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Should Scientists Lie To The Media?

John Quiggin has a post quibbling over the way climate change skeptics have selectively edited a quote by climatologist Stephen Schneider to turn it into a more emphatic endorsement of lying to the media. Here's Schneider's full quote:

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.

What interests me is not so much the debate over whether we should take the generous interpretation that Schneider was discussing the problem of framing and translating climatology into lay language, or the harsh interpretation that he intends to baldly lie. (Indeed, I think it's far less productive to debate programmatic statements like this when we can pull up some articles in climatology journals and mass media reports on climate and compare them to evaluate the actual practice of climatologists.)

I'm interested in the way that Schneider assigns the two competing claims of honesty and persuasiveness to two different roles -- the honest scientist and the persuasive human being. By separating those two roles, Schneider is a big step ahead of many scientists, who believe that it's their duty as scientists to promote a certain policy. The fact is, however, that in the decisionmaking arena, scientists (especially natural scientists) are just well-informed laypeople.

This role separation I think goes a long way toward resolving the conflict Schneider faces in talking to the media. The key thing is that reporters are calling him because he is a scientist. They will attribute his words to him in the capacity of climatologist. Therefore it's improper for him to use his scientific platform to promote his policy views, to try to put the authority of science behind his layperson's views.


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