I’ve been invited to give a talk to the Toronto HCI chapter as part of World Usability Day, for which the theme is designing for a sustainable world. Here’s what I have come up with as an abstract for my talk, to be entitled “Usable Climate Science”:

Sustainability is usually defined as “the ability to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. The current interest in sustainability derives partly from a general concern about environmental degradation and resource depletion, and partly from an awareness of the threat of climate change. But to many people, climate change is only a vague problem, and to some people (e.g. about half the the US population) it isn’t regarded as a problem at all. There is a widespread lack of understanding of the core scientific results of climate science, and the methodology by which those results are obtained. Which in turn means that the public discourse is dominated by ignorance, polarization, and political point scoring. In this environment, lobbyists can propagate misinformation on behalf of various vested interests, and people decide what to believe based on their political worldviews, rather than what the scientific evidence actually says. The chances of getting sound, effective policy in such an environment are slim. In this talk, I will argue that we cannot properly address the challenge of climate change unless this situation is fixed. Furthermore, I’ll argue that the core problem is a usability challenge: how do we make the science itself accessible to the general public? The numerical simulations of climate developed by climatologists are usable only by people with PhDs in climatology. The infographics used to explain climate change in the popular press tend to be high design and low information. What is missing is a concerted attempt to get the core science across to a general audience using software tools and visualizations in which usability is the primary design principle. In short, how do we make climate science usable? Unless we do this, journalists, politicians and the public will be unable to judge whether proposed policy solutions are viable, and unable to distinguish sound science from misinformation. I will illustrate the talk with some suggestions of how we might meet this goal.

Update: talk details have now been announced. It’s on Nov 12 at 7:15pm, in BA1220.


  1. The abstract talks of “…widespread lack of understanding … | … popular press tend to be high design and low information….”

    How would you critique the job Al Gore did in his attempts to communicate in his movie “an inconvenient truth” ?

    I believe that the mass media does a good job of alarming the public with the imagery that they use. Is that not effective ? Does the public want scientific understanding or are they happy with knowing the scientific consensus ?

  2. Excellent question. I think Gore did a reasonable job in the movie, at least in terms of getting the issue into the public discourse, but he didn’t do much for real understanding. The DVD follows up the movie with the typical nonsense about changing your lightbulbs, which I believe to be counter-productive message. So we end up with this weird dichotomy whereby the public are scared silly by the more extreme alarmist messages, while simultaneously being reassured that a few simple lifestyle changes are what it takes to fix the problem. Which then provokes the obvious backlash.

    I think the critical problem is getting people to the point where they can judge for themselves who’s telling the truth and who’s spreading misinformation.

  3. Pingback: What do we want from climate informatics tools? | Serendipity

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