Honest, or effective?
In the comments thread for my post on Lomborg, I’ve been presented yet again with the widely-reproduced quotation in which Stephen Schneider is supposed to have advocated scientific dishonesty in the interests of environmentalism. In fact, the history of this quote proves exactly the opposite of the point intended by those who use it.
The original quote, was in an interview by Discover Magazine in 1989, where Schneider discussed the problems of dealing with the media. (I’ve looked in vain for the full interview, so I’ll make my usual appeal for help on this).
The relevant paragraph is
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 scientists 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 climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased 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 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.
The first public use of this quote against Simon was by the late Julian Simon (of whom Lomborg is a big fan). Here’s the version he printed, in the APS News, March 1996
Scientist 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. (emphasis added)
The section in bold is a complete fabrication and the remainder of the quote has been distorted by omission of key sentences, notably the final one. Schneider demanded and received the right to print a correction.
One might think that having been caught out in this fashion, Simon and his friends would either avoid using this quote or be careful to get it right. Not a bit of it. Both Simon and his numerous followers have continued to use distorted versions of this quote. (I should note that Lomborg used a short version but was careful enough to give the full quote in a footnote). Here for example is John Daly
To capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest.
Note that critical sentences have been omitted or run together with no indication of what has been done.
What’s really interesting about this episode is that Schneider’s opponents are committing exactly the offence of which they accuse him. They are convinced he is a dangerous scaremonger who needs to be exposed in the interest of “making the world a better place”. Unfortunately, their best piece of evidence has a lot of “ifs, ands and buts”. So rather than “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but”, they extract the “simplified dramatic statements” and serve them up to “capture the public imagination”. Indeed, “each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest”, and for not of all us does it mean being both.
UpdateAs regards my own reaction to Schneider’s views, I’ll restate what I said the first time I discussed this. “Iâm not a huge fan of Schneider – I find him overly prone to alarmism, and even in the corrected version I think this comes through. But that doesnât justify reproducing quotations from obviously hostile sources without the simple precaution of a Google check.”