of Citizens, Journalists, and Scientists
in Debunking Climate Change Myths
In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated
stories, it is both natural and appropriate for honest journalists to report
"both sides" of an issue. Got the Democrat? Better get the Republican!
In science, it's different. There are rarely just two polar
opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, oftentimes accompanied
by a considerable history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility
of these many possibilities. A climate scientist faced with a reporter locked
into the "get both sides" mindset risks getting his or her views stuffed into
one of two boxed storylines: “we’re worried” or “it
will all be OK.” And sometimes, these two "boxes" are misrepresentative;
a mainstream, well-established consensus may be "balanced" against the opposing
views of a few extremists, and to the uninformed, each position seems equally
credible. Any scientist wandering into
the political arena and naively thinking "balanced" assessment is what all sides
seek (or hear) had better learn fast how the advocacy system really functions.
(See the Edwards-Schneider chapter, "Self-Governance
and Peer Review in Science-for-Policy: The Case of the IPCC Second Assessment
Being stereotyped as the "pro" advocate versus the "con" advocate
as far as action on climate change is concerned is not a quick ticket to a healthy
scientific reputation as an objective interpreter of the science — particularly
for a controversial science like global warming. In actuality, it encourages
personal attacks and distortions (see the "Double
Ethical bind" pitfall below).
This is all part of the problem I have, somewhat whimsically,
called "mediarology." I will explore
this problematic world of communications in some depth below. (See also the
and the chapter titled “Mediarology”
in my book, Global
[For an audio interview on aspects of 'Mediarology', listen
and Environmental Reporting, on The Environment Show, Greg
Dahlmann, WAMC, March 8, 2002]
fundamental question related to climate change, then, is: how can we make,
or at least encourage, advocates to convey a balanced perspective when the
'judge' and 'jury' are Congress or public opinion."
Expert witnesses spouting diametrically opposing views —
in congress, courtrooms, or on editorial pages — often obscure an issue
more than they enlighten the public about it. They often refuse to acknowledge
that the issue of concern is multifaceted, and they only present their argument,
ignoring opposing views. This is really no big surprise, but what is shocking
is how often that strategy is deliberate (see “Science
Friction”). Stakeholders increasingly select information out of
context to protect their interests, and clear exposition and balanced assessment
have sunk even lower on their priority lists. I call this "courtroom epistemology."
(For further details, see the article "Defining
and Teaching Environmental Literacy" and see McCright and Dunlap's
"Defeating Kyoto: The Conservative Movement’s Impact on U.S. Climate
The attitude that “It’s not my job to make my opponent’s
case!” arises not only in courtroom histrionics, but also in most political
debates and in much of the media. Scientists claim to be disdainful of this
behavior, and they often pretend to be above such polemics in their "objective,"
detached, and dispassionate assessment of "the facts" — at least that
is our official mantra. It’s not that reporters, politicians, lawyers,
and others or their methods are wrong or that "impartial" scientists are morally
superior; the question is whether the techniques of advocacy-as-usual are suited
fora subject like climate change. Indeed, just as it would be a breach of scientific
ethics to elliptically spin the facts, it would be a breach of ethics for a
professional advocate not to advance his or her client’s interests, even
if it means picking and choosing from the full range of the facts.
In fact, if I were on trial, I admit I’d want my lawyer
to make defending me his number one priority, and I'd prefer that he didn't
dwell on lofty abstractions about finding balanced truth. Indeed, courts of
law, political forums, and much of the media are steeped in just such practices.
So, I’m not accusing advocates of immorality; I’m just saying that
standard advocacy (i.e., defining only one side of an issue) it is a poor way
to give non-specialists "full disclosure" of complex, controversial topics.
But the problem is that scientists tend to think that advocacy
based on a "win for the client" mentality that deliberately selects "facts"
out of context is highly unethical. Unaware of how the advocacy game is played
outside the cloister of the scientific peer review culture, some scientists
stumble, perhaps naively, into the pitfall of being labeled as an advocate lobbying
for a special interest, even if they had no such intention.
When the scientist merely acknowledges the credibility of some
contentious information or endorses actions that affect stakeholders differentially,
opposing advocates often presume the scientist is spinning the information for
some client’s benefit. Even when the expert (scientist) also admits that
there is a wide range of possibilities and refers to extensive peer-reviewed
assessments, the opposition accuses the expert of currying favor from some alleged
funding agent (see remarks by
Bjørn Lomborg, or Michael
Parsons, quoting Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen). After all, isn’t
that what everybody else is doing? (See Charles Krauthammer's op-ed attacking
me in “Global
Warming Fundamentalists” and my rebuttal.)
The fundamental question related to climate change, then, is:
how can we make, or at least encourage, advocates to convey a balanced perspective
when the "judge" and "jury" are Congress or public opinion, and the polarized
advocates get only twenty second sound bites each on the evening news or five
minutes in front of a Congressional hearing to summarize a topic for which it
would take hours just to outline the range of possible outcomes, much less convey
the relative credibility of each claim and rebuttal? For over three decades,
this has been my repeated frustration in dealing with the climate change debate,
and it seems to be getting worse.
Is there a solution to this advocacy-truth conundrum? On the one
hand, it is indeed an expert's responsibility to honestly report the range of
plausible cases (what can happen?) and their associated subjective probability
distributions (what are the odds?) and confidence levels. (See the Moss/Schneider
Guidance” paper and the Summer 2002 Nature
story on it.) On the other hand, an expert could have a personal opinion
on what society ought to do with a particular risk assessment. Can a scientist
who expresses such value preferences about a controversial topic also provide
an unbiased assessment of the factual components? This may be a feasible tightrope
to walk, but even if one is scrupulously careful to separate factual from value-laden
arguments, will the outside world of advocates and advocate institutions buy
it? (See a Detroit
News editorial and my rebuttal.)
The more we discuss our initial assessments with colleagues of
various backgrounds, the higher the likelihood we can illuminate unconscious
biases. We may not ever reach the archetype of "pure objectivity"— but
"pure objectivity" is, of course, a myth in science. The path to objectivity
does not involve scientists holding back their opinions in order to maintain
a pretense of some higher calling as "objective scientist." Rather, only active
effort to make our biases conscious and explicit via outside review is likely
to effectively keep our science-advocacy more objective and allow us to better
manage the “advocacy-truth” conundrum, (see Forums).
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Let’s unpack the advocacy issue a bit more. Is the scientist-advocate
Before we address advocacy issues in policy agendas (like carbon
emission reductions, in the case of global warming), we must ask: how do we
define what is objective, or how do we discover "truth"? Doing this often uncovers
the sources of many unconscious biases (see Table).
Potential Scientific Biases (source:
Schneider 2003, this website)
- A favored theory
- A familiar model or technique
- A comfortable measurement or instrumental system
- A crony
- Our institution
- A national report
- A philosophical paradigm/epistemological construction of reality
Scientists often don’t think about the categories in the
biases Table as advocacy problems per se, but our experiences, relationships,
and professional interests do influence not only our judgment, but also the
very questions we ask. As an example, most scientists think that science entails
a series of reductions in which experimental or empirical observations are used
to construct frequency distributions of phenomena that can be used to reject
a null hypothesis with some level of certainty. This is the basis for Karl Popper’s
famous aphorism that science is falsification of hypotheses (see the "Science
always falsifies" pitfall, below). This is still widely believed to be the
way in which science works today. (For an example, see the letter “Identifying
Dangers in an Uncertain Climate”, which was a response to “What
is 'Dangerous' Climate Change?”. See also my editorial in Climate
Change (March 2002), which was a further response).
best safeguard for public participation in science-based policy issues is
to leave subjective probability assessment to the larger scientific community
rather than a few charismatic individuals."
But living in this frequentist paradigm based on falsification
of hypotheses requires an infinite set of replicable experiments, which is itself
an unobtainable abstraction. (See “Characterizing
and Communicating Scientific Uncertainty” by Moss and Schneider
Approaches to Characterizing Uncertainty” by Berk; see also Environmental
Literacy, a seminar session on climate change (Real Player)). Many factors
make it impossible to obtain direct empirical data — i.e., we simply cannot
obtain empirical data about future events. Instead, we must make inferences
about the future by using past information to construct a simulation model that
produces pseudo-frequentist data about a hypothesized future. Of course, these
simulations are only as good as our model assumptions, and our estimates are
valid only as long as future conditions are similar to the conditions used to
build the model. This exercise necessarily entails subjective judgments, and
not falsification, since the latter is possible only after
the future occurs.
Fundamentally, the frequentist paradigm assumes that the underlying
probability distribution is known and asks whether our observations are consistent
with the known distribution. In reality, the underlying distribution is unknown
(or only partially known), yet we want to know whether our hypothesis is likely
to be true based on our observations -- which are often incomplete. Thus, determining
the likelihood of our hypothesis is easier said than done. An alternative is
to use Bayesian, or subjective, probabilities that compile all the information
we can possibly bring to bear on the problem, including, but not limited to,
direct measurements and statistics on various components of the problem. Use
of these methods can be extremely controversial. Some frequentist die-hards
believe that if we can’t measure it directly, it isn’t science,
what I playfully call "the tyranny of the null hypothesis." However, the belief
that the frequentist paradigm is superior to the subjective paradigm is epistemological
advocacy; in short, a bias. In fact, dogmatic adherence to a frequentist paradigm
limits the dissemination of valuable expert judgment that doesn’t fit
into conventional evaluation of scientific knowledge, yet is crucial information
for both scientific understanding and social processes like-decision making.
While scientific advocacy is typically subtle, political advocacy
is usually more obvious (see the Table):
Table — Conflicting
Political Values in Environmental Debates (source: Schneider
2003, this website)
- Entrepreneurial rights transcend protection of global commons
- “One dollar one vote” — cost/benefit efficiency is the
best decision rule
- The present is more valuable than the future (meaning a high discount rate
is deemed appropriate)
- The present generation has an obligation not to borrow from the future (a
low discount rate is deemed appropriate)
- Commons protection justifies curbs on individual, corporate or national
- A risk aversion/precautionary principle is needed, especially for large-scale,
potentially irreversible changes
- Other species have intrinsic existence rights, even if they fall outside
of traditional cost/benefit calculations for human welfare
- Distribution of costs and benefits are as or more important than the values
aggregated by traditional cost-benefit analyses (i.e., equity counts as much
In my view, the best safeguard for public participation in science-based
policy issues is to leave subjective probability assessment to the larger scientific
community rather than a few charismatic individuals. Some will say, as I noted
above, that it’s impossible for an expert to maintain his/her scientific
objectivity in a value-laden public debate, but after thirty years of striving
to do just that, I think that science-advocacy can be done honestly. Just because
some people cheat doesn’t mean all do. No one is exempt from prejudices
and values, but the people who know when they are bringing in values and make
their biases explicit are more likely to provide balanced assessments -- and
to be able to single out those who do not.
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advocacy and popularization are not, in my view, oxymoronic — but
it takes discipline to minimize trouble."
Let’s turn to that other “oxymoron” problem:
the role of the scientist as popularizer. In the real world, we want to make
a lasting impression and ensure that our ideas are heard and our suggestions
are followed, yet none of us is granted unlimited time to explain the nuances
of complex issues. We are forced to be selective in our disclosure of facts,
or we risk being ignored. However, intentionally distorting the likelihoods
of certain outcomes is just dishonest. Balancing the need to be effective in
sound-bite situations with the responsibility to be “honest" (i.e., fully
disclosing complexities) is what I call the “double ethical bind."
Scientists must take one additional step to more fully ensure
their credibility. Those who make public statements should also produce a hierarchy
of backup products ranging from op-ed pieces (see a few of my opinion
editorials), to longer popular articles (see “The
Evolution of the Earth” and “Degrees
of Certainty”), which provide more depth, to full length
books, which meticulously distinguish the aspects of an issue that are well
understood from those that are more speculative. Books should also provide an
account of how one’s views have changed as the scientific evidence has
changed (see a series of my books, from The
Genesis Strategy to Global
Warming to Climate
Change Policy). Even if only a minute segment of the public really
wants this level of detail, this hierarchy of articles and books in the popular
and scientific literature gives a scientist credibility in the popularization
process. One excellent example of popularization is Richard Somerville's 1996
Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change. In it, Somerville
discusses the ways in which humans have influenced various components of the
environment, including the climate, in a style that is scientifically credible
yet understandable to non-experts. He also details the interconnectedness of
human technology and environmental change and suggests that citizens must educate
themselves to make good judgments about such topics. The lengthy coverage of
these subjects supports Somerville's shorter interviews and articles on them.
Since "full disclosure" (like archetypal "scientific objectivity")
is simply not possible in time-constrained congressional or media debates, the
hierarchy of back-ups is crucial for elaborated disclosure beyond these forums.
In summary, responsible advocacy and popularization are not, in
my view, oxymoronic — but it takes discipline to minimize trouble. Scientists
will never succeed in pleasing everyone, especially since many continue to think
scientists should stay out of the public arena. But if we do avoid the public
arena entirely, then we merely abdicate the popularization to someone else —
someone who is probably less knowledgeable or responsible (See also “What
Makes a Good Science Story” and
“Interpreting Uncertainty”.) In my view, staying out of
the fray is not taking the “high ground”; it is just passing the
The Table below summarizes my primary "rules"
for minimizing the chances of being misrepresented in the “real world”
out there. (More on the Scientist/Advocate).
I often summarize them as the "three know-thys": 1) Know thy audience;
2) Know thyself; 3) Know thy stuff! The more detailed rules appear in the table.
Advocacy/Popularization “Rules” (source:
Schneider 2003, this website)
- Understand your own values and biases — use the relevant scientific/technical
communities to help you overcome your own dogmatism or denial
- Make your values and biases explicit, and separate them from your scientific
priors on probabilities and consequences
- Do not allow personal value positions to distort your subjective priors
on the probabilities of various outcomes or “facts”
- Defend value positions separately from assessments of probabilities and
- Encourage popularizers who follow responsible practices, and censure those
who are unclear, obscure or biased
Be forewarned that these guidelines are not without their dangers.
Many have asserted that my disdain for advocates who don’t make their
values conscious and explicit and my willingness to maneuver in the sound-bite/advocacy
world is tantamount to promoting exaggeration. (See the “double
ethical bind”, the "scientist-advocate",
the 1996 opinion
piece by Julian Simon and my rebuttal, and a Detroit
News editorial and my rebuttal).
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The "Double Ethical Bind" Pitfall
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. "
Would you trust a scientist who advises his/her colleagues to
use scary scenarios to get media attention and to shape public opinion by making
intentionally dramatic, overblown statements? Would you have confidence in his
or her statements if the scientist said that “each of us has to decide
what the right balance is between being effective and being honest”? Understandably,
you’d probably be suspicious and wonder what was being compromised.
I confess: those were SOME of my words, yet their meaning is
completely distorted when viewed out of context like this. You will find hundreds
of places — especially on the web sites of industrial or economic growth
advocates opposed to global warming policies that might harm their or their
clients' interests — in which I am similarly (mis)quoted alongside a declaration
that my environmental cronies and I should never be trusted.
I’ll spend a few paragraphs telling you what I really said
and why, as I want to illustrate the sorts of pitfalls that will confront a
scientist or other expert diving headlong into scientific popularization, media
appearances, advocacy, or some combination of these. This example illustrates
the risks of stepping from the academic cloister to the wide world out there.
A scientist's likelihood of having his/her meaning turned on its head is pretty
high — especially with highly politicized topics such as global warming.
First, consider a movie theater marquis selectively quoting a
critic as having said a movie was “spectacular,” when the critic
might have actually written: “...the film could have been spectacular
if only the acting wasn’t so overplayed and the dialog wasn’t so
trite…” You get the idea. We see this kind of distortion in sales
and advocacy, by citizens and politicians, from businesses and ideologists,
in the public and private sectors.
My first experience in being misrepresented in the public debate
began after the 1988 heat waves in the US, when global warming made daily headlines.
I probably gave twenty interviews a day for several months that year. The global
warming debate migrated from the ivy-covered halls of academia into the public
policy spotlight via congressional hearings, daily media stories and broadcasts,
pressure on the government from environmental groups pushing for control of
CO2 emissions, and loud and angry denial by industries with high
CO2 emissions of both their contribution to global warming and the
credibility of the science behind climate change. I was — and still am
— quite frustrated about the capricious sound-bite nature of the public
debate. Typically, a scientist or other party in the global warming debate is
given twenty seconds (maximum) on the evening news for his or her quote, which
is supposed to represent either the “catastrophe” or the “no
problem” side of the debate, for this is how the media have too often
categorized it. If one decides to elaborate on the various complexities associated
with the problem, one risks being overlooked or boxed in.
I expressed my frustration to Jonathan Schell, a Pulitzer-prize-winning
writer doing a story on the contentious climate debate for Discover
magazine. I guess my first mistake was to be a bit tongue-in-cheek — I
painted a stark picture of the opposing viewpoints in the climate change debate:
gloom-and-doom stories from deep ecology groups and others versus pontifications
on uncertainties from big industry and others, who used that to argue against
preemptive action. I complained that even though I always make a point in my
interviews to discuss the wide range of possibilities, from catastrophic to
beneficial, media stories rarely convey the entire range. All too often, a scientist's
viewpoint is boxed into one extreme or the other. Usually, but not always, I
am put in the "it is a big problem" box rather than the "it is too uncertain
to do anything" box, even though I acknowledge both perspectives have some plausible
arguments. (See the opening paragraph in my review
of Lomborg for Scientific American).
I tried to explain to Schell how to be both effective
and honest: by using metaphors that simultaneously convey both urgency and uncertainty,
and also by producing supporting documents of all types and lengths (see the
Unfortunately, this clarification is absent from the Discover article,
and this omission opened the door for fifteen years of subsequent distortions
and attacks. Ironically, this is the consummate example of my grievance about
problems arising from short reports of long interviews.
Here is the published quote from that interview with Discover,
from which selected lines have been used for over a decade as "proof" that I
exaggerate environmental threats:
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.
The Detroit News selectively quoted this passage,
already not in full context, in an attack editorial on 22 November 1989:
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.
The most egregious omission in the Detroit News quotation
is of the last line of the Discover quote, the one about being
both honest and effective. The Detroit News clearly misquotes
me, presumably since including the addendum would have weakened the effectiveness
of their character attack. In response, I prepared a rebuttal containing the
full quote and the context of my interview, which actually showed that I disapproved
of the sound-bite system and the media's polarization of the climate change
debate. (See the Detroit
News editorial and my rebuttal).
While the Detroit News readers had an opportunity
to see my true intent, albeit a month later, when the rebuttal was published,
I simply cannot respond and correct every article misquoting me, as they have
proliferated and now number in the hundreds. Despite many attempts on my part
— in my books, papers, talks, and other op-eds — to outline my opinions
and dispel the media-propagated myths, the distortions continue to this day,
even in "respectable" publications like the Economist, which ran
a partial quote (also taken from the Discover
article) without even calling me to see if it was valid. (See the quote
from the Economist. The 'brave' editor of this attack
does not even sign his polemic, but I am told it was Clive Crook.) The most
egregious distortion I am aware of was in a 1996
opinion piece by Julian Simon (see also
my rebuttal), a business professor at the University
of Maryland, in which he not only used an out-of-context quote from the Discover
article to "prove" that I advocate exaggeration in order to get attention, but
he also invented a preamble, that I advise people to “stretch the
truth,” and he attributed that to me, while (of course) leaving off the
last sentence of my actual remark.
Some friends have advised me to file lawsuits against such distortionists
engaging in showcase journalism, but as a public figure, I have just learned
to deal with character assassination and polemics as part of the "real world"
of public policy debate. Moreover, lawyer friends have told me that partial
quotes, even those that turn the original meaning of the full quote upside
down, are generally protected by the First Amendment. In the face of this no-win
scenario, I warn those who venture into this quagmire simply to expect such
pitfalls and to prevent them from causing too much discouragement. It is difficult
to correct these reporters and other media icons, who are the ones actually
stretching the truth, since most people do not check the originals quotes or
stories for accuracy or fairness.
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The “Science Always Falsifies”
the case of climate change, where replicable experimentation is difficult,
if not impossible, computer simulation models of past and future climate
changes are essential. "
The dominant paradigm in science is to administer replicable experiments
that test, or “falsify”, existing hypotheses. If the test fails,
the hypothesis is rejected. Sociologists of science have long pointed out the
deep flaws in the exclusive use of falsification as a test of "truth." Objective
science based on collecting frequency information from observations, is indeed
a good and necessary part of transforming speculative ideas into better hypotheses,
but it is applicable only under very limited conditions. For starters, only
past or present systems are observable. Falsification based on observation requires
that an infinite set of replicable experiments be performed — an unobtainable
abstraction in many important applications, like climate change. Futhermore,
obtaining frequency data on future events is impossible before the fact. Some
die-hard frequentists deliberately avoid problems built on the subjectivity
of climate change projections based on the non-falsifiablility of future events.
I was told in 1985 by a senior member of the atmospheric science community at
a National Research Council assessment on “nuclear winter” that
I was “irresponsible” for working on post-war climate change at
all since it couldn’t be “falsified.” Before I could shut
my dropped jaw to rebut, a social geographer delivered an eloquent oration,
saying that it is a scientist who lets a professional paradigm impede him or
her from helping society anticipate problems who is irresponsible, not the scientist
trying to peer into the shadowy future with the best available knowledge. He
also correctly noted that while such projections use subjective rather than
objective science, they are still very important expert judgments.
In the case of climate change, where replicable experimentation
is difficult, if not impossible, computer simulation models of past and future
climate changes are essential. Empirical data plays a major role, not as a simple
basis for predicting the future, but rather in building the tools we use to
make projections. Observations of the historical climate record are essential
for deriving and testing simulation models in order to select those that best
encapsulates our understanding of how the climate works. These models are then
used to forecast future climate changes based on various scenarios of possible
human activities. The validity of a model depends on how it deals with structural
change — evolving functional relationships or parameters. Predictions
based on past observations are valid only as long as future conditions replicate
past conditions. This is unlikely to be the case for large climate changes,
which are expected to arise from unprecedented rapid changes in the composition
of atmospheric greenhouse gases, land surface changes, etc. When contrarian
skeptics assert that an "objective" analysis of the "facts" indicate the climate
will change negligibly (e.g., see a Lomborg
quote), they often ignore the effects of structural changes that limit
the ability to extrapolate statistics from past observations.
When uncertainty is great, as in the case of climate change,
the use of subjective probability assessments is particularly necessary -- and
controversial. Richard Moss and I prepared a guidance paper on uncertainties
to be used in association with the IPCC TAR (see “Uncertainties
Guidance”) in which we advocate that the authors of the TAR assign
confidence levels to each of their statements, and that authors distinguish
explicitly the extent to which that confidence comes from direct observations
or from expert judgments. Thereafter, Richard and I were nicknamed “the
uncertainty cops” (see a Nature
story), but in spite of the goofy nickname, we were indeed able to reduce
authors' fears of using subjective probability assessments. (See Pittock and
will help us plan for climate change”; see also Grubler
and Nakicenovic). Unfortunately, many politicians and political bodies
favor the objective approach (though it is impossible in principle in the case
of future climate change), and they, too, prefer to avoid the speculative use
of 'subjective' estimations derived from imperfect models. I can only reiterate
that making predictions about an uncertain and complex future necessarily implies
the use of models and subjective assessment.
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Your Neck Out: Some Guidelines for Communication
So how do we scientists deal with this bubbling cauldron of special
interests, paradigmatic misunderstandings, and time-honored and entrenched professional
practices? While I don’t have any simple answers, I do offer some guidelines
that work for me — sometimes. First and foremost, we must drop any superiority
judgments; they only stiffen the resolve of those who have been "toilet-trained"
in their profession’s paradigms. Next, we should thoroughly explain how
we arrive at our conclusions to those asking us for expert opinion. This explanation
should include an explicit accounting of our personal value judgments, such
as how much of a carbon tax we think is 'appropriate' given some estimation
of climate damages from carbon emissions. I do not hesitate to give such personal
judgments when asked, as I, too, am a citizen entitled to preferences, but I
always preface any such offerings by saying that my personal judgment is an
opinion about how to take risks — not an expert assessment of the probabilities
and consequences of future events. The latter is an assessment of “what
can happen and what are the odds of it happening,” and the former is a
value judgment regarding what to do about those probabilities and consequences.
Third, it is essential that scientists go into explicit detail on how they arrived
at their risk estimates (with risk being probability times consequence). How
did objective data contribute? How good was the data? What is subjective in
the risk judgment? How did you arrive at the assessment?
In addition, I often try to summarize what my colleagues say
and publish, keeping in mind that scientific articles that have been through
multiple rounds of peer review are far different from op-eds, and which are
far different from individuals' congressional testimonials. Perhaps most important,
if I can put my “uncertainties cop” hat back on, I encourage scientists
to explicitly state what confidence levels they assign to their risk assessments
and the degree of subjectivity needed to make that confidence label.
It is also important, as noted, to acknowledge all sides of an
issue, and especially to refute any contrarian opinions that are fictional or
based on shaky assumptions or evidence. This is especially difficult in countries
like the United States, where the current Bush Administration has decided against
signing the Kyoto Protocol, supporting voluntary rather than mandatory emissions
reduction measures that Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate System Research
Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has called "ludicrous"
(see an Associated
Press article by Scott Sonner), weakened environmental laws, censored
environmental research, denied scientifically-based climate change claims, and
even gone so far as to "soften" its climate change vocabulary to make the issue
appear less salient, as mentioned in a New
York Times article and also at Luntzspeak.com.
Also see Contrarian
Science in the Climate Science section. Because of this situation,
some scientists are attempting to show that the Bush Administration has misused
climate science in its formulation of environmental policy, as evidenced by
web sites like scienceinpolicy.org,
which was created by a group of graduate students, post-docs, faculty members,
and other scientists to separate what they see as fact from fiction in the U.S.
climate policy debate. The Union
of Concerned Scientists, too, has been an excellent communicator and
has documented a long list of examples of the current Bush Administration's
"misuse of science", as they call it (see a UCS
press release). In February, they released a statement signed by 60
leading scientists urging the government to "restore scientific integrity
to federal policymaking". In conjunction with the statement, they released
a report, Scientific
Integrity in Policymaking, that outlines their evidence for the Bush
administration's distortions of science and makes suggestions for restoring
scientific integrity to the U.S. policymaking process. (In early April 2004,
John Marburger III, the director of the White House's Office of Science and
Technology Policy (OSTP), gave a statement
to Congress claiming to have refuted the accusations, saying that on
the issue of climate change, the White House has actually promoted public
understanding of the issue and did not tamper with a 2003 EPA report on the
environment (though further evidence to the contrary is presented in Contrarian
Science), among other things. The UCS has persisted, however, releasing
a short "Analysis
of White House Claims", which points out that the "White
House document often offers irrelevant information and fails to address the
central point of many charges of the UCS report.")
Finally, when communicating with laypersons, I try to use accessible
language and metaphors. Scientific jargon is effective for communicating with
colleagues, but is often misunderstood in the public arena and increases the
probability that a scientist will be "boxed in," misquoted, or ignored altogether.
For me, metaphors that convey both urgency and uncertainty are best —
particularly for controversial cases like climate change. For example, I often
say climate is like a die: it has some hot faces, some wet faces, some dry faces,
etc. I think our (in)action on global warming is loading the climatic die for
more heat and intense drought and flood faces. Similarly, I might ask an audience:
“If you put a pan full of water in the sun and another in the shade, which
will evaporate first?” Since everybody knows the answer, such a metaphor
for intensifying the hydrological cycle that will occur with global warming
adds to clear communication (even though in the global warming case it is infrared
energy that is getting trapped near the surface, not more sunlight -- in fact,
sunlight reaching the Earth's surface appears to have decreased recently due
to air pollution hazes, as discussed in Liepert,
and Farquhar, 2002; "Is
'global dimming' under way?"; and "Look
forward to a darker world"). The water pans metaphor is
somewhat imprecise in its characterization of the effects of global warming
on the hydrological cycle, but for me, it drives the point home well enough,
and I can live with that metaphor for mass consumption and supplement that with
longer articles and books for those who really want to know more about the real
This is a case of deciding "what the right balance is between
being effective and being honest," as I told Discover
magazine (see the “double
ethical bind”, above, and a Detroit
News editorial and my rebuttal). And as I also told Discover,
I honestly hope that scientists strive to "do both". I hope my suggestions
above for doing both will be debated and refined as more scientists decide to
do just that as they enter the public debate.
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and the Citizen-Scientist
hope that citizens will take responsibility for increasing their scientific,
political, and environmental literacy and recognize the importance of the
positive effect that an informed public will have on the policy process."
While we have emphasized that scientist-advocates have an important
role to play in informing the public, it is also important to evaluate the role
of the citizen in evaluating complex issues of climate change. Is there such
a thing as a "citizen-scientist," or is that yet another oxymoron? (Read more
The Citizen-Scientist an Oxymoron?”) In my view, the citizen-scientist
is a critical complement and counterbalance to the scientist-advocate. The Table
below lists some of my views of the responsibilities of a citizen-scientist.
Role of Citizen-Scientists (source: Schneider 2003,
- Citizens should demand that scientists answer the "three questions of environmental
literacy": What can happen? What are the odds of it happening? And how are
such estimates made?
- Citizens must be informed enough that they feel comfortable making value
judgments — that is, choosing policies — based on scientists'
assessed risks and benefits.
- Citizens must determine what constitutes fair burden-sharing related to
paying for the implementation of policies that manage risks.
- Citizens need to assure that the assessment process is open — that
is, that all relevant stakeholders are heard. However, citizens should not
be responsible for estimating the credibility of scientific arguments, given
their lack of training in complex analysis and frequent bias for clients'
interests. Citizens should be responsible, though, for finding out what the
scientific consensus is about important claims; correlatively, scientists
should be responsible for making clear what that scientific consensus is.
- Citizens need to be sure that scientific assessment is being performed
on issues that the public believes need such assessment.
- Citizens should avoid being hypocritical by blaming others for climate damages
while not themselves engaging in climate-friendly practices at the individual
level. (For examples of some household "solutions," see Heede
Sadly, a recent study by Brechin
(2003) (also see accompanying press
release) has shown that, despite having better resources for dealing
with climate change, developed nations, and especially the U.S., are as uninformed
or misinformed as people everywhere. The long-term solution to ensuring that
citizen-scientists are informed involves the creation of entities like the National
Research Council and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These quasi-official
bodies evaluate complex issues with a high degree of transparency, consider
the input of numerous governments and stakeholders, and assess the relative
credibility of conflicting claims. It is the hope of these organizations that
the citizens consuming these assessments are scientifically literate, which
means they should understand the scientific process, the policy options, and
the role of media and advocacy. Achieving this competence involves education
on both content and process, with the aim of attaining political, scientific,
and environmental literacy. (See “Defining
and Teaching Environmental Literacy”, “Education
and Global Environmental Change”.)
Scientific literacy is not just knowledge of chemistry or ecology
or economics, and in fact, it isn’t practical or necessary to teach detailed
scientific content of a dozen or more relevant disciplines to all citizens.
What citizens need to understand is the difference between a factual statement
and a value judgment, the difference between objective and subjective probabilities,
the difference between a paradigm and a validated theory, the difference between
a law and a system, and the difference between a phenomenological model and
a regression model (by that I mean the difference between a process-based theory
and an association between data sets).
Perhaps the last distinction is the most important. Many people
think that a correlation between two variables is synonymous with causation
or predictive power, but it isn't. A correlation unaccompanied by a theory is
not very convincing; even if a certain association occurs consecutively a few
times, that doesn’t mean it will always do so. Coincidence and special
circumstances need to be assessed, which is why using theory is part of the
process of assessing confidence.
Becoming a successful citizen-scientist (as defined in the Role
of Citizen-Scientists) is challenging and requires a serious
commitment on the part of both the individual citizen and the government. Just
as popularization of potential probabilities and consequences will occur with
or without input from scientists, policy decisions will be made with or without
input from an informed citizenry. And just as I hope that scientists will join
in the popularization process (see the 'scientist-popularizer',
above), I hope that citizens will take responsibility for increasing their scientific,
political, and environmental literacy and recognize the importance of the positive
effect that an informed public will have on the policy process. In addition,
the citizen-scientist must continuously repeat the evaluation process, as complex
and uncertain problems like climate change require another look as new knowledge
and understanding comes to the fore (see
Environmental literacy, which involves understanding the social
process of knowledge transfer (e.g., media) and the political process through
which decisions are made, is also an important tool for the citizen-scientist.
This includes the ability to sort out the credibility of claims and counterclaims
by “one fax, one vote” advocates who saturate the media and political
institutions with their usual exaggerated claims — and that’s where
the meta-institutions like the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change and the National
Research Council come in.
Sadly, environmental literacy is almost nonexistent in formal
education. Similarly, scientific literacy is rarely taught in schools, even
though that is the purported goal of science distribution requirements. I would
like to see elementary schools teach these concepts, like how to separate facts
from values, the difference between objective and subjective probability, efficiency
versus equity considerations, and conservation of nature versus economic development
tradeoffs. It could be done through teaching by examples and via dialogues with
students. (See the World Monitor article: “A
Better Way to Learn”.) I think that scientific and environmental
literacy can empower citizens to begin to pick scientific signals out of the
political noise that all too often paralyzes the policy process.
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Bringing it Together -
Rolling Reassessment and the Interactions of Scientist-Advocates and Citizen-Scientists
What happens when our current understanding of a complex issue
turns out to be incorrect, when we have either under- or overstated a potentially
dangerous outcome or not pinpointed the correct outcome at all? To address this,
I recommend employing "rolling reassessment." We should initiate flexible management
schemes to deal with long-term issues that have potentially irreversible consequences,
and also revisit each issue, say, every five years. The key word here is flexible.
Knowledge is not static — there are always new outcomes to discover and
old ones to rule out. New knowledge allows us to reevaluate theories and policy
decisions and make adjustments to policies that are too stringent, too lax,
or targeting the wrong cause or effect. Both scientist-advocates and citizen-scientists
must see to it that once we’ve set up political establishments to carry
out policy that people do not become so vested in a certain process or outcome
that they are reluctant to make adjustments, either to the policies or the institutions.
Continuously updating our knowledge base is what society asks
us scientists to do, but some scientists don’t like subjective assessment,
for using it means we could be proven wrong at any moment (what economists have
long called “the type I error”). However, the "answer" shouldn't
be as important to a scientist as whether or not he or she gave his or her best
judgment given everything that was known at the time. Science doesn’t
assign credibility to people who arrive at the right answer using the wrong
reasons or hypotheses; the process is more important than the product. Science
wants to know why we reach certain tentative conclusions. So should citizen-scientists.
I'll bet those who get the process right more often also get the answer right
While scientists are more adverse to type I errors, from a citizen's
point of view, the more important problem is what is called the “type
II error.” This can occur if, because of inherent uncertainty, we wait
for more data, and we ignore a subjective forecast which turns out to be true.
Oftentimes, both society and nature suffer the consequences of a type 2 error.
(See notes on Type
I and Type II Errors.)
and the Journalist-Scientist-Citizen Triangle
do indeed need to replace the knee-jerk model of 'journalistic balance'
with a more accurate and fairer doctrine of perspective..."
Citizens' and scientists' unwillingness or inability to enter
into the climate change debate has proven to be a mutually reinforcing and devastiating
behavior that contributes to false-dichotomy reporting and "in the box" or "balanced"
journalism: polarizing an issue (despite it being multifaceted) and making each
"side" equally plausible, mainly for the sake of simplicity but sometimes also
to "sex up" a story by introducing bipolar conflict. (See a letter
to the Wall Street Journal by Seitz and the Wall Street Journal op-ed,
Deception on Global Warming";. then, read "No
Deception in Global Warming Report" and “Self
Governance and Peer Review in Science-for-Policy”.) To redress
the problem, all three groups must raise their consciousness. Journalists do
indeed need to replace the knee-jerk model of "journalistic balance" with a
more accurate and fairer doctrine of perspective that communicates not only
the range of opinion, but also the relative credibility of each opinion within
the scientific community. Just as a good scientist records and analyzes all
relevant data before reaching conclusions, a good reporter will not just take
a story at face value, but will delve deep into the issue to ensure accuracy
and see how many varying opinions there truly are. Fortunately, most sophisticated
science and environment reporters abandoned the process of polarization of two
"sides", but this model of reporting still exists, especially in the political
arena. When political reporters cover science, they typically revert to form:
equally credible polar opposites. Scientists can help remedy this by taking
a more proactive responsibility for the public debate. They should help journalists
by agreeing to participate in the public climate change debate, and by using
clear metaphors once they do so.
| ... [scientists] should deliberately
outline the consensus before revealing the contention.
If we scientists fail to address the public arena, claiming it
is “dumbed down” and beneath our lofty "objectivity," we will only
add to the miscommunication. We should go out of our way to write review papers
from time to time and to present talks that stress well-established principles
at the outset of our meetings before we turn to more speculative, cutting-edge
science; we should deliberately outline the consensus
before revealing the contention.
Citizens should make sure that the public debates take into account all knowledge
available on climate change, including the relative probabilities of various
It would be worthwhile for scientists, citizens, and reporters
to better understand each other's paradigms. We could improve public dissemination
of scientific knowledge if we required our science graduate students to take
a survey course of the public communication process, including the process of
political advocacy and science policy formulation. Similarly, journalism schools
could show the consequences of misapplying "balanced" reporting techniques to
complex issues in which not all opinions deserve — or should receive —
equal billing in a story. A perspectives approach that elaborates on the relative
credibility of many views on complex issues — not just the extreme opposites
— is what is needed to properly inform the public (see an American
Scientist Macroscope). Literate citizens must take responsibility for
educating themselves about all sides of the climate change debate so that they
can see past biased media opinions or bipolar "dueling scientists".
We live in complex and confusing times, and rationality (that
is, knowing enough about what might happen and how likely it is, and being willing
to change our current beliefs given challenging new evidence) is the only way
to clearly define our values when it is time to make policy — and that
is the job of all citizens, including
journalists and scientists.
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For further information, see:
-- A Consensus Emerges Around Global Warming
COP-4 Special Events page, 11-98
Testimony: Climate Change Causes, Impacts and Uncertainties"
Congressional Record, 10 July, 1997:D726-D729.
on the Case for Climate Change Action - Testimony of Dr. Stephen Schneider.
1 October 2003. Steve Schneider discusses climate change, its projected effects,
the potential for "surprises" and other "dangerous" climate change, and the
policy implications of all this in a testimony to the Senate Committe on Commerce,
Science, and Transportation.
- The Edge
Chapter 7 of Global Warming
- Stephen Schneider, Presentation
on Climate Change, NSW State Parliament House, Australia, July 7, 2003
Seminar (Real Player) [Created by Carlos
Interview (Real Player) [Created by Carlos
The Global Warming Controversy -- Can we separate scientific signal from political
noise? Stanford University Computer Systems Laboratory, EE380 Colloquium,
video (requires ASX player)
Future and Natural Disasters, broadcast on EarthBeat, the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation, Tuesday, 11/19/2002 listen
to Real Audio.
and Environmental Reporting, interview on The Environment Show,
Greg Dahlmann, WAMC, March 8, 2002
- SHS: Xerox
PARC Forum presentation, 9/19/02.
- Dr. Terry Root was interviewed by Ira Flatow on Science Friday about
of global warming on species (RealPlayer -- Dr. Root's segment begins
at 14:45 minutes into the show, so when connected advance the RP slider to
that point), Science Friday, Talk of the Nation, NPR, Jan. 10, 2003.
- Politics and Cost/Benefit. July 19, 1977. Steve Schneider interviewed
by Johnny Carson (Real Player: Modem;
and Teaching Environmental Literacy”.
1 November 1997. Commentary by Steve Schneider defining environmental literacy
in TREE (vol. 12, no. 1, p. 457).
Organizational Models for Interdisciplinary Research and Training of Global
Environmental Change". 1995. Chapter
by S. Schneider on the need for interdisciplinary environmental organizations
within academic institutions in Waddington, D.J. (ed.), Global
Environmental Change Science: Education and Teaching (Berlin: Springer),
Environmental Literacy, a seminar session on climate change (Real
Player) [Created by Carlos
interviewed by students about environmental politics (Real Player)
[Created by Carlos
- Journalism and Environmental Reporting, interview on The Environment
Show, Greg Dahlmann, WAMC, March 8, 2002
ponders whether scientists should advocate public policy. Is
the 'scientific advocate' an oxymoron?
- Edwards, P.N. and Schneider, S.H., 2001: Self-Governance
and Peer Review in Science-for-Policy: The Case of the IPCC Second Assessment
Report in Miller, C., and Edwards, P. (eds.), Changing the
Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Global Environmental Governance, Cambridge:
MIT Press, 219-246.
is 'Dangerous' Climate Change?
- Schneider, S.H., 2001a: Earth
Systems: Engineering and Management, Nature, 409, 417-421.
and Communicating Scientific Uncertainty
- The Earth
as Lab (STS 160)
are Everything, NGP, Issue 1, Spring, 1992
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