The purpose of this blog is to focus on the arguments about climate change in the broad, but with a particular focus on New Zealand. As such, this post is devoted to the leading organisation in New Zealand that is taking a skeptical stance; The New Zealand Climate Science Coalition (NZCSC).
NZCSC was founded by an eclectic mix of concerned people, including academics/scientists and business people, all of whom shared concerns that the ‘science’ of climate change, or rather the anthropogenic global warming thesis, was questionable. I am a great admirer of the work that they are conducting, and in particular their campaign to investigate the veracity of the New Zealand temperature record. However, I do have a concern with the organisation, which is that I am unconvinced of the effectiveness of their efforts to explain their work. As such, this post is a friendly critique of the NZCSC, and I hope that it comes to their attention and is useful in improving their communication.
So, having explained that I am positively disposed to their investigative work and research, what is the problem with their communication? A good starting point, which is the sole focus of this post, is their website. The debate about climate science needs to be addressed on two fronts; the science itself, and the communication of the science to the public. I concentrate on their website as a starting point as I have some experience in internet marketing and website usability (I have conducted usability studies for e-commerce platforms and designed and built database driven websites).
Starting with the basics, on the first occasion of opening the NZCSC site, the first impression that I felt was that it was old-fashioned and unattractive, and was overloaded with endless unsorted links and news items. As a campaigning organisation, this is hardly the way to entice people to pursue their interest further. The website just does not look like it has been designed professionally, and I am sure that it will be off-putting for many potentially interested people. Another problem is the lack of any pictures throughout the site. It is very plain and very dull. Pictures and illustrations add to a site, even if they just make it more pleasant to look at. However, they can also be used to create emphasis or make a message more memorable.
Before continuing further, I should emphasise the one positive in the site, which is the search box. The search utilises the Google site search facility and is relatively effective. I tried a few searches, and it seemed to pull up reasonably relevant content. However, search should be a last resort, not a first resort. As such, my concern is with the way that the site is structured.
If we start on the home page, there are the links to ‘help non scientist visitors’. The way that this is phrased is such that it sounds a bit condescending. It is a bit like saying that all the rest of the content is only for the use of scientists, and not for the uninformed. I fully understand their aim in presenting the link in this way, but there are better ways to phrase it (I will come back to this point). If we then look at the main navigation menu for the site, this is when we are in real trouble. The ‘home’ button is fine, the ‘about us and contact’ is fine, but the rest – just downright confusing. The ‘links and videos’ button takes you to a page, which then links to other pages, but I had no idea what to expect when getting there. It seem a bit pointless, to lump the content of this page together, and just produce links to further pages.
Another link is even more worrying, which is the link to the ‘NIWA NZ Temperature record’. The first problem is that any ordinarily interested visitor would not be likely to have any idea about NIWA’s temperature record or any idea what this might be about. The link is offered upon an assumption that a new visitor might be as interested as the authors in the details of the debate over temperature records. It is even worse when actually following the link. There are just a series of links to details of correspondence between NZCSC and NIWA. If any has managed to grasp the meaning of the link, and has a moderate interest in climate change, they are then confronted with links to detailed correspondence. I am very interested, and I will read it, but I doubt that many would bother.
The curious thing is that the NZCSC investigation of the NIWA New Zealand temperature record is their most important contribution (I believe) to the debate. However, aside from this unclear link on the home page, you would have no idea of their great success in the questioning of the ‘official’ New Zealand temperature records (I will discuss this in later posts, as this is not the purpose of this post). As a moderately interested reader, open to the skeptical side of the debate, there is no way to reach a summary of their long and impressive campaign. If they doubt this, they should just get some ordinarily and moderately informed people, sit them in front of their website, and see whether they have any idea of what they have achieved when browsing the site.
This, I believe is the essence of the problem of their presentation. The website is built and designed for the highly informed. It is informing the informed with more information, and starts with an assumption that everyone who visits knows the details of the debate. They do not. The links at the top of the page for the non-scientists seem to be thrown in for such people, but are hardly a substitute for communication with a moderately interested audience. ‘Yes’, it is a good idea to have an explanation of the science for the non-scientist, but this can be presented in more friendly ways, such as ‘Climate Science – the Basics’ (the first thought that came to mind, not a definitive answer). This should be in the main menu and lead to a user-friendly page of some links, with a short description of the relevant content.
Returning to the main menu, there are links to pages for ‘policy’, ‘science’ and ‘economics’. These again lead the reader into yet more links to news stories which are presented in endless lists. It is not even that clear that the news stories pertain to the link title, but that is a side issue. Finally, there is the link that is simply titled ‘Dr. Vincent Gray’. To most visitors, this link will not be meaningful, and I am not sure why they might click on it. If, for some unknown reason, a new visitor might get as far as actually clicking on the link, they are then confronted with a list of links in the format of ‘NZCLIMATE & ENVIROTRUTH NO 188‘. Again, in the unlikely event that anyone with a moderate interest level might click on the link, they are presented with yet another link, and this opens up a pdf file that details Dr. Gray’s examination of a particular issue. No doubt, this content is all good, but I doubt that all but the most interested might ever get this far.
Overall, I believe the NZCSC’s website is actually a negative for the organisation. For any first time visitor, it is highly unlikely to create a positive impression, and most likely produces a negative impression of the organisation. I believe that the work, and the message of NZCSC is of great importance, but they are simply not approaching the second element of their work (communication) with the professionalism necessary to get their message ‘out there’. They are up against a largely hostile media, politicians who are mostly afraid to go against the ‘consensus’ and a populous in which there is a strong ‘green’ strain of thought.
Sure, there are skeptics in New Zealand, but only the most interested would ever make use of, or find resources in the NZCSC website for presenting their arguments. I am aware that they have other approaches to communication, but anyone interested in what they have to say is likely to visit their website as a first port of call. If they do so, they are likely to be disappointed. However, what of those people who are moderately positively disposed towards the anthropogenic global warming thesis? These are the people who might be persuaded of the case for skepticism. As the NZCSC’s website now stands, I think they have very little chance of persuading these people.
It is, of course, easy to be critical. The tough question is what to do to improve the website. The starting point is to get a professional designer to at least make the site look more enticing and professional (my apologies to whoever designed the site, but it needs to be said). The second step would be for NZCSC to take a long look at their priorities, and make sure that these priorities are reflected in the structure of the website. In all cases, their navigation system needs to take into account two types of users; the moderately interested and informed, and the very interested and informed. I am, of course, making an assumption here that they wish to engage with the former, but even for the latter (i.e. people like myself), the current site is very poor.
Long lists of unsorted news articles and links (throughout so much of the site) is certainly a negative and does not help a casual or interested person to understand NZCSC’s work. Whilst the information linked to is interesting, huge lists of these links (presented in caps as well) are just filling space, and are not usable except for the most interested readers (and even they will struggle to search through the links – I used the Firefox ‘Edit > Find’ function to search for content).
I could make further long and detailed suggestions for specific improvements but it actually requires NZCSC to have clarity in their priority and purpose, and this is not something that can be done by a friendly external critic such as me. Having looked at their work, it seems that the NZ temperature record is of particular importance, but they need to decide whether this is their priority in their communications.
As such, their first step must be to get the right people in the organisation sitting in the same room for a time, and to agree on exactly what they are trying to communicate, how they will communicate it, and make sure that their priorities and ideas are reflected in the site structure. Above all, if my assumptions are correct, they need to ensure that they engage with a wider audience, and make sure that this is reflected in their site. Finally, when they have completed the work, they need to test the site’s usability with their intended audience to make sure that it actually achieves their aims.
As I have emphasised, this is a friendly critique. NZCSC have my full support in the work that they are doing. However, I would like to see them get a wider audience for their work, and I think that they are putting barriers in the way of achieving this. In my case, I have chosen to write a blog, and this is my small and amateur contribution to the debate (and is therefore not put forward as an exemplar of how to approach communication). In the case of NZCSC, they have the potential for a far greater contribution, and that requires a better presentation of their work.