Climate Change Readability indices (cogitoergosum.net)

Published on October 13th, 2015 | by Sandy Dechert

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Readability Analysis Disses IPCC Policy Summaries

October 13th, 2015 by  

A report published today casts some doubt on the efficacy of current United Nations efforts toward worldwide climate change mitigation and adaptation. The reputed journal Nature Climate Change published the investigation. In it, an international team of researchers at KEDGE Business School (a French school of management), the University of Leeds, University of Bonn, and University of Rome postulates that the Summaries for Policymakers produced since 1990 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are too difficult to read.

Readability indices (cogitoergosum.net)

Some standard readability indices (cogitoergosum.net)

Says Ralf Barkemeyer, Associate Professor at KEDGE:

”IPCC summaries are so difficult to understand that they can give rise to many different interpretations on the same point. They can easily be misinterpreted by climate change skeptics, for example. If these summaries were simpler and more accessible, the public could [directly benefit from] these documents and discover the true nature of the challenges.”

The researchers analyzed the linguistics of these IPCC policy summaries by applying standard readability metrics. They also compared media coverage of the reports in several tabloids (Daily Mail, The Mirror, and The Sun) and quality newspapers (New York Times, Washington Post, The Independent, and The Times).

The research showed an apparent correlation between the unreadability of the IPCC summaries and the tone of media representation. The press appeared to become more and more pessimistic because of obscure phrasing in the reports, even if their import was actually more sanguine. Although they did not prove a direct causative relationship, Barkemeyer and his associates concluded that the results have actually increased the gap in understanding between scientists and ordinary people.

Our own analysis points to another crucial factor that underlies the complexity of the readability issue, perhaps to a more critical degree than simple indices or algorithms can calculate. The notion of presenting ideas in any single language, even English, the most widely used world tongue, presents certain basic challenges to world groups like the UN.

Although the organization simultaneously translates proceedings into five or six languages, English is the UN’s standard speech. Technically speaking, it has been England’s native language (as Middle English and as Modern English, its close relative) for over a thousand years. But English contains a bewildering number of contradictions, as we’ll see when this series continues.


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About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."



  • S. Molnar

    “The reputed journal Nature Climate Change”. Did you by any chance mean “reputable”? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    • S. Dechert

      “reputed” (past participle): 3rd definition, “be widely known and respected.””intensive training with reputed coaches”
      synonyms:well-thought-of, respected, well respected, highly regarded, of good repute
      “a reputed naturalist”

    • JamesWimberley

      Grammar peeves like you with nothing better to do but no time to check.

  • tu madre

    You have to start linking your fucking sources. It’s plain lazy not to.

    • S. Dechert

      Mea culpa.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Sorry, Sandy.

        Some of our guests aren’t properly housebroken….

        • S. Dechert

          The more fun for all, Bob!

          • Bob_Wallace

            Yeah, but I get too much fun sometimes.

            There are days when the fun spills over the top of my dairy boots.

  • JamesWimberley

    The reports analysed are described as “summaries for policymakers”, and it’s entirely reasonable to ask them to be written so that the intended audience of educated non-scientists can follow without getting a headache. The full reports should of course be written in scientese.

    Climate scientists have been forced into a defensive huddle by years of smears, calumny and misrepresentation from paid hacks of the oil industry and know-nothing ideologues. It takes brave men like Hansen and Mann to stand up against this systematic campaign.

    The stuff about English is a red herring. It is in fact a great boon that science has settled on one common language for the great bulk of its intramural communication. The difficulties of written English come from its core, stemming from its origin as a Teutonic-Romance creole. Its neologisms are grammatically regular (I/you/we/they tweet, he/she/it tweets, [all pronouns] tweeted, tweeting, to tweet, end of story). The great bulk of the learned vocabulary is standard Romance (primary education, counter-intuitive…) or Greek (theorem, paradigm, biome …). What is the basis for thinking English is inherently more ambiguous than any other language? This claim sounds like Gallic chauvinism to me.

  • Ivor O’Connor

    I’d like to see some links to free readability analysis programs. I believe there are none.

    • S. Dechert

      Ivor, if you google “readability test” you’ll find some leads there. What I’m wondering right now is whether the originators of these tests have biases toward “English” or “American English.” The length of English sentences, which exceeds that of comparable American ones, would be penalized by some of the instruments I cite here in the illustration.

      • Ivor O’Connor

        I suppose what I’m looking for is something that not only grades my writing but checks its grammar, punctuation, and basically proofreads for me. I seem to write lots of crap and sometimes I edit what I wrote many many times before it starts to make sense. I imagine that what I write makes even less sense to those that didn’t write it. So I’d like to have automated help but all the programs seem to cost lots of money. The good free ones have vanished…

      • Ivor O’Connor

        Because of this article I ended up buying WhiteSmoke for my proofreading. Hopefully it helps…

  • mike_dyke

    Articles etc should always be read by the audience that they’re meant for rather than a different audience.

    A paper written for a university physics course audience would contain lots of jargon that that intended audience would understand. The same paper written for the general public would be worded simpler.

    If you take a specialist paper and give it to the general public, then of course it’s going to be difficult to read and use long words as it’s the wrong audience.

  • This is kind of pushing the problem onto scientist – where the problem sits squarely on the off-the-rack media. There’s a world of so called communicators with useless business and arts and letters degrees looking to get into the environmental game – like the ones writing for this blog and the ones who wrote this stupid Nature Climate change article. Academic scientists are going to write the way they’ve written for years. Science has a lot of big words for lots of phenomena. Communicators including blog authors are going to have to bone up on science.

    It’s the responsibility of paid communicators who got liberal arts degrees and learned to learn (as they always tell us engineers) to do the following: read the documents, understand the content to the best of their abilities, call up the authors if they got a question, and summarize the findings for us morons in internetland to understand. So our communicator friends will have to do some extracurricular late night studing of science jargon – instead of taking paid integrated media dollars under the table to write silliness of how awesome this or that gizmo or tech titan is.

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