In a recent post on the ethics of quotation, I referred to a doctored quote by environmentalist Stephen Schneider, in which he is made out to advocate scientific fraud in the interests of the environment. As I’ll argue, the use of this quote has served to show up, as dishonest or inexcusably sloppy, dozens of Schneider’s opponents, while doing only modest damage to Schneider himself.
(Warning: Long post follows)
Here’s the full quote.
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 climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based 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)
Now here’s a fairly standard blogosphere version, taken from the Web Site of global warming denialist John Daly(I’ve included in bold, sentences omitted from the quote by Daly)
To do that, we need to get some broad-based 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)
Note that the omission of sentences is not indicated by ellipses (…) or in any other way and that Daly runs sentences together to mislead the reader – the purpose “simplified, dramatic statements” is presented as being to “attract public support”, but in the original it is because these are needed if you are to get media coverage.
An earlier version, propagated, and perhaps originated, by economist Julian Simon not only omitted sentences but inserted the entirely fabricated (but conveniently damning) sentence “Scientists should consider stretching the truth”. Schneider caught him on this one in an article in article in the American Physical Society news, and demanded a retraction. Simon’s response was to drop the fabricate sentences, and to switch to the modified, but still doctored, quote now generally reproduced.
Before looking at what Schneider actually said, it’s worth considering what the widespread reproduction of this quote says about the opponents of environmentalism. Those who have used the quote fall into two classes
(i) people who know the quote to be doctored, but are willing to engage in conscious dishonesty to discredit an opponent
(ii) people who are willing to reproduce a quotation reported by a hostile source without undertaking elementary checks on its accuracy
Anything said by someone in either of these categories on any environmental issue (indeed, on any issue*) must be regarded with skepticism.
The has been disputed by many, who have argued that the quote in its original form is damning enough, and that therefore no harm is done by “sexing it up”, to use the terminology of Blairite spin doctors. For example, Ozplogger Bargarz recently dismissed my earlier objections to quote-doctoring as ‘semantic..
I have two observations in response. First, these claims can be used to support any dishonest argument in support of a proposition the claimant believes to be true or a policy position they believe to be desirable.
Second, in this specific case, history proves the claim to be false. If it were true, when Simon was caught using the original doctored version, he and others would have switched to using the accurate quote. The fact that he and his successors have generally failed to do so is evidence that the doctored quote works well for their purposes, and the accurate quote does not. (I should note that I found one hostile use which includes the final sentence and indicates omissions by ellipsis, by Jeffrey Salmon of the Marshall Institute. There are also quite a few cases where the final sentence is omitted without any indication, but other omissions are noted with ellipses This treatment, which would clearly fail the journalistic standards of the NY Times is employed, for example, by The Economist.
I plan to continue with an assessment of Schneider’s original statement, and his position in general. But in the meantime, here’s a sample (selected from 400+ Google hits) of those who have discredited themselves by using the doctored quotation, knowingly or recklessly. As well as Simon and Daly, the list includes Doug Bandow of Cato, David Wojick at SEPP, Iain Murray at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Dixy Lee Ray in Trashing the Planet
*I should observe that environmental issues tend to raise the emotional temperature and that people on both sides tend to resort to practices they would reject in other contexts. I know that I tend to lose my temper in such matters, though never to the extent of fabricating evidence or doctoring quotations. So, it might be best to confine skepticism about users of this quote to their claims on environmental issues.