Honestly, it is hard to have an honest conversation about science with science obstructors or deniers. That is how you know you are conversing with a denier. You try to have the conversation, and it gets derailed by cherry picking, misdirection, faux misunderstanding, or lies.
I don’t care how far a person is from understanding a scientific concept or finding. I don’t care how complex and nuanced such a finding is. As long as the science is in an area that I comfortable with as a scientist, educator, and science communicator, I’ll take up the challenge of transforming scientific mumbo jumbo into normal descriptive language or an appropriate story, so the person gets from not having a clue to getting the basic idea. That’s for regular people having an honest conversation, which generally includes students.
But that is often not how it goes.
A common theme in the non-honest conversation is false balance. The fact that there is an opposing view, regardless of its merits or lack of merit, is sufficient to insist that that view be on the table and given a fair hearing. Someone recently said that global warming is not real because CO2 molecules are the same temperature as the other molecules in the atmosphere, an utterly irrelevant thing meant to confuse and misdirect. That statement is not a required part of an honest conversation, it is utterly non-honest, and should be ignored as nefarious yammering. But, we often see media giving equal weight to such yammering, ignoring the motives behind it.
You already know that the New York Times has hired an OpEd columnist who has a history of denial of science, including climate science. He also has a history of analyses of social or political things that has offended a lot of people.
When pressed to reconsider, by the scientific community widespread, the New York Times responded that lots of people agree with this columnist about climate change, therefore his hire is legit. Here, the New York Times is guilty of false balance, of giving credence to senseless yammering as though it was the same as real science.
I personally don’t like the idea of having a lot of far right wing (or even medium right wing) columnists in a publication that I pay for, so I don’t subscribe to such publications. But, major national media outlets are going to have a range of columnists and commenters, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. That is why I am happy to subscribe to the Washington Post even though there are a few right wing columnists there.
But here’s the thing. A columnist with a hard right viewpoint is one thing. An Editorial Staff that allows columnists, of any political stripe, to abuse reality and misstate facts about science in order to make a political point is incompetent.
Readers should expect editors to strictly enforce the concept that columnists are very much entitled to their own opinions, but in no way entitled to their own facts. The New York Times is making the mistake of confusing objections to this columnist with an attempt to silence a particular point of view. That is not what it is. Rather, the objections are to the New York Times editorial policy, on the OpEd page, supporting alt-facts.
The facts at risk of denigration and dismissal here are widely accepted and established, usually. In some cases, there are uncertainties that are dishonestly exploited and incorrectly characterized, which is pretty much the same thing as trying to have one’s opinions and one’s facts at the same time: not valid commentary and bad journalistic practice. This particular columnist has exploited the fact that there is variation in nature to assert that there is variation in scientific opinion. This is a misreading of both nature and science, coming from someone who knows little about either, and that misreading is being sanctioned by the people who run the New York Times.
I don’t care, and I think most don’t care, if he New York Times has a right winger like Bret Stephens on the OpEd staff. But if the editors of that section of this news outlet allow this individual or any columnist to misrepresent important aspects of reality, as he very much did in his very first column just out, then that editorial staff is acting unprofessionally and should probably look for a job at one of those entertainment outlets that disguises itself as “news.”
I’m pretty sure that at this time the editors at the New York Times do not understand this distinction. Keep your conservative columnist, Grey Lady, that’s up to you. Some will like that, some will not. But do know that you can’t keep being thought of as the paper of record if you allow frequent and unchecked abuse of facts and reality within that discourse. That is just a bad idea, beneath such a widely respected publication, and I and others expect it to stop soon.