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Misquotable quotes

January 10th, 2004

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.

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  1. Andrew
    January 10th, 2004 at 20:22 | #1

    When I read an article I must trust that it is being written in good faith and that what I cannot verify myself (or lack the skills and knowledge to check) is being presented honestly.

    If some of an article is shown to have misrepresented the truth then the whole article is damaged, no matter how well argued.

    I agree with JQ that this is a shady, sly and shifty trick to use and it certainly implies (if not proves) that the user has a weak argument and has probably played false somewhere else.

    This type of thing during the Iraq War has made “The Australian” useless for me because I am now unable to determine the truth or falsity of what it reports.

  2. January 11th, 2004 at 01:59 | #2

    I have to say that I find the original quote, with all the qualifications provided, to still be pretty dodgy. If you are going to mislead, you are going to mislead, and just because you know your doing the wrong thing doesn’t make it any better.

    Hoping to be honest isn’t really good. Do you give an economic opinion and ‘hope’ it is honest?

    Given all that, I do not see how paraphrasing the paragraph is a particular sin.

  3. Russell L. Carter
    January 11th, 2004 at 04:26 | #3

    “If you are going to mislead, you are going to mislead, and just because you know your doing the wrong thing doesn’t make it any better.”

    The point isn’t to mislead at all. It can be extremely difficult to make simplifications accessible to the level of the general population without weakening the science. If a technically challenging analysis indicates a danger to the general population, then those in the know have a moral duty to make this danger known. As part of the process they have to utilize techniques that aren’t their specialty, like marketing, for instance. The challenge is then to make the case for the danger with integrity while using these techniques, and humans of all stripes have a hard time with that. Some will inevitably fail. That eventuality doesn’t imply that the original science is any way faulty, which is exactly the claim of the people John lists in his post.

  4. January 11th, 2004 at 15:51 | #4

    It’s not rocket science to make risk assessment available in plain English. If the chances of ‘x’ happening, with ‘x’ being a catastrophe of some nature, are 15% or whatever, then surely it’s not actually hard to say “The chances of ‘x’ happening are 15%.

  5. Dano
    January 11th, 2004 at 17:46 | #5

    Scott has a true statement above, but scientists usually do not write conclusions containing risk assessment [hence the IPCC terminology and hullaballoo], and (I can’t speak for the Aussies) the American public doesn’t assess risk well – mad cow being a recent example.

    Thus the politicization presented by John, here.

    D

  6. January 11th, 2004 at 20:46 | #6

    Interesting that the misquoters could be said to be engaging in a similar sort of process to the one that Schneider defends – being selective with the truth in order to sound more sensational. Omitting the ellipses might be dishonest, but then, it’s also dishonest (in some sense) for a scientist to gloss over doubts and ambiguities in order to secure better media coverage. The misquoters misquote because leaving the nuances intact would lessen the impact. It’s the same reason that a scientist might misrepresent evidence in media interviews. Perhaps the fault is with the media and with us, the audience. If we weren’t so eager to succumb to the need to resolve complex questions with simple answers, and if we were as prepared to digest intelligent assessments as we are to digest nightmare predictions, then perhaps the problem wouldn’t arise. When we decide what newspaper to buy or what news service to watch, we’re effectively voting on the quality of information that we receive, and it seems as if we continually vote for the sensational rather than the realistic.

  7. William
    January 11th, 2004 at 21:40 | #7

    ‘As part of the process they have to utilize techniques that aren’t their specialty, like marketing, for instance.’

    What nonsense. Do pharmacologists and safety engineers have to use marketing to get their message across? Is it too much to ask environmental scientists to do their jobs and give us the facts?

    The god-complex attitude among environmental scientists seems to be that ‘climatology is just so complex, we’re insiders and we’ll decide what the public can know, ignore any wildly innacurate forecasts (always in one direction), we spiced them up for your own good, and we hold the torch of scientific objectivity, our personal politics don’t come into this’.

    ‘Perhaps the fault is with the media and with us, the audience.’ No, the fault is with intellectual dishonest environmental scientists and their apologists.

    Some noted environmental scientists are liars, but because their critics twist their words and misquote or fabricate them, apparently this makes their sin less significant? Have I understood this ‘change the embarrasing subject of our dishonesty to our enemies’ dishonesty’ line of thought correctly?

  8. Russell L. Carter
    January 12th, 2004 at 02:52 | #8

    “Do pharmacologists and safety engineers have to use marketing to get their message across?”

    Why yes they do. For instance, consider the communication problems underlying various space shuttle incidents.

  9. January 29th, 2004 at 22:43 | #9

    John,

    Nice disclaimer at the footer. You forgot to add ad hominem to the list of bad ethical practices.

    I assume that by associating me with Blairite spin doctors you might be seeking to trivialise and discredit my initial post on the topic which can be found (with full context) here.

    That matter came up during my post on Bjorn Lomborg who was defending himself from a now infamously shabby and factually sloppy attack from Scientific American – an attack prominently led by one Stephen Schneider. And as I outlined in my response to you at the time, Lomborg was scrupulous and honest enough to footnote the entire Schneider quote in his response – thereby demonstrating the manners and intellectual honesty that were so noticeably absent in Schneider’s attacks on him.

    Perhaps some recognition of Lomborg’s honesty on this issue might have been worth a few seconds of your time whilst typing up this post. It would after all, have made a nice counterpoint to your thesis that “anti-environmentalists” stoop to misquoting Schneider. Especially since Schneider wasn’t all that averse himself in misquoting or misrepresenting Lomborg or Professor Richard Linzen (pdf). More details on that here.

    When it comes down to brass tacks, in either version Schneider is still saying the same basic thing and is hardly the posterchild victim of outright Dowdlerism. Schneider is still peddling in apologia for the propagandizing of science even though he does try to qualify his statement at the end. Actually, he tries to have things both ways – just try and find some consistent logic in the phrase, “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.” The very use of the term balance would imply that a scientist who is 100% honest cannot be all that effective and vice versa.

    If breaking down and arguing over the rest of the quote (in all its forms) isn’t a case of semantics, then I need to be re-educated.

    Another point. Your previous “standard” Schneider mis-quote as noted in your post here is only moderately affected. But now the benchmark for the new standard misquote as posted above seems even more cut down and egregious. Is this to demonstrate that “anti-environmentlists” have sunk to even further depths in an effort to bring down their arch-enemy Schneider?

    In the example quoted by Ken Parish (which I also wrote about, thus earning my first encounter with of the Quiggin quote police), the case is hardly comparable to the first “standard” misquote you’ve used, let alone the “new and improved” misquote template. In Ken’s comments, the fault you identify is the ommission of very last sentence; “I hope that means being both”.

    Shocking.

    And that led to this discussion between you both:

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