Say what you mean

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Ensia

There may be no more important documents being produced today for governments, policy makers and the general public to understand than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments. Yet these reports have to go through a series of filters — government aides, the media, non-governmental organizations, etc. — before their messages reach the final audience. While the IPCC assessments have sections called “Summary for Policymakers” to address this, Richard Black, a former science and environment correspondent for the BBC, argues in the April issue of Nature Climate Change that these SPMs don’t effectively reach the audience their title implies because they are actually nothing more than “Summaries for Wonks.”

Black contends there’s no reason the SPMs can’t and shouldn’t be two-page briefs summarizing the findings that resemble more closely the documents busy leaders are used to seeing come across their desks. Creating documents that are actually digestible for the nonexpert is hugely important, according to Black, because “[i]f the SPMs are to allow science to speak directly to power, they must be appropriately constructed for time-poor generalists who spend virtually all of their working lives outside the climate ‘bubble.’”

“If the IPCC does not provide summaries of this simplicity and clarity, others will,” Black continues. “Many government delegations produce their own two-page briefings for ministers and senior bureaucrats. NGOs and think tanks produce summaries for the public and for reporters. Some are well written; but all contain a degree of adjustment, depending on the priorities of the particular organization, and none carries the gold standard imprimatur of the IPCC itself. By this early stage in the chain of communication, the IPCC has already lost control of its conclusions.”

If the IPCC wants to retain control of its findings, it needs to rethink its mode of communication, Black contends, and take a page from journalism, in particular radio broadcasts where the reporter only has one shot at getting the information across to the listener — once the words are spoken, there’s no going back or rereading for clarity.

Black gives a number of specific ways the IPCC and each Working Group can retool their methods and procedures to produce documents that actually live up to the name Summary for Policymakers.

Beyond the IPCC, this is an important piece for anyone thinking about better ways to communicate science.

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