APS News

August/September 1996 (Volume 5, Number 8)

Don't Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial

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

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

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

The Simon APS News article offers to bet environmentalists "...that any trend in material human welfare will improve rather than get worse." This article echoes an editorial essay entitled "Earth's Doomsayers Are Wrong" that appeared in the 12 May 1995 San Francisco Chronicle open forum. Simon then said that "Every measure of material and environmental welfare in the U.S. and the world has improved..." and that "All long run trends point in exactly the opposite direction of the doomsayers" Thus he implied that few, if any people would likely accept his bet since for the past 25 years the pessimists have been "proven entirely wrong." When my Stanford colleague, Paul Ehrlich, and I took up his challenge1 and named 15 environment-related trends we were willing to bet would deteriorate, Simon refused claiming to the Chronicle (18 May 1995) that "I do not offer to bet on the progress of particular physical conditions such as the ozone layer" (as if its decline were not a negative measure of environmental welfare!).

In November, 1995, I debated Simon on Lateline, the Australian TV equivalent of the US Nightline program, on the issue of the Chronicle bet. In a segment they did not air, Simon charged that I advocate exaggerating science to enhance the appearance of environmental threats. To bolster this charge he resurrected an oft-quoted, but usually out of context partial quote, from a Discover Magazine interview2 in 1989 in which I decried soundbite science and journalism by pointing out that nobody gets enough time in the media either to cover all the caveats in depth, (i.e., "being honest") or to present all the plausible threats (i.e., "being effective"). During the TV debate, months before Simon's APS News article appeared, I pointed out that he was taking only part of the full quote and that part was seriously out of context - this is the same source he "quoted" in APS News. The full quote follows, where I have italicized what portions of it Simon quoted and bracketed what I did not say but he attributed to me in the APS News article:

"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but - which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need [Scientists should consider stretching the truth] to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."2

Vested interests have repeatedly claimed I advocate exaggerating threats. Their "evidence" comes from partially quoting my Discover interview, almost always -like Simon - omitting the last line and the phrase "double ethical bind." They also omit my solutions to the double ethical bind: (1) use metaphors that succinctly convey both urgency and uncertainty (pg. xi of Ref. 3) and (2) produce an inventory of written products from editorials to articles to books, so that those who want to know more about an author's views on both the caveats and the risks have a hierarchy of detailed written sources to which they can turn.3,4,5 What I was telling the Discover interviewer, of course, was my disdain for a soundbite-communications process that imposes the double ethical bind on all who venture into the popular media. To twist my openly stated and serious objections to the soundbite process into some kind of advocacy of exaggeration is a clear distortion. Moreover, not only do I disapprove of the "ends justify the means" philosophy of which I am accused, but, in fact have actively campaigned against it in myriad speeches and writings. Instead, I repeatedly advocate that scientists explicitly warn their audiences that "what to do" is a value choice as opposed to "what can happen" and "what are the odds," which are scientific issues (e.g. p. 213 of Ref. 3). I also urge that scientists, when they offer probabilities, work hard to distinguish which are objective and which are subjective, as well as what is the scientific basis for any probability offered. For such reasons I was honored to receive, in 1991, the AAAS/Westinghouse Award for the Public Understanding of Science.

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


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

APS encourages the redistribution of the materials included in this newspaper provided that attribution to the source is noted and the materials are not truncated or changed.

Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

August/September 1996 (Volume 5, Number 8)

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Articles in this Issue
Patel Recipient of Nation's Highest Science Honor
APS Names Michels as 1996-1997 Congressional Fellow
Weinberg is New PRD Editor
B-E Condensates, Quantum Computing Highlight 1996 DAMOP Meeting
EarthLink Internet Access Provider
Inside the Beltway
APS Awards 1996-1997 Scholarships to Minority Undergrads
Students Find Summer Internships Through ISIP
In Brief
APS Views
Don't Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial
Straight Talk
Is U.S. Physics Truly International?
The Back Page