20 dec. 2014

"Global Warming Policy Foundation" tries to write about ethics...

...and it doesn't go very well.

This story starts in 1989 when climatologist Stephen Schneider (who sadly passed away in 2010) was interviewed for the Discover magazine. Schneider was discussing the difficulties and contradictions inherent in communicating complex scientific issues with serious implications within a media favoring soundbite reporting:
"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This 'double ethical bind' we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."
Schneider's statement was almost immediately misrepresented by anti-environmentalist individuals (in Detroit News), and he therefore felt compelled to clarify his position:
"I never have, and still do not believe or say that ends justify the means or that truth should be abandoned for a good cause – and what cause is more compelling than making nuclear war and its horrors more publicly known?
What I mean by the “double ethical bind” was not even represented in the Discover quote, which only provided a partial snapshot of my views. The “bind” that scientists face is that it is impossible to expect a complicated issue to be fully elaborated on in the public and popular media and thus a scientist who tries to explain to non-specialists the nature of controversial science, particularly that with policy implications, has to find a means to communicate effectively and honestly. To me that means using familiar metaphors." 
Unfortunately, that wasn't sufficient to stop the disinformers. Hence in 1996, Schneider wrote in the newsletter of The American Physical Society (page 5):
"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. 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."
Not surprisingly, the misrepresentations continued even after that, and are still going on today. Often, the quote has been mangled, and important parts have been cut away.

Earlier this year, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a British "climate-skeptical" policy think tank1, published an essay on Ethics and Climate Change Policy, by Dr Peter Lee, principal lecturer in ethics and political theory at the University of Portsmouth. Lee used the Discover quote as a central piece in his argument that climate science was corrupted by politics. He introduced the quote with the following lines (p 5):
Equally indisputable is the gradual merging of climate science with political concern. By 1989 the distinction between the objective pursuit of scientific knowledge about global warming and the politics of science-based climate activism had broken down to the extent that Professor Stephen Schneider, an early lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), could write: ...
Note that the Discover quote wasn't about "pursuit of scientific knowledge" but about the difficulties of  communicating science in soundbite media.
Lee went on to write (p 8):
However, Schneider’s words in 1989 have served as an invitation to climate scientists to dilute or violate the ethics of scientific practice while – and this is important to grasp – viewing their actions as ethical because of a desire to make the world a better place. The irony here is that some climate scientists may be undermining their own arguments by adopting such an approach.
As Lee uses the Detroit News article as a source for the quote, he must have read Schneider's clarification: "I never have, and still do not believe or say that ends justify the means or that truth should be abandoned for a good cause ...". Thus, Lee must have known that Schneider didn't hold the position that Lee attributed to him. Yet, he wrote as he did.
So here is the great irony: it seems that Lee, by deliberately and seriously distorting the position of Stephen Schneiderwhen writing his essay on Ethics and Climate Change Policy for the GWPF, himself has acted in a manner which can be considered unethical by people with normal ethical standards. There is "climate skeptics ethics" for you!

1 The GWPF received international media attention earlier this year through the Bengtsson affair.

2For completeness, let's for a moment be generous and try to find an alternative explanation to Lee's actions. Maybe he didn't believe in Schneider's explanations. Maybe he thought that Schneider lied in his responses in Detroit News and the APS newsletter. Shouldn't Lee at least be entitled to his own interpretation? Well, in that case Lee has, by omitting to mention Schneider's clarifications, left out very important evidence against his own interpretation (which by the way he does no effort to support) - something that he condemns Schneider for allegedly advocating.  In that way, Lee's essay effectively becomes self-refuting.

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