Monday, January 25, 2010


I'm not sure if I'm going to get anywhere with this, but here goes...

I was at first particularly annoyed with your list of "environmentalist quotes", chiefly because they are a perfect example of the straw man argument, with which I am sure you are familiar. Like any other endeavor, you can be sure environmentalism has its share of oddballs and extremists. Added to this, otherwise reasonable individuals have contributed to a huge body of speeches, interviews and writings - from which it is no doubt possible to select an odd observation or two which, taken out of context, can be used to make it seem they are extremists themselves.

Since several of the quotes you cited are not properly sourced, I decided to find out for myself the context in which they appeared. One quote in particular stood out. It was this doozy, by Dr. Stephen Schneider:

“We need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination… So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements and make little mention of any doubts… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

Wow! Inasmuch as Dr. Schneider is quoted as a "lead author of many IPCC reports", this looks for all the world like the absolute mother lode for conspiracy theorists. You can in fact google this quote* and it brings up over 8 million hits (and by the way, our little blog is now one of them).

And the quote seems clear enough. In this case, Dr. Schneider is admitting that climatologists like him are creating "scary scenarios" - no doubt just to frighten people - then making choices between honesty and "being effective", which in turn means that scientists of his kind consider honesty and dishonesty to be interchangeable.

And it really makes you think. In the first place, since Stephen Schneider is in fact a well known climatologist, one wonders what a priceless ass he must be to let the cat out of the bag in so direct a fashion. You then wonder, who exactly was he talking to when he made this comment - and where? You get the image of Dr. Schneider discussing his deceptive game plan (surrounded perhaps by his fellow conspirators) in a secret meeting - all the while unaware that some wag had thought to bring a tape recorder - then oops! ...there goes the egg money.

You also wonder what all the little dots in the quote stand for. Let's see if we can find out.

The quote itself is from an interview with Dr. Schneider with Discover magazine in October, 1989. Here is the quote in its entirety (with my emphasis):

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 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. 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.

Now when you unpack the whole quote (not just the edited version) you find that what Dr. Schneider was talking about in that interview was the ethical dilemma which all scientists, particularly those involved in controversial research, must face when dealing with the media. Most importantly, he is not admitting to anything, let alone deception. In fact, he specifically states his hope that scientists will choose to be effective and honest - which dramatically changes the meaning of the whole quote.

Dr. Schneider's website has a thorough and lucid discussion of this under the heading, "Mediarology". And Steve, since you posted the edited quote, I think you owe it to yourself to have a look at that discussion. I'll just condense it for you here...

The field of climatology is a huge and complicated field. In this field, scientists are sure of some things and not so sure of others. What they have developed over many years is a fairly complete picture of the the causes behind climate change. In fact, most qualified scientists involved in the field have reached a point of consensus on the effect of the human contribution. However there remain a number of gaps in that picture.

But since the science of climate change has so many important social, economic and political implications, scientists are invariably drug into the ongoing debate over these issues. For their part, when covering the subject of climate change, news media seek to balance coverage by giving equal time to skeptics.

It all sounds reasonable on the surface. But when you look closer, you find the skeptic's approach is almost always to identify some gap in the picture (or some misrepresentation of the data) to falsify the overall body of theory and evidence.

I should point out here that this mis-quote by Dr. Schneider is a perfect case in point. Someone lifted a quote from the Discover interview and edited it to make it sound like Dr. Schneider was admitting to deception. As I said earlier, when googled, the quote gets over 8 million hits.

Now I'm not about to go and review every one of those hits, but by adding a few filters, I found that it appears at all the usual websites: Science and Public Policy Institute, NewsMax (big shock there), Canada Free Press, The Heartland Institute , just to name a few. It also appears at any number of fringe right wing sites - not to mention as a citation in virtually millions of individual comments. Ironically, this very post of mine here will be just one more.

Let's do a little math here. Dr. Schneider's point was that scientists involved in controversial research are often confronted by a hostile, unscrupulous community of skeptics - many of whom have no problem distorting what they say. Is he right?

I think so. As evidence, I would offer 8 million citations of a plainly distorted quote.

Now you say as a comment on your post you are convinced these quotes "clearly define where THEY stand." Really? If this is the case, then what you are saying is that you believe an altered version of a quote clearly defines Dr. Schneider. For this reason, I suggest you are believing whatever you believe about Dr. Schneider - not because of any rational or objective consideration of the facts - but only because it is what you want to believe about him. You want to believe leading climatologists like Dr. Schneider are manipulating the evidence, so you accept without any genuine skepticism of your own, this obvious distortion of what he had to say. Moving on...

Some of the quotes you posted were made by individuals with whom I am somewhat familiar. For instance, I remember very well many of the appearances (it turns out there were 20 of them!) by Dr. Paul Ehrlich on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson back in the late sixties and early seventies. I always liked the guy. His specialty then, as I suppose it is now, was Malthusian theory. As I'm sure you are aware, almost 300 years ago Thomas Malthus developed a theory regarding population and resources which has furnished fertile grounds for debate ever since. Dr. Ehrlich was clearly an alarmist and I am not surprised some of his comments reflect that. However the debate over Malthusian theory which continues to this day is mostly about the sustainability of human populations and is only tangentially connected to the accepted definition of environmentalism.

Some of the quotes you posted were made by individuals I have never heard of - and, I am sure, neither have you. Are you willing to document how individuals like Lester Brown, David Brower, Judi Bari, "Sir James Lovelock" etal are setting the agenda for modern day environmentalism? Surely these people might have said things with which you and possibly even myself disagree. So what?

Some of the quotes are just plain crap. For instance, the quote attributed to Christine Stewart is a "he said, she said" reference from a short article in a Canadian newspaper from several years ago. There appears to be no context for this quote because the writer of the article doesn't produce any. How then you can stipulate that this quote represents Ms. Stewart's views is an absolute mystery to me.

Finally, some of the quotes, frankly, make sense:
"We are close to a time when all of humankind will envision a global agenda that encompasses a kind of Global Marshall Plan to address the causes of poverty and suffering and environmental destruction all over the earth." - Al Gore

Steve, what on Earth is so scary about that?


*note: You must google only the first phrase of the quote to bring up all 8 million hits.

1 comment:

  1. Schneider said (right before your emphasis): "So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have." That word *WE* is what bothers me. His statement implies that presenting the pure science picture is not effective and one must resort to FEAR (and without all the "doubts we may have" as noted in his last phrase). I prefer to believe that a scientist should present the entire picture first and foremost and let the analysis of the chips fall where they may. His statement indicates (to me) that shouting "FIRE!" in a theater is the Best (only?) way to get his point across. I disagree.

    In short: I object to resorting and relying upon extreme 'alarmism' as a proper function of science. Raise questions and present scenarios (with low, middle, and high probabilities) as needed for clarity and scope. But you don't present only the worst case scenarios in order to scare folks into a particular reaction.

    To same extent, I very much dislike 'alarmism' as a proper style of governance. I believe people are generally more intelligent than they are given credit for and can accept and appropriately react when given all the facts. Restricting or focusing efforts which appeal to real or imagined fears in order to accomplish one's goals is, at best, dishonest. We deserve better than being asked to live in a constant state of Fear. It's counter-productive and ultimately unworkable. That's all.

    And, above all else, if you're going to use science to justify a particular course of action, you better have ALL the cards on the table; and that means presenting ALL the options. Further, you better be prepared to demonstrate how - using science - those actions will provably accomplish your goals.

    IMHO, that ain't happening in the AGW arena.