Goodbye, Dr. Schneider

Influential and outspoken climatologist Stephen Schneider died this week of an apparent heart attack. Schneider's friend and colleague Dan Kammen describes Schneider's contributions to climate change research, and recalls the man he knew as "a wonderful, fearless soul."

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Up next, a farewell to Stephen Schneider. Dr. Stephen Schneider, climatologist, he died earlier this week. He was a visible scientist. He was never afraid to speak his mind. He loved to talk about science as a process and its role in society. He was on - I'll give you a flavor if you don't remember Dr. Schneider. He was on the program last February, when the IPCC was coming under criticism in what became known as Climategate. And here is a little bit of clip from that show.

(Soundbite of archived interview)

FLATOW: Stephen Schneider, you have been very vocal about your criticism about how the climate situation has been covered. What bothers you the most about it all?

Dr. SCHNEIDER: Yeah, Ira, as you know, when you said in the beginning, how do we get accurate information? I actually don't like to use the word, because science is not in the world - business of total accuracy. The worst oxymoron I know of is exact science. What we do is we approximate. So you take a complicated problem like climate, you have to break it down to the same components you would in health or in military or in other complex systems, into well-established bits, you know, the parts that are competing explanations and the speculative.

What I've been so annoyed about is this dumbing-down polarization into kind of end-of-the-world and good-for-you extremes, all have Ph.D.'s. How can the public be anything but confused? In fact, end-of-the-world and good-for-you are the two lowest probability outcomes. What we do is we provide bell curves with multiple outcomes and our job is to winnow out the relative probability of these.

And lately, I have actually been, you know, reading about this IPCC-gate. It's frankly a fraudulent frame. The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indeed is a human institution. You know, it's 200 scientists, it goes through multiple rounds of reviews, it's people from all over the world. It's got to have mistakes. That's not the problem.

The problem is when it makes a few mistakes, and these mistakes were discovered largely by the well-oiled multi-million-dollar disinformation engines and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other things, they pointed it out. You know what? They have a right and they should've. IPCC, I think, badly responded by calling the ones who pointed it out voodoo scientists. That's ridiculous. What you have to say is, thank you, we'll check it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SCHNEIDER: When we checked it, two or three of those errors were really bad. What they didn't say, and this is the fraudulent part, is how can you report just a few mistakes and not report the overall track record of the group? It's a man-bites-dog story. So here is the temple of, you know, intellectual science caught in a few errors. And indeed they are. But not to say that when there's a thousand conclusions and no matter how hard the guys search from the other side, they've only found three wrong, my view is - give me a crack team, I could probably find 10.

FLATOW: Dr. Stephen Schneider on our program in February. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Joining me now is Dan Kammen. He's professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was also a professional colleague of Dr. Schneider and a friend. Thanks for being with us today, Dan. What do you remember about Stephen?

Dr. DANIEL M. KAMMEN (University of California, Berkeley): Oh, I think that your quote really captured a lot of it. I mean, Stephen spoke the truth and he researched the truth. He was a leading climate scientist, but as I think the quote, you got head on. He was also willing to talk about the frailties, the human elements. He chronicled his own fight with illness in a book, "Patient from Hell."

For me, what I remember most about Steve - and I miss him already - is the degree to which he viewed the whole thing as part of a social enterprise - doing the research, understanding where it fit in, attacking the misconceptions. And few people are willing to take on that whole agenda.

And Steve was just a master at finding the accurate soundbite but also in delving into the complexities. In that bit you just played, he talked about, you know, dealing with man bites dog, dog bites man, and about probability density distributions. And he's just a wonderful person because he understood the big picture, the detailed science and how people interacted with it. That's rare.

FLATOW: He was interested in the facts.

Prof. KAMMEN: He was, and he respected them. And I like to say about Steve that, you know, he honored the truth and he spoke the truth. And some people are very good at honoring it and discovering it. Other people are good at speaking the truth or trying to make it intelligible.

Steve viewed the mission of all us involved in climate science - in fact, something that he and I and others really call solution science now, trying to find basic science that will help us solve our climate problems - but he viewed that as a continuum. And I wish more people were like Steve in that they lived on the whole continuum.

He set just a wonderful model. In fact, there's a great website on the realclimate.org site, and it's memories of Steve and it's wonderful sets of younger scholars all weighing in to say they either knew him personally and he really influenced them, or they knew him professionally. And the way he approached doing science and being honest about both the victories and the failures, like when the IPCC didn't admit quickly enough what was going on. Steve inspired, I think, a generation in this area.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Dan, I want to thank you for taking time to share your memories.

Prof. KAMMEN: Oh, it's a pleasure. And I do miss him. I think we all do.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks very much. Have a good weekend.

Prof. KAMMEN: You too.

FLATOW: Dan Kammen is professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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