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Honest, or effective?

September 19th, 2003

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.”

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  1. September 19th, 2003 at 20:26 | #1

    The “critical sentence” isn’t that critical. Schneider may HOPE that being effective and being honest can both be achieved, but its clear from the context that he still considers being effective -complete with simplifications and unwarrented certainty- is important.

    Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.

    The complete fabrication in the APS letter certainly does deserve criticism.

    Afterthought: Since JQ gives advice writes about climate change, Ian Plimer (geologist and global warming sceptic) should start writing on economics!

  2. Dano
    September 20th, 2003 at 04:37 | #2

    Well, John, if these folks don’t do as you say, what arguments do they have?

    Of course, none at all.

    D

  3. david
    September 20th, 2003 at 08:16 | #3

    Since we are discussing accuracy and honesty here, why, John Q, do you continue to avoid discussing the main issue raised by Lomborg, namely the litany of errors in self-proclaimed environmental lobby group’s statements, especially those exaggerations that have adverse effects such as GM crop or DDT hype.

  4. Dano
    September 20th, 2003 at 10:22 | #4

    especially those exaggerations that have adverse effects such as GM crop or DDT hype.

    The unproven hypothesis that GM genes don’t escape into the ecosystem (don’t look in the journals if you want to continue your position), or the DDT hype that overspraying led to ever-decreasing effectiveness, hence the switch to nets and doorway spraying?

    D

  5. September 20th, 2003 at 13:14 | #5

    why, John Q, do you continue to avoid discussing the main issue raised by Lomborg, namely the litany of errors in self-proclaimed environmental lobby group’s statements,

    I agree, John. I want to see all facets of this issue addressed in depth, in full and without compromises every single time you post a few hundred words about it on your blog.

  6. Aaron
    September 20th, 2003 at 15:10 | #6

    Yes, some GM genes can “escape” into the environment. But it is a risk that can be managed.

    And DDT IS very effective for the contol of mosquito-borne malaria. Sadly the compound has been unfairly demonized by greenies –most past environmental problems associated with DDT are the result of improper use.

  7. William
    September 20th, 2003 at 21:42 | #7

    I cut and pasted the quote from an Economist article.
    http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=965718

  8. derrida derider
    September 20th, 2003 at 23:21 | #8

    OK, some people quoted the juicy bits selectively from that quote. But the whole quote, even in context, is still pretty damning – and I’m surprised and disappointed to see JQ trying to defend it.

  9. Russell L. Carter
    September 21st, 2003 at 07:01 | #9

    “But the whole quote, even in context, is still pretty damning”

    Right. When the evidence on each of the particulars is shown to be fabrication, declare that the original projection is “true” instead because it is now based on a private personal examination of the whole text. Nice technique! I wonder why Simon and Daly bothered with misrepresentation, context mashing, and fabrication in the first place?

  10. William
    September 21st, 2003 at 11:05 | #10

    Why should the public trust (environmental)scientists if they’re personally deciding the ‘right’ balance between honesty and the (political) effectiveness of what they say?

    Doesn’t their authority stem from the public thinking that they’re bound not to comprise their honesty but instead give us the facts regardless of whether they’re ‘effective’ or not?

  11. Jim
    September 21st, 2003 at 12:46 | #11

    I agree with William.

    The quote must be viewed in full and in context to allow fair criticism but it still represents a worrying prospect – scientists having to determine the correct balance between the whole truth and those aspects of it which serve a particular purpose. Why do scientists – or journalists and historians for that matter – have the right to make such determinations without question?

    I don’t know if Lomborg or Windschuttle are correct though both make some good points but if such authority is to be granted then isn’t there a heightened imperative for dissenters to be granted equal respect?

    The BBC/Andrew Gilligan affair is a case in point – political and personal prejudices distorted the truth whilst those questioning the interpretation were vilified.

  12. Russell L. Carter
    September 21st, 2003 at 14:55 | #12

    “Why should the public trust (environmental)scientists if they’re personally deciding the ‘right’ balance between honesty and the (political) effectiveness of what they say?”

    Because if they lie or misrepresent in any meaningful way, their peers will notice. It may take a while, but the credibility balance will be restored. Note that that is what is happening with Lomborg.

    If you’re a novice with these sorts of notions, I meekly suggest you consult Theodor M. Porter’s treatise “Trust in Numbers”, for an illuminating glimpse into why professional guilds exist, and have so for a very long time.

  13. Russell L. Carter
    September 21st, 2003 at 15:22 | #13

    There’s a test case: Paul Erlich. Has his opinion on matters of popular concern, based on anything he’s published in the last ten years say, been represented by the popular press as if he were authoritative?

    I haven’t googled nor do I possess prior knowledge, so yall can go on an opening day hunt.

  14. John
    September 21st, 2003 at 20:31 | #14

    DD, 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.”

  15. William
    September 21st, 2003 at 23:15 | #15

    Russell: Thanks for the book recommendation.

    There shouldn’t be any doubt about what scientists should do if they find themselves in the ‘double ethical bind’ that Schneider describes. The formula to solve it is to tell the truth.

    For a top scientist like Schneider to advocate (however obliquely) compromising honesty to advance an environmental political agenda, and without outcry from peers, says something is rotten in environmental ‘science’.

    Imagine the same thing in immunology, researchers personally deciding how much to compromise their honesty for political effectiveness.

  16. James Farrell
    September 22nd, 2003 at 10:49 | #16

    Nothing troubles me about the full quote from Schneider. I suspect that the clause that’s worrying some people is the one about ‘mak[ing] little mention of any doubts we might have’. But he is talking about dealing with the media. Suppose you are a pioneer researcher on smoking and cancer, already convinced that the correlation is high. You are interviewed by a journalist you know to be sceptical about any link, who furthermore represents a newspaper that gets much of its income from advertising cigarettes. You know that if you dwell on any qualifications the story will appear as: ‘Researcher confesses to doubts on tobacco link’. Will this knowledge not influence the way you undertake the interview? You want to get word out, and the paper has a wide circulation. This is not such an extreme example, and it’s na•ve to denounce Schneider in such shocked tones on the basis of the quoted comment.

  17. William
    September 22nd, 2003 at 13:10 | #17

    But can we agree that scaremongering in the name of science is wrong? That you shouldn’t be a scientist and wear a political activist hat at the same time?

    My naivety comes from thinking that environmental ‘scientists’ are as trustworthy as medical scientists. I was very naive, as Lomborg has shown, to think so. In my eyes they now have little, if any, credibility. Never mind what their tribal ganging-up on Lomborg says about their supposed passion for intellectual inquiry.

    Oh, and chief scaremonger and shameless fraud Paul Ehrlich and his wife Ann have written a book entitled: Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environment Rhetoric Threatens Our Future.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1559634847/102-9436787-0012143?v=glance

    As one reviewer wrote ‘if Green proponents want to find how to lose status and credibility with those who are undecided, this book is a must-read’.

  18. Me No No
    September 22nd, 2003 at 18:53 | #18

    I think Schneider’s just guilty of self-awareness and expressing it. That’s naive.

    And so are people who think that scientists present unadorned truth without any input from their own prejudices.

  19. Andrew
    September 22nd, 2003 at 21:52 | #19

    Science has never had to pay respect to fools just because they went against established ideas. If Lomberg wants to step miles outside his area of expertise, side with the political and economic gamesters who respect neither truth nor science, against a huge body of shared and reviewed work that has already withstood vigourous peer review, then he can expect to get his head kicked.

    Even though TV cop shows always have the maverick who ‘gets things done’ by avoiding the stodgy bureaucratic t-crossing of their colleagues, in real life they are liabilities. Same as is happening to Lmoberg, once they get to court the lawyers (whose job it is) tear them to pieces.

    If Lomberg’s work is good and right, it will stand up on its own merits. Huge scientific reputations have backed theories that have later been bypassed by more successful ideas.

    If Lomberg is right its rightness will be come out.

    However, if equally or more skilled statisticians pull his work to pieces because it failed as science then you will have to live with that and stop snivelling about political bias.

  20. William
    September 23rd, 2003 at 15:00 | #20

    Did Paul Ehrlich’s work withstand vigorous peer review? Or was his deception overlooked (or tacitly approved of) by his peers because his scaremongering served the purposes of the green movement?

    In the late 1960s he wrote “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death.” In 1976 he wrote “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.”

    Was Paul Ehrlich someone on the lunatic fringe of the green movement? No, he was a tenured Stanford academic (currently Bing Professor of Population Studies) who was awarded a prestigious MacArthur ‘genius’ award, the Crafoord prize (equivalent to a Nobel), the Gold Medal of the WWF, the UN Sasakawa environment prize, in 1999 the Blue Planet prize and in 2000 the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

    What a clown. And apparently a top academic in environmental so-called ‘science’.

    What the Lomborg episode has shown is that environmental ‘science’ is soft on dishonesty when it accords with the political predjudies environmental scientists. And very harsh when it conflicts with their political predjudices.

    If what Lomborg showed didn’t come as a shock then you didn’t think much of environmental scientists in the first place.

    What does it say about environmental science that a clown as out of touch with reality (and careless with the truth) as Ehrlich can climb to the top?

  21. david
    September 23rd, 2003 at 20:39 | #21

    The problem as I see it that the environmental crusaders place to much emphasis on effectiveness and too little emphasis on truthfulness about complex issues. The consequence is that they have done some real harm – for example people are dying in africa from malaria due to the “green” movements attempts to enforce an absolute ban on DDT. Sure, misuse of DDT is unwise but totally banning it as a cost effective spray in houses has killed thousands of people. Similarly, the slowdown in agricultural research due to anti-GM food hysteria will do real harm over time, but most anti-GM crusaders go around denying that technology has anything to do with food security.Talk about dangerous simplification of the real world! Lomborg’s a paragon of virtue compared to them.
    To overcome this the overzealous greenies need to be honest about scientific critiques of their policy proposals. But do we get that. I don’t think so: I have just noted these last few days in Australian newspapers Bjorn Lomborg being subject to a vicious ad hominem attack by a person called Clive Hamilton of a think tank called the Australia Institute: what we get is denial that environmental zealots have ever exaggerered or told fibs. Thats a message that Lomborg tells with extensive documentartation but even a reasoning academic like Prof Q is unable to acknowledge it. To my mind the environmental movement has real ethical problems if it’s policy errors kill people, and it won’t acknowledge them frankly and honestly.

  22. Russell L. Carter
    September 24th, 2003 at 16:03 | #22

    “In the late 1960s he wrote “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . hundreds of millions of people (including Americans) are going to starve to death.” In 1976 he wrote “Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.”

    Was Paul Ehrlich someone on the lunatic fringe of the green movement? No, he was a tenured Stanford academic (currently Bing Professor of Population Studies) who was awarded a prestigious MacArthur ‘genius’ award, the Crafoord prize (equivalent to a Nobel), the Gold Medal of the WWF, the UN Sasakawa environment prize, in 1999 the Blue Planet prize and in 2000 the Eminent Ecologist Award of the Ecological Society of America and the Distinguished Scientist Award of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.”

    Ah good. So I’m right. The popular citations are from a long time ago, but the professional accolades still accrue. There is no contradiction here William: Erlich is unreliable as a popularizer, but his science in his field is impeccable, even superlative. You might want to read that book I recommended.

  23. William
    September 25th, 2003 at 15:10 | #23

    Russell: I’ve borrowed it today.

    But you would agree that scientists ought to be held to higher moral standards than, say, lawyers for oil companies?

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