Friday, August 06, 2010

Sorry, Stephen

Scientist Stephen Schneider died recently.

In 2002, The Economist wrote about him. It was after he got involved in the debate about a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist (which The Economist thought was rather good).


“The fuss over Mr Lomborg highlights an attitude among some media-conscious scientists that militates not just against good policy but against the truth. Stephen Schneider, one of Scientific American's anti-Lomborgians, spoke we suspect not just for himself when he told Discover in 1989: “[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place...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...Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” In other words, save science for other scientists, in peer-reviewed journals and other sanctified places. In public, strike a balance between telling the truth and telling necessary lies.

Science needs no defending from Mr Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr Schneider.”


A few months later I was in a lecture given by Stephen Schneider where he was talking to scientists about why they should reach out to the public about their research findings. He was explaining the risks and benefits of advocacy. One of the risks, he explained, was that your words would be distorted in order to attack you. Then he showed The Economist editorial and how his words had been selectively quoted back in 1989 and really read like this:

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 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, means 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.

Let us be clear about what Schneider said he stood for: He never approved of lying in order to win public approval. He never approved of the ends justifying the means. What he wanted was for scientists to come out of their ivory towers and speak up on behalf of their science.

"Staying out of the fray is not taking the high road, its just passing the buck", he said.

But in his many talks to scientists about advocacy, he had to warn them to be careful about the line they must walk as human beings and as scientists. And so his warning was that as human beings they would want to argue passionately for what they believe in and ignore caveats. But that as scientists they had to work entirely differently.

Many scientists are uncomfortable about ignoring any caveats at all, which is why when you ask them what they think the findings of their research means they will frequently parrot, "more research is necessary". Schneider recognised that the line between science and advocacy was personal, and not something he could advise on. He explained it thus: "Every time you are faced with an opportunity to provide information, including insights on the consequences and risks of any given action or inaction, you will have to make careful judgement calls".

Schneider was always clear that he personally strove to be effective and honest. That was his point. He hoped for others that would mean doing both.

Schneider was not a liar. He was a brave and honest scientist, someone who decided to take the difficult road and argue the case for his science rather than burying his head under academic carpets. As such the world owes him a debt of gratitude for for his enormous contribution to science and, indeed, global awareness of the issue of climate change.


Updated: I forgot to link to our excellent Obituary about Schneider, which I did not write.