One last time on Schneider
For those anxious to see the end of my series on climatologist Stephen Schneider, and the famous doctored quote, here’s my bottom line.
He’s an alarmist who tends to overstate and overdramatization environmental threats, and he doesn’t always argue fairly, but he isn’t deliberately dishonest. The much-quoted statement is a description (in fact, characteristically, an overstatement and overdramatization) of a real problem that affects anyone with expert knowledge engaged in public discussion. The frequency with which the statement has been (mis)quoted is, paradoxically, an indication that the point Schneider makes is a valid one.
Now, those who want the whole argument can read on.
I’ll begin with the claim that Schneider is an alarmist who tends to overstate and overdramatization environmental threats. As is well-known, Scheider raised the possibility of a new Ice Age in the 1970s, only to become one of the most extreme pessimists regarding global warming a decade or so later. This isn’t inherently inconsistent – someone who believed the climate system to be characterized by strong positive feedbacks could predict extreme outcomes from modest shocks in either direction. Still, looking at his record in its entirety, I’d say that Schneider almost invariably takes a pessimistic view of environmental issues, and publicises this view in a way that is likely to create excessive alarm. As a result, he has attracted a lot of publicity, more than scientists with views I’d regard as being more credible.
Next, I want to talk about the media handle complex policy issues involving expert judgements, and the way scientists and other academic experts handle them. There are three striking features of the media approach (particularly true of TV, but also of radio and tabloid newspapers and still present in the ‘quality press’).
The first is an addiction to ‘soundbites’ and ‘quotable quotes’, regardless of their actual information content. The article I linked recently from the NY Times has a good discussion of this.
The second is a strong preference for definite, unqualified statements. If an expert is quoted, the last thing the media wants is “one the one hand, this, on the other hand that”. If there are unresolved questions, the preferred format is that of adversarial debate, with one expert presenting one viewpoint and another presenting the alternative (It is rare to present more than two viewpoints, and the range between the alternatives is often small).
The third is a very limited capacity to discern the relative strengths of arguments. The implicit assumption is that, if two sides of a question are presented, they must be of roughly equal merit.
By contrast, as Schneider says, scientists and other academics are supposed to present ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. ’ While this is an attractive ideal, it has its own problems.
First, a lot of academic writing contains meaningless qualifications, apparently conforming with the ideal set out above, but actually serving to cover the writer against the possibility of being proved wrong.
Second, and relatedly, this approach is not very useful if it is necessary to make policy decisions. In the absence of any effective guidance, scientists and other academics tend to veer from one extreme (refusing to give any substantive advice until further evidence is obtained) to the other (stating personal policy preferences as if they were necessary deductions from objective scientific knowledge).
I face these problems in my capacity as an opinion columnist where the availability of 700 words makes them easier to handle than in the context of TV or radio. At this length it’s possible to present your own policy conclusion and the main arguments in its favor while acknowleding the existence of alternative views (of course, the readers of an opinion column are predisposed to assume first that the writer is presenting their own opinion and second that they would not bother to do so if everyone already agreed with them).
In treating alternative views, there are two issues which usually need to be mentioned. The first is the extent to which such views are supported within the economics profession – that is, whether I am presenting a minority viewpoint (as in the case of microeconomic reform), taking one side in a continuing debate (for example, Keynesians vs classicists) or stating something on which all (mainstream) economists agree (for example, that work effort is socially costly).
The second is an indication of the main arguments against my position. In line with the media conventions noted above, it is up to the other side to present these arguments, but it is worth noting them and, if possible, briefly indicating the line of rebuttal. In part, this is a nod to fellow-experts to say that I am not ignoring these points but don’t have space to cover them.
Now let’s look again at Schneider’s statement.
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)
It seems clear to me that it is an attempt to respond to the kind of issues I’ve discussed above, rather than advocacy of lying in the cause of the environment. In forming this view, I’ve taken the trouble to track down and read the original Discover article in which Schneider was quoted.
Schell, J. (1989). ‘Our fragile earth’, in “Discover” 10(10):44-50, October. (thanks to reader Greg Bauer for the exact reference).
Characteristically, Schneider overstates the severity of the ‘double ethical bind’ and thereby hands his enemies a stick to beat him with. The norms of debate in the media differ from those of the scientific community but that doesn’t make them inherently dishonest.
I’ve previously mentioned the paradox that, in deliberately or recklessly misquoting Schneider his opponents have engaged in the very practices they accuse him of advocating. And by endlessly recycling this quote, they’ve indicated the importance of ‘simplified, dramatic statements’ and of the ‘scary scenario’ of an environmentalist conspiracy at the economy.
A second paradox is that even when anti-environmentalists argue honestly, it is easy to support the analysis above with reference to their behavior. Participants on both sides of the environmental policy debate make unqualified statements all the time, without worrying about caveats, ifs and buts. Looking at the people who’ve attacked Schneider how many have ever mentioned having doubts about their own views, or drawn attention to qualifications on the evidence they present?
The only time anti-environmentalist advocates routinely mention doubt is when it’s to their advantage to do so, because the overwhelming majority of expert opinion is against them, as in the case of CFCs and global warming. (Of course, this is true of most participants in public debate, and not merely of anti-environmentalists. But anti-environmentalists are notable for the frequency of extreme statements backed by weak evidence, for example about the economic costs of environmental policies.)
To summarise, while I wouldn’t rely on Schneider for a balanced statement of expert opinion, this whole debate shows him in a substantially better light than any of those who have tried to use his words against him.