Blog » Be just precise enough

Expanding on my list in Communicating Climate Change ...

"Be truthful and evidence-based, but be only as technically precise as is possible within the constraints of the following goals."

In my experience the two biggest problems with science communication are its technical sophistication and its exhaustive depth.

The former is a familiar problem: much of science is highly specialized, very mathematical, and replete with incomprehensible jargon. Writers and communicators have to be able to translate this into terms and phrases that make sense to non-experts. But the latter can actually be more difficult to manage. What do I mean by "exhaustive depth"? Well, science is capable of very very detailed and very very minute feats of causal explanation, and it can be difficult to constrain that depth of explanation to just the relevant details.

For example, here's a climate scientist's attempt at a plain-language explanation of the greenhouse effect:

Everything in the universe emits energy in the form of what we generally refer to as ‘light’ or radiant energy; some kinds of light are visible to the human eye and others are not. Gas molecules in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour, are essentially transparent to the visible and non-visible light emitted by the hot gases of the sun. That is, sunlight passing through the atmosphere is generally not absorbed by these gases. However, these gases are quite opaque to the kinds of non-visible light emitted by the relatively cool (compared to the sun) entities in our system: the ocean, the land surfaces, the vegetation, the atmosphere itself, and so on. In general, we refer to the energy emitted by these surfaces as thermal infrared radiation, or heat. When the gas molecules are struck by the space-bound heat, the energy is absorbed by the molecules, which then have more energy to radiate their own thermal infrared radiation in all directions. The heat that they send downwards is energy that keeps Earth much warmer than it would be without the presence of those greenhouse gases. This process, in a nutshell, is called the greenhouse effect and the gases involved are referred to as greenhouse gases (GHGs).

The problem with this isn't just the jargon and the long-windedness, but that it goes into all kinds of uneccesary and confusing detail. In this context I thought that these points needed to be made:

  • the atmosphere contains GHGs
  • not all gases in the atmosphere are GHGs
  • gases that are GHGs are distinctive in that they trap heat

So my version reads like so:

Earth’s atmosphere is made up of many different gases, some of which are “greenhouse” gases. They are called that because they effectively act like a greenhouse or a layer of insulation for Earth: they trap heat and warm the planet.

And that's it! It provides a very high-level description of the relevant fact without getting into the explanatory mechanisms that many scientists feel are necessary (but really mostly really aren't).

There are obviously times and places where some level of detail in between these examples would be appropriate. Of course! But only if there's a real logical or communicative need.

So, be accurate always, but be only as precise as serves your current purpose.

» Communicating Climate Change

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