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One last time on Schneider

January 17th, 2004

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.

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  1. January 17th, 2004 at 18:25 | #1

    Small point about the media – one reason for putting opposing opinions next to each other and then moving on is that the journalist never has to make up his or her own mind. That is, they don’t have to understand it. If they look back on the work, they would say it succeeds if it has an urgent rhythm, contains a clear soundbite or quote or two, and if there is some sense of the new about it – its not just another rehash of an old clash.

  2. PK
    January 18th, 2004 at 11:48 | #2

    Interested in your use of language here JQ. “Anti-environmentalists” to describe those that don’t agree with your global warming views? This suggests opponents are against the environment, or nature, or the wilderness. For the vast majority, this is simply not true.

    This debasement of language is a common tactic of the left. “Reactionary” for someone who agrees with conservative policy, for example. “Intellectual” for someone who holds left-wing views.

    Opponents of global warming are opposed to demands for policy changes based on conclusions that can only be described by anyone honest as very uncertain. They have no desire to destroy the environment, as you well know.

  3. derrida derider
    January 18th, 2004 at 18:51 | #3

    PK -

    Pot, meet kettle. It is “the right” (almost as meaningless a term as “the left”) that talks of “latte sipping elites”. It is the right that talks of “tree hugging greenies”. It is the right that speaks of “queue jumpers”. It is the right that speaks of “Saddam-lovers” and “knee-jerk anti-Americanism”.

    We’re all prone to debase language to anathematise other’s positions. It avoids the need for painful self-examination of our own. But I have to say JQ is much less prone to this than most.

    Just remember, he who throws mud loses ground.

  4. John
    January 18th, 2004 at 19:29 | #4

    PK, by “anti-environmentalists”, I mean people opposed to environmentalism or critical of environmentalists in general. Of course, environmentalism and environmentalist aren’t precisely defined terms, but they are not so ambiguous as to be useless. Most of the people who’ve used the quote against Schneider have also used the terms “environmentalism” or “environmentalist” in a hostile way, which justifies my calling them “anti-environmentalists”.

  5. observa
    January 18th, 2004 at 19:53 | #5

    Those of us who support the war in Iraq would say exactly the same argument applies in the case of the overdramatisation of WMD by the Bush , Blair and Howard Govts, John. They sauced one aspect up a little to get their electorates to support them in the bigger picture of dealing with the large perceived threat to world peace that the ME and particularly Iraq presented. In the main, their electorates have come to realise this and don’t feel they have been lied to. The opponents of war of course, are crying technical foul.

  6. William
    January 19th, 2004 at 08:30 | #6

    Well, I can’t accept Stephen Schneider consistently made honest mistakes.

    And I’m surprised others can.

  7. January 19th, 2004 at 11:07 | #7

    Not sure what consistent mistakes William is refering to. From one statment it has been claimed that Schneider (and many others) routenly make things up. But they never seem to come up with actual examples. The anti-environmentalists sound increasingly like the creation “scientists”, global warming has tobe absolutly proven before any action is taken. This is neither good science nor good public policy.

  8. Eli Rabett
    January 19th, 2004 at 14:59 | #8

    One minor point about the famous Rasool and Schneider paper in Science which (rather weakly if you read the thing) raised the possibility of aerosols tipping the Earth over into an ice age. It was Rasool and Schneider. Rasool was the first author and the senior. Schneider was a post doc. It is interesting how people who want to use this paper as a stick, always shuffle poor old Rasool off to Buffalo or someother cold place.

  9. derrida derider
    January 19th, 2004 at 21:51 | #9

    Umm, Eli, in my experience when a postdoc and his supervisor publish jointly its usually the postdoc who’s done most of the work (on occasion, even all of it). But its a non-issue anyway; Schneider would say, correctly, that he’s allowed to change his mind in the face of new evidence.

  10. northernLights
    January 20th, 2004 at 12:57 | #10

    Home. Bob took down skis wax. Skil saw, circular saw from man room above garage. from garden shed took down blue plastic sled, other sled and some others I can’t remember. Black otter sled also from garden shed, too bad a couple cat turds in it to clean out.

    My skis Atomics, his skis Fishers. My poles white green blue? can’t rememeber haven’t seen them for so long. His white with blue design on top. His boots in garage, mine he could not find I say probably in house. Bob always takes care of the bird feeders and the yellow cat Lily really likes him.

    He washed his clothes today. We all wash ours separate except sometimes the girls together.

    I got Whale Rider to watch, Bob said he would watch it with me he sits on left I sit on right facing the squirrel on the stove he has long ears and acorns around. The stove is gray.

    I got some Mystic Chai tea from Sam’s Club. Started looking around the living room while watching movie. Bob doesn’t say as much as usual.

    Wooden rack with mat and rugs drying from entryway. By south picture window. They are dry but I am too tired to put back. Loons were on our wedding invitation, we met on April fools day 1978. Loons on welcome mat drying on wooden rack also red and multicolored rag rugs you know the kind I usually get them at Target. The loons are still pretty dark I think there were two of them but the

    welcome writing is just barely there. Bob’s yellow sweater and two pairs of his wool socks above the mat on the drying rack.

    We have trouble understanding speaking, so put on the screen writing on the bottom. The music is really getting to me and then you get to the scene where the girl calls in the whales and they beach themselves. The men are in the water trying to get them to go back out but the rope breaks. I have trouble remembering the sequence but then the girl gets back and turns the whale back around. I can’t remember. Bob thought it was a great movie and the whale rider was supposed to be a hero.

    But I don’t understand this at all. Please tell me why hero. Like muy husband when we get all this stuff out, his stuff almost everyhwere, why I go from single days read books weekends to no time always some stuff stuff stuff around everywhere and you have to find a place to put it and no I don’t want a bigger house because you will just spread out more with your stuff. There’s so much stuff he says and you have to take care of it and it all takes time.

    So when I see those poor whales I start to cry so hard but I have to keep it inside because else what’s the matter angry angry every accident swearing swearing everything has to go perfect why why why?

    So why? Why little whale girl should I be happy thay you call me in to work? I’m so tired I just want to go up on the beach and die please can’t you just leave me alone so I can think about what to do next? There are other importanceis besides you anyway. You are brave because you call me in to work? I want to beach die because then I will finally get some well-deserved rest. You say you love us and care about us so you want to give us some stuff and all we want to do is rest.

    So I realy really really need some super super super help to show me do not understand do not understand why you want to join in on the ride? We have been ridden long and hard can’t you see that? Can’t you do anything to help us without being told can’t you see anything that there is to see why can’t you learn to see for yourselves do I have to tell you everything?

    You can never do enough never do enough why not the other mothers do it why why why cant you you have some real problems here and I want to help out by telling you what to do?

    I don’t understand I don’t understand so please tell me do not think I am angry because I feel like an almost dead whale, and little whale rider, the next time you call us in make sure you have a good supply of rescue equipment and plenty of super nice men who charge right in the water to help save us and care for us and love us very very much because we are going to need the kind if men who like Paul says really and truly love us like their own bodies and if they do that for us we might be able to turn ourselves around. And meaning no disrespect to you little brave whale rider, is the reason we might have enough energy to come back and save you.

    Wood Turtle

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