Tom Yulsman, an expert in environmental communication and a blogger for the Discover Magazine website, makes an interesting comparison between two recently-launched communication tools on climate change. Yulsman praises a White House data-driven interactive platform in contrast with what he calls an “embarrassingly ineffective report” issued by the Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
[the AAAS report, Yulsman writes] was, at its heart “We’re scientists, so listen to what we say” effort. In contrast, the [White House initiative] treats people like grownups and gives them powerful tools to learn for themselves what’s happening.
Yulsman is better placed than me to comment on climate change topics, and I personally share some of his trenchant critics towards the AAAS approach. However, I only partially agree with him. Sure, the White House platform is a million times cooler and more appealing than the old-school AAAS stuff. The AAAS made a clumsy attempt to add some visuals to what is basically a written report and the results are far from glorious. Their concept of “hearing from scientists”are video clips featuring talking heads. An old formula which, I agree with Yulsman, is hardly effective.
In short, the .gov platform is great. And the AAAS report is, well, a report. Plus some video that could be spared .
But besides real-world data, the White House platform is also loaded with simulations that –just like the AAAS report – will work only if we believe the scientists. One of the coolest link found in the platform, Yulsman notes, is an interactive map showing the NYC areas that would become inundated by rising sea levels. I share his enthusiasm for this app. However, this kind of tools are hardly aimed to the sceptic. A denialist will question the underlying forecasts in the first place, and will make a joke of the resulting maps like they were disaster-movie special effects. So, at the end, you still have to believe the science behind the app. That’s where the AAAS report, with its clear-cut, science-backed arguments, comes in handy.
What if I had to choose between the two approaches? Weighting in the impact on the public, and the coolness factor, I would probably go for the White House website . But in the real world we are not obliged to choose.Data-driven interactivity is great, but we still need old-school reports to make sense of complex topics. That’s why I don’t share Yulsman’s total disappointment about the AAAS report. We have two complementary tools for a communication strategy. So why can’t we just take them together?