Writing children’s picture books

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[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.