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 Schneiderâ€™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 â€œmaking the world a better placeâ€?. Unfortunately, their best piece of evidence has a lot of â€œifs, ands and butsâ€?. So rather than â€œtell the truth, the whole truth and nothing butâ€?, they extract the â€œsimplified dramatic statementsâ€? and serve them up to â€œcapture the public imaginationâ€?. Indeed, â€œeach of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honestâ€?, 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 â€“ 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 weâ€™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 publicâ€™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 â€˜double ethical bindâ€™ 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). â€˜Our fragile earthâ€™, in â€œDiscoverâ€? 10(10):44-50, October. (thanks to reader Greg Bauer for the exact reference).