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:
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.