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Bogus quote yet again

November 14th, 2005

Via Jennifer Marohasy, I found this recycling of the infamous doctored Schneider quote, this time by Frank Furedi who writes in the Times Higher Education Supplement

Appeals to a “greater truth” are also prominent in debates about the environment. It is claimed that problems such as global warming are so important that a campaign of fear is justified. Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University, justified the distortion of evidence in the following terms: “Because we are not just scientists but human beings… as well… we need to capture the public imagination.” He added that “we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified statements and make little mention of any doubts that we have”.

Schneider’s statement was originally quoted in an article in Discover magazine (not available online as far as I can tell). Reading it in full and in context, it’s an unexceptional statement about the difficulties of dealing with the media and their penchant for oversimplication and overdramatisation. However, the history of the quote, and its use by anti-environmentalists is fascinating and, in many ways, a demonstration of Schneider’s point.

The first hostile use of the quote was by the late Julian Simon, who not only omitted crucial sentences but inserted some fabricated ones. Although Schneider forced him to retract the fabrication, Simon continued to use doctored versions in which crucial phrases and sentences were omitted, and these have proliferated throughout the rightwing blogosphere.

Thanks to the marvel of forensic Googling it’s possible to trace the evolution of the quote as it is passed from one propagandist to another, with hardly any of them ever bothering to check the original. Furedi’s version with the exact pattern of misquotes, omissions and ellipses can be traced back to Dick Taverne in the Guardian in February 2005, who also recycles the standard farrago of lies about Rachel Carson and DDT. I’d guess Taverne derived his version from The Economist which in turn took it from Bjorn Lomborg (who used the doctored version but was careful enough to print the full version in a footnote).

Having raised this before, I know I’m sure to get at least someone who thinkgs that this kind of doctoring of evidence doesn’t matter as long as the person doing the doctoring believes that they are getting the basic message right (WMD’s anyone?). I’ll refer them here, and ask them not to bother with this point.

The interesting point about all this 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.

Here’s the full 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 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.

fn1. Schell, J. (1989). ‘Our fragile earth’, in “Discover� 10(10):44-50, October. (thanks to reader Greg Bauer for the exact reference).

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  1. Terje Petersen
    November 23rd, 2005 at 22:51 | #1

    Jeff,

    Your a strong advocate for the field of biology and ecology. And I certainly agree that nature is complex beyond what we can probably ever fully comprehend.

    We are indeed running a massive experiment on the planet. However that is true also in the fields of economics (and how it impacts an economy), in areas of social policy (and how it effects society) and other human endeavours. I don’t think we have a choice between experimenting with the planet and not experimenting. We can only act with the best information available and our best hunch about what the impact will be. And of course we should aim to learn in the process.

    For me the central message from Lomborgs book was that some things may be bad but don’t swallow a pre-package answer on the best course of action, do your own thinking and challenge so called accepted wisdoms. I can respect your alternate perspective on the book.

    Certainly we need to combat ignorance if we are to be wise in the way we manage our world and in the way we choose to live our lives. And given that we all come from different starting points and with different values we are going to have different views about how best to act.

    I tend to start from the premise that most people act with a high degree of good will towards others and their world most of the time. This may indicate that I am a pathological optimist. In any case it leads me to ask what you want us to do? What particular actions do you advocate given your perspective on biodiversity?

    In earlier times the government paid farmers to clear land. Today they prosecute farmers that clear land. When I first moved to Sydney it was illegal to have a water tank. Today all new developments are forced to have a water tank. As I see it a lot of environmental destruction is government sponsored. And that government solutions are often to problems that started with excessive government. In any case I believe that we need better governance. In my view that typically only occurs when both power and knowledge are diffuse throughout society rather than centralised. And at the moment I think that both knowledge and power are too centralised. Obviously this conversation (and all the others that the internet is currently enabling) is helping to decentralise knowledge. How we choose to structure or restructure our world in terms of power is probably the key to how we will move forward in lots of areas.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  2. November 23rd, 2005 at 22:52 | #2

    There’s a solecism I’ve detected in the pro-GM argument “nature has been swapping genes all along, so what’s the problem?”. It’s this: evolution involves two separate processes, random mutation (including gene swapping, here) and natural selection, going on at very different speeds. The tendency to be stable or at any rate to follow distinct trajectories, as opposed to chaotically, comes from the very different time scales. But introduce a faster artificial arrangement and all rules are off. You cannot predict that there will never be a serious problem with GM from the fact that we know of none within the natural system’s use of gene swapping (aided by the anthropomorphic argument that we have to be here to observe things).

    More briefly, today’s approach may amount to “keep going until you get it wrong”. Or not – but we cannot reason about it from evolutionary history.

  3. Dogz
    November 24th, 2005 at 01:06 | #3

    “Dogz is a linear optimist who somewho believes that humans are exempt from the laws of nature.”

    Remarkable how you presume to know what I am, Jeff. Of course humans are not exempt from the laws of nature. But since, by your own admission, you don’t even know what those laws are, you’ll forgive me if I tune you out after 50 years of listening to the very low signal-to-noise ratio coming from the environmental movement.

    Complexity is everywhere, Jeff. You are right, that complexity gives me only a glimmer of understanding of ecological systems. But you, as an expert in the field, have only slightly better than my glimmer of understanding, when measured against what a full understanding of ecological systems would be like. I also only have a glimmer of understanding of how my own body works. I often marvel that the damn thing doesn’t fall apart (although I can tell that it is slowly wearing down). But not knowing how my body works doesn’t stop me getting out of bed everyday for fear of catastrophe.

    Despite our stupendous technical advancement, humanity still understands very little about the natural world. That doesn’t mean we should be cavalier with the environment, but it also doesn’t mean we should listen to the chicken-little environmentalists who have been screaming for decades that the sky is falling and we all need to crawl back in the caves, eat our children, and resorb our flatulence for fear of heating up the planet.

  4. Jeff Harvey
    November 24th, 2005 at 01:22 | #4

    Terje,

    A good post. Just to add one final point on Lomborg’s polemic, because for me he is a waste of time. Had he been truthful, he would have approached each polciy and environmental area of his book with ‘nul’ hypotheses. In other words, although there is a lot of scare-mongering coming from environmental NGO’s (and I am the first to admit they make my job harder), Lomborg gives the much better funded and organized anti-environmental lobby a free pass. He sets up each chapter with ‘directed’ hypotheses: in other words, his hypothesis is that the ‘problem is considered to be of catastrophic proportions’, and then he misuses empirical data, cherry picks studies, misinterprets the natural economy, and makes little in the way of qualitative analyses to downplay every alleged problem. his is a dishonest exercise and I felt it necessary to take him task for it.

    As part of my profession, I am trained to be able to evaluate studies detailing area-extinction models, the functional significance of biodiversity etc., and realted areas whereas Lomborg is not. But, as I said in an earlier post, Lomborg realizes that (a) many people, particularly in the developed world, want to believe what he says, and (b) many of these will not be in the position to challenge the authenticity of his arguments, and will thus take them at face value.

    Lastly, we do have choices with respect to the ‘global experiment’. At present, short-term profit dominates the agenda at the expense of long term security and a desire to ensure that the current mess we are creating does not have severe implications for future generations. Like it or not the solutions to the environmental bottleneck we have stumbled into are political and economic (a point I always stress at lectures I give on the subject). The choice is simple: we can have a global economy that gives everyone justice and security, or there will be a slow descent to oblivion and catastrophe. There is no ‘third way’. If we are to achieve sustainability, and to prevent eroding the health of our ecological life-support systems beyond a point in which they can maintain themselves and us, we will face difficult decisions in the near future. This will mean that there must be an adjustment in the consumptive patterns between north and south, and to functionally incorporate ecology into economics. Thus, the value of ecosystem services must be ‘internalized’, so that we have a true measure of their value. This value ought to be evident, but from the likes of posts by Dogz, and the disregard for the natural economy in Lomborg’s book, it clearly isn’t.

  5. Terje Petersen
    November 24th, 2005 at 06:22 | #5

    QUOTE: At present, short-term profit dominates the agenda at the expense of long term security and a desire to ensure that the current mess we are creating does not have severe implications for future generations.

    RESPONSE: In part I believe this is because we have created money with no carrying cost. We have this mad financial system that assumes that government bonds are a “risk free” investment. They become the benchmark for all sorts of investment decisions and the future is heavily discounted. In earlier epochs they built things over several hundred years (eg St.Pauls Cathedral in London). Today our financial system ensures that all our NPV calculations put a heavy bias on the income a project returns today and tomorrow and a huge bias against the income it produces next century and the one after.

    QUOTE: The choice is simple: we can have a global economy that gives everyone justice and security, or there will be a slow descent to oblivion and catastrophe.

    RESPONSE: Sure. That solves lots of problems. But do we do it by opening up markets, reducing trade barriers and slashing tax rates (taxes are tariffs) or do we do it by taxing the wealthy people and giving handouts to the poor? And where is the justice in proping up regimes that fail to provide the economic environment in which their own people can feed themselves. Ethiopia and Niger are but two examples of nations that have economic policies that create poverty. And plenty of nations are cutting down forests predominantly because they are government owned.

    QUOTE: Thus, the value of ecosystem services must be ‘internalized’, so that we have a true measure of their value.

    RESPONSE: So you want us to put a dollar value on ecosystems? To me that risks being a little like putting a dollar value on liberty and structurally encouraging slavery just to ensure we measure the true “value”. Certainly some environmental problems should be solved with market systems (eg pollution reduction through tradable pollution permits). However I think that it is frought with some of the same problems that occur when people suggest that we should get paid for doing our own housework.

  6. Ian Gould
    November 24th, 2005 at 11:11 | #6

    “Complexity is everywhere, Jeff. You are right, that complexity gives me only a glimmer of understanding of ecological systems. But you, as an expert in the field, have only slightly better than my glimmer of understanding, when measured against what a full understanding of ecological systems would be like. I also only have a glimmer of understanding of how my own body works. …”

    Do you give your doctor the same lecture when he tells you “there’s a spot on your back that may be a melnoma?”

  7. Ian Gould
    November 24th, 2005 at 11:26 | #7

    “Sure. That solves lots of problems. But do we do it by opening up markets, reducing trade barriers and slashing tax rates (taxes are tariffs) or do we do it by taxing the wealthy people and giving handouts to the poor?”

    The overwhelming consensus amongst environmental economists is for the former.

  8. Terje
    November 24th, 2005 at 14:21 | #8

    QUOTE: Do you give your doctor the same lecture when he tells you “there’s a spot on your back that may be a melnoma?�

    RESPONSE: I certainly treat my doctors opinion with a lot of doubt. I ask lots of questions and ask for alternate suggestions. I don’t take much of the doctors advice laying down, so to speak.

  9. Terje
    November 24th, 2005 at 14:35 | #9

    QUOTE: Do you give your doctor the same lecture when he tells you “there’s a spot on your back that may be a melnoma?�

    RESPONSE: I certainly treat my doctors opinion with a lot of scepticism. I ask lots of questions and ask for alternate suggestions. I don’t take much of the doctors advice laying down, so to speak. I often find that doctors can be talked out of a singular piece of advice if pressed for options and risks. Very little of what they do seems to be black and white. In my experience most doctors don’t mind being tested in this way. Although one doctor at a medical centre started being very rude and arrogant when I questioned the basis for his diagnosis. I ignored his rudness and pushed him for answers. Luckily his medical skill was better than his bedside manner.

    When Jeff weighed into this debate he mentioned his significant credentials. However I have discussed Lomborg with others that claimed significant credentials in the field and they have usually been most unconvincing. They talk in vague general terms about Lomborg being evil and naive. Jeff carries more authority in my view simply because he has read Lomborgs book and can be specific in his criticism. He may feel that fighting Lomborg is a waste of time however at least having read the book he now does it with efficiency. I feel no regret for being brutal in my scepticism of so called experts that advice that massive change is required. I think that is healthy to be cautionary when people make radical recommendations.

  10. Paul
    November 24th, 2005 at 15:10 | #10

    Myers’ statement that his estimate was:

    “advanced primarily to get the issue of extinction onto scientific and political agendas”

    Would seem to be most relevant to the initial subject of this post. Perhaps he has misquoted himself?

    More generally, he seems to back away from the 40,000 figure in his response, which is difficult to reconcile with the defences of it above. Was he quoted out of context, or was his number always right and his response quoted out of context?

    Simon, this comment of yours:

    “1st world countries have the resources to adapt ”

    Rather goes to the nub of the debate between the “do everything” and “do little or nothing” camps on GW. Given the impossibility of insulating ourselves against all natural disasters, over certain ranges of costs and benefits the best response is to increase wealth to reduce the impact of those disasters.

    Finally, and also directed to Simon, the low-hanging fruit arguments have always struck me as odd. Many of the examples alleged to exist would be self-funding – you could pluck those particular fruit and grow rich in the process, which seem to call into question the role for international intervention. More generally, if those who see low-hanging fruit everywhere are correct, why not focus policy directly on those savings, instead of lobbying for coercive measures which will be incredibly costly if your promised easy savings don’t emerge? Subsidies to environmentally damaging industries are a great and persuasive example, but something like Kyoto seems an incredibly round about way of getting them removed…

    Is anyone still listening when Paul Erlich predicts the future?

  11. Ian Gould
    November 24th, 2005 at 16:06 | #11

    “Finally, and also directed to Simon, the low-hanging fruit arguments have always struck me as odd. Many of the examples alleged to exist would be self-funding – you could pluck those particular fruit and grow rich in the process, which seem to call into question the role for international intervention.”

    Only if you assume markets are ominscient and infallible.

    To paraphrase Keynes, markets are only efficient on average and in the logn term.

    There’s extensive evidence in the economics literature that individuals don’t always act in an economically rational manner, I see no reason to assume that this doesn’t also apply to people in the aggregate.

  12. Paul
    November 24th, 2005 at 16:29 | #12

    Ian, nothing I wrote assumes anything of the sort. In order for low hanging fruit to exist in the first place you have to assume some kind of systematic market failure in a particularly convenient (from the point of view of those arguing) direction. That strikes me as a bold assumption, but it’s almost certainly true for some things in some places- as I said, Simon’s examples of subsidising polluters os a great one.

    Rather, I suggest that if you believe a good deal of our problems can be solved either at minimal cost or in ways that would actually make money, then one ought to target those things directly, rather than suggesting blanket measures and hoping the low hanging fruit sort themselves out. Greenpeace, to take an example, has been involved in non-HFC refrigeration technology, so they clearly have the money and means to start harvesting low hanging fruit. I’d be a lot more persuaded of its existence if Greenpeace started making big bucks on all the profitable and environmentally friendly things the market is apparently too dull-witted to adopt.

  13. Terje Petersen
    November 24th, 2005 at 18:12 | #13

    QUOTE: Is anyone still listening when Paul Erlich predicts the future?

    RESPONSE: We might call Erlich a “pathological non-linear pessimist”. They say that even a broken clock is accurate twice a day. I think a broken clock is probably much more accurate at futurology than Erlich. However at least the man puts his money where his mouth is, even though he loses.

  14. November 25th, 2005 at 00:20 | #14

    You’d better ask some searching questions if a doctor suggests an exploratory operation. Doctors rarely tell you that exposure to oxygen accelerates a cancer.

  15. Jeff Harvey
    November 25th, 2005 at 21:00 | #15

    Terje,

    The bet Paul made was a stupid one from the point of view of ecological expediency. One cannot estimate the value of ecosystem functions and services based on the price of metals. Paul should have known better, because making such a pedantic bet gave the anti-environmental lobby unlimited ammunition. As an aside, Paul and Steve Schneider proposed a follow up bet in 1994 to Julian Simon in which they looked at a number of ecological indicators and said that within 10 years they would all be worse than in 1994. Simon refused to bet on any of them, claiming rather ignorantly that we cannot measure human well-being on the indicators chosen. But he kjew he’d lose the bet, because as I said before human well-being is intrinsically dependent on the health and vitality of natural systems and the reliablility of services emerging from them.

    In 1994, Simon said “We now have at our disposal all of the resources necessary to feed clothe and house an ever expanding population for the next 7 billion years”. This statement alone makes (or should have made) Simon a laughing stock. Even at a fraction of a per cent population growth, human biomass would be expanding faster than the universe. It is inconceivable that our species will persists beyond (at best) several tens of thousands of more years, let alone 7 billion. Our time for extinction will come, whether it is based on our current assault on the biosphere or whether we somehow manage to squeeze through the bottleneck we have created for ourselves.

  16. Terje Petersen
    November 25th, 2005 at 21:47 | #16

    QUOTE: It is inconceivable that our species will persists beyond (at best) several tens of thousands of more years, let alone 7 billion.

    RESPONSE: I am quite certain that within a few hundred years (probably a lot sooner) I will personally already be extinct. So what happens to humanity beyond that starts to recede from view rapidly. It’s not that I don’t have aspirations for the human species beyond the life of myself, it’s just that I don’t think I should make myself miserable worrying about it.

    For what its worth I can perceive of the human species enduring for another hundred thousand years. That does not mean it will happen.

    Would you like to make a bet on when the human race comes to an end?

  17. Ian Gould
    November 26th, 2005 at 00:10 | #17

    The extinction of homo Sapiens Sapiens does not, of course, preclude the survival of species descendant from homo sapiens sapiens.

    Of course, if we accept the average species life expectancy of ca. 1 million years, our lot has about 900,000 years still to go.

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