Ehrlich on Schneider: Being a scientist doesn’t relieve one of the obligations of a citizen


Image by Anne Polansky

In a fine remembrance of his friend Stephen Schneider, Paul Ehrlich notes how he and Schneider “had many discussions of the responsibilities of ‘public scientists.’” They agreed: “Being a scientist does not relieve one of the obligations of a citizen to speak out,” Ehrlich says. “In my experience, no scientist felt that obligation more strongly, or showed more dedication and courage in meeting it, than Steve Schneider.”

Prof. Paul Ehrlich, at the Center for Conservation Biology, Department of Biology, Stanford University, writing a “Retrospective” in the August 13 issue of Science (by subscription), on Schneider the scientist, friend, and ‘man for all seasons’ who touched so many of our lives for the better, leads with:

Stephen Schneider (1945-2010)

Most Science readers will know that Steve Schneider was a giant in atmospheric science who made seminal contributions in many areas, ranging from the roles played by cloud feedbacks in the climate system to the impact of aerosol particles in “nuclear winter” scenarios. They will also be aware that he was an indefatigable scientific educator, battling especially to ensure that climate disruption and humans’ role in it were explained properly to the public. They likely know that he was well recognized for his contributions to atmospheric science and public policy.  He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1992. He was a contributor to all four of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, and he was co-awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on climate change.

A less well-known side of Steve is that he was a stickler for getting the science right, regardless of the politics. When we were doing the nuclear winter studies in the early 1980s, he was constantly working to see that all public statements were as accurate as possible. When he and Starley Thompson reexamined the nuclear winter predictions a few years later, and found them to be less dire, Steve did not hesitate to make the revisions public, which led to the currency of the alternative term “nuclear autumn.” That’s the way he was on all issues. Given new data, he did not hesitate to modify his views.

In the 1970s, we had many discussions of the responsibilities of “public scientists.” We agreed that one must first explain the scientific consensus, then say if you agreed with it (and if not, why not), and then give your personal opinion of what policy choices should be made. Being a scientist does not relieve one of the obligations of a citizen to speak out. In my experience, no scientist felt that obligation more strongly, or showed more dedication and courage in meeting it, than Steve Schneider. To the very last, he worked to educate the public and decision makers, ignoring illness and anonymous death threats from persons who opposed the scientific consensus on climate change.

And concludes:

He was a climate researcher who was also a man for all seasons. His myriad friends will miss him intensely, and so, I’m afraid, will billions of people who never heard of him, whose lives he so determinedly strove to improve.

I agree with Schneider and Ehrlich on this. As I said in an earlier post, I believe the climate and environmental science community has an essential role to play in setting the record straight and influencing public discourse that goes beyond providing good science education, beyond contributing to the peer-reviewed literature, and beyond developing the IPCC and other scientific assessment reports—all of which are bedrock intellectual contributions, of course. It also includes intervening directly, in a citizen-scientist [or what Schneider called ‘scientist-advocate’] capacity—by which I mean, when you have a contribution to make, speaking as an advocate to policymakers and fellow citizens explicitly on the basis of bringing scientific expertise to the discussion—to address policy and societal implications of scientific understanding. It includes helping to keep the discussion honest by calling down high-level public officials and operatives of the global warming disinformation campaign when they misrepresent scientific evidence – to perform an integrity watchdog function. There are some outstanding exceptions, including a fair number of climate scientists, but I believe that, overall, the science community has underperformed in its scientist-advocate role, and the results are all too apparent.

I have noted earlier that, clearly, there is a divergence of views in the climate science community on this issue of the appropriate role of scientific expertise vis-a-vis the practice of citizenship—where citizenship involves taking a position on issues requiring policy decisionmaking.

Andy Revkin, in his New York Times DotEarth blog, touched on this divergence in a post focused on the eminent atmospheric scientist Richard Somerville (“The Road from Climate Science to Climate Advocacy”). Revkin wrote:

Richard C. J. Somerville, a climatologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography near San Diego, is one of a growing array of scientists who have chosen to move beyond studying heat transfer and cloud physics and take on the role of activist: prodding society to move aggressively to cut greenhouse gases….

“For me, and maybe for many, I think that ‘going public’ and making a statement as an individual, who is also a climate expert, is simply a next logical step,” Dr. Somerville said.

“After all, many politicians have said that scientists should be heard from more. As long as we are always at pains to make clear that we are speaking only as individuals, not on behalf of our employers or other organizations, then I think we are just behaving as good citizens.”

But Revkin noted:

Other scientists disagree with this kind of activism, most notably Susan Solomon, who was the co-leader of the 2007 I.P.C.C. assessment of climate trends. In an email exchange on the general issue of scientists and policy debate last weekend (just before she flew to Antarctica), she said: “If we as scientists go beyond what we know into our personal opinions and values, we begin to engage in the same sort of personal speculation masquerading as authoritative that we dislike when it is done by the skeptics.”

With all due respect to Susan Solomon, who has made an incalculable scientific contribution, it seems to me insufficient to speak in terms of a simple dichotomy between “what we know,” on the one hand, and “personal opinions” and “personal speculation,” on the other, as though there were no intellectual terrain between “knowing” something with, say, 95 percent confidence, and being reduced to something like speculative, amateurish punditry. It’s as though scientists, including those who write the IPCC assesssments, have nothing to offer to an actual dialogue with policymakers in terms of policymakers’ decisionmaking jurisdiction, or to a more general public audience.

On the contrary, what policymakers and the public need from the climate science community includes scientists’ synthesis of and expert judgments about the state of knowledge in terms of its implications for policymaking and societal decisionmaking – even though that involves a necessary element of subjectivity. Policymakers need scientists to advise them in the context of assessing and managing the risks of climate change – in particular, on the implications of their decisions about adaptation and mitigation response strategies.

The problem of global climatic disruption is far too serious to think that society is well-served by a separation between scientists and decisionmaking, or between scientists and a wider public – with scientists speaking only the language of “what we know” and failing to speak of “here are what we see as the implications for your decisionmaking of what we know, and the implications for society of your actions.”

I’ve been spending some time re-reading Steve Schneider’s personal website at Stanford. Most of its substantial content was posted prior to 2005 and amounts essentially to his own very readable primer on climate change science, impacts, and policy. Only a few more recent items are posted. Given the frequent emphasis, in the many tributes that have been written about Steve’s life and work, on his highly valuable (and to some, controversial) contribution as a public communicator of climate science, I found it interesting to revisit what he had to say in his essay “Mediarology,” dated February 2005.

It would be interesting to gather reflections of other scientists working on climate change issues, from their experiences in communicating with policymakers, the media, and nonscientist audiences. The experience of contributing as a public scientist should be more widely shared and the art and craft of doing so should become more highly developed.  Steve’s experience as a public scientist was so extensive and so deep that his 15-page essay only scratches the surface, though it identifies key themes that are persistent.

Schneider’s home page

The Overview of the Climate Change Problem section of the site contains a summary of the key themes of “Mediarology.”

Full-length essay “Mediarology: The Roles of Citizens, Journalists, and Scientists in Debunking Climate Change Myths”

Follow it up, of course, with his last book, the memoir Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, published in late 2009.

Earlier CSW posts:

July 25: Stephen Schneider: Eulogies and Tributes

July 12: Interview with Stephen Schneider on climate science expert credibility study

June 21:: New study finds striking level of agreement among climate experts on anthropogenic climate change

July 19: Stephen Schneider in 1979

July 5: Leading US climate scientists are being subjected to a barrage of right-wing lunatic hate mail

May 21: Climate scientists tell House committee: We know the risk, now it’s up to policymakers to act

March 11: Open Letter to the U.S. Government from U.S. Scientists on climate change and the IPCC reports

March 5: E-mails show climate scientists struggling with push-back on anti-science political assault

December 30, 2009: Stephen Schneider: Climate Denier Gate a case of Science as a Contact Sport

October 14, 2009: Stephen Schneider comments on the CEI and Pat Michaels petition on the global warming data record

June 22, 2009: Open Letter to the President and Members of Congress from 20 leading scientists and scholars

And finally:
August 9, 2005: Radio Open Source: Politics of Climate Change
When I had the rare opportunity to join Steve Schneider and author Ross Gelbspan for a discussion of climate change, on Public Radio International (audio here).

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