Monday, July 19, 2010

RIP Stephen Schneider

I learnt tonight that Stanford Professor Stephen Schneider has died. This is a great pity.

In July 2009 I was looking into the use of language to describe statistical concepts and wrote a blog post about it. I was using as a reference the language used in climate change documents and I wrote to Professor Schneider with a query (he's the person referenced in the blog post). He was courteous and helpful, so by way of remembrance I reproduce our exchange. He had no idea who I was and treated me with great respect.

Re: Query about IPCC language used to express confidence
From: Stephen H Schneider to John, Richard
Date: 7/14/09

Thanks John, good question. It was negotiated by several rounds of email peer review, and the guidance paper was no more than that--guidance in the TAR. SOme working groups evolved their own tweaks to it in the TAR, and in AR 4 a formal group got together and redid it again so the margins evolved. Still evolving. Richard, anything to add?

Cheers, Steve


Stephen H. Schneider
Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies,
Professor, Department of Biology and
Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
Mailing address:
Yang & Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building - MC 4205
473 Via Ortega
Ph: 650 725 9978
F: 650 725 4387
Websites: climatechange.net
patientfromhell.org


----- Original Message -----
From: "John Graham-Cumming"
To: [email protected]
Sent: Monday, July 13, 2009 8:44:24 AM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific
Subject: Query about IPCC language used to express confidence

Stephen,

I'm writing to ask a quick question about an apparent change in the confidence intervals used by the IPCC. Specifically, in the 2000 "Uncertainties in the IPCC TAR" paper that you authored with Moss you refer to Morgan and Henrion, 1990 with five levels of confidence. I'm particularly interested in the top level which is "Very High Confidence" being >95%. In the "Guidance Notes for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Addressing Uncertainties" the recommendation is that "Very High Confidence" be >90%.

Do you know where I'd go to look to find how that language was decided upon? I'm interested in why the confidence interval was widened.

BTW I'm not looking for ammunition for climate change denial... I'm interested in the interpretation of statistics and wanted to blog a little about them.

John.

The exchange continued:

From: Stephen H Schneider to John
Date: 7/14/09

sure John. I forgot to ask if you had the original guidance paper--in case not attached--have fun with your blog, Steve


Stephen H. Schneider
Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies,
Professor, Department of Biology and
Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment
Mailing address:
Yang & Yamazaki Environment & Energy Building - MC 4205
473 Via Ortega
Ph: 650 725 9978
F: 650 725 4387
Websites: climatechange.net
patientfromhell.org


----- Original Message -----
From: "John Graham-Cumming" [email protected]
- Hide quoted text -
To: "Stephen H Schneider" [email protected]
Cc: "Richard Moss" [email protected]
Sent: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 1:31:24 AM GMT -08:00 US/Canada Pacific
Subject: Re: Query about IPCC language used to express confidence

Thank you for taking the time to reply. I'll try to write up a short
blog post about this. I thought it was rather interesting because
it's difficult for people to interpret statistics and he attempt to
come up with clear language is worth talking about.

John.

Note how he sent me a document he thought I would find useful without me asking.

Top bloke.

1 comment:

hga-another said...

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.

I read the above in its original, dead tree context (a Discover interview) and contrary to his subsequent claims, the above is exactly what it sounds like.

I can't say the world was a better place because of Stephen Schneider or that it has been diminished by his passing. The advocacy science that he exemplified, in his case first chasing the pre-'80s anthropogenic global cooling meme and then global warming is an insult to all real scientists and an existential threat to what we try to accomplish.