A correction on Lomborg and Schneider’s quotation

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

Bjorn Lomborg. (Credit: Emil Jupin)

It’s long been my contention that no matter how much the Earth’s climate warms, butter will never melt in the mouth of Bjorn Lomborg. Most people find him personally charming. He’s a highly skillful debater and careful writer who understands the power of well-crafted rhetoric to quietly suggest and persuade. His critics may charge that his book The Skeptical Environmentalist invokes selective readings or slanted analyses of the scientific literature to make its case, but even they would probably agree that Lomborg excels at making those arguments sound reasonable and fair-minded.

He is certainly more careful and fair than I was when writing my recent post on “The inevitable politics of climate science (part 1).” As Lomborg politely pointed out to me, I was entirely wrong to suggest that in The Skeptical Environmentalist and subsequently he had taken an old quotation by climatologist Stephen H. Schneider out of context to make it sound like he thought lying to the public was acceptable. I apologize to Lomborg and you readers for that mistake.

At the time I wrote it, I was sure that was so because I remembered speaking with Schneider about it. But I’ve gone back over the facts and now think I see what happened. And it’s actually been quite interesting to see the history of the poor, abused words by Schneider in the process.

Stephen H. Schneider. (Credit: Joi Ito)

Stephen H. Schneider. (Credit: Joi Ito)

The misused quotation in question appeared in an interview with Schneider in the October 1989 issue of Discover magazine. Schneider was reflecting on the sometimes grueling difficulty of being both technically accurate and understandable to the public when explaining climate science.

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 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.

Schneider’s belief, you can see, is that scientists need to try to be both accurate and effective. Moreover, he argued it was possible to do both through the use of moving metaphors and reference citations that listeners could use to deepen their own understanding. The “double-blind dilemma,” to Schneider, was largely a product of short-attention, soundbite-dominated media: He was in no way suggesting or urging that scientists do otherwise. As he later wrote [.pdf], “[N]ot 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.”

The first person to distort Schneider’s quote seems to have been the late Julian Simon, the economist and free-market environmentalist whom Lomborg acknowledges as one of his inspirations in writing The Skeptical Environmentalist. According to Schneider, Simon took the quote out of context to use against him in a debate on Australian TV, and then used it the same way in an article appearing in the March 1996 edition of the American Physical Society News [.pdf]. Simon wrote:

Bob Park asked: “Doomsayers often preface their warnings with ‘if we don’t take steps to prevent it.’ Is it possible that their warnings have helped produce a better environment?” I answer: Those who warn against real trouble help. Even if the warning is wrong, I do not criticize unless the warner is willfully ignorant or dishonest. But some forecasts are knowingly exaggerated or false. Atmospheric scientist Stephen Schneider says:

“Scientist should consider stretching the truth to get some broad base 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 about any doubts we might have… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

Simon misquoted and edited Schneider’s remarks, inverting their meaning in the process. If he did so on at least two occasions, as Schneider said, it’s hard to believe it was just an honest mistake. And although Schneider fought to set the record straight repeatedly times thereafter, as the saying goes, “A lie races ’round the world while the truth still does up its laces.” Whether out of ignorant parroting of Simon or a more devious desire to keep the slur against him alive, people have been claiming Simon’s meaning for Schneider’s remarks ever since.

No portion, version, or distortion of Schneider’s quotation appears in The Skeptical Environmentalist, contrary to my own erroneous statement. It did show up in various defenses of Lomborg’s book, and in many other attacks over the years on the integrity of climate scientists in general and of Schneider in particular. An opinion leader piece in The Economist that defended Lomborg’s book (and emptily attacked Scientific American‘s criticism of it) misused Schneider’s words to Simon’s effect. Just out of curiosity, I googled “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest” and came up with 1,390,000 results; if you have the heart for it (I don’t), sample how it’s used. But those were all things that people other than Lomborg wrote.

The one place where Lomborg seems to have used the quote in any way was in the lengthy online response [.pdf] that he wrote to Scientific American‘s “Misleading Math about the Earth” feature, in which Schneider, John Holdren, John Bongaarts, and Thomas Lovejoy rebutted sections of The Skeptical Environmentalist. It stuck in my mind partly because when Schneider and I were discussing an answer I would write to Lomborg’s piece [.pdf], he expressed his irritation at it.

Here’s what Lomborg wrote [.pdf] as part of his complaint that the SciAm feature was unfair to him. As you’ll see, he plainly acknowledges Schneider’s desire for scientists to be both honest and effective. And yet… hmm. (Emphasis added.)

The obvious lack of any concern for presenting a balanced review of my work calls into question the real purpose of this Scientific American feature. However, one of its contributors, Stephen Schneider, has on a former occasion made a suggestion that might throw some light on the curious imbalance of the Feature under consideration.

Schneider considers the “ethical double bind” that might occur to the scientist who is also concerned to contribute to a better world. As a scientist he focuses on truth. As a concerned citizen he must take an interest in political efficiency. Quite obviously, Schneider finds that this presents a delicate dilemma and he expresses the hope that one might be both honest and effective. However, as Schneider agonizes over this dilemma he does offer the following bit of unambiguous advice. “So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have.” Could John Rennie have taken this as editorial advice? I don’t know, but I feel that it would account for the tone and the lack of balance of the Feature considered as a whole.

Notwithstanding the caveats, he does still seem to present the scary scenarios option as Schneider’s “suggestion” and “unambiguous advice.” Given the totality of Schneider’s words and his later clarifications of them, I think Lomborg has that a bit wrong. (He did thoughtfully include the entire Discover quote I listed above in a footnote to the quote, but of course readers would see that after his characterization of the remarks, which might influence perceptions of them.)

Really, though, that was probably just an innocent slip on Lomborg’s part, because let’s face it, Schneider was incidental damage in this passage; SciAm and I were his real targets. That’s why Lomborg was speculating airily (and wrongly, because I hadn’t read the Discover interview) that we might have been inspired by Schneider’s words to be misleading. I understand how that happens: heat of the moment, and all that. No offense taken here, and of course it’s all very old news today. Lomborg was just engaging in some strong rhetoric.

It’s too bad, though, because in his conversations with me it was obvious that Schneider regarded Lomborg’s passage as yet another repetition of Simon’s lie. Remember, Lomborg was writing this in late 2001 or early 2002. Schneider had publicly corrected Simon’s misquotation in 1996, more than five years earlier, and he considered it highly unlikely that Lomborg was unfamiliar with the substance of his answer to Simon.

How could it be another repetition when Lomborg noted Schneider’s desire for scientists to be honest and effective, as so many others did not? Perhaps it goes to perceptions of actual intent, and not merely the words on a page. Some might say the problem is that if you understand that Schneider was firmly opposed to ends-justify-the-means dishonesty in climate science explanations, then the only respectable reason to cite the Discover quote is to make that point. If you bring up the quote for the purpose of hinting that Schneider maybe sometimes suggested lying to the public was okay , then it seems like you’re misusing it no matter how many extenuating phrases reflecting the true meaning you attach.

Or maybe that’s just reading too much into the situation. Lomborg is a careful writer, and he seems to have included every reasonable disclaimer that Schneider definitely did not want to lie to the public. Really, I can’t see why Schneider would have a complaint with this. Can you?


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