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Scientists' Nightstand: Stephen Schneider

Greg Ross

Stephen Schneider is professor of environmental biology and global change at Stanford University, where he studies the relationship of biological systems to global climate change. Widely active in promoting the public understanding of science, he has served as a Washington consultant since the Nixon administration. His most recent book is The Patient from Hell: How I Worked with My Doctors to Get the Best of Modern Medicine and How You Can Too, which describes how he applied his scientific knowledge of uncertainty in his battle with mantle cell lymphoma, a rare cancer.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself? Stephen SchneiderClick to Enlarge Image

I am a climatologist at Stanford, interested in interdisciplinary problems coupling physical, biological and social scientific input into "integrated assessments" of what constitutes "dangerous" climate changes. I've published recent papers on that in Science (April 2004) and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 2005). I also am very interested in the public understanding of science, and in fact had an opinion piece in American Scientist on how to deal with the media as a scientist—it's not easy! I do media training on this, too, for the Ecological Society of America's Aldo Leopold leadership program. I am also helping to set up interdisciplinary research and teaching efforts at Stanford in integrated environmental studies and stress the formal use of methods to incorporate uncertainties into all assessments. That experience gave me the intellectual tools to press my doctors for modifications to the standard treatments for my cancer and was a true test of faith. I got a "research disease"—there was little data on it. Was I going to apply the methods I advise governments to use on the climate policy issues, given the vast uncertainties? The answer was "hell yes." It took time to convince the medical establishment about that, but eventually they saw the logic—this is all explained in The Patient from Hell.

What books are you currently reading (or have you just finished reading) for your work or for pleasure? Why did you choose them, and what do you think of them?

I wish I had more time for pleasure reading. Right now it is a guide book on Argentina, for which I'm departing shortly. For work, half the books I read are for reviews or jacket comments—Divine Wind, by Kerry Emanuel (Oxford University Press, 2005), and The Weather Makers, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, March 2006).

When and where do you usually read (specific location, time of day, etc.)?

I read mostly on airplanes—it's quiet, not easy to do other things and boring. And better than most of the censored movies they show! Also before bed sometimes, if the book is relaxing, and travel books are not too stressful. When we visit places where there are long drives, we like books on tape: We "read" our friend Jared Diamond's Collapse (Viking, 2005) driving all over the South Island of New Zealand last spring.

Who are your favorite writers (fiction, nonfiction or poetry)? Why?

Though I don't read much poetry anymore, I loved A. E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896) and still revisit it from time to time, as it is only a bit cynical and right on the mark on human behavior. "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" contains my philosophy of precautionary policy:

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.

In other words, work to fix what is broken even if you are not sure—the philosophy I advocate for climate policy and medical treatments.

In nonfiction, I like lots of stuff, with a heavy emphasis on the environmental and the political. I just loved Al Franken's Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them (Dutton, 2003)—insightful, a bit nasty, but mostly playful. I don't read much fiction anymore—there's just not time. I get my literature cravings satisfied primarily by movies and plays. Of course, any political books from the current administration would be fictional, but I'd probably have a hard time stomaching that stuff!

What are the three best books you've ever read? Explain.

This is a hard one, since I would have to choose between "I loved it" and "It changed me." I loved Franken's Liars, but it contained nothing really new, just a reaffirmation that humor covers sadness at the ignorance and brutality of the world. A little book I read 35 years ago really made an impression: Walter Lippman's Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955). Back when journalists had the guts to challenge the patriotic palaver of the Washington establishment, he cut to the chase and laid out a real challenge: How can a democracy work when the public is so far behind the knowledge curve that they can't express sensible opinions on tough issues? Then strong executives have to do it, but this leads to a narrow base of values—a dilemma I have struggled with ever since, and still do.

As an intellectual child, I think John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859) really opened my head to ideas I never heard in school in the 1950s about social contracts, public versus private rights, etc.—all the battles I fight today in both the climate policy and the medical decision-making arenas, where bean-counter dictums help set "medicine-by-the-numbers" prescriptions. And coal company executives have entirely too much influence on political decisions about climate because of inside deals and campaign financing. All that was anticipated in many ways by Mill. Would that we had more like him around now.

What book has influenced you most? Explain how.

As said above, probably Mill, since it alerted me to look for hidden values in public policy pronouncements and to learn about tradeoffs between private and public interests—that is half of what I have been doing for past 30 years.

Name three books you want to read but haven't gotten to yet.

Too many. I'd love to reread the Tolkien trilogy (The Lord of the Rings, 1954), but I took the lazy way out and saw the movies, with full New Zealand scenery to boot. I need to read some books on how to manage stress, but I never manage to open them.

What book recommendations do you have for young readers?

Experiment with different types—fiction, history, nonfiction, fantasy, how-to, political philosophy, etc. Try to develop eclectic tastes—this will make life more interesting. Add some good sports books, too, especially stories of struggle and achievement against odds. Just remember that nobody ever gets it all right, so learn to be a critical reader, too. This is why a broad base of reading is so essential. I did that 35 years ago and less now, but the foundation of skeptical welcoming of contrarian ideas has stayed with me. I am firmly in the doubt-test paradigm, not the faith-trust belief system, and I got that grounding in the broad reading I did from about age 17 onward to my mid-40s.

What science book recommendations do you have for nonscientists?

Jared's Collapse, though I wish it were a bit shorter, is still a very good mix of history, ecology and political philosophy—disguised a bit but very good. Carl Sagan's last book—his least famous—was in my view his best: The Demon-Haunted World (Random House, 1995), about our nonscientific institutions and belief systems that lead to primarily irrational approaches to knowledge and policy. I wish that, too, were a bit shorter and more to the point, but his points are so valuable that I recommend it for nonscientists who can handle long and fully developed arguments and aren't in the faith-trust paradigm and believe that no amount of evidence can shake fundamental ideological or religious beliefs.

Name one book in your discipline that you would recommend for scientists outside your field. Explain your choice.

Tim Flannery's forthcoming book The Weather Makers is a terrific introduction to climate science and policy debate. In my "new field" of cancer treatments, I—with full self-service—recommend my own Patient from Hell for those who have, or are the advocate for ones with, dread diseases. It is the only book I know that is a story and a manual on how to partner with your doctor to get best, not average, treatment. But that is a biased opinion!

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