A definitively defined topic

Here’s an example of a well defined topic in the public space: Judith Curry responds … sort of.  It comes from Tamino’s blog Open Mind.

Tamino opens the post with:

Let’s be crystal-clear what the issue is. The issue is temperature in the Arctic, not some sector of the Arctic, not some season in the Arctic, and the real issue (the point of dispute) is: temperatures since 2000 compared to temperatures in the 1930s (and/or 1940s if you wish). Don’t let anybody — not Judith Curry, not me — get away with avoiding the issue.

The IPCC AR5 (5th Assessment Report) said:  “Arctic temperature anomalies in the 1930s were apparently as large as those in the 1990s and 2000s.”

It isn’t referring to “the Atlantic sector” or “the Pacific sector” of the Arctic, it isn’t referring to seasonal patterns, it simply says “the Arctic.” It says “the 1990s and 2000s.”

Arctic Circle map

Arctic Circle map: credit E&O Montessori

This opening does several things.

  • It states what the topic is, in clear, plain language.  We are immediately focussed on the point of the dialogue.
  • It states what the topic is not, which can be equally necessary.  It rules out all sorts of confusion and obfuscation.
  • It addresses the need for everyone to stay on topic.  This is one of the main roles of a facilitator: to help a group stay on track and to have difficult conversations, productively. As one of my colleagues said once, “you must not collaborate with the group in avoiding the real issue/s”.

At a couple of different places in the post, Tamino states the topic again:

Let’s be crystal-clear what the issue is here. The issue is temperature in the Arctic, not some sector of the Arctic, not some season in the Arctic, and the real issue (the point of dispute) is: since 2000.

and:

Just to refresh Judith’s memory, The issue is the Arctic, what’s in dispute is “since 2000.” It’s not about “the Atlantic sector” and it’s not about the 1990s.

In a facilitation context, this is equivalent to walking over to where you have written up the topic, and saying: “how does your statement help us all understand more about this topic?”.

Finally, Tamino closes with:

Let’s recap. The issue is Arctic temperature since 2000. Judith Curry cited numerous references containing time series plots of Arctic temperatures, claiming that “Some of the plots show the recent temperatures to be comparable to the earlier temperatures; others show current temperatures to be much warmer.” When we look for ourselves, we discover that each and every one either has little or no data after 2000, or covers some sub-region of the Arctic/particular season rather than “the Arctic,” or flat-out contradicts the claim that “Arctic surface temperature anomalies in the 1930’s were as large as the recent temperature anomalies.”

The number of papers she cites which show “recent temperatures to be comparable to the earlier temperatures” equals zero.

The number of times she refers to analyzing actual data about the issue for herself, equals zero.

This closing statement starts at the beginning with the topic and summarises the key points in relation to that topic.  Moreover, it enables a clear transition to the next stage – which in this case are comments.  Interestingly, the vast majority of the comments also stay on topic.

I count this (at least in part!) as a victory for the strength and clarity of the topic definition and maintenance.

Go well!

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