SCIENCE AS A CONTACT SPORT

Reviewed 8/03/2010

Science as a Contact Sport, by Stephen H. Schneider

SCIENCE AS A CONTACT SPORT
Inside the Battle To Save Earth's Climate
Stephen H. Schneider
Washington: National Geographic Society, 2009

Rating:

5.0

High

ISBN-13 978-1-4262-0540-8
ISBN-10 1-4262-0540-6 295pp. HC/BWI $28.00

About the "Double Ethical Bind" Quotation

Dr. Schneider gave many interviews. One resulted in a quote which, in misleadingly edited form, has bounced around the world via the Internet and come back to haunt him numerous times. This was an interview he gave to Jonathan Schell of Discover magazine for its October 1989 issue.1

I reproduce it here. Original form is on the left; the edited form as published in the Detroit News is on the right. (I keep all the original text, only blanking out what the Detroit News did not use. They did not print the gaps.)

Discover Interview
Stephen H. Schneider, Ph.D.
October, 1989

Original Version Detroit News Version

"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientist but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method., in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs ands and buts On the other hand, we are not just scientist but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." I hope that means being both."

As you can see from what was left out by the Detroit News, the thrust of the modified quotation makes it seem as if Dr. Schneider willingly conjured up scary disaster scenarios out of a fertile imagination for some nefarious purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This misquote plagued him throughout the remainder of his career. Dr. Schneider discusses this matter on pages 212-219 of his book. At a 1995 meeting of IPCC Working Group I, for which he was a lead author, he was challenged by a senior Australian scientist over his supposed penchant for exaggeration. He explained, and after mulling it over for several weeks, the Aussie sent him an e-mail apology. Dr. Schneider mused,

"I presume for every individual like him there are a hundred more who just take the false representations of my character and beliefs as true."

– Page 218

From what I've seen in following the "blog wars" over climate change, I'd guess the number runs into the thousands. The allegations of fearmongering crop up again and again, usually just tossed off and left in what we call a "drive-by posting." Whoever left it (they generally are anonymous) never returns to acknowledge their mistake (if it was a mistake.)

The distorted quotation also prevented him being invited to testify at several hearings, because it was felt he would spend all of his alloted time clearing up the false imputations created by the misquote and never get to the substance. It came back to haunt him again in the spring of 2009. On a visit to New Zealand for hearings on greenhouse gas emissions with the new conservative government there, he met skeptical questions which had their origin in the Detroit News article. (See page 254.)

What is even worse was the discovery that a University of Maryland business professor, the late Julian Simon, added his own preamble which made it seem as if Dr. Schneider advised people to "stretch the truth." This is documented in two 1996 issues of the newsletter of the American Physical Society (APS), both of which are online as PDFs. Dr. Simon's editorial appeared in the March issue,2 in a section called "The Back Page" which was reserved for such opinions. Its final three paragraphs read:

Bob Park asked: "Doomsayers often preface their warnings with 'if we don't take steps to prevent it.' Is it possible that their warnings have helped produce a better environment?" I answer: Those who warn against real trouble help. Even if the warning is wrong, I do not criticize unless the warner is willfully ignorant or dishonest. But some forecasts are knowingly exaggerated or false. Atmospheric scientist Stephen Schneider says:

"Scientist (sic) should consider stretching the truth to get some broad base support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention about any doubts we might have... Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

I know of no evidence that false warnings of doom on balance are beneficial. And in the absence of such evidence, I continue to believe that professing the truth is humanity's best hope.

Dr. Schneider's rebuttal was published in the August issue, in space offered to him for that purpose.3

But then, there's no lack of dishonest professors. It's all of a piece with the repetition of smears about Al Gore, James Hansen, Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson and many others — skirmishes in a war that shows no signs of abating.

1 Jonathan Schell, "Our Fragile Earth," Discover (October 1989), 47.
2 See "Resources and Population: a Wager" by Julian L. Simon, on the back page of the March 1996 APS Newsletter.
3 See "Don't Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial" about halfway down in the Newsletter's August issue.
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