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.
Right in the middle, between the Trump-inspired March for Science, and the Trump-inspired People’s Climate March, the New York times managed to come down firmly on the side of climate and science denial, in its editorial pages.
This week sees the first NYT installment by the ex Wall Street Journal columnist and author Bret Stephens (also former editor of the The Jerusalem Post). He is a professional contrarian, well known for his denial of the importance and reality of climate change, as well as other right wing positions. I assume the New York Times added Stephens to their stable of opinion writers to appease the new Republican Majority in Washington DC. And, maybe that is a good idea. But they should have gone with a principled conservative who is interested in things like facts, rather going with a modern philistine like this guy.
Just consider this all too cute sentence with which he attempts to dazzle his readers.
Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.
First, let’s admit that time passes, so a 2014 report based on pre-existing information mainly from a year or two earlier is out of date in 2017, in a dynamic, rapidly changing field like climate change. As I note here, it is becoming increasingly common for climate science deniers to use the aging IPCC report to make an outdated point. The IPCC report is a good starting point for understanding the scientific basis of climate change, but it is not a current document and should not be treated like one. Editors of the New York Times, please take note of this and hold your columnists to a higher standard.
Or, for that matter, hold them to any standard at all with respect to fact checking. Stephens’ 0.85 degrees has to refer to the planet, not the Northern Hemisphere, as he claims. The editors of the New York Times still think the Earth is round, with hemispheres, right? I would hope so. Also, we understand that this average (the 0.85 for the globe, or the higher value for the Northern Hemisphere) is a low ball estimate for two reasons. One is statistical, as explained in the IPCC report Stephens pretends to have read. The other is because the estimates have a problem now being increasingly realized in that they ignore a lot of earlier warming. (This all has to do with baselines and confusions about them, and the often unexamined and incorrect assumption that the first century of burning coal does not count because it was so long ago. Trust me, it counts.)
And, that is not a modest number. It is a significant number, and the warming in the pipeline which will not go away on with wishful thinking from climate contrarian columnists, is an even larger and even more significant number.
But never mind the pesky details such as facts. Or that he separates the indisputable form the probabilistic, when it is all probabilistic and none is indisputable (science is not really ever indisputable). His overall argument is utterly stupid.
Listen: he says that Hillary Clinton read the polling data wrong, a certainty (her victory in November) turned out to not happen, therefore we should not put much stock in a widespread scientific consensus as we have for the basics of climate change. I note, however, that the chance of Clinton winning was around 50-50, and that only one candidate can win. And, oh, yes, she did win the popular vote, which is actually the measure were are talking about when referring to polling data. So, Stephens has that totally wrong. As your analogy goes, so goes the rest of your argument, Bret.
Stephens’ run up to this point involves some very attractive conspiratorial ideation (very attractive if you are a conspiracy theorist, that is) using the argument that the more sure science is of something, the more likely it is to be a complete lie based on a vast conspiracy. That whole idea is so conspiratorial that I was forced to use the word “conspiracy” or a form of it three times in one sentence and five times in one paragraph. How about that?
I’m pretty sure Stephens was listening to the widespread complaints about his hiring at the NYT, and perhaps heeding his masters’ voice in the editorial room, because he does in the end admit that climate change is real and mostly what the scientists say. He has, rather, adopted a rather Revkinesque view of climate change — and I know this is Revkinesque because Stephens blames this half assed idea directly on Andy Revkin twice in this one column. That view is this: Breathless yammering about climate change has now and then emanated from out of control hippies who don’t know the science. Therefore, the science is less certain than the scientists say it is.
OMG, what hogwash. I can rearrange the letters in the name of a great American President to spell hairball conman. Therefore that president was a hairball conman.
What is to be said about a columnist who responds in his first installment to an honest and widespread critique by scientists and their supporters by making so many foolish statements about science? I’m not sure, but wise people say this is a reason to cancel their subscription to the New York Times in protest.
The New York Times has often been a little iffy on climate change, but it has not been a total rag. The Grey Lady’s reputation took a real hit in this area with the addition of Stephens. Even the other writers at the New York Ties are put off by it.
More reactions to Bret Stephens
<li>Sou at Hot Whopper: <a href="http://blog.hotwhopper.com/2017/04/bret-stephens-lowers-bar-for.html">Bret Stephens lowers the bar for intellectual honesty and more @NYTimes</a></li>
In his very first NYT article you’d not have guessed that Bret Stephens had ever been awarded a Pulitzer. You’d not have known that he was a journalist at all, let alone one with any sort of reputation. You’d have thought he was a …
<li>Graham Readfearn at Desmog: <a href="https://www.desmogblog.com/2017/04/27/another-leading-climate-scientist-cancels-new-york-times-over-hrting-climate-denialist-bret-stephens">Climate Scientists Cancelling Their New York Times Subscription Over Hiring of Climate Denialist Bret Stephens</a></li>
Stephens wrote several columns while at the WSJ disparaging climate science and climate scientists, which he has collectively described as a “religion” while claiming rising temeperatures may be natural.
The NYT has been defending its decision publicly, saying that “millions of people” agree with Stephens on climate science and just because their readers don’t like his opinions, that doesn’t mean …
<li>Dana Nuccitelli at The Guardian: <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/apr/29/ny-times-hired-a-hippe-puncher-to-give-climate-obstructionists-cover?CMP=share_btn_tw">NY Times hired a hippie puncher to give climate obstructionists cover</a></li>
Most importantly, the global warming we’ve experience is in no way “modest.” We’re already causing a rate of warming faster than when the Earth transitions out of an ice age, and within a few decades we could be causing the fastest climate change Earth has seen in 50 million years. The last ice age transition saw about 4°C global warming over 1,000 years; humans are on pace to cause that much warming between 1900 and 2100 – a period of just 200 years, with most of that warming happening since 1975.
Of course, how much global warming we see in the coming decades depends on …
<li>Joe Romm at Think Progress: <a href="https://thinkprogress.org/the-ny-times-promised-to-fact-check-their-new-climate-denier-columnist-they-lied-72ad9bdf6019">The NY Times promised to fact check their new climate denier columnist?—?they lied</a></li>
The very first column the New York Times published by extreme climate science denier Bret Stephens is riddled with errors, misstatements, unfair comparisons, straw men, and logical fallacies.
Leading climatologist Dr. Michael Mann emailed ThinkProgress: “This column confirms my worst fear: That the NY Times management is now willingly abetting climate change denialism.”
<li>Osita Nwanevu in Slate on <a href="http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2017/04/26/let_s_read_bret_stephens_terrible_horrible_no_good_very_bad_vox_interview.html">Bret Stephens sexist and racist remarks about rape</a></li>
Here is Stephens’ exchange on campus rape:
Jeff Stein: You wrote, “If modern campuses were really zones of mass predation — Congo on the quad — why would intelligent young women even think of attending a coeducational school?” My question to you is: Isn’t it necessary for women to attend these coeducational schools for their economic and educational advancement? Isn’t it possible that’s why they’d be there even if there’s a higher risk of sexual assault?
Bret Stephens: Of course it is. But if sexual assault rates in, let’s say, east Congo were about 20 percent, most people wouldn’t travel to those places. Because that is in fact — or, that would be, in fact, the risk of being violently sexually assaulted.
(I’d like to point out that a traveller’s chance of rape in a “place like E. Congo” is not the same as the chance of a woman who lives there. Not that it is a particularly safe place to go, but Bret Stephens exhibits here an excellent example of the Ignorance of Privilege and how it can be used to make excuses for bad male behavior and scare the bejesus out of white people. – gtl)
<li>From Peter Sinclair at Climate Denial Crock of the Week: <a href="https://climatecrocks.com/2017/04/27/climate-scientist-to-nytimes-cancel-my-sub/">Climate Scientist (Stefan Rahmstorf) to NYTimes. Cancel my Sub</a></li>
When Stephens was hired I wrote to you in protest about his spreading of untruths about climate change, saying “I enjoy reading different opinions from my own, but this is not a matter of different opinions.” I did not cancel then but decided to wait and see. However, the subsequent public defense by the New York Times of the hiring of Stephens has convinced me that…
The New York Times
Elizabeth Spayed, Public Editor
I am writing to express my concern for the addition of Bret Stephens to the NYT team as a columnist.
I don’t expect a columnist who seemingly writes about everything to be wrong about nothing. But the Gray Lady should, at the very least, expect a columnist to know something about something.
Stephens doesn’t simply express opinions that are not popular in certain, many, circles. He attempts to support his opinions with what we now seem to be calling alt-facts.
For example, his opinion about the importance of climate change is that we don’t know what climate change will really do, if it will really do anything, or when. He supports this idea by asserting that there is too much uncertainty in the science for us to know.
Elizabeth, you must know that science is nothing if it is not the study of variation in nature and its causes and properties. While the public face of many scientific findings is often the trend line showing the relationship between two variables, much of the science itself is about the uncertainty around that trend line; measuring, understanding the limits and extent of, and grappling with uncertainty is what scientists do.
As a scientist (not a climate scientist, though I’ve published in that area) and a science communicator, I can tell you that when Mr. Stephens makes the claim that there is too much uncertainty about anthropogenic climate change to say much about it, he is simply wrong. He does not know the science, he has made up this thing that looks like a fact, and he has used it to buttress absurd arguments, and you, the New York Times, is now set to be a vehicle for passing this misinformation on to the general public.
Many of my friends and colleagues have unsubscribed to the New York Times over this. I have not. Rather, I was just about to subscribe, as part of my overall effort to support good journalism in the Trump Era. In the past few weeks I’ve subscribed to my local paper, my regional paper, and one national paper (Washington Post) and I was just about to add the New York Times to that list. But now I can’t ethically do so, even though much of your other science coverage is pretty good, and even tough I grew up on the New York Times Science Section (remember that?).
But this probable drop in subscription is nothing to you, because trends in the business side of the NYT operation are much larger and more complex than many, if not most, of the world’s climate scientists dropping off your list over the addition of Bret Stephens to your staff. The bigger problem is this: The New York Times editorial staff has lost our respect.
I look forward to your prompt and decisive attention to this manner, and the quick repair of the mistake the NYT has made.
I’ve been meaning to write a letter to the New York TimesI just wrote this letter to the New York Times about their very wrong decision to add a climate science denier to their editorial staff. When they were recently challenged about this idea, the response was, paraphrasing, “millions of people believe this man that climate change is not for real.”
Coming from the New York Times I find that deeply disturbing and overwhelmingly offensive.
Anyway, I haven’t written my letter yet, but my friend and colleague Stefan Rahmstorf, climate scientist, did, and he says it is OK to post it. So, here is Stefan’s letter:
To the executive editor
The New York Times
27 April 2017, via email
I am a climate researcher, professor for physics of the oceans and have worked for eight years as advisor to the German government on global change issues. I regret to have to tell you that hereby I cancel my subscription to the New York Times in the wake of you hiring columnist Bret Stephens. Let me explain my reasons.
When Stephens was hired I wrote to you in protest about his spreading of untruths about climate change, saying “I enjoy reading different opinions from my own, but this is not a matter of different opinions.” I did not cancel then but decided to wait and see. However, the subsequent public defense by the New York Times of the hiring of Stephens has convinced me that the problem at the Times goes much deeper than a single error of judgement. It concerns its attitude towards seeking the truth.
The Times argued that “millions agree with Stephens”. It made me wonder what’s next – when are you hiring a columnist claiming that the sun and the stars revolve around the Earth, because millions agree with that? My heroes are Copernicus, Galilei and Kepler, who sought the scientific truth based on observational evidence and defended it against the powerful authority of the church in Rome, at great personal cost. Had the New York Times existed then – would you have seen it as part of your mission to insult and denigrate these scientists, as Stephens has done with climate scientists?
The Times has denounced the critics of its decision as “left-leaning”. This is an insult to me and was the final straw to cancel my subscription. There is no left-leaning or right-leaning climate science, just as there is no republican or democrat theory of gravity. I have several good climate scientist friends who have been lifelong republicans. Their understanding of climate change does not differ from mine, because it is informed by the evidence.
Quite unlike Stephens’ views on climate change, which run counter to all evidence. He is simply repeating falsehoods spread by various “think tanks” funded by the fossil fuel industry.
In December 2015, Stephens called global warming “imperceptible” and the Paris climate summit a “meeting to combat a notional enemy in the same place where a real enemy just inflicted so much mortal damage”. My colleagues and I have analysed 150,000 temperature time series from around the world, finding that monthly heat records occur five times more often now as a result of global warming than in an unchanging climate (Coumou et al, published in Climatic Change 2013). One of those record-hot months was August 2003 in western Europe. 70,000 people died due to this heat wave. Was global warming “imperceptible” to these people and the ones they left behind? On 15 August 2003, the New York Times reported: “So many bodies were delivered in recent weeks to the Paris morgue that refrigerated tents had to be erected outside the city to accommodate them all.” Was that just a “notional” problem?
Stephens doubts that global warming will continue, claiming that in hundred years “temperatures will be about the same”. That is a shockingly ignorant statement, ignoring over a century of climate science. Our emissions increase the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is higher now than in at least 3 million years. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, as demonstrated first in the year 1859 by physicist John Tyndall. CO2 traps heat – more CO2 means a warmer climate. That is basic physics, borne out by the history of climate. Denying these well-established facts is about as smart as claiming the Earth is flat, and best left to cranks, ideologues and fossil fuel lobbyists.
Stephens has claimed that “in the 1970s we were supposed to believe in global cooling.” That’s an age-old climate denier myth. It would have cost Stephens just 60 seconds with Google to find out it is wrong. (Try and google “Did scientists predict an ice age in the 1970s”.) But Stephens is clearly not interested in evidence or seeking the truth about matters.
Last Friday, you sent me an email with the subject: “The truth is more important now than ever.” It made me cringe seeing this in my inbox. It said “thank you for supporting news without fear or favor.” The hypocrisy of that is unbearable, and I will support your newspaper no more. Instead, I will give the money to ClimateFeedback.org, a worldwide network of scientists sorting fact from fiction in climate change media coverage. It is much better invested there.
The New York Times has a history of supporting a certain degree of climate change science denial, while at the same time supporting some very good journalism in this area. Just now, the Times jumped over one big giant shark by adding Bret Stephens to its opinion page staff.
Stephens comes to the Times from the Wall Street Journal, a Murdoch anti-science rag you are all familiar with.
Consider the case of global warming, another system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen.
As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate. As with religion, it comes with an elaborate list of virtues, vices and indulgences. As with religion, its claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term “climate change” when thermometers don’t oblige the expected trend lines. As with religion, it is harsh toward skeptics, heretics and other “deniers.” And as with religion, it is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.
“OK,” you say, “That was like six years ago. Maybe he stopped being a jerk since then.”
…in 2015, he wrote that climate change?—?along with hunger in America, campus rape statistics, and institutionalized racism— are “imaginary enemies.”
“OK,” you say, “That guy is even more of a jerk now than he was then!”
Romm also quotes climate scientist Michael Mann on Stephens’ hiring.
“sadly, the New York Times itself seems to have fallen victim to this malady, hiring one one of the most notorious climate change deniers, Bret Stephens, to promote climate denial propaganda on the once-hallowed pages of the Grey Lady.”
So global warming is dead, nailed into its coffin one devastating disclosure, defection and re-evaluation at a time. Which means that pretty soon we’re going to need another apocalyptic scare to take its place.
As for the United States, Gallup reports that global warming now ranks sixth on the list of Americans’ top 10 environmental concerns. My wager is that within a few years “climate change” will exercise global nerves about as much as overpopulation, toxic tampons, nuclear winters, ozone holes, killer bees, low sperm counts, genetically modified foods and mad cows do today.
Something is going to have to take its place.
The world is now several decades into the era of environmental panic. The subject of the panic changes every few years, but the basic ingredients tend to remain fairly constant. A trend, a hypothesis, an invention or a discovery disturbs the sense of global equilibrium. Often the agent of distress is undetectable to the senses, like a malign spirit. A villain—invariably corporate and right-wing—is identified. [The Wall Street Journal, 4/6/10; Media Matters, 4/6/10]
My friends at DeSmog Blog, a central clearing house for information on climate science deniers, will probably do something as well. I’ll link to it here should that happen.