Writing children's picture books

post by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-25T21:43:45.578Z · score: 112 (36 votes) · LW · GW · 20 comments

This is a link post for https://unstableontology.com/2019/06/25/writing-childrens-picture-books/

[the text of the post is pasted here, for redundancy]

Here’s an exercise for explaining and refining your opinions about some domain, X:

Imagine writing a 10-20 page children’s picture book about topic X. Be fully honest and don’t hide things (assume the child can handle being told the truth, including being told non-standard or controversial facts).

Here’s a dialogue, meant to illustrate how this could work:

A: What do you think about global warming?

B: Uhh…. I don’t know, it seems real?

A: How would you write a 10-20 page children’s picture book about global warming?

B: Oh, I’d have a diagram showing carbon dioxide exiting factories and cars, floating up in the atmosphere, and staying there. Then I’d have a picture of sunlight coming through the atmosphere, bounding off the earth, then going back up, but getting blocked by the carbon dioxide, so it goes back to the earth and warms up the earth a second time. Oh, wait, if the carbon dioxide prevents the sunlight from bouncing from the earth to the sky, wouldn’t it also prevent the sunlight from entering the atmosphere in the first place? Oh, I should look that up later [NOTE: the answer is that CO2 blocks thermal radiation much more than it blocks sunlight].

Anyway, after that I’d have some diagrams showing global average temperature versus global CO2 level that show how the average temperature is tracking CO2 concentration, with some lag time. Then I’d have some quotes about scientists and information about the results of surveys. I’d show a graph showing how much the temperature would increase under different conditions… I think I’ve heard that, with substantial mitigation effort, the temperature difference might be 2 degrees Celsius from now until the end of the century [NOTE: it's actually 2 degrees from pre-industrial times till the end of the century, which is about 1 degree from now]. And I’d want to show what 2 degrees Celsius means, in terms of, say, a fraction of the difference between winter and summer.

I’d also want to explain the issue of sea level rise, by showing a diagram of a glacier melting. Ice floats, so if the glacier is free-floating, then it melting doesn’t cause a sea level rise (there’s some scientific principle that says this, I don’t remember what it’s called), but if the glacier is on land, then when it melts, it causes the sea level to rise. I’d also want to show a map of the areas that would get flooded. I think some locations, like much of Florida, get flooded, so the map should show that, and there should also be a pie chart showing how much of the current population would end up underwater if they didn’t move (my current guess is that it’s between 1 percent and 10 percent, but I could be pretty wrong about this [NOTE: the answer is 30 to 80 million people, which is between about 0.4% and 1.1%]).

I’d also want to talk about possible mitigation efforts. Obviously, it’s possible to reduce energy consumption (and also meat consumption, because cows produce methane which is also a greenhouse gas). So I’d want to show a chart of which things produce the most greenhouse gases (I think airplane flights and beef are especially bad), and showing the relationship between possible reductions in that and the temperature change.

Also, trees take CO2 out of the atmosphere, so preserving forests is a way to prevent global warming. I’m confused about where the CO2 goes, exactly, since there’s some cycle it goes through in the forest; does it end up underground? I’d have to look this up.

I’d also want to talk about the political issues, especially the disinformation in the space. There’s a dynamic where companies that pollute want to deny that man-made global warming is a real, serious problem, so there won’t be regulations. So, they put out disinformation on television, and they lobby politicians. Sometimes, in the discourse, people go from saying that global warming isn’t real, to saying it’s real but not man-made, to saying it’s real and man-made but it’s too late to do anything about it. That’s a clear example of motivated cognition. I’d want to explain how this is trying to deny that any changes should be made, and speculate about why people might want to, such as because they don’t trust the process that causes changes (such as the government) to do the right thing.

And I’d also want to talk about geoengineering. There are a few proposals I know of. One is to put some kind of sulfer-related chemical in the atmosphere, to block out sunlight. This doesn’t solve ocean acidification, but it does reduce the temperature. But, it’s risky, because if you stop putting the chemical in the atmosphere, then that causes a huge temperature swing.

I also know it’s possible to put iron in the ocean, which causes a plankton bloom, which… does something to capture CO2 and store it in the bottom of the ocean? I’m really not sure how this works, I’d want to look it up before writing this section.

There’s also the proposal of growing and burning trees, and capturing and storing the carbon. When I looked this up before, I saw that this takes quite a lot of land, and anyway there’s a lot of labor involved, but maybe some if it can be automated.

There are also political issues with geoengineering. There are people who don’t trust the process of doing geoengineering to make things better instead of worse, because they expect that people’s attempts to reason about it will make lots of mistakes (or people will have motivated cognition and deceive themselves and each other), and then the resulting technical models will make things that don’t work. But, the geoengineering proposals don’t seem harder than things that humans have done in the past using technical knowledge, like rockets, so I don’t agree that this is such a big problem.

Furthermore, some people want to shut down discussion of geoengineering, because such discussion would make it harder to morally pressure people into reducing carbon emissions. I don’t know how to see this as anything other than an adversarial action against reasonable discourse, but I’m sure there is some motivation at play here. Perhaps it’s a motivation to have everyone come together as one, all helping together, in a hippie-ish way. I’m not sure if I’m right here, I’d want to read something written by one of these people before making any strong judgments.

Anyway, that’s how I’d write a picture book about global warming.


So, I just wrote that dialogue right now, without doing any additional research. It turns out that I do have quite a lot of opinions about global warming, and am also importantly uncertain in some places, some of which I just now became aware of. But I’m not likely to produce these opinions if asked “what do you think about global warming?”

Why does this technique work? I think it’s because, if asked for one’s opinions in front of an adult audience, it’s assumed that there is a background understanding of the issue, and you have to say something new, and what you decide to say says something about you. Whereas, if you’re explaining to a child, then you know they lack most of the background understanding, and so it’s obviously good to explain that.

With adults, it’s assumed there are things that people act like “everyone knows”, where it might be considered annoying to restate them, since it’s kind of like talking down to them. Whereas, the illusion or reality that “everyone knows” is broken when explaining to children.

The countervailing force is that people are tempted to lie to children. Of course, it’s necessary to not lie to children to do the exercise right, and also to raise or help raise children who don’t end up in an illusory world of confusion and dread. I would hope that someone who has tendencies to hide things from children would at least be able to notice and confront these tendencies in the process of imagining writing children’s picture books.

I think this technique can be turned into a generalized process for making world models. If someone wrote a new sketch of a children’s picture book (about a new topic) every day, and did the relevant research when they got stuck somewhere, wouldn’t they end up with a good understanding of both the world and of their own models of the world after a year? It’s also a great starting point from which to compare your opinions to others’ opinions, or to figure out how to explain things to either children or adults.

Anyway, I haven’t done this exercise for very many topics yet, but I plan on writing more of these.

20 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by RyanCarey · 2019-06-27T10:00:28.332Z · score: 14 (6 votes) · LW · GW

In general, thinking of yourself commuciating your ideas to a less intelligent and knowledgeable person could push you in the direction of confabulating freeer-flowing stories whereas imagining yourself communicating your ideas to a smarter person could push you in the direction of saying less, with higher-rigour.

It seems like which one is desirable depends on the individual and the context (cf the Law of Equal and Opposite Advice)

comment by orthonormal · 2019-06-27T19:10:54.865Z · score: 14 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Maybe you can get the best of both worlds by imagining you're writing a children's book, but that your editor is in fact an expert on the subject and you don't want to embarrass yourself in front of them.

comment by ESRogs · 2019-08-03T04:03:02.664Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Or you could imagine writing for a smarter but less knowledgeable person. E.g. 10 y.o. Feynman.

comment by dottedmag · 2019-08-03T16:31:46.806Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

To HJPEV.

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-27T17:46:18.932Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What's the (imagined) motivation for explaining to someone smarter or more knowledgeable? No use explaining to someone who clearly already knows. The amount that almost everyone should say to a climate scientist about global warming is approximately zero.

comment by mr-hire · 2019-06-27T22:49:54.870Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The way I read Ryan was that they are smart and informed, except on the subject you're informing them about.

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2019-08-03T02:41:13.535Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Promoted to curated: One of my favorite posts of LessWrong history is Sarah Constantin's "Fact Posts How and Why", because it gave me a very concrete tool that could help me understand large parts of the world in a better way. This post I think has done something similar, and while I sadly haven't gotten around to using it in detail, I have brought it up as an intuition pump a few times in conversation and when thinking about things alone.

I also particularly like the very concrete example, and generally think that concrete examples help a lot with posts like this.

comment by steven0461 · 2019-06-27T22:35:21.874Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW · GW
how much of the current population would end up underwater if they didn’t move

(and if they didn't adapt in other ways, like by building sea walls)

comment by steven0461 · 2019-06-27T20:18:33.986Z · score: 9 (2 votes) · LW · GW
I think I’ve heard that, with substantial mitigation effort, the temperature difference might be 2 degrees Celsius from now until the end of the century.

Usually people mean from pre-industrial times, not from now. 2 degrees from pre-industrial times means about 1 degree from now.

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-28T11:11:46.311Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the correction (adding a note now).

comment by noggin-scratcher · 2019-06-26T23:11:20.981Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

"Ice floats, so if the glacier is free-floating, then it melting doesn’t cause a sea level rise"

A thing I recently learned: this is only true of ice floating on fresh water.

Salt water is more dense than fresh (and the ice itself is still mostly fresh even if it formed out of sea water) so ice floating on the sea floats a little higher than it would float on freshwater. This reduces its displacement and means that melting it does somewhat increase the water level.

comment by Rochambeau · 2019-06-29T14:35:11.152Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Along with ice melting, the other main cause of sea level rise is the thermal expansion of ocean water. Until more recently, the two effects were about equal in magnitude.

comment by Douglas_Knight · 2019-06-29T21:39:44.327Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW
I think it’s be­cause, if asked for one’s opinions in front of an adult au­di­ence, it’s as­sumed that there is a back­ground un­der­stand­ing of the is­sue, and you have to say some­thing new, and what you de­cide to say says some­thing about you. Whereas, if you’re ex­plain­ing to a child, then you know they lack most of the back­ground un­der­stand­ing, and so it’s ob­vi­ously good to ex­plain that.
With adults, it’s as­sumed there are things that peo­ple act like “ev­ery­one knows”, where it might be con­sid­ered an­noy­ing to restate them, since it’s kind of like talk­ing down to them. Whereas, the illu­sion or re­al­ity that “ev­ery­one knows” is bro­ken when ex­plain­ing to chil­dren.

This doesn't sound quite right to me.

Do you have an example where you made a mistake that would be corrected by this framing?

I suspect that the problem you are thinking of is that of never even reaching the framing "ex­plain­ing and re­fin­ing your opinions" and that the marginal benefit of the children book framing is small. Who is asking for you to write 1000 words of your opinion of global warming in front of an adult audience? "In front of" sounds like real time, allowing much less that 1000 words. Where did the topic come from? Probably you are expected to respond to an ongoing conversation and thus focus on details that have already been brought up, rather than start from scratch. If someone writes a blog post on global warming and you are tempted to write a response, probably it is better to direct that motivation into writing sub specie aeternitatis. But that first decision is the hard one.

Added: I expect that the marginal benefit of the child audience framing to the quality of the explanation and refining to be positive but marginal, but the benefit to motivation more promising. But it's easier to point to an example of writing the wrong thing than an example where of writing nothing.

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-30T18:17:52.988Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Do you have an example where you made a mistake that would be corrected by this framing?

Someone asked me what I thought about what happened after the American Civil War. I said, vaguely, that Abraham Lincoln was involved, and actually didn't remember more than that (during the conversation, not later). I think other framings would have caused me to give more information.

I expect "explain and refine your opinions on topic X" to yield less information about someone's opinions and also be less fun to read than "how would you write a children's picture book on topic X" for myself and also most smart people. This is partially because "explain and refine your opinions on topic X" sounds like a school essay prompt, which is writing for an adult audience that is judging you.

Have you tried both prompts yourself on some topic?

comment by mhelvens · 2019-06-26T19:08:26.646Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I want to like this idea, but I'm not sure yet. The process of writing down your own reasoning and assumptions seems incredibly valuable to me. But I wonder how much the framing of this exercise would actually help someone who is already introspective enough to attempt it.

Do you think it could mitigate certain cognitive biases? I can easily imagine different people writing contradictory children's picture books, just as they write contradictory blog-posts. Not because they're lying, but because of confirmation bias.

Also, if you take the framing too literally, there may be the temptation to oversimplify. Your global warming example has a lot of complexity for a children's picture book. :-)

comment by jessicata (jessica.liu.taylor) · 2019-06-28T11:21:38.725Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think the main way this mitigates cognitive biases is by causing someone to worry less about what the things they choose to say reflect on them as a person, and to write more content in a way that makes it easier to identify contradictions or uncertainties (as I did with whether CO2 blocks sunlight). It's hard to realize a contradiction in your implicit beliefs without first making that contradiction explicit. However, this exercise at first only mitigates a subset of the cognitive biases, though it's possible that enough repeated iteration would correct most biases by making them more obvious.

The complexity depends on what we mean by "child"; here I'm thinking of 7-12 year olds, who can read books that use the concepts I was using (though I would have to expand the explanation for some parts).

comment by ryan_b · 2019-08-07T15:52:24.740Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

One of the things I like about this idea is how it specifically triggers thinking about two different modes of communication, the words and the pictures. I feel like when I think about displaying information it is usually either showing something I already know in word form, or alternatively to get at information I cannot grok otherwise like data points in a large table. I almost never think about giving one idea both barrels from the get-go.

comment by HomarusSimpson · 2019-08-03T10:12:43.293Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Mentioning children and AGW together leads me to express a concern I have.

If we work on a given that anthropogenic AGW is factual, or so close as makes no difference, and that we should move to mitigate as quickly as possible.

There is a key phrase in that- "as quickly as possible" which as well as the obvious "no slower than possible" also contains "no quicker than possible". We all will have seen (at least those of us in UK/ Europe) the almost deification of Greta Thunberg and the primacy in discourse of the Extinction Rebellion narrative (not least of all indicated by their name).

I worry that we are in danger of becoming a pedocracy (a word that apparently has two definitions, I mean rule by children, not pedophiles). If you ask the average concerned 12 yr old what is to be done, they would say that we should stop burning fossil fuels right now.

The world population before the industrial revolution was approx 1 billion. We can safely assume this was not down to insufficient fornication, but was the Malthusian limit. Nearly all the subsequent population expansion has been enabled by energy use. If we make a wild stab and say that due to other advances we could now support a non industrial population of 2 billion, and that we get to keep the 20% of non fossil energy generation, that still means a max population of 3 billion, or 4 billion deaths, mostly by starvation.

I have a feeling that won't go well.

We need the grown ups to be dealing with this, ideally the brightest and the best. The notion of a new 'moonshot' is just the sort of thing. Trouble is I don't see where it comes from. The USA would be traditionally the best placed, but not the current administration, and I don't see the Dems really looking like that would be their priority, too wrapped up in identity politics really. China maybe, but I don't think they have the wealth yet. The EU are too impossibly bureaucratic to do it, and quite probably the whole thing may come crashing down with a combination of sovereign debt problems (insoluble with a common currency) and Brexit contagion.

All suggestions gratefully received!

comment by Pattern · 2019-06-25T22:58:18.784Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW
The countervailing force is that people are tempted to lie to children.

Related: a desire to sell/publish/use such books.

comment by Fluttershy · 2019-08-05T03:20:22.761Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW
because such discussion would make it harder to morally pressure people into reducing carbon emissions. I don’t know how to see this as anything other than an adversarial action against reasonable discourse

ffs, because incentives. You're playing tragedy of the commons, and your best move is to make there be more shared resources people can just take?