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Matthews writes: "But in reality, the goal of this column is not to help readers learn how to reason with people who are skeptical about climate change. Instead, the column reinforces the idea that those people might have a point."

Bret Stephens, then still at the Wall Street Journal, during a Christians United for Israel summit, July 13, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Bret Stephens, then still at the Wall Street Journal, during a Christians United for Israel summit, July 13, 2015, in Washington, D.C. (photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bret Stephens' First Column for the New York Times Is Classic Climate Change Denialism

By Susan Matthews, Slate

30 April 17


It doesn’t outright reject the facts—which makes it all the more insidious.

he weekend after the New York Times announced it was hiring Bret Stephens—a conservative formerly of the Wall Street Journal whom some consider a climate change denier—to be its new columnist, I got into a fight with my mother. She was defending his hiring, arguing that he held views that many people hold, and that perhaps allowing him to put them on the pages of the New York Times would allow the paper to regain its position as a news source that can be trusted by people on both sides of the political spectrum. She was right that the public no longer seems to agree on what truth is, but she was wrong conclusion that bringing Stephens on would help us resolve this.

His debut column, “Climate of Complete Certainty,” published on Friday, supports my theory. The thesis of the column is that we would do well to remember that there are fair reasons why people might be skeptical of climate change, and that claiming certainty on the matter will only backfire. He casts himself as a translator between the skeptics and the believers, offering a lesson “for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy.” Technically, he doesn’t get any facts wrong. Painting himself as a moderate, he says it is “indisputable” that warming is happening and is caused by humans. From one angle, his point is quite familiar—it’s actually one that has been made somewhat frequently lately, and by liberal-leaning outlets, too: Shoving the certainty of fact down people’s throats is not the way to get them to change their minds, and it’s high time we try something else.

But in reality, the goal of this column is not to help readers learn how to reason with people who are skeptical about climate change. Instead, the column reinforces the idea that those people might have a point. The New York Times push notification that went out Friday afternoon about the column said as much—“reasonable people can be skeptical about the dangers of climate change,” it read. That is not actually true, and nothing that Stephens writes makes a case for why it might be true. This column is not a lesson for people who want to advance good climate policy. Instead, it is a dog whistle to people who feel confused about climate change. It’s nothing more than textbook denialism.

Stephens starts with the unprecedented and embarrassing loss of Hillary Clinton. The Clinton team, he says, “thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.” Stephens is apparently dredging up this point to remind us all to be humble—we have a tendency to be overconfident in our data, he reminds us, we got this one wrong, and we are damned if we forget it. (I would assert that we certainly have not forgotten it, since it’s the entire reason why Stephens now has his job, but no matter.)

He then goes on to compare the Clinton failure and the science on climate change. “Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?” he asks facetiously.

I will be honest, I do not know what “100 percent of truth” means. But I do know what Stephens is doing here. He is sowing the seeds of epistemic uncertainty. He is telling readers that the experts’ wrongness during the 2016 election is a good justification for doubting other established facts. People are right to look around at the institutions we once held onto and to doubt the veracity of the information they give us. It is entirely reasonable to stop trusting expertise, Stephens subtly suggests. Remember Clinton?

This is a classic strain of climate change denialism. Stephens does not call a single fact into question throughout his piece. Instead, he’s telling his readers that their decision not to trust the entire institution of science that supports the theory of climate change might actually be reasonable. “Ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism,” he writes. “They know—as all environmentalists should—that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.” Trust nothing, he urges, for nothing deserves trust.

The institutions Stephens questions in his column are not singular entities but entire ideas—scientists who may not see their biases, statistical models that might be skewed, liberals who may be so swayed by their ideology. His argument is convincing because the institutions he mentions can make mistakes. It’s true, there are some problems with how we use probabilities in science. We tend to be bad at distinguishing between correlation and causation. Sometimes our biases do get in the way. Stephens knows this, and he taps into it in his piece. “Much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities,” he suggests. You have to be an idiot or a zealot to believe climate change is certain, whispers the subtext.

Regardless of what Stephens says in this column, and regardless of Clinton’s modeling failures, climate change is a terrible threat to life as we know it on this planet. Anyone who wants to honestly investigate the data will come to the same conclusion that the scientific establishment has—climate change is real, and dangerous. Our failures elsewhere—even in the disturbing wake of the election of Donald J. Trump—do not negate that. The questions are no longer whether and how but how soon and how bad. Climate change is happening, and “claiming total certainty about the science” does not “traduce the spirit of science.” Instead, it is a reasonable interpretation of the science at hand.

The final shoe drops in the last lines of the piece:

Perhaps if there had been less certitude and more second-guessing in Clinton’s campaign, she’d be president. Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.

What he is suggesting here is that the rational way to go forward with a conversation about climate change is to admit that climate change might not be certain. This is similar to the torturous logic he puts forward throughout the rest of the piece—the only way to be reasonable about this topic is to give in to those who are unreasonable about it. While he calmly insists he is the only logical person around, he is spewing complete bullshit.

Of the many other dishonest ideas floated through the column—and there are many, including that lots of Americans are skeptical of climate change (they’re not), and that the skepticism is caused by doubts about the data (it isn’t)—the idea that truth may not be knowable is the most insidious. That Stephens doesn’t bother to cite which climate change facts are uncertain may be because he knows exactly what he is doing and he’s aware he wouldn’t win that argument. Or it may be because he himself has fallen prey to his own argument about epistemic uncertainty and so he no longer thinks the evidence matters.

Either way, his accusation—that it is not the facts you should question, but the entire system that creates facts at all—is terrifying. It’s much scarier and more damaging than anything I thought he’d put in the paper. I assumed he might mess up a fact or two. That would have been bad, but it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. Facts, after all, can be corrected.

But the New York Times cannot easily correct this one. In publishing this article, the paper of record did something that will be much harder to reverse: It conceded that it is more important to remain palatable to a larger group of people than to maintain its standards of truth and logic and good argument. In this age when the very concepts of reality, facts, and honesty are under attack, this should scare us. Stephens may be wrong about most things but he was right about one—some institutions no longer deserve to be trusted. your social media marketing partner


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+28 # mashiguo 2017-04-30 14:19
the attempt to equate the 'facts' of clinton's sociological surveys with the 'facts' of 27 cubic miles of ice disappearing from antarctica every year is laughable.

it is only possible to even present such a ludicrous juxtaposition in the context of the totally failed educational model America has been following for a number of decades.

Needless to say, that system is about to get much worse as Trump tries to create an educational system he can understand with his tiny little, uh, hands....

is there any hope?
isn't even the outrage at this kind of intellectual fraud just wasted?
0 # Farafalla 2017-04-30 22:19
When Trump was inaugurated I subscribed to the NYT in hopes of seeing the liberal establishment take a stand and resist Trump. It almost looked that way. My NYT subscription is 14USD per month. My RSN subsription is 10USD per month. Now that the grey lady has proven to me that liberal established institutions cannot be trusted, I am now going to cancel my brand new NYT subscription and raise my RSN subscription to 14USD per month. I'll still get my 10 free articles a month on the NYT, but I will spend considersble more time reading RSN. Frankly, the NYT can go fuck itself. They have betrayed the planet.
+1 # BobboMax 2017-04-30 22:44
In the last century, Stephens would have been arguing that it hasn't been proven that smoking causes lung cancer.

It's disturbing that the NYT has not only hired a climate change denier, but has also enabled his publishing such a smarmy column.

WaPo is publishing Trump's self-congratula tory op-ed, the NYT is flacking climate deniers- no wonder Ms. Palin complains about the lame-stream media.
+1 # Jaax88 2017-04-30 23:07
No matter what, intellectual fraud about climate change must be fought and disputed
by facts and rational voices. The outrage is not wasted if the public continues the fight against Stephens and the more extreme views and actions of the fossil fuel owners and people like Pruitt.
0 # treerapper 2017-05-01 03:41
The NYT continues to wander down the "wanna be right" road. You would think, just from a financial perspective, that they are barking up the wrong tree as their label amongst those on the right is "liberal press" - that dirty word. I really wonder what game they are playing? You would imagine it's enough of a struggle for a newspaper to stay afloat these days without infuriating your paying subscribers and causing them to jump ship. Wonder how many very nasty emails and letters they have received ion addition to mine? Hope it buries them
+2 # tedrey 2017-05-01 07:03
Please Read carefully.

Science is never about complete certainty. Religion and metaphysics are, maybe, but not science.

Science says that when carefully observed and tested evidence lead to high probability, that determines the beliefs and actions to bet on.

Science always remembers that it may be mistaken, but also never forgets the evidence that it is betting on and what new evifence would be necessary to question that belief.

Science leaves it open to question anything, but it does not insist on doubting everything equally.

Both science and common sense say that, lacking other evidence, to follow 97% probability over 3% probability is the sane and safe choice.

In light of the preponderance of our present evidence the reality of climate change is the belief to bet on for our survival.

Is Stephens a fool who doesn't comprehend the simplest thing about science or a scoundrel who doesn't want us to?
+1 # wcandler1 2017-05-01 07:36
I don't get the analogy. When the Super Delegates chose Clinton, everyone knew that Bernie had a better chance of beating Trump. The super delegates may have been wrong in thinking Hillary could beat Trump, but there was general agreement that if the objective was to beat Trump, then Bernie should have been the candidate...... What has any of this to do with Climate Change?
+1 # tclose 2017-05-01 08:04
Ms. Mathews does a good job of exposing the subtle logical inconsistency of Bret Stephen's piece. A dangerous and fatuous piece of work by Stephens, that will serve to extend the outlier status of the US compared to other nations in non-acceptance of climate science.

The NYT should rethink the logic of accepting into its fold someone who is so clearly at variance with its expressed principles.
-7 # 2017-05-01 10:16
I suggest everyone read the column. He is merely recommending rational discussion of the issue in lieu of the hysteria and exaggerations and name-calling that have undermined the credibility of warmist assertions.

Warmist predictions of temperature have been abysmally inaccurate -- the climate has not warmed to even the lowest levels predicted by any of the IPCC models. Warmist claims regarding severe weather events are belied by the rather significant drop in tornedo and hurricane events and the lackluster severity of those events. And I could go on to debunk many other warmist claims that are patently untrue but space does not allow.

None of this means that greenhouse gases don't increase temperatures (they do). Nor does it mean that we humans have not been a primary cause of the increase in greenhouse gases (we have). It means that projecting the effects of our fossil fuel burning activities is inherently unknowable given the current state of human scientific knowledge. And this means that listening to everyone -- warmists and skeptics -- can help us all get a better understanding of what is going on and stop all the name-calling and smearing that so often infects warmist screeds on the issue.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
+2 # librarian1984 2017-05-01 14:49
Saw the NYT executive editor on a show this weekend. He had two defenses: first, that Stephens was on the opinion side, run by James Bennett, while he ran the so-called news side. Side step!

What came next was offensive and absurd. He said the Times has a long history of hiring conservatives like William Safire -- as if a HISTORY of bad decisions makes the latest one a virtue. (Points for consistency?) Then he said, "Didn't we learn from this past election that our goal should be to understand different views and have a true debate"?! Followed by "Don't we want to surface all ideas?"?!

The bitching and moaning at the WH Correspondents' Dinner was quite a spectacle. How DARE Donald Trump insult us, they said. We are NOT fake news, they protested. We are NOT the enemy of the people, wounded to be thus characterized, these people who colluded to give us the Iraq War, who empowered Trump and betrayed Sanders, who report what the establishment and their corporate owners want them to report, and don't report what they're not supposed to, like Standing Rock and Flint and bombing civilians on and on.

But we're supposed to respect journalism as it's practised in the US? A snowflake press wrapping itself in the Constitution and betraying the citizenry every day, millionaire divas who party with politicians and blur their mission, morphing from watchdog to lapdog for the price of a few hors' doeuvres and, like Rachel Maddow, $30,000 a day.
+1 # BrainiacV 2017-05-01 15:02
Remember, cigarette smoking does not cause cancer. Trickle down economics will make everyone rich. With tax cuts the rich will invest and create jobs.

The latest one, even if we did all the recommended steps, it would only lower global temperatures less than a degree.

Completely missing the point that it would be reversing the temperature rising trend.

Like smoking, climate change is too slow to scare anyone, especially when there is money to be made while denying it.
+1 # newell 2017-05-03 12:35
The NYT has multiple personalities. They chose to back Clinton over Sanders, who did better in poll match-ups against Trump and they have never taken a stance against oil and climate change. That said they have taken many progressive stands and are still the most influential paper in the nation. They just can't take a stand against the 1% and established politics.

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