Just like I’m not supposed to be writing about politics or policy, I’m also not supposed to be reviewing books. But since I obviously need to read more about climate science, I thought I’d make some hay in the process.

I’ve recently read “Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate” by Stephen H. Schneider (1945-2010). I enjoyed reading the book. It’s a kind of autobiography peppered with enough science education to follow the author’s motivations and trials. (Here’s a short interview with Schneider.)

The book records milestones in the growth and development of a new scientific discipline, and offers a good survey of the issues surrounding developing scientifically motivated public policy. Schneider definitely said the kind of things I would hope to hear from a first-rate scientist committed to global citizenship. I like his (presentation of his) overall scientific approach, which I lump into two over-arching ideas.

Schneider’s first main (scientific) point: when modeling the behavior of such an extremely complex system such as the ‘climate’, one should use a hierarchy of models spanning various degrees of detail and sophistication. No completely implicit model is accurate, and no completely explicit model is tractable. This means that climate science will, over time, comprise a series of increasingly accurate approximations, and that we should continue working on all levels of the hierarchy. A room full of computers should never completely supplant the back of an envelope.

This motivates his second major (scientific) point. Establishing statistical significance (and confidence) in a climate model requires a different sort of apparatus than one is accustomed to in the quantitative sciences. Predicting the odds of winning at blackjack requires different theories than predicting the temperature change resulting from a doubling in the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to the book, Schneider made big contributions to the idea that verbalizations of uncertainty need to have quantitative correlates; an idea which he (eventually) successfully implemented in the IPCC position papers. The yoking of numerical bounds to verbal utterances is a revolutionary idea in our current political milieu of weasel words and newspeak. I’m not saying the idea is particularly feasible, just that it’s very good.

It’s a good thing I actually read the book because I didn’t like its cover (actually the book jacket.) It’s full of endorsements from Schneider’s co-recipients of the Nobel peace prize. It looks like a big self-congratulatory back-slapping IPCC-promotion. Al Gore’s endorsement runs across the top, as if the target audience will recognize Al Gore’s climate science credentials and will be more likely to buy the book. (At first that made me a little nauseous, but the book’s text does emphasize that Schneider valued Gore’s continual support of proactive climate change policy, so I bet he was happy to get Gore’s endorsement.) Also I don’t like the book’s subtitle: we cannot destroy the climate, we can ‘just’ extinguish life as we know it, which is a small sliver of life as a whole. Saving the climate is a hyperbolic way of talking about saving ourselves and the world as we know it. Anyway, I bet the jacket’s mostly the work of marketing experts, as the book’s overall tone is very nuanced.

Marketing is one of the many phenomena that Schneider had to grapple with as a scientist engaged in public policy. Another one, the selective quoting of his work by media hacks, caused him much grief. I think it’s easy in hindsight to say, “I should have known that would have been quoted out of context.” But the reality is that plain-spoken truth can be hacked and slashed, cut and pasted, until its delivered meaning the contradicts the author’s original intentions. Selective quoting is one of the dirtiest of rhetorical tricks.

Schneider’s academic website is still up, and it’s full of useful stuff. His page on “mediarology” — the word he coined for science interfacing with the media — is prescient to all of my contributions at TRN. I’m kind of proud that I’ve unknowingly adhered to the following list of rules for science popularizers, as I’ve followed my own compass:

Advocacy/Popularization “Rules” (source: Schneider 2003, http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Mediarology/Mediarology.html)

  • Understand your own values and “biases” — use the relevant scientific/technical communities to help you overcome your own dogmatism or denial
  • Make your values and biases explicit, and separate them from your scientific priors on probabilities and consequences
  • Do not allow personal value positions to distort your subjective priors on the probabilities of various outcomes or “facts”
  • Defend value positions separately from assessments of probabilities and consequences
  • Encourage popularizers who follow responsible practices, and censure those who are unclear, obscure or biased

If you think I’m deviating from these guidelines, please let me know. I think they’re spot-on. I’ve quoted them out of context, so you should read the source page.

Schneider’s book should be read by any skeptic of the “scientific consensus on global warming” because it should, at minimum, diffuse the notion that he was driven by a political ideology. Just like the invention of a “human consciousness detector” could be a technological game-changer in the abortion debate, Schneider’s contributions were going to have political implications, and were going to polarize the political sphere, no matter how carefully he stewarded it. I’m glad he contributed as much as he did. I’m glad he engaged the media, and our politicians, as much as he did. In his untimely demise, we have lost a true advocate for The Real Science.

Ryan MB Hoffman has a B.Sc. in Biochemistry from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta. He is mostly interested in how protein molecules fluctuate throughout their functional processes. During his doctoral work he studied troponin, which is a switch that regulates striated muscle contraction. He works as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. He is active with the Intrinsically Disordered Proteins subgroup of the Biophysical Society. Ryan likes to remind people that his contributions to TRN are performed entirely using his personal resources.