Revisiting an Old Steve Schneider Quote

August 29th, 2006

Posted by: admin

All of this discussion of ends-means reminds me of an inscrutable quote from Stanford’s Steve Schneider:

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.

Schell, J. 1989. Our fragile earth, Discover 10:44-50.

For some people this quote has been interpreted as providing a green light for making bad policy arguments (in Schneider’s terms not being “honest”) in support of desired political ends (in Schneider’s language being “effective”). Others have pointed to the last sentence and emphasized Schneider’s personal hope for honesty and effectiveness to coexist. In my view the quote is underdetermined, and thus it makes little sense to try to adjudicate these differnt perspectvies.

For my part the action is in fact in the second-to-last sentence — “Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” By acknowledging a balance between effectiveness and honesty, Schneider clearly recognized that his hope for honesty and effectiveness to happily coexist would in reality not always be the case, and trade-offs would have to be made. This is the nature of Schneider’s “double ethical bind” – how to balance means or ends when both cannot be championed at once? Schneider says that resolving this bind is a personal decision for each scientist.

In large part, my recent posts on ends-means address this exact same “double ethical bind” between ends and means. It is my perception that in contemporary science policy — including but not limited to climate policy — many scientist have decided to resolve the double ethical bind in favor of championing ends over means. Given that science deals with means and not ends, if my perception bears anything close to an accurate assessment of the current state of science in politics, then it would seem of concern to the sustainability of the scientific enterprise. The thoughtful and respectful exchanges with a few leading scientists in the comments of relevant posts here have not changed my perceptions.

24 Responses to “Revisiting an Old Steve Schneider Quote”

  1. Tas Says:

    I think you do a disservice to Schneider’s attempt to acknowledge the ambiguity inherent in drawing conclusions from complex, uncertain scientific questions.

    You draw a rather black and white line when you say science is about means and not ends. By this, I assume you mean science is about conveying the “truth” (the means) and policy is about deciding on actions (the ends). This simple construct overlooks the fact that scientists are i) humans with their own interpretive and policy-oriented views, rather than complex robots that spit out raw results, and ii) the community including the policy community frequently criticize scientists for not making the relevance of their findings clear (i.e. interpreting the results in terms of potential actions and consequences).

    I think we are far better to be realistic and acknowledge that complex science is interpreted science and thus contains some element of the individual. We have safeguards in this – we rely on the individual’s track record, peer-review, and a scientific body of opinion to synthesize these things. For the most part, I think this serves us well.

    Perhaps this process or prescription is “underdetermined” but, I think it gets us the best that we all have to offer as human beings. In the end, to try to be honest and effective are not bad goals, and these need not be seen as inconsistent.

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  3. Nosmo Says:

    I happen to completely agree with you about the need for honest clear arguments. However I very often find how you frame your arguments annoying. I’ll repost my comments from last night here to help illustrate why

    Steven Schneider wrote the above quote some time in the late 80’s. It is in his book. It also followed a long discussion about how it was impossible to explain any of the complexity of global warming in a television interview. Any statement that could was short enough to be quoted is inherently an oversimplification and inaccurate (i.e. wrong). So the point wasn’t that it is OK to lie, but rather that saying anything at all to the media is a lie. I would doubt he currently believes this is true, but at the time the level of understanding of climate change was so minimal that any statement would be an inaccurate. He has also subsequently provided more context and clarification which are important. He stupidly overstated his case to make a point about media.

    Nothing I’ve said excuses Schneider quote but it does provide some context.

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  5. Nosmo Says:

    I started to repost my comments from last night to explain why I find Roger annoying and then got diverted by the Schneider quote.

    So Here is the First:

    Notice the rhetoric employed in the Pop Quiz, the post that started this discussion. It implies a moral equivalence between the anwers. The vice president deliberately and repeatedly lied to lead this nation into an aggressive war, and has yet to admit that there was no link between Iraq and Al Queda.
    Colby on the other hand had no part in propagating the misunderstanding about the link between Katrina and Global warming, has never misrepresented the link and does correct it when the opportunity arises.
    It is bad reasoning to imply that there is a moral equivalence between these two. Even if it in support of a good point!

    And the second Post:

    I also wonder how many readers interpreted the phrase “a commentator at Real Climate”, as someone affiliated with the web site. Colby I believe works in the field of artificial intelligence not Climate. I’m sure this was inadvertent, but I wonder how Roger would have felt if someone had referred to some of Dano’s or Eli Rabbit’s posts as written by “a commentator at Prometheus.”

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  7. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks much for your comments.

    I do in fact reject the fact-value dichotomy as a description of science. But your views on this shifted from a description of science to the scientist. Scientists of course have values which shape their choice of topics, interpretation of data, and evaluation of results.

    At the same time it is important to recognize that a commitment to a paticular course of action over other alternatives necessarily involves more than science alone. I also firmly believe that scientific research results alone do not compel one particular action over another. A desire for a particular outcome involves values not science.

    Values do matter.

    Being honest and being effective are both admirable goals, but like many goals that we hold, they cannot always be achieved at the same time. The difficult questions in life arise when we have conflicts among our many values. How then do we decide among them?


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  9. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    Thanks for your comment. But I’d encourage you to reread my post. I did not characterize Schneider as saying it was OK to lie, quite the contrary. Here is what I said:

    “For some people this quote has been interpreted as providing a green light for making bad policy arguments (in Schneider’s terms not being “honest”) in support of desired political ends (in Schneider’s language being “effective”). Others have pointed to the last sentence and emphasized Schneider’s personal hope for honesty and effectiveness to coexist. In my view the quote is underdetermined, and thus it makes little sense to try to adjudicate these differnt perspectvies.”


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  11. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:


    On your two annoyances:

    1. (Note it is Coby who has been visiting not Colby). We’ve documented in the past few week’s how the issue of hurricane impacts is used in mainstream policy debate to advocate for GHG emission reductions. I am all for GHG reductions, and I am also all for improving hurricane policy. but they are not the same thing and shouldn’t be presented as such. Coby’s views expressd on RC (and then amplified by a number of commentators here) nicely encapsulated what I take to be behind some of the thinking of such arguments. Once again, it is not about Coby, who I have never met but I am appreciative of his engagement here.

    2. I am happy for thoughtful commentators to participate here no matter what their views, so long as they observe standards of common decency (which has not been an issue of late). Criticism of my views has not seemed to be a problem here;-) So no I wouldn’t mind if Nosmo or Coby or anyone is identified as a commentator at Prometheus ….

    And do I see a moral equivalency between the role of experts/politicians on Iraq and global warming? Well. that was the point of the original post;-) One of the chapters in my forthcoming book is about the role of intelligence in the decision making leading to the Iraq War. So if that is annoying, I’m afraid that there is more to come!

    Thanks again for the feedback.

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  13. Chris Weaver Says:

    Hi Roger – I made the comment below on yesterday’s post and it sank without a trace. Despite this peer review, I’m going to re-post, because I think it’s perhaps even more relevant to today’s post. Following my reasoning below, I think Steve Schneider (and Jim Hansen, and all of us, probably …) draw the lines between private citizen, scientist, and scientific advisor differently in different cases/different topics, and how they do so reflects what political resonance a particular topic has for them.


    Hey all,

    The only thing I want to add here is to point out that a subtext to some of this discussion is how an individual balances the roles of scientist, private citizen, and scientific advisor.

    As a “pure” scientist, I’m probably not engaging with the larger public at all, and all I’m worried about is the quality of the science and the scientific honesty of myself and my colleagues. As a “political” private citizen, I think I can be grateful if a “good” policy (given my political leanings) emerges in spite of flawed reasoning/understanding/bad-faith arguments, while at the same time, depending on how thoughtful I am, deploring any damage that this flawed reasoning/understanding/bad-faith arguments might have caused to the quality of public discourse, the public perception of scientists, etc. By contrast, as a so-called “scientific advisor” (meaning, perhaps, someone that is either directly informing policy makers or the general public), it seems that my entire job is to make sure that I steer those that I am informing away from flawed reasoning or misunderstandings and to the “truth” as the scientific community currently sees it.

    Some might argue that “scientist” and “scientific advisor” should really be one category, but I disagree, because they each embody a different primary focus.

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  15. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Thanks Chris-

    It is hard to keep up! ;-)

    I think that your distinctions on the roles of scientists are quite important. The focus here of course is on the notion of “scientific advisor” which I take to include any effort to communicate science or the significance of science.

    As far as being a science advisor the scientist can further serve as an advocate, seeking to reducing the scope of choice available to decision makers, or what I’ve called an “honest broker of policy alternatives” who seeks to clarify if not expand the scope of choice.

    I agree that scientists come to these roles with different perspectives, but my sense is that many, many scientists have decided to engage science as advocates, and not honest brokers of policy alternatives.


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  17. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Nosmo -

    Since you again quoted Coby’s “modification” of his position, I will again remind you of his original quote on Realclimate:
    “I guess this is just people holding the correct opinion for the wrong reasons and let’s accept it with gratitude.”

    Accepting with gratitude is different from attempting to correct. Would you not agree?

    As to Schneider, the story I’ve heard several times was that he added the last sentence about hopefully being both at some later time as a “correction” but it was not in his original quote. Does anyone have the actual transcript?

    At any rate, Schneider certainly does differentiate between being honest and getting his point across – assuming of course “being effective” means the same as “getting his point across”. I think this fits well into the discussion of ends and means. This discussion shows how mired in deception some alarmists are.

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  19. Nosmo Says:

    I think we agree about Schneider, as I said, I do not excuse him for making the statement. However the quote has been abused so often that I felt that more context should be provided.

    As for the equivalence for Coby’s quote and Chaney’s justification of the Iraq war: using lies to promote a war is no way analogous to not lying and correcting the lie when the opportunity arises. It is simply wrong—it is a bad argument for a good cause! I would suggest that you re-read my post (and perhaps Coby’s and yours ;) ).

    If you would have used one of Ross Gelbspan’s statements about Katrina and Global warming rather then Coby’s, you would have a valid point (although I think invoking Iraq, is starting to become similar to invoking Hitler;) ).

    RE: “Commentator at Real Climate”. I would never attribute some of what I’ve read in the comments here about economic growth at the end of this century or advocacy of technology to dissipate hurricanes as written by a “commentator at Prometheus”, simply because I think it is too subject to misinterpretation. You may be fine with it, but I still would not do it.

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  21. Nosmo Says:

    I did not quote Coby’s modification, I quoted his orignal post at real climate, the part Roger left out. I would agree that “Accepting with gratitude is different from attempting to correct.” but both statements were made at the same time in the original post.

    I think Roger has a very valid point. I just think he should choose a quote that supports his position rather then distorting one that doesn’t. Schnieder’s quote comes much closer then Coby’s, but I still think he can do better. As I said above he could quote Ross Gelbspan (e.g. “the name of this Hurricane [Katrina] is Global Warming”).

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  23. Chris Weaver Says:

    Hi Roger, thanks. One issue that I’ve had with your ensemble of archetypes is that the “honest broker of policy options,” even in your ideal world, is likely only a subset of what I call “scientific advisor” (and I agree with your definition of “scientific advisor” as someone who makes an “effort to communicate science or the significance of science”). What is the proper role, if any, of the “science communicator” subset of the “scientific advisor” category, i.e., someone who talks to the general public either directly or via the press, without making any effort to go the next step beyond and present a menu of policy options? Since the social scientists have shown us the debunking of the PUS paradigm, what good does it do for the scientist to engage the public?

    My theory, refined recently while listening to many of the discussions at the Gordon Conference, is that its primary benefit is to the scientist and the scientific community, not the public – i.e., public engagement as a transformational experience for the scientist that has all kinds of reverberations back into the priorities and conduct of the scientific enterprise. I have no evidence for this other than tangential, anecdotal stuff, but …

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  25. Roger Pielke, Jr. Says:

    Chris- In my book I actually describe four different modes of science advice. I argue that what you describe as the “science communicator” opens the door to “stealth policy advocacy” when he/she does not discuss the implications for policy of the work that they are trying to communicate.

    Why communicate it if it does not matter for some purpose? Of course that purpose might simply be “this is cool, and should be funded” but a purpose nonetheless.


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  27. Mark Bahner Says:

    Nosmo writes, “RE: ‘Commentator at Real Climate’. I would never attribute some of what I’ve read in the comments here about economic growth at the end of this century or advocacy of technology to dissipate hurricanes as written by a “commentator at Prometheus”, simply because I think it is too subject to misinterpretation. You may be fine with it, but I still would not do it.”

    Heh, heh, heh! Roger *should be* fine with it:

    1) When the world per-capita GDP starts routinely increasing at rates of 4-6 percent per year, as it should do as early as the 2020s, or

    2) When a hurricane reduction system nears deployment, as it should do as early as 2030…

    …perhaps someone will remember, “Didn’t Roger Pielke talk about this on his blog? Or was it a commentator?”

    Mark (“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulder of giants.”)

    P.S. Item #2 does *not* cover water tube storm surge protection systems. I would be very surprised if a water tube storm surge protection system isn’t deployed within a decade, at least on a limited basis. As a matter of fact, I’m working on them now. (Though presently only in my spare time.)

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  29. Chris Weaver Says:

    Hi Roger,

    Yes, I remember from your various talks, and I agree about the stealth policy advocacy trap. I suppose in the end what I’m arguing is that there is at least one very important reason to keep doing “science communication.” That reason, however, has little to do with directly benefiting the public or informing policy debates, but instead relates to the benefits the scientist and the scientific community get by reconnecting with society.

    Public communication of science is good for the scientist’s soul!

    Like all panaceas, besides curing cancer, increasing attractiveness, and leading to unimaginable wealth, I submit as a hypothesis that public communication of science positively impacts research through increased creativity and an increased sense of relevance to society at large.

    Now, if only I had one of those social sciences grad students to aim at this hypothesis …

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  31. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Nosmo -

    I understand Coby said that too. However, his intent may be illustrated by a third statement in that post, which is consistent with his gratitude statement:

    “It is a dangerous thing to purposely use such things in a misleading way, though, as the next cold snap makes you look like a liar!”

    indicating he is more concerned with *looking like* a liar than actually being one!

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  33. coby Says:


    I don’t usually consider it to be a lie when your typical journalist says that GW caused this summer’s heat wave or Katrina. I consider it to be an unwarranted and mis-leading over-simplification, usually unintentional. Such distinctions are much too subtle for the talking heads that influence public opinion, so when the next cold snap comes they will claim “aha! This proves that GW is not here and so-and-so is a liar.” Which is another unwarranted and misleading over-simplification.

    This is also probably too subtle a distinction for you, so have fun quoting only the first sentence of what I just wrote. For better effect, remove the “usually” and the “when your typical journalist says” qualifications.

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  35. Pops Says:

    I apologize for intruding here, but let me share the perspective of an outsider. (PS I enjoy the discussion — this is a regular read for me.)

    I’m not a climate scientist, or a scientist of any kind. I’m an engineer, and so I think I probably understand the issues of science, climate change, computer models, greenhouse effect, and so forth better than the average lay person.

    Let me say that statements such as Schneider’s really bother me — first of all, it’s a license for jumping to conclusions without any quantification of the threshold beyond which the jumping occurs. All the conclusion-jumping basically turns into noise.

    Most importantly, it provides a clean mechanism for corrupting scientific claims with other agendas, some hidden and others not. In the case of AGW, there are a number of plausible alternatives to the theory of human causation. So what am I supposed to infer when a scientist provides the obligatory “humans are causing global warming” sound bite? Is that his best scientific guess, or the most convenient one? Has he considered alternatives, and if so, how do they rank? Is he biasing his statements due to politics or funding issues? How much exaggeration has he employed in order to be more effective at whatever his position is? How can the person on the street make any sense of it all?

    I’m personally reduced to examining all the evidence I can find and drawing my own conclusions. I’ll have to say I’m pretty skeptical of AGW, particularly when the likes of histrionic Al Gore get on the bandwagon. And I’m certainly not willing to support drastic measures when the best answer I can get is, “There’s a consensus — the debate is over.” Am I being unreasonable?

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  37. Mark Bahner Says:

    “I’ll have to say I’m pretty skeptical of AGW, particularly when the likes of histrionic Al Gore get on the bandwagon.”

    You should of course be skeptical of everything. However, “anthropogenic global warming” (AGW) is not a particularly bold claim:

    1) The evidence is overwhelming (through direct and indirect measurements) that the earth has warmed from the late 1800s to the present.

    2) The evidence is also overwhelming that human emissions of CO2 have caused the atmospheric CO2 concentrations to rise since the 1880s.

    3) It is not particularly controversial that CO2 can cause *some* temperature rise. So it’s not particularly controversial to claim that *some* of the temperature rise since the late 1800s probably is due to increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

    However, what *is* a bold claim (and blatant pseudoscientific nonsense) is to claim:

    “The globally averaged surface temperature is projected to increase by 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius over the period 1990 to 2100.”

    Especially when those “projections” are based on “scenarios” about which ***the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself*** says:

    “Scenarios are images of the future or alternative futures. They are neither predictions nor forecasts.”

    An absolutely fundamental requirement of science is that projections of future events must be falsifiable:

    The IPCC “projections” are not falsifiable (since they specifically state that they are not forecasts or predictions of the future. Therefore, they are pseudoscientific rubbish.

    The fact that the IPCC and the “climate change community” has not told the public that simple fact for more than 5 years means they are fundamentally dishonest. You should keep one hand on your wallet at all times.

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  39. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Coby -

    I understand completely that you do not consider it a lie. You consider it “people holding the correct opinion for the wrong reasons” and you “accept it with gratitude.”

    Of course, as Mark said what you believe is “correct” is rubbish.

    It all fits quite nicely – erhh sickeningly – together. It’s actually quite tragic so many people are under the impression that it’s “correct.”

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  41. Mark Bahner Says:

    Steve Hemphill tells Coby Beck, “Of course, as Mark said what you believe is ‘correct’ is rubbish.”

    Whoa! I assume I’m the “Mark?”

    If so, I have certainly never said, “what Coby Beck believes is rubbish!” In fact, I don’t even know what Coby Beck believes.

    What I *did* say was rubbish was the IPCC’s “projection” of globally-averaged warming of “1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius from 1990 to 2100.” It’s particularly rubbish since they *also* state, regarding the “scenarios” used to create the “projections”:

    “Scenarios are images of the future or alternative futures. They are neither predictions nor forecasts.”

    It’s rubbish to state a “projection” that is unfalsifiable, and to pass that “projection” off as legitimate science.

    In fact, it’s not merely “rubbish.” It’s dishonest. No legitimate scientist would ever do it. (And the fact that large numbers of scientists have done it, and continue to do it, merely shows how few legitimate scientists there are.)

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  43. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Sorry for the lack of clarity. Coby said that “GW is here and now and a problem”. The IPCC line is belief in that, and is what Mark called rubbish.

    Clarifying that further, GW is here, as climate is not static and either GW or GC is always here. However, it’s not been proven to be a problem, and I’m fairly comfortable in saying that when Coby refers to “GW” he means “AGW” and by his omission apparently does not see a difference.

    Therefore my interpretation is that in which Coby believes here is rubbish. It’s dishonest as well – but maybe not his dishonesty – probably just his gullibility.

    So, I was saying that what Coby believes in, in this case, is that which Mark described as rubbish. Clear? Not succinct certainly…

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  45. Mark Bahner Says:

    Steve Hemphill writes, “Sorry for the lack of clarity. Coby said that ‘GW is here and now and a problem.’ The IPCC line is belief in that, and is what Mark called rubbish.”

    Sorry, Steve, I’m not even go that far to agree with you. (I’m feeling contentious today. ;-) )

    It is only one specific thing that the IPCC has said–although I consider it to be probably the most important thing the IPCC has said–that I’m calling “rubbish.” It’s their projections for methane atmospheric concentrations, CO2 emissions and atmospheric concentrations, and resultant temperature increases that I call rubbish. They are rubbish because they are not falsifiable, and therefore not science. But the IPCC still attempts to pass them off to the public (with great success, since the public doesn’t know much science) as legitimate.

    If Coby says, “GW is here and now and a problem”…we first need to parse through what he’s saying. As you yourself point out, without the “anthropogenic” in front of it, virtually EVERYONE agrees that “global warming” is happening…at least in the sense that the globally averaged temperature in 2006 is warmer than the globally-averaged temperatures of the late 1800s.

    And as far as the “problem”…the questions are, “problem for whom?” and “how large of a problem?”

    If Coby Beck is speaking of the problem for hotels and resturants around Glacier National Park–or polar bears–well, I certainly don’t think that’s “rubbish,” in the sense that it’s definitely NOT a problem. But if he’s talking about a problem of farmers getting reduced yields now and in the future…well, I don’t agree with that. (I think global warming caused by CO2 enrichment will tend to cause increased yields.)

    And what is the magnitude of the problem? If he thinks that AGW will result in “the end of world” (as Pat Neuman has written):

    Well, I think that’s way, way wrong. But if Coby thinks GW is a problem like I think the cracks in the vinyl on my car’s dashboard are a problem, well…ummmm, that’s probably a little *too* trivial. ;-) But not by much. ;-)

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  47. Steve Hemphill Says:

    Polar Bears? Weren’t they there through the entire Holocene interglacial?

    Same with the Inuit – I can see it in my mind … their ancestors saying “You want it *colder*??? You idiots!!!”