Obits for Schneider Roll In

Reporters pay respect to climate scientist and “mediarologist”

The obituaries for Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider, who suffered a fatal heart attack early Monday morning, are beginning to roll in, with a number of reporters paying their respects to a man who spent a significant amount of his time dealing with the media.

Schneider, who was sixty-five, was a vocal advocate for confronting manmade global warming. He earned the respect of many journalists for his honest and evenhanded explanations of the underlying science.

“Since the early 1970s, [Schneider] had been doing leading-edge research on climate change, earning the respect of colleagues and also of journalists who could trust him to be, not an alarmist or a truth-stretcher, but ruthlessly honest about what we actually know and what we don’t know about the science,” veteran reporter Michael Lemonick wrote for Time.

Lemonick recounted how Schneider had played a starring role in a conference that Time organized back in 1989 after it had taken the “bold and highly visible step” of naming Earth the Planet of the Year. Schneider “had a gift for communicating complex ideas in a clear, straightforward way,” Lemonick recalled, but a couple years after the conference, “he was in TIME’s face, saying we were derelict in not writing [about] climate every week. There wasn’t that much climate news to write about then – but now there is plenty. It’s been our great good luck that Steve Schnieder has been around to help keep that coverage honest for two decades now. It will be a little tougher—and a lot less entertaining—from now on.”

The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin seemed to second that feeling in a post at his blog, Dot Earth:

I first interviewed Schneider in the early 1980s while trying to make sense of the percolating notion of nuclear winter, which Schneider — always following the data — ended up determining would more likely be a “nuclear autumn.” It was his caustic honesty about the complex nature of global warming, and the inherent uncertainties in the science, that kept me returning to him for input from 1988 onward. He was a participant in the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from the beginning until the last days of his life. He encouraged scientists to get out and communicate directly with the public, maintaining a Web page, “Mediarology,” describing the challenges attending such a move.

Indeed, Mediarology was a climate blog and news aggregator before there were climate blogs and news aggregators. The site was only active from 2002 to 2005, but the thoughts that Schneider expressed there about responsible climate reporting still hold true, and should be required reading for anybody new to the beat. In particular, he challenged the notion of traditional journalistic balance when applied to climate coverage, writing:

In reporting political, legal, or other advocacy-dominated stories, it is both natural and appropriate for honest journalists to report “both sides” of an issue. Got the Democrat? Better get the Republican!

In science, it’s different. There are rarely just two polar opposite sides, but rather a spectrum of potential outcomes, oftentimes accompanied by a considerable history of scientific assessment of the relative credibility of these many possibilities.

To the very end, Schneider’s concern for climate reporting remained strong. In late June, his lab made headlines when it released a controversial study that categorized climate scientists as either “convinced” or “unconvinced” by the basic tenets of manmade global warming. The study found that 97 to 98 percent of “expert” climate scientists (i.e. those “most actively publishing in the field”) fall into the former category, and was, in part, geared toward helping journalists find the right expert.

On Monday morning, mere hours before news of Schneider’s death began to circulate, Washington Post blogger Andrew Freedman had a post headlined “Climate expert warns of blogosphere’s divisiveness,” based on an interview that the climatologist had recently done with Stanford Magazine, in which he worried about the fragmented and sometimes vitriolic media landscape.

Schneider, who authored the 2009 book Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth’s Climate, was a central figure in last year’s so-called “Climategate” affair. He defended his fellow scientists against the onslaughts of conservative media pundits, and called those who sent the scientists hate mail “cowards.” Schneider told Stanford Magazine that the affair might have delayed the enactment of climate legislation in the U.S. by a few years. While he expressed hope that the current “generation of kids” would “make a difference” in the country’s environmental future, however, he was less certain about its current government (and reporters), saying:

The bad news is the Congress is starting to act like the media. They’re looking like they’re such a deeply broken, short-term-focused institution that the average Senator defines the national interest by the powerful constituencies in the state. How about the country? Planetary interest? Not even on the radar screen. So what we end up with, often, is the best Congress that money can buy.

Getting around that impasse will, of course, be no easy feat, and there is no saying for sure that Schneider would have witnessed the breakthrough had he lived another ten years. But he did his part—for science and for journalism—in the time he had.

“It would be worthwhile for scientists, citizens, and reporters to better understand each other’s paradigms,” he once wrote on Mediarology. “We live in complex and confusing times, and rationality (that is, knowing enough about what might happen and how likely it is, and being willing to change our current beliefs given challenging new evidence) is the only way to clearly define our values when it is time to make policy — and that is the job of all citizens, including journalists and scientists.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.