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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 07/19/2010

Climate expert warns of blogosphere's divisiveness

By Andrew Freedman

* Sticky with storm chances: Full Forecast | Earthquake comments *

Editor's Note: Late this morning we received the very sad news that Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who is the subject of today's blog post, passed away suddenly this morning of an apparent heart attack while on a flight from Stockholm, Sweden to London, England. Stanford's press office has confirmed the news, and issued a statement. Andy Revkin of the New York Times DotEarth blog has a post online now that includes reflections from Ralph Cicerone, the President of the National Academy of Sciences.

I recently came across a fascinating interview in Stanford Magazine with a prominent climate scientist there, Stephen Schneider, who has spent decades pondering and trying to improve climate science communication.

A professor of interdisciplinary environmental studies who has published widely on climate change, Schneider authored the 2009 book "Science as a Contact Sport." Recently, he has spoken out against the "political assaults" and hate speech directed at him and some of his climate researcher colleagues.

In the interview, Schneider makes a thought-provoking case that the blogosphere is fracturing, rather than unifying, the public when it comes to climate science and policy. After witnessing what passes for productive dialog on climate blogs during the past several years, I am tempted to agree.

Schneider also details why he thinks scientists in general are such lousy communicators, what the long-term impact of the "climategate" emails controversy is likely to be, and offers some helpful hints at how the media and politicians can more effectively communicate the uncertainties and long-term risks associated with climate change.

Here are some key passages that I found particularly noteworthy...

Stephen Schneider

When asked whether the "so-called democratization of media makes it easier or harder for you to get your message across," Schneider responded:

Let's start with how it makes it easier. Now everybody can get information instantly. When I started, nobody talked about [global warming]. Now we're getting all this pushback, [which] means that we've made some progress. You have to have that long-term perspective. So the blogs help spread the word.
Here's the blog problem: We build up a trust [based] on which blogs just say what we like to hear. At least in the old days when we had a Fourth Estate that did get the other side--yes, they framed it in whether it was more or less likely to be true, the better ones did--at least everybody was hearing more than just their own opinion. What scares me about the blogosphere is if you only read your own folks, you have no way to understand where those bad guys are coming from. How are you going to negotiate with them when you're in the same society? They're not 100 percent wrong, you know? There's something you have to learn from them and they have to learn from you. If you never read each other and you never have a civil discourse, then I get scared.
It's fractionation into preexisting belief without any chance of negotiation and reconciliation. I don't want to see a civil war, and I worry about that if the blogosphere is carried to a logical extreme.

On the recent vilification of climate scientists by skeptics such as Marc Morano of the website Climate Depot, who has been advertising scientists' email addresses to encourage followers to harass them:

I've always had people complain when they don't like me, and that's the way it should be. But they don't complain in four-letter words. They don't tell me that I'm a traitor who should be executed for treason, which according to the police is close to a death threat but not quite beyond the First Amendment. My Brit police friends, who actually had me send them these hundreds of emails, have told me that in the U.K. that would be investigated, but it's not in the U.S. There are some very, very ugly Nazi websites that have a number of us on them; I don't want to mention names. They're the ones who encourage the shooting of abortion doctors, and, let's put it this way, we have some authorities looking at them. They're on a terrorist list. That's pretty scary. Most of the hate emails I get are just ugly.

On the media's tendency to give equal time to climate-change dissenters, who doubt that climate change is manmade (note: this happened as recently as last Friday, when a USA Today story on recent temperature trends quoted one climate scientist and two skeptics who do not conduct climate science research):

The reason that we do not ask focus groups of farmers and auto workers to determine how to license airplane pilots and doctors is they have no skill at that. And we do not ask people with PhDs who are not climatologists to tell us whether climate science is right or wrong, because they have no skill at that, particularly when they're hired by the fossil-fuel industry because of their PhDs to cast doubt. So here is where balance is actually false reporting.
What the media needs to do is not to ignore outliers--we should never ignore outliers--[but] to frame where they sit in the spectrum of knowledgeable opinion. The good reporters always did that. They said, 'There are a small number of people, many of whom are funded by particular industries, who make the following point.' That's completely legit, because now the public knows where these guys sit.
But now, given the new media business-driven model, where they fired most specialists and the only people left in the newsroom are general-assignment reporters who have to do a grown-up's job, how are they going to be able to discern the north end of a southbound horse?

On climategate:

The primary lasting impact will be that it has delayed climate policy by a year or two--which, if the Congress tips away from Democrats, could delay it by eight or more. A number of countries believe that we should all have collective action to protect the commons. But if the biggest polluter in history, the United States, doesn't do anything, [other countries] can use that excuse to do nothing. I do not believe it'll have any long-lasting impact on the credibility of climate science, because it is fundamentally sound.

On how hopeful or pessimistic he is about the future of the environment:

I really trust this generation of kids to make a difference. I know we can invent our way out of some of the problem. What we have to do is convince the bulk of the public, that amorphous middle. We're never going to convince that 25 percent who absolutely believe it's a conspiracy against American religious and economic freedom, and that this is some UN plot to take away our hegemony. And we don't need to convince the other 25 percent that is already convinced. It's that 50 percent in the middle that will listen to an argument, that is not immoral or deeply ideological, but that's a little lazy and ignorant, often quite frightened. We have to get to them to create a tipping point for a majority. And that can be done. My fear is that it's going to take a hurricane to take out Miami or fires in the West before they finally wake up. I just hope that it's milder crises sooner, and not more extreme events later.

The full interview is available online.

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | July 19, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Science  
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I just received some very sad news, that Dr. Schneider passed away suddenly of a suspected heart attack while flying into London this morning. I am trying to confirm this, and will update this post later with more details.

Posted by: afreedma | July 19, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Update: Just got the unfortunate confirmation of Dr. Schneider's passing from Stanford University's PR office. No details at this time, should be forthcoming soon.

Posted by: afreedma | July 19, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

The idea that non-PHD's can't give credible opinions on climate change is absolute nonsense. I'm not a PHD, and I can remember MANY specific heat waves, cold waves, tropical storms ling-range patterns from decades past. Many people, for example, have long-forgotten the brutal summers of 1977, 1980, 1983, and 1988, and the brutal winters of 76-77, 78-79, and 93-94 with the extreme cold and ice storms.....I haven't. I clearly remember in long-strings of 90+ days in 1980 and 1988, and Dulles hittting 104. I also clearly remember Tropical Storm Agnes and the Blizzards of 66, 79, 83, 87, and '06. So you don't need a computer to know if, and how much, the local climate, at least, is actually "changing". Globally, that may be another factor, though.

Of course, working for NOAA during most of that time period didn't hurt either.

Posted by: MMCarhelp | July 19, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

The issue...climatologically and otherwise...seems to be that the far right is way too vociferous, and leftist radio is unprofitable, so we're getting way too much from one side of the ideological spectrum and not enough from the other side. Some sort of "equal time" is needed, particularly on AM radio.

When I turn the AM dial nowadays, it seems sort of like when I was in Panama during the late 1960's, but without the distinct Panamanian "folklorico" music that made the radio down there so interesting. I seem to get two or three far-right rants [boy has WMAL ever deteriorated since I first came to Washington!], three or four sports-talk options [all owned by Dan Snyder!], five or six religious options [all of the same general type which is not my Nichiren Buddhist religion!] and some twenty or thirty Spanish-language options!
There's no swing music, dance music or bluegrass music [which WAMU FM has apparently relegated to the relatively inaccessible "HD-radio" limbo of the lost]. FM Radio isn't that much better though you can get some intelligent climate discussion on NPR or WPFW--if WPFW is still around! The really good country-western option is WFLS/Fredericksburg--and they spend half their time with NASCAR on the weekend. In addition, WFLS seems to get drowned out half the time by the urban-radio and [particularly!] Dan Snyder stations next door! As for the FCC, I've devised my own single-syllable acronym for that agency--but I dare not say it or print it here--it's virtually identical to one of those four-letter expressions they ban from the airwaves!

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 19, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

It is indeed sad to hear of Dr. Schneider's sudden passing. [Not to be confused with Dan Snyder of my previous post!]

Posted by: Bombo47jea | July 19, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

One of the most important comments he made is how the blogosphere has given people the opportunity to tune out objective reality and just tune into an echo chamber that helps their denial.

I don't know if those on the climate "skeptic" side even realize how destructive this is to their own minds, and reality-monitoring capability.

Posted by: B2O2 | July 19, 2010 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Condolences to Dr. Schneider's family.

Posted by: eric654 | July 19, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

Bombo, it's a weak station, but WAMU also broadcasts bluegrass on 105.5fm

To add some commentary relevant to the climate discussion, I agree with MMCarHelp that it's an ineffective argument to say that if you're not a PhD with the right degree or if you're not someone who has x number of peer reviewed papers... then you can never have anything important or accurate to say regarding the climate.

One thing about Climategate is it did appear to show that the peer review process is rigged against certain individuals.

Posted by: spgass1 | July 19, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Whether you agreed with him or not, Stephen Schneider's death is a tremendous loss to science.

One thing you probably did not know about Steve is his life threatening bout with cancer, which he documented in a terrific and timely book, "Patient from Hell: How I Worked with my Doctors to get the Best of Modern Medicine and How you Can Too"

The book is an important look at how patients must recognize the importance of patient advocates, individualization of treatments and the negative role of the bottom-line ($$) in critical decisions involving patient care and survival odds.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | July 19, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

I met Steve of all places in a church, where he was giving a lecture on climate science. He was already in bad shape at the time and I could tell that every step he took was painful for him. But he kept going, traveling the world, teleconferencing, testifying to congress, and even coming out to support the documentary and art exhibition I am helping to create.

Here is clip from June 12th 2010 where Steve came out to support a special preview of “Painting to Change the World”

His book "Science as a Contact Sport" should be required reading. This man was a lion, a champion of the truth. Although I didn’t know him that well, it is clear that his life had integrity and an air of urgency about it that rubbed off on everybody he met. He has certainly touched my life with inspiration to continue learning about the risk assessment presented by climate science and stand up for my values in light of it.

These rebuttals are for you Steve!

Posted by: RueMic | July 19, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Stephen was one of the most interesting people I have had the pleasure of meeting - though it was only once at his daughters graduation ceremony when receiving her masters degree.

My heartfelt condolences go out to my friend and her family at news of this tragic loss.

Posted by: anthonymfreed | July 19, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

MMCarhelp - Ummm.. what are you babbling about? Nobody said anything about the ability (or lack thereof) of non-PhD-holders' to make meaningful contributions to a field.

What *was* mentioned (perhaps you'd have noticed this, if you weren't busy grinding some private axe) was a quote by Schneider pointing out that many media stories about climate science issues feature opinions by people who hold PhD credentials, but do not have extensive training or published research in fields intimately connected to climatology.

It's probably fair questioning to ask if this isn't a false appeal to authority.

Posted by: Bob-S | July 19, 2010 8:42 PM | Report abuse

I apologize for my preceding comment, which was at least a bit out of place.

I'd read a number of articles by, and interviews with, Dr. Schneider and have been touched today by the memories of those who knew him personally. I never met him, but I'll surely miss his voice.

Posted by: Bob-S | July 19, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "In the interview, Schneider makes a thought-provoking case that the blogosphere is fracturing, rather than unifying, the public when it comes to climate science and policy. After witnessing what passes for productive dialog on climate blogs during the past several years, I am tempted to agree."

Fracturing, rather than unifying? Not "productive" dialogue??? Seriously?

That is what happens when you attempt to hide/suppress the whole truth and then you get caught. It creates fractures. That is to be expected.

Let me ask you this - If you caught your spouse/partner hiding the whole truth from you, what would be the consequence of that? Would there be a fracture between you? Could the dialogue perhaps become less than "productive" at times?

How do we know for certain that Dr. Schneider was being 100% honest in this interview and not trying to be effective? After all, it was Dr. Schneider who told Discover magazine, "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."

When a gentleman not only holds that opinion, but TELLS A REPORTER that is his opinion, how can you know when they are telling you the whole truth? Can you ever?

And the audacity and blatant hypocrisy of attempting to besmirch the integrity of any (or is it every?) scientist who works for the energy industry, after making such a statement about withholding some of the truth in order to be effective, is nothing short of breath taking!! (Not to mention a huge red herring and straw man. Dr. Lindzen works for MIT, not Shell Oil.)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 20, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

For anyone wishing to see a young Dr. Schneider (and Leonard Nimoy), check out this old episode of "in Search Of". The episode was titled "The Coming Ice Age". It is good stuff. Watch the first 95 seconds of part 1.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 20, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

I probably should not be as shocked as I am by this new low in denialist tactics on CWG -- quotemining the recently deceased. Here's the actual story from Stephen Schneider's own page:

Posted by: imback | July 20, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

My understanding of quote mining is that it is the practice of taking a quote out of context (snipping some relevant portion of the quote) so as to provide an appearance other than what was intended. I did NOT quote mine Dr. Schneider. He meant precisely what I quoted! I did not alter it in any way.

Please provide details on precisely how I have somehow altered the meaning of what Dr. Schneider told the Discover reporter. Be very specific.

Or do you have a different working definition of quote mining?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 20, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

According to Dr. Schneider's own words, you can't be 100% honest - you have "... decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest." Did you catch that nuance? You have to balance out your honesty with effectiveness.

I am at a complete loss as to how context improves that statement. Can you explain the context which makes that statement more palatable, imback?

It isn't possible to quote mine that quote. There simply is no context that makes that quote sound good/reasonable. But perhaps I am overlooking the obvious. Imback, what context was omitted that somehow alters what Dr. Schneider meant by those words?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 21, 2010 1:56 AM | Report abuse

Stephen Schneider rebutted this misquote 20 years ago. Read the link I gave.

Posted by: imback | July 21, 2010 7:28 AM | Report abuse

I read a cache of the link. In it he rebutted the Detroit Press' misquote. And they did truly butcher his quote. I did not.

Stop avoiding the question. You accused me of quote mining. Back it up.

You are accusing me of somehow skewering or misquoting Dr. Schneider so as to give an inaccurate representation of what he meant. I did not do that.

Since you refuse to say how I have misrepresented what Dr. Schneider said, perhaps you can tell me what he meant with those words?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 21, 2010 10:08 AM | Report abuse

From the quote I used above, it is clear that Dr. Schneider advocates that scientists be selective in what they tell the public. He does NOT think scientists should tell the whole, 100% truth. He is advocating selective truth.

In his own words, "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."

And your link does not refute that in the slightest.

Please tell me how I have misinterpreted or misrepresented what Dr. Schneider meant.

Are you saying that Dr. Schneider was not advocating selective truth?

Would you want witnesses at trials to be selective with the truth? Imagine you are on trial for some serious offense and you will go to jail for many years if the jury finds you guilty. Before witnesses testify they have to raise their right hand and swear to tell, "The truth. The whole truth. And nothing but the truth." Would you want the witnesses against you at your trial to hold up their right hand and swear to tell, "The selective truth. Selecting just the right balance between truth and effectiveness so as to be effective at securing a conviction of the defendant"?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 21, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Q: I find it fascinating that you did not even casually offer condolences to Dr. Schneider's family before ripping into him. I think that kind of divisiveness and hatred is what he was referring to when he lamented the blogosphere's influence on climate science/policy dialogue.

Posted by: afreedma | July 21, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

afreedman wrote, "I find it fascinating that you did not even casually offer condolences to Dr. Schneider's family before ripping into him."

So the young man who USED the horrible fires and deaths in Australia (caused by the IOD and an arsonist) to advance his belief in catastrophic, man made global warming, finds it fascinating that I didn't offer condolences to Dr. Schneider's family?!?! Are you joking?!?! Don't you think you might be the last person on the entire planet to lecture anyone else on their etiquette?

Here's some friendly advice Mr. Freedman. Remove the log from your own eye before pointing out the mote in someone else's.

afreedman also opined, "I think that kind of divisiveness and hatred is what he was referring to when he lamented the blogosphere's influence on climate science/policy dialogue."

This smacks of the jourolist trick of accusing someone else of something despicable so as to deflect attention and possibly get their opponent to blow up. You weren't a member of journolist by any chance? Were you?

No, he made no mention of hatred. What he was concerned about was winning the media war and getting his message out. He bemoaned anyone not in agreement with him voicing their opinion.

As far as divisiveness goes, you don't suppose totally one sided coverage of the news/events has had anything at all to do with that? It fascinates me to see that the very people, whose policies and practices are responsible for the rise of the news in the blogosphere, are completely incapable of recognizing what caused the rise of news in the blogosphere. Oh the irony.

It isn't my divisiveness that is the problem. It is yours. And your inability to grasp that is fascinating.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 22, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

[Stephen Schneider was a great scientist and a great communicator. It pains me to see his memory slandered. So I apologize in advance for feeding the troll. I swear this will be the last time.]

Schneider's whole point in the Discover article was that scientists should be *both* honest and effective. The last line of the original paragraph -- "I hope that means being both" -- was meant to convey that point. The Detroit News quote-mined the article by leaving that line out, leading Schneider to write:

"The most egregious omission in the Detroit News quotation is of the last line of the Discover quote, the one about being both honest and effective. The Detroit News clearly misquotes me, presumably since including the addendum would have weakened the effectiveness of their character attack."

CWG's resident denialist troll also deliberately left that same line out. That is quote-mining, a type of dishonesty.

I cannot fathom how the denialist mind works. Apparently, ideology reigns, over truth and over empathy. I would try to tactfully plead to stop digging and show some respect, but it would only fall on deaf ears.

Posted by: imback | July 23, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

That last line adds absolutely nothing to the quote. It is almost redundant. The very sentence prior to "I hope that means being both" was "Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

So if one possess even a 2nd grade reading comprehension it should be obvious that he meant doing both, being effective and honest. He said that in the previous sentence! He said striking "the right balance" ... "between being effective and being honest". Striking a balance between two things means doing both.

Adding that sentence to his quote changes absolutely nothing. Not one single thing.

He is still advocating being SELECTIVELY HONEST!

I did not quote mine. And I am comfortable with whatever conclusions the reader reaches. Anyone with even a modicum of reading comprehension and honesty will see that what I have written is entirely truthful and accurate. Those who lack the necessary reading comprehension and/or honesty are not reachable and I can not allow myself to be concerned with whatever opinion they hold.

Imback, do you want the witnesses at your trial to be selectively honest or completely honest?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 23, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

imback wrote, "CWG's resident denialist troll also deliberately left that same line out. That is quote-mining, a type of dishonesty.

That is not the definition of quote mining. I gave you the definition of quote mining (see previous comment). Quote mining is taking something out of context so as to make the quote appear to mean something other than what was originally intended.

Look it up for yourself.

Since the sentence I dropped from the quote was redundant and did NOT change/alter the meaning of the quote in any way, it is not quote mining. But you are free to explain how the sentence that I omitted changes the meaning of what I quoted. I would be most interested in reading that. ;)

My question to you, imback is, did you not understand this definition as I previously explained it or were you being deliberately dishonest and trying to mislead others with your incorrect/incomplete definition?

You know (smacks own forehead!), your definition was incomplete!! You left out the KEY portion of what quote mining is! You left out that in order to be considered quote mining, it has to alter/change the original meaning of the quote.

You just did what Dr. Schneider advocated!! You provided a better example of what he believed than I ever could in my wildest dreams!! You were selectively honest in your definition of quote mining!!

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Now the readers get to see first hand what selective honesty looks like!

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You rock!

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 23, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

Who would want to buy a car from a selectively honest salesperson?

Who would want to buy a home from a selectively honest realtor?

Who would want a selectively honest spouse/partner?

Why on earth would we want to base public policy on the statements of selectively honest scientists?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 23, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

afreedma wrote, "I think that kind of divisiveness and hatred is what he was referring to when he lamented the blogosphere's influence on climate science/policy dialogue."

I think you are confusing vociferous dissent with real hate. Real hate is something I would imagine you are familiar with, assuming you were a member of journolist.

Real hate is wanting to watch Rush Limbaugh writhe in pain as his bulge out, and he dies a slow and extremely painful death and you laugh maniacally. That's hate. Those are your colleagues. You don't need to look to the blogosphere for hate. Look through the emails of your fellow "journalists" instead.

As I have said before, you will be the architect of your own future unemployment. It is just a matter of time.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | July 23, 2010 2:56 PM | Report abuse

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