Sunday, November 24, 2013

Stephen Schneider - Science and Distortion… the video

Lately I've been extra busy working so haven't had much chance to keep up on the climate change blogosphere dialogue, which seems more mud fight than constructive conversation, but hope and striving for improvement we must.  Now that I'm getting caught up, I've been revisiting the climate change board to look in on the haps, read some opinions, share some thoughts, take some abuse, and do some people watching.  

In any event, the denialist* arguments of a few - (*oops, they want to be called "skeptics" even though their skepticism runs in only one direction) -  are like listening to a broken record repeating vacuous soundbites as though never absorbing one piece of scientific information.  Like there's nothing to learn, only a mantra to repeat with eyes, ears and minds firmly closed.

Though trying to discuss the actual Climate Science with them always seems to turn down dead-ends where muggers lurk, the beatings do inspire me to react with constructive exercises that sometimes turn into blog posts and an occasional article.  

This time, I decided to transcribe some highlights of a talk given by Stephen Schneider PhD not too long before his tragic untimely death in 2010.  In this talk Dr. Schneider does a masterful job of describing the dysfunctional public dialogue.  He reviews the scientific process and systems science, and speaks to the issues of educating the public, risk assessment and value judgements.

I'm posting it because Dr. Stephen Schneider's words are a beautifully concise distillation of over four decades worth of world class scientific experience and all around learning.  If you are engaged in the struggle to communicate science and dialogue with faith-based denialist types, you're sure to find these personal reflections beneficial for your own process.
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Science & Distortion
The Truth About Global Warming 
Stephen Schneider

Produced by Plomomedia at
Posted by GlobalClimateNews  ~  12:00 minutes

0:15  "How did we know, in the 1970s, pretty much what would happen?  It was theory then.  And since then nature's been cooperating with theory, but we kinda knew what would happen, you couldn't add 4 watts of energy over every square meter and have nothing happen."

0:35  (a clip of Dr. Schneider in 1979) "The scientific consensus that CO2 will build up and will be a potential problem is pretty large.  But, a scientific consensus on exactly how influential it will be in ten years, twenty years, what areas will get better what areas would get worse, this is where the controversy comes in."

0:50  "We also knew that we needed to stop using the atmosphere as a unpriced sewer to dump your smoke stack and tailpipe waste and land use changes interactions, all that was known.  It was known not just in the club of a hundred left brained people. ..."

1:35  So why didn't we succeed?  What happened?  

1:40  "science is never settled"  
"Climate Science is a system science.  It's like trying to understand your body or trying to figure out something with cancer, ..., everyone of these complex systems problems has multiple components.  And when you break them down what you find out is, rarely do we know everything and rarely do we know nothing.

"So we have to break systems science into the well established components, which are settled... into competing explanations  where our work has been able to get us to winnow it down to two or three possibilities. 

"Here's where the disconnect comes along.  Special interests will grab what's convenient for their ideology or their position.  So what you end up with, is you end up with a cacophony typically of people selecting stuff out of context.  And then you end up with, the end of world versus good for you."

3:30  "I'll confess my preference, the end of the world and good for you are the two lowest probability outcomes.  What we are looking at is a multiple range of potential outcomes. ..."  What systems scientist do is they try to winnow out the relative likelihood of these other multiple outcomes.  

So if you try to cover it as a Yes or No and you go out there and take a 200 scientist report like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change it goes through three years of writing, two rounds of reviews, thousands of comments on each chapter and two petroleum geologists come along who are special interests in finding oil, paid by you know which oil company, because they have PhDs they are given equal status in a story or on television, you see we get a little mad about that.

4:15  "We call that utter distortion.  And they say, oh no that's balance.  It is not balance, it is utter distortion because they are not reporting the relative credibility of the multiple positions And it means you are leaving it up to the public and the political world to figure that out for themselves.  They're capable of it, but they rarely do it."

5:00  "Supposing you got a spot on your lung for a chest X-ray that you did for a different purpose than for looking for cancer.  Well it could be cancer and it could be a lesion... What should be done?  ... biopsy ... risk assessment ... there is a price for false positive ... what if you wait ... but if you wait and it's metastatic and it's too late to do anything? ... Or you could have had it taken out and lowered your likelihood of being dead now..."

6:00  Risk assessment... value judgement
"There is no right answer, that's your value judgement..."

6:15  Home owners and fire insurance to protect against a 1 to 2% risk

6:30  "We do not need 95% certainty."
People frame this problem by looking of exceptions to the conventional wisdom and claim until the exceptions are resolved, it isn't proven and it's premature to act.  Yet we're acting on a one percent risk and paying (fire) insurance and here we're talking about 50% risk to the planetary life-support system, and they're telling us that's not certain enough."

7:15  "... special-interest blather..."

8:00  Pro-smoking ad campaign, cigarettes and risk assessment
"... and they correctly said and still to this day we do not know biophysically the precise link between smoking and cancer.  So they give you a therefore, when there's no therefore there.  Therefore it's premature to act, that's a value judgement about risk management and of course they want you to protect market share.  

"Whereas the data are so overwhelming epidemiologically, you know the statistics, that you'd have to be crazy not to control this, even though you don't understand every detail of the mechanism.  

So this is again where we have to do risk management.  Which is how do you want to deal with a preponderance of evidence, not an absolute certainty in every detail.

9:00  "Lets talk about tipping points... "
What about Greenland?  Could Greenland be a tipping point?"
Giving some details of the glacial dynamic going on in Greenland.

9:30  "... what we don't know is does it need one more degree before that happens, 2 or 3?  All I can say with high degree of confidence is the more we keep adding unprecedented levels of warming to the system the more the number of tipping points that are going to be crossed.

We know for sure they are there, we don't know for sure where they are."

9:45  "This is not just an academic exercise, this is something we've got to have people deeply engaged in, because we're talking about the sustainability of their children and grand-children and the rest of nature.

"What's the worst thing about tipping points like Greenland, we will probably never know when we've crossed it for fifty years.  So our behavior in the next generation could (will) precondition a sustainability issue for a millennium or ten based upon the convenience of one species for one generation.  I find that a very morally daunting prospect.

10:35  (a clip of Dr. Schneider in 1979)  "What we're really doing is we're insulting our global environment at a faster rate than we are understanding it.  And the best we can do in all honestly is say: "Look out, there's a chance, a potentially irreversible change on a global scale based upon the benefits of the use of energy and it's very tough for us to know if those benefits today are worth the potential rises of environmental change over our children."

11:10  "How are we going to deal with this problem, or others like it, if it requires public understandings so they can send the right value signals to our representatives when they're completely knocked off their pins by this cacophonous fraudulent debate where all parties are given equal credibility when they don't deserve it?"

"We've got to take back the air waves and make certain that what's out there is more credible not just simply following some formulaic balance."


The Truth About Global Warming - 
Science & Distortion - 
Stephen Schneider
Uploaded on Jan 2, 2012

Stephen Henry Schneider (February 11, 1945 -- July 19, 2010) 
was Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University, 
a Co-Director at the Center for Environment Science and Policy of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and, 
a Senior Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. 

Schneider served as a consultant to federal agencies and White House staff in the Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

His research included modeling of the atmosphere, climate change, and "the relationship of biological systems to global climate change." 

Schneider was the founder and editor of the journal Climatic Change and authored or co-authored over 450 scientific papers and other publications. 

He was a Coordinating Lead Author in Working Group II IPCC TAR and was engaged as a co-anchor of the Key Vulnerabilities Cross-Cutting Theme for the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) at the time of his death. During the 1980s, Schneider emerged as a leading public advocate of sharp reductions of greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming.