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A load of gobbledegook?

Splendid little item on Inside Science last night on BBC Radio 4 9.21pm or so which made me laugh, in which Adam Rutherford interviewed Ralf Barkemeyer, Associate Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at the Kedge Business School. Being interested in the interface between science and policy, he has made an analysis of the ”linguistic readability” of the IPPC summaries, which are, of course, intended for policy makers. He was looking at such things as the length of words and sentences used and the overall comprehensibility expressed as a percentage, for a non-specialist reader.

In comparison, the linguistic readability of a theoretical physics paper was 30-35% for a layman to read, while the IPPC summaries received the very low score of 20% comprehensibility.

Is anyone surprised, and is it deliberate obfuscation or just a badly thought out mess?  TM

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Reader Comments (20)

It may be because of the need to incorporate review comments from many different cultures and language groups.
Or it may be because the climate is far more complex than most theoretical physics.

But it sure is convenient that the funders can't tell how little progress is being made in reducing the huge uncertainties.

Oct 23, 2015 at 11:40 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

In answer to your three questioned final sentence, no, yes, & yes! I always find, once a layperson learns a new "technical" word or phrase, they have a propensity to labour it to death in an effort to impress others of their intellectual prowess!

Oct 23, 2015 at 11:54 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

Who knew we needed an Associate Professor of Corpoarate Social Responsibility to write about linguistic readability?

Did it take another Associate Professor with suitable grandiose title to decide the colour of the paper?

Do investgations into Corporate Social Responsibility ever look at the morality of wasting billions on climate science?

Oct 23, 2015 at 12:02 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

I need a link to a technical climate science piece that has a high score on this scale in order to gauge its relevance.

Oct 23, 2015 at 12:11 PM | Unregistered Commenterbernie1815

Who wants to submit a report that basically says 'we don't know'? You've got to pad it out a bit.

Oct 23, 2015 at 12:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Default condition = mess (a long series of costly messes TBH)

Oct 23, 2015 at 12:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterEx-expat Colin

Well it's been further reduced to the simple mantra 'governments must act' anyway. They get the message all right. If politicians and journalists wanted to read the science they would skip the summaries and read the main body but who bothers to do that? Oh yeah - mainly sceptics!. Not journalists, politicians or TV science pundits otherwise they might manage to smell what is being shovelled. Using your brain is so old hat - much easier just nodding along with the others. You'll be in with the in crowd and simultaneously feel smugly superior without having done anything to merit it.

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

I've just used the phrase elsewhere; the SPM is what Sir Humphrey calls "the Janet and John bit" — the cover sheet of a report that the minister can read nice and quickly without giving himself a headache through having to exercise his brain.

The SPM is slightly different in that it actually has very little to do with the report and consists mainly of what lobbyists want the minister to believe was in the report.

Obfuscation therefore has to be the order of the day since if a minister chooses to read a report he will normally find the J&J was reasonably accurate; if he chooses to read the IPCC report it is important that the activists can say, "if you read the SPM this way, minister ..."

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:11 PM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

It would be interesting to compare a Michael Mann "hockeystick" paper with a Mcintyre and McKitrick rebuttal paper eg MBH98 versus MM03 or MM05.

I know which is the more readable and makes the most sense to me. And I am not a layperson.

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:25 PM | Registered Commenterthinkingscientist

Do we think the politicians even read the SPM?

There's reaity, then the science, the papers, then the full IPCC report, the SPM, the press releases, the newspaper articles and finally some Greenpeace activist being interviewed on the BBC. At each stage the true is a little less than the level before. Guess at which stage the politicians take an interest.

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

Due to circumstances unforeseen, I had no tv/radio yesterday evening, so I took the opportunity to watch a couple of series of Yes Minister, & I swear that the bods in the UN have been watching it too!!!! The way they operate, group think, the right man for the job, must be knowledgable in his subject to a high degree, must be sound, efficient, reliable, honest, oh, & must sympathetic to the guvemnts views your subject!!!! These guvment appointed experts are NOT the best people for the subject in hand, but we know this already!

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan the Brit

I heard the radio item too, and was left wondering what the readability score of the main report would be, if the summary only managed 20%. It was also noted that the scale could go negative...

Oct 23, 2015 at 1:47 PM | Registered Commenterjamesp

Alan the Brit

Yes, we have been watching the entire series of Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister over the last few months. Excellent value as a boxed set from the BBC. What is remarkable is that it is still so topical. We continually seem to be recycling the same old concerns.


Oct 23, 2015 at 3:15 PM | Unregistered Commentertonyb

If your science sucks - make up or use long obscure words like "Hiaitus" as that way even dumber people think you are smart.

Oct 23, 2015 at 3:35 PM | Registered CommenterMikeHaseler

Early in my career (R&D in industry) I took a course on effective report writing. The big take-away was learning of the "Gunning fog index". A means of determining readability based on sentence length and use of polysyllabic words. Using this tool, my reports became more concise, easier to understand and better appreciated by my non-technical superiors.
The IPCC SPMs master the arts of obfuscation and innuendo. They "translate" technical uncertainties into encouragements that can be applied to their agenda of doom and need for action.

Oct 23, 2015 at 4:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterPJB

Well if your chosen profession only needed 3 A Level E's to get onto the degree course wouldn't you try and make it as incomprehensible as possible to cover up you are all thick as mince ;)

Oct 23, 2015 at 5:24 PM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Adam Rutherford is a typical BBC alarmist. It was noticeable that twice he called the IPCC the International Panel on Climate Change. Whether this was deliberate, to hide the fact that is a political and Governmental organisation, not a scientific body, or whether he is just ignorant, I do not know. Either way it is typical of the BBC presenters they employ these days

Oct 23, 2015 at 8:28 PM | Registered CommenterPhillip Bratby

"If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

Albert Einstein

A very kind conclusion when talking about IPCC methinks..

Oct 23, 2015 at 10:49 PM | Unregistered Commenterson of mulder

"thick as mince"

BOFA wins the thread.

Oct 24, 2015 at 2:03 AM | Unregistered Commenterjolly farmer

I agree, jf; too late 'macedense'.

Oct 24, 2015 at 6:07 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

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