The Schneider Quote

Dr Schneider explaining something.

Dr Schneider explaining something.

Dr Stephen Schneider, of Stanford University, is a well-respected climatologist who is also quite active in the media and politics – chances are you’ve seen him in something like The 11th Hour, read one of his books, or read an interview with him in the newspaper. Chances are, you’ve also seen the following quote attributed to him:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. 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. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

When I first saw this quote in a YouTube comment, I assumed it was completely fabricated. But then I did a Google search on the exact quote and found thousands of hits. Still, they were all from either blogs or newspaper editorials, which are quite low on our credibility spectrum, so I felt sure there must be more to the story. My guess was that it was taken completely out of context and/or rearranged like one of those “found poems” they make you write in elementary school. I had seen Dr Schneider’s work before and he seemed like much too reasonable a man to say something like this and mean it.

I wrote an email to Dr Schneider, asking if he could quickly explain where the quote came from, even though he’s probably been asked about it countless times. I’ve found that university professors, even those like Dr Schneider who are undoubtedly busy, are quite good about answering email. As long as you’re polite and show a genuine interest in having your question answered, they write back quite promptly with some direction for you.

“You have guessed right,” he wrote. “It is a major misquote….leaving out the last sentence, leaving out the context….it is all explained in the Mediarology section of my website.”

Those who are really interested in this story are welcome to go and read that explanation, but I’ll summarize it quickly here for the rest of us. In a 1988 interview with Discover magazine, Dr Schneider was explaining how the media does not give climatologists a lot of time to explain anything thoroughly. As a scientist, he has an obligation to include all error and uncertainty measurements in statements, like any legitimate scientific report would. But as a human being, he needs to convey his message to the public in the couple of sentences journalists allow him.

This was the original quote:

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.

With the full quote, it’s easy to see that Dr Schneider was attacking, not supporting, the “sound-bite system”. But an attack editoral from the Detroit News selectively cut out parts of the above quote, publishing the following:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. 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. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

His message is completely changed.

So what should we learn from the sad story of the Schneider quote?

Whenever you see something particularly outrageous-sounding, don’t just accept it as fact. Find the original source, the original interview. Email the guy if you have to. Figure out what they really meant. Then you have enough information to decide what to believe.

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47 thoughts on “The Schneider Quote

    • Hi Nanci, thanks for your comment (first ever on ClimateSight!) and also for letting me know about the typo. I’ll be writing more about skepticism in the weeks and months to come. I wouldn’t say it’s all fossil-fueled, or that it’s all lies, but I have yet to find anything legitimate and credible that challenges the mainstream scientific view.

  1. What we really need is a way to persuade those who are religiously convinced that global warming is not real, and convince them with evidence. But how to do that? That is the real challenge here. When I browse the internet and find so many global warming “skeptics”, it depresses me. But in the general media there seem to be rather few skeptics, so we may not all die after all.

    • Hi there MTGAP,

      Thanks for commenting. The presence of skeptics is a complex issue that I’ll be writing a LOT more about soon – keep your eyes open for new posts. Internet searches make me depressed too sometimes, but keep in mind that the presence of skeptics is hugely over-represented online and even in the popular media. There really aren’t that many of them. We also have the government on our side :)

  2. Steven Schneider’s Mediarology section of his website makes for some facinating reading. The degree of thoughtfullness and nuance demonstrated makes an interesting contrast to the rhetoric of the opposition.

    • I was, as apparently others were also, looking for further clarification of the truncated quote in question when I came upon this blog. Many thanks to Kate and her due diligence, but I also must agree that after reviewing the original quote along with the full text of the original article — Schneider flat out and openly acknowledged the use of ‘scare tactics’ by the environmentalists. His qualifying this action by saying it is necessary to get everyone to listen is like saying false and misleading advertising is okay for the same reason…No, I’m sorry, it is not okay. It is still lying. And, no, it does not matter if it IS ‘for a good cause.’

      And just to clarify my own position, I believe there is sufficient truth and factual evidence to support making significant changes in both business and personal habits for the sake of the environment…without tainting the message with lies or half-truths.

  3. I came across this post while trying to verify the truncated Schneider quote and appreciate your work in tracking it down.

    However, I have to agree with eli oliem that the full quote is not much of an improvement over the edited one. Schneider acknowledges that there is a conflict between hewing to the scientific method and efficacy as a person who would “like to see the world a better place.” What this quote implies is that he is willing to compromise the first in order to advance the second. But the reason the public gives weight to pronouncements by scientists is because of our assumption that scientists will be governed by the ethical duties of science, not because we care what political goals they want to advance as “human beings.”

  4. I think most of what Schneider was trying to imply was that speaking in a scientific tone to a media outlet wouldn’t work. People would read all the uncertainty statements and would misunderstand climate change to be a shaky topic in science. Saying “We’re causing warming and it’ll be really really bad” would never be acceptable in a scientific document, but it’s the message scientists want to get across to the public because that’s what they’ll understand….not all the “ifs, ands, or buts”.

    I think that’s most of the conflict he was referring to. I doubt he was willing to change the meaning of his statements between science and the media. Just the way they were stated.

  5. To my mind, once a scientist begins choosing his words to advance his political or policy agenda rather than the science, he is no longer speaking as a scientist but as an advocate.

    As you say, Schneider finds that speaking in the measured, careful manner of a scientist “doesn’t work” but that’s because his goal is not science but advocacy. Speaking that way works just fine for science. Granted plenty of people are scientifically illiterate, but he’s not helping educate them, he’s only helping persuade them, which is not a scientific goal, and he’s losing credibility with the rest of us. All those inconvenient “ifs, ands or buts” are NEEDED to make the statements as close to true as they can be. Omit them, and it’s just plain lying.

    Society needs SCIENTISTS, as well as advocates with a science background. Schneider has chosen to become the latter, which is his right, but I think it is unfair to then expect people to unquestioningly bow to his scientific expertise. As any courtroom lawyer can tell you, there are experts and then there are the hired guns and the cultists. They usually all have the paper credentials, but experts know their limits and stay well within them, while the hired guns do what they are paid to do and the cultists do what they passionately need to do. Hired guns and cultists have both been known to be right, but you actually need an expert who is neither to tell you when that’s the case.

    Sorry, but I have limited use for a scientist who finds the language and methods of science too constraining in meeting his goal of changing the world. Unfortunately, on the issue of climate change and a growing number of others, it looks like even scientists who would prefer to remain scientists may be putting their careers and funding on the line by declining to become advocates.

  6. I think it’s okay to be both a scientist and an advocate as long as you keep them separate. Be a scientist in the scientific literature; be very aware of your advocacy bias and make sure it’s not swaying you. But making statements of advocacy in the media is just fine. Even scientists are human beings. They just have to be careful to only be one at a time.

    • So, is it okay for the media to lie? Is it okay for me to lie whenever I am not at work because I am just a human being? Is it okay ever for someone to lie just because they want people to listen? Advocating any cause is not a license to commit perjury. It is an unethical practice and is counter-intuitive to the efforts of those people who are diligently trying to present the truth.

  7. “it looks like even scientists who would prefer to remain scientists may be putting their careers and funding on the line by declining to become advocates.”

    This is a conclusion unrelated to any data – it springs from the projection by manipulative corporate-funded anti-science advocates of their own status onto science. I challenge Ann to give even one example, ever, of a scientist who put their career or funding on the line by declining to become an advocate. And talk-radio – not a data source.

  8. I don’t agree with your analysis of the full quote – it’s just as flawed as the original, apart from the very last phrase, which is quite disingenuous. if you are seeking to misrepresent for the purposes of impact, which is what he states, then to claim somehow to be honest in doing so is nothing more than an attempt at self-justification.

    Your analysis, reading between the lines and drawing out subtle inferences is also flawed. To use a horrible phrase: it is what it is. and it ain’t what you are trying to say it is.

    [He is not saying what you think he’s saying. He’s criticizing what you think he’s saying, using it as kind of an example of how the media traps scientists into two categories. Even the full quote doesn’t have enough context. Read his Mediarology statement (link in the post) for more detail. -Kate]

  9. [citations needed – global warming stopped in 1998 and the authors of articles in Science can’t assess their own data correctly]

  10. Having reread the comments to this article I am struck by a point, which is as follows:

    Ann makes the distinction between those who speak as advocates and those who speak as scientists. She then vehemently objects to Schneider acting as an advocate, and tells us that this takes away from his credibility. She tells us:

    “All those inconvenient “ifs ands or buts” are NEEDED to make the statements as close to true as they can be. Omit them, and it’s just plain lying.”

    The word “cultists” was also used.

    The question which arises is whether she and like minded people are as indignant when men like Mr. Christy, Mr. Spencer, and Mr. Lindzen act as advocates, and they have done so. Are they just plain lying? I suspect that she will not trouble herself to make that accusation.

  11. The question which arises is whether she and like minded people are as indignant when men like Mr.[sic] Christy, Mr.[sic] Spencer, and Mr.[sic] Lindzen act as advocates

    What exactly are they “advocating”? Citations, please.

    Advocacy means more than simply having a POV or (more amusingly) having a POV imposed upon you by commboxers. It even means more than claiming that your science supports that which you advocate. It means that when science is goal-oriented – to make the world a better place – as it has been since Francis Bacon, eventually the goals become more important than the science.

    The Eugenics Movement of the early 20th century is a helpful parallel. They, too, thought that they were making the world a better place. They, too, thought that their program was a necessary conclusion drawn from their science of Darwinian evolution. (We’re talking about Galton, Fisher, Pearson, and other scientists, and not just the activists and enthusiasts like Wells, Shaw, Sanger, and the rest.)

    Nowadays, we recognize that they had segued insensibly from doing science to doing politics and social engineering.

  12. > eugenics … science … eventually

    Bollocks. That conviction that someone, somewhere, is conspiring to rule your back yard and steal your wallet would rule out being smarter now that we _know_ we are changing the Earth, abandoning the ability we’ve discovered instead of learning how to handle it.

    It’s foolish to reject science by “letting the best be the enemy of the good” — and smart to heed information available, including direct blunt warnings from scientists about consequences — just because early attempts at being smart weren’t.

    Fisheries management, if you want an example. Leaded gasoline, if you want another. You can look this stuff up.

    “It would be a good idea” as Gandhi said in a slightly different context.

    That’s the spirit (or lack of spirit) that kept the dark ages dark for so long.

    Brin is often eloquent about this, e.g. see
    http://www.google.com/search?q=contrary+brin+enlightenment

    See also, appropriately: http://www.patientfromhell.org/

    • Hank- Pointing out that Schneider’s (and many others) actions were misguided and inexcusable does NOT mean being ignorant of what is truthfully occurring on our planet. The evidence is there and does not need to be inflated to make a point…
      Expecting moral and ethical behavior from the scientific community is a far cry from “reject[ing] science.”

  13. I’m sorry to report that Professor Stephen Schneider has passed away 19th July 2010.

    Professor Stephen Schneider will be sadly missed by those who value the scientific truth about the climate.

  14. thank you for the story, I have little against to the clipped version too, but that’s only because I believe AGW is true and catastrophic scenarios are quite possible, I admit that human life includes lies and distortions and that the scientist’s job is to correct some of these… in Stephen Schneider, Peter the Doorman will get an excellent aid, if one believes he needs help.

    I’m wondering what the inflammatory posts included, were they defamatory or conspirative and you just clipped them in order to prevent the people writing them from being embarrassed when they realise their error or were they just off topic? (do not tell, it’s sometimes fun to guess)

  15. I was curious how Dr. Schneider, or his defenders, would assess the scary claims (see below) of Dr. Paul Ehrlich in the light of this topic’s quote. Dr. Ehrlich was a close colleague of Dr. Schneider and the two worked together on the second version of the notorious wager with Julian Simon.

    I paid close attention to Dr. Ehrlich’s claims back then and was quite alarmed. I dropped out of school and considered emigrating to Australia or New Zealand. Little came of Dr. Ehrlich’s scenarios and since then I have had a rather jaundiced view of scientific claims about the environment. I don’t find Dr. Schneider’s quote in this topic encouraging of trust either.

    ————————–

    You can find these quotes all over the net — I assumed they were common knowledge in the previous version of this post, but here’s one link for both at Stanford, where Schneider and Ehrlich worked as professors.

    “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970’s and 1980’s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
    — Dr. Paul Ehrlich, “The Population Bomb” (1968), p.1

    “This vast tragedy, however, is nothing compared to the nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970s (or, at the latest, the 1980s) … A situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death.”
    — Dr. Paul Ehrlich, “The End of Affluence” (1974), p.21

    “Hundreds of millions of people will soon perish in smog disasters in New York and Los Angeles…the oceans will die of DDT poisoning by 1979…the U.S. life expectancy will drop to 42 years by 1980 due to cancer epidemics.”
    – Paul Ehrlich, 1969 in Ramparts.

    http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/quotes.html

  16. huxley’s post includes quotes from Ehrlich about DDT poisoning the oceans and other dire environmental disasters that didn’t come to pass. Why did these things not happen? Because his and others’ environmental advocacy was effective and DDT was banned (in 1972 in the US) and regulations were enacted across the USA, Canada and Europe and Australia etc., banning these substances or tightly regulating their use, a process that continues to this day (fought hard all the way by the industries that make them). Mass starvation didn’t occur because of the ‘green revolution’ ushered in new wheat varieties and other crops (plus technological changes; see below), and cereal production more than doubled in developing nations between the years 1961–1985, and between 1950 and 1984 world grain production increased by over 250%.

    The point is that a sufficiently motivated and scientifically informed society and its governments can act in the general good. I suspect that if we were to try and ban DDT today that we would face a similar barage of claims and counter claims as occurs now with AGW, but fought over the internet, not debates brought forward by placard-carrying university students and others at rallies, or book signings (Rachael Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’). And funding for the science behind the green revolution would be opposed because ‘why should my taxes be used to feed people in a Muslim country?’

    An unfortunate consequence of the green revolution was a heavier reliance on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, some of which are made from fossil fuels, making agriculture increasingly reliant on oil products.

    I obtained some of the above from the US EPA here: http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/ddt/01.htm
    and a Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution

  17. [citations needed – Ehrlich’s projections were extreme and incorrect]

    Projections are not the same as predictions. Projections are calculated using a range of hypothetical values for different factors influencing the result if don’t yet know what path these factors (often societal in nature) will take. Predictions are made when scientists have confidence in what path they will take.

    In the case of Ehrlich, society managed to prevent these influencing factors from creating a worst-case scenario. Therefore, it is misleading to say that his projections, which were based on hypothetical values, were incorrect. Let me know if you find a peer-reviewed modelling simulation (probably a biogeochemical model for DDT in the oceans, I’m not sure what kind of model would be used for agricultural production) that uses the same worst-case values for influencing factors, but has a less extreme outcome than Ehrlich found. -Kate

  18. I don’t see this as a major change, though it’s always nice to have the entire quote to pull from. Thank you for doing the footwork.

    “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.”

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