No grey areas in a green's world

September 19, 2003

Some researchers fear that the environmental lobby is turning away from scientific balance to push an anti-capitalist agenda by 'scaring the hell out' of people. Chris Bunting investigates

Stephen Schneider has two claims to fame. He is one of the world's leading climate-change specialists and, for some opponents of the environmental movement, he is a classic case of a scientist willing to prostitute his discipline for radical political ends.

The second, unwanted reputation harks back 15 years to an interview the Stanford University professor gave to the Pulitzer-prizewinning writer Jonathan Schell for Discover magazine. One now infamous part of that interview, in which Schneider explained his attitude towards getting his message across in public debate, has been repeated in hundreds of publications ranging from The Economist to www.taxidermy.net .

It has been quoted so many times that there are different versions of what Schneider said, but here is one version from the late business professor Julian Simon: "Scientists should consider stretching the truth to get some broad-base 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 about any doubts we might have... Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

It is a gross misquotation. Schneider never said the first part about scientists "stretching the truth", that was not in the original Discover article but was added by the attack dogs of the anti-environmentalist right. He did say the middle part, or words to that effect, which he claims was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek caricature of dealing with the media, but his vital qualification is invariably missed out by his critics: "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."

He also says he explained to Schell how scientists could be "both effective and honest: by using metaphors that convey both urgency and uncertainty, and also by producing supporting documents ranging from opinion pieces to full articles to full books where there is enough time and place to elaborate on the 'ifs' and 'buts' in the detail they deserve, but these will rarely receive adequate attention in public debates dominated by advocates, sound bites and short 'in-a-box' statements".

So the man who is supposed to exemplify the purposeful distortion of the environmental debate by green radicals is himself being misrepresented. But what does Schneider think of the claim that some environmentalists have been fast and loose with scientific truth? "Groups like Greenpeace very often grab the worst case," he says. "There are people who are paid to make paralysis in this debate. There are greens who want to scare the hell out of you.

"For over three decades, this has been my repeated frustration in dealing with the climate-change controversy, and it seems to be getting worse as stakeholders increasingly select information out of context to protect their interests while clear exposition and balanced assessment sinks even lower on the priority list of advocate-driven debates."

For Schneider, the "almost religious fervour of the emotive enviros" is as damaging to attempts to have an informed public debate about environmental dangers as the manipulations of some anti-environmentalists. "At the Kyoto conference (in 1997), the enemy was the industry groups. We were hearing deceitful stuff about unemployment spiralling if anything was done or global warming being good for us. At the Hague conference (in 2000), it was the greens."

Criticism of the environmental pressure groups' sometimes tendentious relationship with scientific findings is not limited to the climate-change debate. Paul Nurse, the new president of Rockefeller University in New York and winner of the Nobel prize for research on cancer biology, says he is a natural sympathiser with groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, but he has become concerned at their mixing of science and sensationalism.

"It has been particularly around all this GM (genetic modification) stuff. There are important issues to be explored, but they have been creating a panic by putting up these Frankenstein dangers. I have quite a lot of sympathy with the worries about domination in this area by big GM companies, but I also think there is real potential for GM in improving the world. Do you hear Greenpeace talking much about the GM strain of 'golden rice' that may prevent blindness in millions of children?

"Scientists have in the past tended to be key movers in the environmental movement. The ozone layer was all about traditional science, but I think maybe these campaigns have gone too much towards public relations and media people running the show. If we keep having these scare stories, there is a danger to society that we don't debate these complicated issues properly."

Patrick Moore, an ecologist and former president of Greenpeace Canada, has been waging a verbal war against his old organisation since giving up his membership in 1986, long before GM technology was on the scene. He believes the treatment of the issue by the main campaigning groups is part of a bigger trend. He quotes the Greenpeace campaign against the disposal of the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea as an example of a campaign with little scientific backing but massive sensational appeal.

"The green movement was always a broad church. There always were mystics in the movement, but happened in the late 1980s was that, with the end of communism, you started seeing a lot of hard-core leftists coming in and you started to see political agendas to do with anti-capitalism taking there were also people who were basically science-trained and were helping to drive things. What over. That is what is behind the GM thing. They are ideologically against the big companies that are involved, and the science is being manipulated to scare people," he says.

The THES has spoken to a number of other scientists who have given up membership of Greenpeace as a result of feeling alienated by the organisation's apparent willingness to play on popular fear of scientific work in fields such as GM and nanotechnology.

But what does such criticism mean? There have always been scientists opposed to the environmental lobby, and all organisations experience a turnover in membership. Scientists have been leaving campaigning environmental groups over the past five years in their thousands, but they have also been joining in their thousands.

Doug Parr, chief scientist of Greenpeace UK, says his organisation cooperates closely with scientists across all of its work and he hasn't noticed a chilling of the relationship. Greenpeace funds its own research laboratories at Exeter University, and much of the success of the GM campaign relied on close relationships with researchers in the field.

Ian Willmore, spokesman for Friends of the Earth, says that the environmental lobby's general approach to the GM controversy and other environmental issues is appealing to many scientists. "We are arguing for a 'precautionary principle', which means that if we don't know the exact shape of the risk we are facing, then we should have more testing before taking the risk. Our opponents are saying we don't need the research. Which is more scientific?"

However, both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace stress that they are advocates, not research councils. "The Frankenstein imagery is of a powerful science turning against its creators and we are worried about that in terms of the risks of GM," Parr says. "In summarising, you have to use allegory. You cannot just ask people to read 50 pages of research. You are communicating truthfully but also effectively."

Highly effectively, says Wyn Grant, professor of politics at the University of Warwick and a keen observer of the environmental pressure groups. "They can be a little bit economical with the truth. We saw that in the Brent Spar episode, but all the poll evidence shows that they are trusted by the public. In fact, scientists are held in less regard than these people. What is striking about Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth is how much they can get away with. If they were politicians doing what they do, they would have a lot of the media on them."

That fool's paradise may not remain forever, Grant says. He believes a shift of scientific opinion against the environmentalist movement may have damaging long-term effects. "If the public starts to see scientists from universities - not from companies, but scientists seen as being in some way above the fray - criticising these groups, then we might see damage to their credibility. What it is critical for Greenpeace and such groups to understand is that once you have lost public trust, you cannot get it back."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments