personal health-care decisionmaking. 

But someone did happen to show me this climate-change risk graphic from and ask me if I thought it would be effective.  

I passed it on to the students in the class and asked them to answer the question based on several alternative assumptions about the messenger, audience, and goal of the communication. 

a.    A climate change advocacy group, which is considering whether to include the graphic in a USA Today advertisement in hope of generating public support for carbon tax. 

b.    Freelance author considering submitting an article to Mother Jones magazine. 

c.     Freelance author considering submitting an article to the Weekly Standard. 

d.    A local municipal official presenting information to citizens in a coastal state who will be voting on a referendum to authorize a government-bond issuance to finance adaptation-related infrastructure improvements (e.g., building sea-walls and storm surge gates, moving coastal roads inland). 

e.    The author of an article to be submitted for peer review in a scholarly “public policy” journal. 

f.     A teacher of a high school "current affairs" class who is considering distributing the graphic to students.

Curious what you all think, too. (If you can't make it out on your screen, click on it, and then click again on the graphic on the page to which you are directed.)

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Reader Comments (16)

Mmm. Well putting aside the question of whether any of it is true, which I think would be the thing that would most put people off... :-)

Bad points:

1. The layout is dense, with lots of complex information in tiny writing, the pictograms are not intuitive, and the language is not clear and simple. ("Acidification"? "destructiveness"?) It tries to send too many messages at once - pick out one headline point per poster to emphasise, (add no more than a couple of supporting points), and make it the thing they'll remember after they walk away.

2. There are numbers but without definitions or context, so the reader doesn't know what they mean, or why they're supposed to be worrying. It's obvious that you're *supposed* to be worried by them, but if you don't know what they mean you're actually not. What does "150% more acidic" mean? (I know, but a non-scientist reader probably wouldn't.) This tends to put people in a sceptical frame of mind.

3. Everything mentioned is bad, nothing good. So this doesn't give the impression of a balanced and impartial presentation, it looks like advertising or propaganda. A more persuasive approach is to list some minor advantages as well as disadvantages of climate change - that gives the *impression* of being impartial and factual even when you're not.

4. It uses jargon terms invested with cultural meaning in the climate debate but which would not be clear to outsiders, like "tipping point". That would reinforce the current polarisation for those who know what it means, and mystify those who don't.

5. Some of the language is "unprofessional" - like "nightmare" and "really scary things" - that reduces authority and credibility. On the other hand, it shows a sense of humour, which is good.

6. For a presentation supposedly about 'risk' it doesn't mention probabilities or uncertainties a whole lot.

7. It doesn't tell you what to do about it. Advertising creates tension by telling you of a need, and then releases the tension by telling you what you can buy to fix it, (and where you can buy it). This poster creates the tension but leaves it unresolved.

8. The sources are vague. It isn't clear where to go to get more information.

Good points:

1. The pastel colour scheme is calming, which tends to counter the impression of alarm. You have to read it and think about it to get it, which involves less superficial processing.

2. They don't use transparently emotive images, like sad-eyed baby polar bears on ice floes. Again, that reduces the impression of being advertising-like.

3. As mentioned above, there are signs of humour. That makes you seem more likeable.

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Very scary chart. I note that it lists CO2 by the ton instead of by ppm. But then going from 250ppm to 350ppm does not have quite the wanted affect as by the "ton". I also do not see the tonnage for the existing CO2 as that would also dilute the message.

Let me add a chart I made up fooling around with Wood for Trees.

Temps 1850 to date broke into 30 yr trends. Please note that the 30 yr trend between 1910 and 1940 is very close to identical to the trend between 1970 and 2000.

With the IPCC saying AGW did not start until after 1940, what is the issue if there is nothing unusual in the trends?

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

The poster fits with " A climate change advocacy group, which is considering whether to include the graphic in a USA Today advertisement in hope of generating public support for carbon tax."

It would also fit with "A teacher of a high school "current affairs" class who is considering distributing the graphic to students."

There are so many contentious statements that it would take some time to address but would make for a great class project. Split the class in half and have one side defend and the other side refute. Then debate the findings.

For a fun graphic on where we were in 1988 and are today:

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes


Your analysis is a model of charity, in sense that you are engaging in constructive and helpful way something that you actually think is "getting it wrong." I very much admire that! You are willing to help even those who disagree w/ you to learn something.

The content of your analysis strikes me as excellent but I wonder whether the attitude you convey in this respect might be the most important thing that the person who designed the graph (& others) could learn from your comments? B/c in fact, as you get at, the prospect that someone who disagrees w/ the communicator here will engage the content of the communication in a way that allows him or her to learn anythig there might be learn from the graphic is quite low.

As you say, a lot of the "infographic" bells & whistles here -- what people tend to say they *like* about graphics like this -- does make the task of engaging it way too cognitively burdensome for all except those who have strong motivation to get the information, and likely in order to support what they already believe. Could that be what the communicator wants?

But the most fundamental problem is clearly one of hostile cultural meaning. You say putting aside whether "true" -- but I think one shouldn't, and you don't in sense that I have in mind. I think someone who wanted to inform *or* persuade would need to anticipate that an identifiable, and fairly large segment of general public audience will react by discounting the information. They won't believe it, either b/c of information they've previously encountered, b/c of assumptions that the format of the graphic reflects (or to these people seem to reflect) about intentions of the communicator, or both. If this doesn't occur to someone who is thinking of trying to "communicate" with this Figure, that individual is very poorly informed about how people process information.

But in fact, communicators are poorly informed in excactly that way. They don't think about the cultural *meaning* of the communciation -- only the content. If the former is hostile, the latter won't get through..

March 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Ed Forbes:

I think the person who put this graphic together was doing what you helpfully suggested a teacher might ask students to do. Obviously, the graphic reflects and attitude & a conclusion; one I suspect you strongly disagree with! But it shows admirable effort, doesn't it?, to try to engage? If a teacher did what your proposed & students came up w/ this or the version of this that goes other way, I think the teacher could be confident that he or she was teaching students how to think...

The panel on "editing the model to fit the evidence" is one that should be of interest to you. It goes to a point you have raised before & that I have struggled to address w/ the diffrence between "testing a hypotheseis" and "calibrating a model" -- basically what the graphic creator is saying too. But I think it is right to recognize why this answer won't reassure someone who correctly worries about post hoc fitting; there has to be a clear & justifiable standard for appraising how much model adjustment is allowed to go on -- particularly if the adjustments are not resulting in clear improvements -- before the premise of the model must itself be questioned. I don't think the climate modelers have reached that point by any means. But I do think those who are trying to give an account of the modeling project have not come close to explaining how a curious and concerned citizen should try to make sense of this issue

March 20, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"If a teacher did what your proposed & students came up w/ this or the version of this that goes other way, I think the teacher could be confident that he or she was teaching students how to think..."

Teaching the student to "think", not memorize "facts" ,should be where education strives. But teaching "fact" is much easier to standardize test and also much easier to teach.

It seems as though Calif may to moving away from "fill in the blank" standardize tests from what I hear from those in the biz. One can only hope.

I have changed entire fields several times in my life, and having the mental tools to adjust and learn new job skills has been my greatest ability to adapt to life's changes.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

This from NiV:

"This tends to put people in a sceptical frame of mind."

And this from Dan:

"B/c in fact, as you get at, the prospect that someone who disagrees w/ the communicator here will engage the content of the communication in a way that allows him or her to learn anythig there might be learn from the graphic is quite low."

It is my impression that basically anything conveyed, no matter how it is conveyed specifically, will fail to avoid this cause and effect. The chances of someone who has a "motivated" approach of topic "learn[ing] anything" is low, by definition. This is the operating baseline of motivated reasoning. Someone with a motivated approach does not have the intent of learning anything. Their approach is, by definition, to utilize information so as to confirm their biases.

As such, although I think that NiV makes good suggestions for making the information conveyed by the graphic to be more neutral w/r/t an opinion on climate change - his determination that it is some lack of neutrality in how the information conveyed which is the causal factor for putting someone in a "skeptical frame of mind," while theoretically plausible and perhaps true for some minority of people, is basically a fantasy w/r/t how most people process information on such a controversial topic.

Trying to tailor the information in and of itself so as to avoid the "polluted" reaction is a combination of herding cats and closing the barn doors after the cows have gotten out. IMO, the point is to construct a communicative environment where the participants have a vested interest in controlling for their own motivated reasoning. Again, I refer to meta-cognition and basic principles of participatory collaboration.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I should add that NiV's suggestions are also good just from the perspective of basic principles of pedagogy and effective communication.

March 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I agree with both NiV and Joshua.

I count 8 of 12 in the following categories:
worst case and not representative of risk;
invalid or contested assumptions that would cause the claims to be considered inappropriately speculative in risk analysis;
just plain wrong in the literature though some are stated that way in AR4.

I think the lack of neutrality is a problem. But also have concerns at this stage in the debate, each side will only see what they wish. But as a mechanism for going forward, I think not. With a range in the literature from fairly beging to catastrophic, I question that something can be presented as useful, especially at this point.

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

I think that a neutral member of the public, if handed this graphic with at least enough time to scan down the list, could at least skim through and arrive at a conclusion that some geeky scientists had amassed quite a bit of information confirming global climate change. That thought might register, as confirming a "there is a whole lot of information on this" argument, although I doubt any of the specific points would, from this graphic. With a massive advertising budget, each line, however could be effectively separated out into its own 15 second spot and the points made. They aren't bad points, just too many too packed in. Even a multi-page graphic would help. How much space will the hypothetical journalist be able to obtain?

NiV: I wonder what information you acquire from just the statement 150% more acid, though other than what would seem to be the objective of using this number with the public. Namely, conveying that it is, in a significant way, a whole bunch more acidic. Large sounding number that is enough to affect the outcome. Acidity, as I am sure NiV knows, is measured in pH, the units of which are logarithmic. So the relevant changes here are a few tenths of a pH unit. Not very impressive sounding. But, deeper in the science, what matters is where those pH unit changes lie relative to a phase diagram for CaCO3 saturation, mainly for the crystal structure aragonite, present in most sea shells, and the ability of sea organisms to expend energy to pump against that gradient to deposit CaCO3, or to be in need of a supersaturated state. Obviously, this information is seen as beyond public messaging, for which the chemistry is usually boiled down to something simplified like that shown here: In addition to a basic equation, this gives an explanation of the percent and pH figures as well as dissolving seashell photos. (Probably not as cute as polar bears, but with the same emotional hook).

March 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

" I wonder what information you acquire from just the statement 150% more acid, though other than what would seem to be the objective of using this number with the public."

I think that for somebody who knew chemistry, it would be seen as transparently deceptive. Normally you would only ever express it in pH terms, to use anything else means you're trying to bamboozle the layman. It would be like expressing the radiation you get exposed to from your mobile phone as so many billion nano-Watts. It's just a way to get a scary number.

A layman, I think, might be aware that pH is normally used, and would probably assume that 150% of the pH was being talked about. But it's not at all clear, and puzzlement puts people in the frame of mind of questioning what is being said. If it's something familiar, clear, and obvious, the number tends to go in without being questioned or checked much more easily.

What they're probably talking about is the Hydrogen ion concentration. 150% increase is 2.5 times more hydrogen ions which is a pH reduction of about 0.4. The sea actually varies by more than that naturally. (About 7.5 to 8.4)

Or to put it another way, if we take the pH of seawater as about 8, then pure water is 1,000% more acidic, black coffee is about 100,000% more acidic, and tomato juice is about 1,000,000% more acidic. It's still perfectly drinkable. And it is very easy to explain this to someone and make it obvious that they're trying to make a barely perceptible difference sound like you're dunking baby seals in vitriol for fun.

The actual impact of this change is more complicated and less obvious. It involves some unintuitive buffer chemistry to explain the carbonate-bicarbonate equilibrium, some oceanography to know about lysoclines and compensation depths and how/why ocean pH varies, and quite a lot of biology and biochemistry to know how different organisms produce shell, and how ambient pH might affect that.

Actually, surface waters where these animals live is naturally already too acidic for calcium carbonate to survive indefinitely. It requires a continuous effort by the organism to produce and maintain it. The organism creates an internal pocket (periostracum) isolated from the surrounding water, and raises the pH within it to induce calcium carbonate crystalisation. The crystals are embedded in chitin and silk-like proteins to form a strong composite material. We know from the existence of freshwater snails and other molluscs that enzymes exist able to maintain shells in relatively acid conditions (A thousand percent more acidic!), and we know molluscs first evolved at a time when CO2 was far higher than it is now, so it isn't necessarily the case that this is a problem. It basically depends on how pH-tolerant and adaptable specific organisms are, which is something anyone who keeps an aquarium would be aware of - just as organisms tolerate some broad range of temperatures. This stuff varies from day to day, anyway.

So far as I am aware, the evidence is that there are some species that could be affected but that many/most are not, and that as always happens with natural selection, as conditions change those organisms that are best adapted to the new conditions multiply and spread. You would potentially get a different balance of species, but that the oceans in a century's time will be just as full of life as they are now. If you didn't know what it looked like before, you'd probably not even realise anything was wrong.

That, of course, is a controversial conclusion, and is by no means certain yet. Research is ongoing.

The problem with their presentation is that it is obviously trying to alarm, but it doesn't convey a robust understanding of why it's justified. It tries to tell people the complicated is simple. So when somebody like me comes along, with my no-doubt selective interpretation, it's very easy for me to show the claim to be misleading, and readers of this graphic have no background with which to defend the position. That makes the infographic and the people behind it look far worse than if they had just been straightforward about the complexities.

I'm happy about that from a partisan climate-wars point of view, but I'm not happy about it from a science communication and education point of view. I'd much rather people were helped to make decisions of this magnitude by teaching them what they need to know to come to a valid decision - even if the decision goes against me. Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

For your viewing pleasure, two fun graphics

The earth temp to reach 180d F by 2300!!!

Logarithmic CO2 and the models

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

NiV, in my opinion, while I would agree that one could shrug and say "species come and go", a big reason not to do so is that for humans, it really is true that operating in a fairly narrow band of conditions is highly advantageous. Those advantages ought to outweigh the short term advantages of our high rates of fossil fuel consumption.

I think that the authors of the chart did see their efforts as ones of distilling down information into a form in which your conditions "what they need to know to come to a valid decision" and "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler" were true. I do agree with you that oversimplification, is a problem here. And the authors seem to take the approach that many such points, a "preponderance of the evidence" perhaps, is more convincing than more fully fleshing out any one point. Although it is the very piling up of a series of small changes that is both the problem, and part of why this is so difficult for humans to address. Without at least some linkage as to how the reader can learn more and how the material can be expanded upon, the material in this chart is probably vulnerable to both legitimate skepticism and cheap shots.

In the case of hotly contested politicized issues such as this one, I think it is not enough to establish as Joshua advocated: " IMO, the point is to construct a communicative environment where the participants have a vested interest in controlling for their own motivated reasoning. " . I think that the communicators need to be cognizant of outside efforts to deliberately derail such an environment.

March 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


I'm not saying that we ought to shrug about species coming and going, (although they're going to anyway). The consequences are unknown, and while it's probably nothing to panic about, that isn't necessarily so. And there is a moral cost to such events, too.

But as for whether the advantages of maintaining a narrow range of conditions outweighs the advantages of using fossil fuels, that's the great cost-benefit trade-off we need to be considering, and I would say that I think the benefits of fossil fuels are being heavily under-rated by people who are so used to the world they have created that they are no longer aware of how much of it depends on them. It seems to me the attitude of city dwellers who think milk comes from supermarkets in cartons and ask why do we need all those cows any more? Society is so complex we have lost track of the connections between one part and another.

But that is looking at it from a specific technological and economic worldview, which not everyone shares. The farmer talks to the city dweller, and there is mutual incomprehension, because each is operating from a different subset of background knowledge, a different picture of how the world works. To truly communicate, we need to understand one another's worldviews too, but how can something like that be communicated?

I agree with your reading of the chart author's intentions. There are a lot of claims about the damage we're doing floating around out there, and they thought it would make a more convincing case to summarise them all in one place. They simplified because they were following the advice that you havbe to do so for the layman to understand, and they simplified to the minimum that they understood.

But it's quite apparent that they have no experience thinking outside their own worldview. They use culturally loaded jargon that outsiders wouldn't immediately understand, like "tipping point". They make complex assertions without any backup, that they apparently consider to be convincing on their own. They don't even mention entire areas of the question, that for other people are major issues.

It is as if a Christian had helpfully catalogued all the plagues of the apocalypse from the Book of Revelations into one neat infographic, with timelines and percentages and pie-charts of the damned. Would an atheist find it educational? Or more likely to repent their sins?

I think it might help for everyone to stop assuming the confusion is deliberately induced "from outside" (outside what?), and consider the possibility that it can happen all on its own. If you're not aware of how people with other worldviews think, it's very hard to avoid saying anything that will trigger their alarms. It can happen accidentally, or carelessly.
I think it is much more likely to happen if we never properly listen to one another.

March 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Gaythia, you stated: Those advantages ought to outweigh the short term advantages of our high rates of fossil fuel consumption.

This is an area of contention, or perhaps an arena of contentious ideas is more correct. When you state: ""I think that the communicators need to be cognizant of outside efforts to deliberately derail such an environment."" The graphic highlights one of the basic disagreements and that some of the outside efforts to deliberately derail are from those whom Joshua calls "climate realists" with their extreme discount rates, and external cost estimates.

Based upon the work of the Odum brothers, E.P. and H.T. Odum, 1953, Fundamentals of Ecology, energy or even money as a form of energy, became part of the structure of ecology. In that respect I disagree with you that it is a narrow band of operating conditions that is advantageous. Even today, the obvious impact of monetary and sustainable pursuits as typified by bio deisel, or that large extants of human habitation depend on fossil fuels, counter the conclusion that this narrow band meest the definition of advantageous. This is one of the problems with the graphic in terms of risk.

In risk management, a normalization of cost/benefit ratios is required. With such contentions and the wide range of cost/benifit ratios from opposing estimates, one can find justification for either draconian policies, or a pollyanna approach. In this respect, I find the simple graphic more likely to cause miscommunication than enlightenment due to its definite"doom and gloom" rather than a balanced approach.

March 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Pittman

There are Sooooo many wrong items on the posted graph that it is hard to know where to start.

There has been no significant increase in temps in about 15 yr. Because of this fact, the Green meme has changed over time from "Global Warming" to "Climate Change" to "Climate Disruption". Could no longer call it "Global Warming" without getting smiles instead of worry frowns.

"Weather" now bears all the hallmarks of how the western world used to hunt and prosecute "Witches". If something "Bad" now happens, it "Must" be someones fault due to [ pick your favorite meme from above ]. I have read accounts where even volcanos and tidal waves were linked to CC.

The chart lists a 10% reduction in corn and wheat production due to 380ppm CO2. Now as CO2 is a well known plant fertilizer that increases plant growth, I will assume they mean indirect affects. One wonders where the 10% decrease will come from? If one looks at the increase in production per acre of both wheat and corn, production per acre has been increasing over time at a VERY steep rate, with no sign yet that it is slowing down.

An increase of only 1.5C at 380ppm ( which will not happen at the current rate of temp increase ) would also not affect corn production overall. The temp difference between California's Central Valley and the US Mid West is greater than 1.5C and the Central Valley with it's higher temps greatly exceeds the Mid West in tonnage per acre. This difference in production between these two areas, with an area with higher temps having higher production, shows that temps, while they are a factor, cannot be the controlling factor in corn and wheat production.

March 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEd Forbes

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