Apocrypha & Quote Mining Among the Climate Deniers

Posted on May 31, 2011


I have now made several visits to a climate change denier website recommended by a reader.  It’s a fairly typical one featuring an array of quotes purporting to show, as far as I can tell, that climate scientists and an array of suspect organizations are conspiring together to foist the idea of human-caused climate change upon a gullible public.

It’s a common climate change denier tactic:  if the science and the facts are against you, attack the messenger.  In this case by quote mining, the subtle art of hauling words out of context, conflating a dozen different discussions and pretending they are one, making people seem to say what they don’t really mean.

Among the quotes featured on the site, for instance, is one widely attributed to Professor Chris Folland of the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change, UK.  “The data is not important,” etc., the quote goes.

I looked around the site to try to find the quote’s source and was directed to another website—which incidentally had many of the same quotes—and dead-ended there.  The second website didn’t bother to source its quotes at all.  In fact, I spent several hours subsequently searching for the origin of the quote.  I failed.  Although the quote itself was everywhere on the web, not a single person of the dozens who quoted it ever provided a source or a context.

Evidently climate change deniers—and this is not news, really—lack even a rudimentary notion of sourcing their data.

Yet the quote itself—which I would have to classify as apocryphal, for now—is problematical on the face of it.  It references data we know not what, mentions recommendations we know not to whom, was spoken we know not when, in answer to we know not which question.  Without the original context, in fact, the words quoted are essentially meaningless.  However, by providing a context of their own, a collection of other quotes apparently but not necessarily on the same subject, climate change deniers are able to paint the words with a meaning of their own choosing.

It’s a classic propaganda technique.

Then there’s what the website does to the Stephen Schneider quote.  The late Professor Schneider, who died suddenly last year, was a highly distinguished scientist who in 1992 received a McArthur Fellow “Genius Award”, in 2002 was elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, and in 2007 received part of a collective Nobel Prize for his work with the IPCC.  He was highly vocal in making the public aware of the dangers of climate change.

One day in 1989, in an interview with Discover magazine, Stephen Schneider was discussing the dilemma of being a scientist in a world of sound-bite media.

A scientist has a certain necessary way of working, which Dr. Schneider addressed.  Scientists are not entitled to smooth over problems or issues with their data or their analyses.  “We must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts,” Schneider said.  Scientific protocol requires scientists to address sources of doubt directly, as part of the discussion.  Science, in fact, is all about paying attention to nuance.

However—and this was Schneider’s lament—the media is all about finding a 40 second sound bite for the six o’clock news.  How, therefore, do you communicate to the media about complex issues that need to be talked about, which a scientist has an ethical responsibility to talk about, for example climate change, without—in the forty seconds given you—resorting to caricature in respect of the science?  Schneider refers to this situation as the “double ethical bind.”

“Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest,” he said in respect of communicating to the media under these conditions. “I hope that means being both.”

Later on in the interview Schneider explains how he himself addresses the double-bind by using carefully chosen metaphor, a technique that can both be pithy and quotable in the media while still preserving nuance.

Here is the full quote from the Discover magazine interview.  The highlighted part represents the part of the quote which made it to the climate denier website I visited.

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. (Quoted in Discover, pp. 45–48, Oct. 1989.)

Below is the quote as presented in the climate conspiracy website.  Climate change deniers evidently do not share Professor Schneider’s scruples about distorting the evidence.

We need to get some broad based support,
to capture the public’s imagination…
So we have to offer up scary scenarios,
make simplified, dramatic statements
and make little mention of any doubts…
Each of us has to decide what the right balance
is between being effective and being honest.

 Prof. Stephen Schneider,

Stanford Professor of Climatology,

lead author of many IPCC reports



Professor Schneider himself replies to his misquotes here:

 Don’t Bet All Environmental Changes Will Be Beneficial by Stephen Schneider – APS News

Posted in: climate change