By Judith Curry
On the first anniversary of Steve Schneider’s untimely death, it is worth reflecting on his contributions at the intersection of climate science, policy, politics and media in the public communication of climate change. Schneider’s views on this topic are infamously characterized by his 1989 statement (page 5 of the link):
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 broad based 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.
If you haven’t read it previously, Schneider’s views on all this are encapsulated in his “Mediarology” essay, which is well worth reading.
Chris Russill’s paper
A very interesting analysis of Steve Schneider’s views and impacts are provided in this paper, which provides the title for this post: Stephen Schneider and the ‘Double Ethical Bind’ of Climate Change by Chris Russill
Russill introduces the double ethical bind:
The loyalty to scientific method and to scientific norms of communication had to be reconciled with the conventions of media operations if one hoped to access and influence the public. If scientists were not simply to abandon the obligation to inform the public about climate change, they needed to recognize “two ethical requirements”: (a) self-knowledge and honesty about one’s values and worldview and (b) an acceptance that promoting concern over climate change had to account for and accommodate existing media practices. Efforts to communicate climate change cannot be wholly removed from value judgments, which should be openly acknowledged. The result is a situation demanding a “balance between being effective and being honest” . There are some hints that the most significant difference is the matter of appropriate precaution in policymaking, but Schneider did not explicitly advocate a precautionary perspective in his editorial. His earlier and subsequent work does make clear his preference for a precautionary policy approach.
JC comment: the double ethical bind arises when a scientists tries to influence the public and policy. It does not arise when a scientist interacts with the media to discuss their latest research finding. This is why advocacy by scientists presents problems both for the scientist and for society. These problems can be managed to some extent (e.g. see Pielke Jr’s The Honest Broker), but the end result can backfire on the individual scientist as well as the policy for which they are advocating.
Russill’s article provides substantial discussion on linking climate change to extreme weather events as a way of grabbing the public’s attention. Particularly interesting are Russill’s comments on the extreme weather link in the context of the precautionary principle:
This explanation for the successful emergence of climate change as a public issue is unsatisfactory for two reasons. It does not comport well with a precautionary perspective that attempts to avoid or ameliorate damage before its occurrence provides empirical verification. If stratospheric ozone depletion regulation is attributed to nature standing up, then the advances won for a precautionary perspective are not evident. In fact, the belief that natural events trigger public response implies the existence of a “wait and see” perspective, where verified damage motivates policy change. A second reason for concern is that these accounts deemphasize the mediated nature of such events, which are not experienced directly by most people, and which do not carry a univocal meaning. It is always possible for people to consider such events as “acts of God” or as the outcome of natural variability.
This paragraph caught my eye:
The acuity with which Schneider presages the political organization of skeptical discourse is impressive. His main criticism of skeptical climate discourse is that it fails to present itself as a policy perspective resting on values and the interpretation of scientific findings. Too often, argumentative strategies regarding uncertainty and scientific proof translate value questions into the complex vocabularies developed for technical exposition. In dealing with the public, it is important for scientists to discuss their beliefs in terms of the degree of proof warranting such belief. The pertinent question is the degree of validation needed to support claims; it is not a matter of distinguishing theory versus proof, or of disguising the role that values play in setting climate change policy.
JC comment: There is a chicken and egg issue at play here. Much of the political organization of skeptical discourse was a response to the kind of tactics being used by Schneider (and Hansen and Houghton) in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. There is also a “talking past each other” element to this, whereby the skeptics want to discuss the science and uncertainties, and Schneider et al. wanted to discuss policy.
Schneider’s most significant impact on the climate debate was to improve the communication of uncertainty, which was implemented formally in the IPCC TAR:
The second significant amendment to Schneider’s early views on climate change communication is his improved discussion of uncertainty. In many public debates, Schneider emphasized the implications of deterministic forms of uncertainty. A frequent metaphor was the dice roll in games of chance. Natural variability in climate patterns is represented by a fair set of dice; anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions represent the loading of dice, which increase the probability of certain outcomes (such as increased warming). However, no single dice roll can be predicted with certainty or taken as unequivocal evidence of loaded dice. Only a series of dice rolls will make evident the loading by producing a pattern distinct from the usual distribution of fairly rolled dice. The result of a sequence of fair dice rolls can be predicted with reasonable accuracy (climate change), but any single dice roll (an extreme weather event or hot summer) cannot be predicted with much certainty.
Schneider’s more recent papers recognize the limitation of this discussion and distinguish between objective and subjective uncertainty:
Scientists deal with different types of uncertainty and respond to them differently, and we must keep that in mind…. However, there is a second kind of probability that involves judgments: subjective probability. This occurs when scientists deal with complex systems, as I do in studying a climate-environmental system or with those who study health systems. In these complex systems, when there are many interconnected subcomponents, scientists often are uncertain about the extent and magnitude of these interconnections. As a result, they have to make judgments about these interconnections and, consequently, underlying assumptions are subjective.
Russill critiques Schneider’s perspective:
Some limitations in Schneider’s perspective are a result of its strengths. His efforts are directed primarily toward the influential inclusion of scientific voices in public discourse. Schneider is helpful in clarifying the role and scope of value judgments, but his work is often focused on improving scientific contributions. His proposals are not concerned primarily with how scientists might situate their voice as one among other voices. Schneider’s recommendations to scientists to become more acute and proficient in accommodating to journalistic norms of the media industries might delimit other forms of participation or entrench inequitable media practices that should be challenged. In particular, Schneider’s conceptualization of uncertainty might result in a greater extension of scientific authority into arenas currently the domain of layperson judgments, a problem anticipated by Brian Wynne (1992b).
This last point deserves greater attention, and it raises the question of whether these limitations are easily remedied or whether they are expressions of deeper difficulties. Schneider’s earliest efforts privileged deterministic formulations of uncertainty, as conveyed through his dice roll and coin flip metaphors. In these examples, he demonstrates that the fact of scientific uncertainty provides no basis for preferring “wait and see” policy orientations over precautionary perspectives. His argument is clear, compelling, and correct. Deterministic forms of uncertainty are double edged; ceteris paribus, the uncertain situation could result in better or worse outcomes than the hypothesized condition, as Schneider frequently warns politicians, policy makers and citizens. In these instances, Schneider presumes deterministic uncertainty to demonstrate that its existence offers no argument against precaution. It is also a helpful metaphor for discussing the association of discrete weather events and climate change trends. This is a valuable service. In principle, the acceptance of Schneider’s point should push discussion toward consideration of other kinds of uncertainty, because none of the policy options regarding climate change can be reduced simply to questions of deterministic uncertainty. [JC emphasis]
Schneider’s specific characterization of subjective uncertainty is taken as an objective feature of the public context for climate change communication; it is not treated as a perspective opened up in its significance to those sensitive to precautionary forms of regulation. If we choose to view discussions of subjective uncertainty in this latter way, then it is important to know whether a specific policy orientation—whether it is “wait and see,” “adaptation,” or “precautionary,” – is advantaged by the way Schneider conceptualizes uncertainty. For example, does a precautionary perspective demand that greater weight be given to subjective uncertainty in the treatment of indeterminacy? Is the effort to diminish the scope of subjective uncertainty by demanding standards derived from the deterministic treatment of uncertainty an advantage for climate change skeptics, because answers meeting those standards cannot be given unequivocally in advance? If perspectives on uncertainty are context-relevant in this fashion, such that one’s perspective on permissible precaution guides an appraisal of uncertainty, then it explains why different interpretations of uncertainty are a battleground in public discourse. [JC emphasis]
Schneider’s point advances a conception of subjective uncertainty, and he steers discussion toward techniques for bounding and managing it (for example, Bayesian statistical analysis and Bayesian updating). Schneider (2000) recognizes that to carry through the implications of his position requires not simply new statistical tools, but new regulatory institutions, and a newly configured expert–public relationship. Schneider also recognizes the tendency toward elitism or the privileging of expertise in his recent formulations, but he accepts this outcome as the necessary consequence of facing up to the problem, and he does not discuss it as an embedded value guiding his formulations of uncertainty. [JC emphasis].
Russill summarizes Schneider’s strategies for coping with the double ethical bind:
It is worth summarizing the main lessons and advice Schneider offers for coping with a context defined by the double ethical bind.
- One, climate scientists should communicate often or not at all with media (to protect their reputations, as well as to acquire sensitivity and proficiency with media norms).
JC comment: I would say that for scientists who are not advocates and who are discussing primarily their personal research, there shouldn’t be a problem with interacting with the media, although I strongly recommend media training for anyone regularly answering questions from the media to avoid certain pitfalls. With regards to the reputation of individual scientists engaging with the media, I would say that scientists that issue press releases on their papers and handle themselves well interviews with the media see their scientific reputations enhanced. Scientists that advocate or get themselves involved in media controversies and don’t handle themselves well (or say negative things about other scientists) see their reputation take a hit.
- Two, the demand for brevity makes familiar metaphors the best vehicle of simplification and a necessary device if climate scientists refuse to trade away opportunities for increasing public understanding.
JC comment: I have a number of problems with this one. First, it assumes that climate communication must necessarily be constrained by the mainstream media. There are other options such as the blogosphere, the range of things being tried by Climate Central, and the ideas that Randy Olson has been applying in the field of public health. Not to mention Al Gore’s efforts. Metaphors have some utility, but they aren’t going to increase the understanding of the critical technical public. The motivation here seems to be public (political) support rather than public understanding.
- Three, scientists and professional organizations need to produce a range of communicative products that span the continuum from simple popularization to expert complexity. The attention garnered by sensational stories, or the interest generated by dispute, can be translated into deeper understanding through pieces requiring progressively more expertise.
JC comment: I totally agree with this one.
- Four, when dealing with journalists, it is very important to emphasize research that is established and widely agreed on in order to situate specific differences of opinion. Scientists should insist on “perspective” over “balance” as the appropriate norm for climate change communication, and journalists should consider the standing, weight, and credibility of a position as key components of its validity.
JC comment: well this sort of begs the question of what is widely agreed upon. If this is defined by the IPCC assessment, well this blog is mostly about challenging and critically evaluating the consensus. Expecting journalists to consider the standing, weight and credibility of a position can only be accomplished through appeals to authority and consensus, and we’ve discussed numerous times the potential problems with these arguments.
- Five, scientists should explain the process by which conclusions are determined rather than simply offering up prepackaged facts and findings.
JC comment: I totally agree with this one. The IPCC should try it sometime.
- Six, it is always important to emphasize the issue of uncertainty, and to place its appraisal in the appropriate context. “Perhaps most important is the need to state the degree of certainty you assign to your assessments and to explain the degree of subjectivity needed to estimate that confidence level”.
JC comment: no problem with this one, but Schneider et al. invariably resort to appeal to consensus and authority.
- Seven, when dealing with climate skeptics, it is important to articulate how values inform policy options and to situate skeptical discourse as a value-oriented policy position. If the interaction is framed in this manner, questions of theory—“isn’t climate change just a theory?”—are more readily seen as questions involving judgments regarding the degree of validation required for a policy decision.
JC comment: well that is the trillion dollar question, the range of judgments regarding the degree of validation required for a policy decision.
An important question remains. Is the double bind of climate change communication a result of the miscarriage of a precautionary perspective, or simply a feature of the contemporary media landscape? Schneider’s (1990a) “double ethical bind” concept is a valuable pragmatic device for sensitizing climate scientists, journalists, and citizens to the contradictory context in which public communication on climate change takes place. However, from the critical vantage point opened by Wynne’s (1992b) perspective, Schneider’s efforts are a coping strategy for difficult circumstances, rather than a thoroughgoing reconceptualization of how scientific knowledge might best be communicated in conditions of urgency and uncertainty.
JC comment: IMO Wynne hits the nail on the head: the double ethical bind is a coping strategy for scientist/advocates who find themselves in the midst of a politically charged scientific debate.
Steve Schneider viewed Science as a Contact Sport, and he actively engaged in discussions with the public and policy makers, including skeptics. A good example of this engagement occurred shortly before his death, in this exchange hosted by Insight (video and transcript and blog comments) (h/t Andy Revkin).
Schneider comes across very well in this exchange, IMO. An excerpt:
JENNY BROCKIE: I’m interested though in this question of trust because it’s come up with a lot of people here about how much they trust the data, how much they trust the scientist. You don’t trust scientist, Chris, why?
CHRIS MACDONALD: Well it was very interesting hear you talk a moment about ago about scientist like the median, a moderate tendency. What I find suspicious is that I have not heard, and I watch a lot of media, one of these moderately minded scientists come out and hose down the Doomsday scenarios being pedals by environmentalists and our politicians. I’m not speaking of you yourself, sir, but your industry, your lobbying, the lobby of which you are a part including a lot of people I’m sure you have arguments with are actually saying X plus Y all the way to we have to chuck out industrialisation.
JENNY BROCKIE: So being absolute and certain and you want them to be less certain or you want ‑
CHRIS MACDONALD: I would like to hear people in your business admit some doubt.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: I don’t know any IPCC scientist who said we should chuck industrial civilisation out. That’s a straw man, where did you get that?
CHRIS MACDONALD: I have never heard one of them stand up and say this politician should choose their words more carefully that it’s not that disaster, that this environmentalist should be more moderate in their language because they’re being too extreme. I have not heard one IPCC scientist say that.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: Please read my book you’ll see where I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’m not alone in doing that. I think it would be irresponsible for us to leave out better cases and it would also be irresponsible to leave out worst cases. It is not a scientist’s job to judge whether or not the risks are sufficient to hedge against any of these possibilities. It’s only our job to report risk and that’s why we have so many rounds of reviews. I was talking about when I said scientists gravitate to the middle – I was talking most IPCC scientists. They’re not typically very articulate and they’re not the ones you’re seeing on the media very often.
CHRIS MACDONALD: You were very quick to comment on what you called bias language earlier, I think a scientist in your position could speak up against bias language even in areas where it actually contributes to your industry.
JENNY BROCKIE: It’s an interesting point, Stephen. It is an interesting point that the scientists could enter the debate once it becomes politicised and perhaps distorted in that politicisation, the scientist could pop their heads up more and say hang on a minute, you know, what we do know is this, what we don’t know is this.
PROFESSOR STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: I can speak for myself that’s exactly what I do but I can also tell you, and so do most of the colleagues that I respect. Not everybody. There are people who understate and there are people who overstate. The other problem is, don’t forget the media filter. Media gets end of the world versus good for you boxed extremes. Like it’s a trial, you know, we’ve got guilty and we have innocence and they will set that frame. So if a scientist is speaking in a bell curve, right and you allow some probability of a really nasty outcome and some probability of beneficial outcomes and every speech I give, go on YouTube will you find them, you will see I do this, I have no control about the fact that because I have concern about the more serious scenarios, and I do, I don’t want us to fall into that trap, I don’t take 10% risks with planetary life support system. That’s my personal view. That’s my personal values and I always say that.
The point though is if it’s then reported that I believe that it’s certain that it’s going to be in the worst case that’s a misframing of what I’ve said. Just as when I’m arguing with other people who are more conservative and they allow a small probability that they think I’m right and they have a larger probability that things are milder and then they get boxed into the frame that they only think that it’s mild that’s not fair to them either.
It’s because when you go through the filter of this kind of advocacy, end of the world and good for you which in every speech again, go look it up on YouTube, you’ll see me, I say the two lowest probability outcomes, that’s a very bad way to convey the nature of meaning because all it can do is confuse people and create the polarisation that’s led to those of you who have gotten the hate mails from getting them because people get locked in those polarisations.
JC conclusions: Steve Schneider has had an enormous impact on the public communication of climate science, both through his own personal communications but more significantly in terms of framing the public interaction between climate scientists and public. Schneider had a much more complex position in the public debate about climate change than say, Jim Hansen. Schneider is to be commended for raising this issue of treatment of uncertainty by the IPCC, but ultimately his position on this issue led to uncertainty monster simplification, and elitism in terms of over reliance on expert judgment and the establishment of an elite consensus. The over reliance on expert judgment and the establishment of an elite consensus left the scientific community and its argument very vulnerable to Climategate in terms of its public credibility.