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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stephen H. Schneider does not and has not advocated that scientists should "stretch the truth" to get publicity

  APS News Online August/September 1996 Edition

Don't Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial

by Stephen H. Schneider, Prof., Dept. of Biological Sciences and Sr.
Fellow Inst. for International Studies, Stanford University

[Editor's note: Professor Schneider was offered space to express his
views following the publication of an erroneous quote attributed to
him in the March issue. The opinions expressed are the author's and
not necessarily those of the APS, its elected officers or staff.]

Perhaps you shouldn't believe me, at least that is what Julian Simon's
characterization of my views of environmental threats would lead you
to believe in APS News Back Page article (March 1996, p. 12). Simon
"quotes" me directly, as supposedly saying "Scientists should consider
stretching the truth..." to get good publicity for their cause. After
the March issue was in print, Simon notified the editor that this
false and very damaging statement was incorrect. What he hasn't yet
admitted is that even what he states to be the "correct quote" is
still an out-of-context misrepresentation of my views, a distortion he
persists in perpetuating even months after I personally told him of
the context of the original quote.

The Simon APS News article offers to bet environmentalists "...that
any trend in material human welfare will improve rather than get
worse." This article echoes an editorial essay entitled "Earth's
Doomsayers Are Wrong" that appeared in the 12 May 1995 San Francisco
Chronicle open forum. Simon then said that "Every measure of material
and environmental welfare in the U.S. and the world has improved..."
and that "All long run trends point in exactly the opposite direction
of the doomsayers" Thus he implied that few, if any, people would
likely accept his bet since for the past 25 years the pessimists have
been "proven entirely wrong." When my Stanford colleague, Paul
Ehrlich, and I took up his challenge[1] and named 15 environment-related
trends we were willing to bet would deteriorate, Simon refused,
claiming to the Chronicle (18 May 1995) that "I do not offer to bet on
the progress of particular physical conditions such as the ozone
layer" (as if its decline were not a negative measure of environmental

In November 1995, I debated Simon on Lateline, the Australian TV
equivalent of the U.S. Nightline program, on the issue of the Chronicle
bet. In a segment they did not air, Simon charged that I advocate
exaggerating science to enhance the appearance of environmental
threats. To bolster this charge he resurrected an oft-quoted, but
usually out of context, partial quote from a Discover Magazine
interview[2] in 1989 in which I decried soundbite science and journalism
by pointing out that nobody gets enough time in the media either to
cover all the caveats in depth (i.e., "being honest") or to present
all the plausible threats (i.e., "being effective"). During the TV
debate, months before Simon's APS News article appeared, I pointed out
that he was taking only part of the full quote and that part was
seriously out of context - this is the same source he "quoted" in APS
News. The full quote follows, where I have italicized what portions
of it Simon quoted and bracketed what I did not say but he attributed
to me in the APS News article:

"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 [Scientists should
consider stretching the truth] to get some broadbased 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."[2]

Vested interests have repeatedly claimed I advocate exaggerating
threats. Their "evidence" comes from partially quoting my Discover
interview, almost always - like Simon - omitting the last line and the
phrase "double ethical bind." They also omit my solutions to the
double ethical bind: (1) use metaphors that succinctly convey both
urgency and uncertainty (p. xi of ref. 3) and (2) produce an
inventory of written products from editorials to articles to books, so
that those who want to know more about an author's views on both the
caveats and the risks have a hierarchy of detailed written sources to
which they can turn.[3-5] What I was telling the Discover interviewer,
of course, was my disdain for a soundbite-communications process that
imposes the double ethical bind on all who venture into the popular
media. To twist my openly stated and serious objections to the
soundbite process into some kind of advocacy of exaggeration is a
clear distortion. Moreover, not only do I disapprove of the "ends
justify the means" philosophy of which I am accused, but, in fact have
actively campaigned against it in myriad speeches and writings.
Instead, I repeatedly advocate that scientists explicitly warn their
audiences that "what to do" is a value choice as opposed to "what can
happen" and "what are the odds," which are scientific issues (e.g., p.
213 of ref. 3). I also urge that scientists, when they offer
probabilities, work hard to distinguish which are objective and which
are subjective, as well as what is the scientific basis for any
probability offered. For such reasons I was honored to receive, in
1991, the AAAS/Westinghouse Award for the Public Understanding of

If the readers of APS News are confused by all this rancor and want a
fair and balanced treatment of environmental scientific and policy
debates, they can turn to the several National Research Council or
IPCC assessments[6], in which words like "any," "all," "every," and
"entirely" are scarce, and citations are quoted or paraphrased in
their proper context.

1. P. R. Ehrlich and S. H. Schneider, Environmental Awareness, 18(2),
47-50 (1995).
2. J. Schell, Discover, pp. 45-48 (Oct. 1989).
3. S. H. Schneider, Global Warming: Are We Entering the Greenhouse
Century? Vintage (1990).
4. S. H. Schneider, with L. E. Mesirow, The Genesis Strategy: Climate
and Global Survival. New York: Plenum (1976).
5. S. H. Schneider, National Geographic Research & Exploration, 9(2),
173-190 (1993).
6. Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change (IPCC), Climate Change
1995. The Science of Climate Change. J. T. Houghton et al. (Eds.),
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press (1996).

Copyright 1996, The American Physical Society.
The APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in
this newsletter provided that attribution to the source is noted, the
materials are not truncated or changed.

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