Schneider’s Last Stand
Science as a Contact Sport
by Stephen Schneider, PhD
290 pages, National Geographic Books, 2010
Warning: Science humor ahead. If you happen to know any physicists, you know they are extremely intelligent, often quirky people. Sometimes they are quite witty. Most often, that wit reveals itself in the form of science jokes that only other scientists can really appreciate. Science as a Contact Sport, the latest book from Nobel Prize-winning physicist and climate scientist Stephen Schneider, PhD, is filled with such humor … and it’s the better for it.
Unfortunately, the book turned out to be Schneider’s last; the author tragically died of a heart attack in July 2010. What was intended to be a look inside the climate war now also stands as a memoir of sorts for Schneider, and a testament to his lifelong commitment to climate science, and his ability to capture the essence of the global warming debate.
In one chapter, Schneider excitedly recounts a seminar during which a scientist challenged Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, noting that the scientific community was not at all in agreement with Ehrlich’s views on population and global famine. Schneider writes: “Paul, always the in-your-face humorist, uttered one of his infamous statements: ‘You know,’ he said, referring to these exalted academics, ‘it isn’t only cream that rises rapidly to the top—and floats.’ It brought the house down.” It’s easy to imagine the author chuckling to himself while recounting the incident.
Whether or not you get the jokes, what Schneider’s humor and casual tone serve to do is to remind us all that scientists, despite the pointy hats, are humans. And that in fact science is the most human of enterprises. If there’s one point that Schneider hammers home again and again, it’s that science is all about making mistakes.
“Science progresses by continuously correcting its conclusions based on new research,” he writes. “You build your case on existing literature, explain what original findings or ideas you are adding, state your assumptions transparently, calculate the consequences as if those assumptions were true, and then redo your calculations after debating with your colleagues, learning more, and reading the latest literature. In science, we are proud of getting the wrong answer for the right reasons, and we’re especially proud if we ourselves are the first to correct it.”
While providing lessons here and there on the atmospheric science behind global warming, Schneider gives readers some insight into how global climate science has progressed, and why climate research has been politically thorny almost since its inception. Those stories are made all the more interesting by the characters involved in them, all big names in the climate science world who are given idiosyncrasies and personalities in Schneider’s stories.
According to Schneider, the arguments over climate science are not just in the political or media arenas, where pundits argue about whether climate change is or isn’t happening. Part of the problem, he notes, lies within the scientific community, where empirical scientists don’t like the idea of any scientist saying “this is what will happen 20 years from now.” Another camp of scientists, those like Schneider who have more of an applied-science approach to research, believe scientists should share what they learn with policy makers in order to have an impact, not just study the impacts of others.
Some chapters read more like Schneider’s diary than anything else, as he recounts in painstaking detail who said what in disagreements over everything from whether the planet is warming or cooling to whether climate scientists should try to influence policy. The reward for digging into the details is a better understanding of not only Schneider and of climate science itself, but also of the relative newness of climate science in the scientific world, and the importance of acting now on the data it has given us, whether or not specific predictions or numbers are 100 percent accurate. The choices we make, after all, are no laughing matter.
— Amy Westervelt