Writing children’s picture books

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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.