Schneider’s Quandary

Remember that Steve Schneider quote that the confusionists are so fond of misrepresenting?

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.

Here’s an interesting rumination on the quandary  from psychologist Tania Lombrozo that puts it into clearer focus:

Consider: two scientists are asked whether there’s any doubt that humans are responsible for climate change. The first says, “It’s a fact humans are causing climate change – there’s no room for doubt.” The second replies, “The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming, but in science there’s always room for doubt.”

The first scientist is probably a more effective spokesperson for the scientific consensus. But the second scientist is providing a more accurate representation of how science works.

This example defines the tension at the boundary between the realms of science and public opinion.

Is the aim of scientific advocacy to compellingly communicate particular scientific ideas, or to instill a way of understanding the natural world? Should scientists defend science or model science?

I think “modeling” science is more likely to work in the long run. Lambrozo’s inclinations are similar:

Overstating confidence in scientific claims may similarly miss a long-term benefit for a short-term advantage: rhetorical oomph comes at the cost of an opportunity to educate people about how science works and why the products of science are our most reliable guides to the natural world.

When your toddler is running toward a hot oven, you may be willing to sacrifice a teaching moment in a desperate effort to keep those little hands intact. When it comes to climate change, we’re in a similar situation. Can we afford anything short of the most compelling calls to action? On the other hand, can we risk perpetuating ignorance about the values of science?

I think this is crucial. But I also think it is possible, iwth enough care, to state strong opinions in strong terms without overstating the case. Alas, one is perceived as overstating the case anyway.


  1. Would it be wrong for a scientist to add their interpretation of the implications of the scientific evidence in terms of policy decision making?

    For example:
    "The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is overwhelming. In science there’s always room for doubt but in my opinion the evidence is clearly strong enough to justify taking urgent action."

    Or would this be perceived as (or in fact just be) advocacy and be similarly counterproductive?

    Incidentally, I've just followed your link to Collide-a-scape - depressing. With Keith there's always room for doubt, but the evidence is becoming overwhelming.

  2. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, October 28, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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