NY Times hires science disser as op-ed writer

Late last month, the New York Times hired conservative Bret Stephens as an op-ed writer. Only 43 years old, Stephens had previously worked at the Wall Street Journal, where he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2013.

While Stephens isn’t an out-and-out denialist of global warming, he’s always tried to minimize its potential effects on our planet. As Physics Today wrote in 2013:

As recently as November 2011, in a column headlined ‘The great global warming fizzle,’ Stephens described ‘the case of global warming’ as a ‘system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen’ that, like religion, ‘is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit.’

Stephens doesn’t appear to reject outright the data on temperature rise, or even the finding that humans are involved. But he energetically mocks warnings as hysterical alarmism. In a 2008 column he wrote with a smirk:

“What manner the catastrophe might take isn’t yet clear, but the scenarios are grim: The climate crisis is getting worse faster than anticipated; global warming will cause refugee crises and destabilize entire nations…. And so on.”

In December 2009, he published on the incident that he and others framed with the loaded term climategate. He charged that it involved ‘some of the world’s leading climate scientists working in tandem to block freedom of information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process, and obscure, destroy or massage inconvenient temperature data.’ That column carried the headline ‘Climategate: Follow the money’ and the subhead ‘Climate change researchers must believe in the reality of global warming just as a priest must believe in the existence of God.’

They added that Stephens “has a record of indicting climate scientists through mockery.”

And indeed, in his very first column,”Climate of complete certainty” (April 28), Stephens continues this gambit, mocking not anthropogenic climate change, which he actually admits, but science itself, which, he says, has given us false certainty about the phenomenon. This is a confusing message, for it gives denialist readers some ammunition not just against climate change, but against the science that has ferreted out its existence and cause. Climate scientists, he argues, have, like other scientists with convincing data, “descen[ded] to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.”  In other words, he’s indicting science for being arrogant and giving a false idea of certainty. And just as surely, that gives ammunition and hope to denialists.

First, his admissions:

The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?


None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.

But then he goes on to undercut both the nature of the threat and the “certainty” of science itself using these arguments (quotes from the article are in quotation marks):

  • Polls and experts were virtually certain that Hillary Clinton would win the election, showing the fallacy of certainty.

    “When Bill Clinton suggested to his wife’s advisers that, considering Brexit, they might be underestimating the strength of the populist tide, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, had a bulletproof answer: The data run counter to your anecdotes.

    That detail comes from “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s compulsively readable account of Clinton’s 2016 train wreck. Mook belonged to a new breed of political technologists with little time for retail campaigning and limitless faith in the power of models and algorithms to minimize uncertainty and all but predict the future.

    There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous. Ask Clinton.

With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to climate change.”

The analogy to Clinton is flawed: scientists don’t take polls, we make testable predictions about climate, our “data” don’t consist of asking people what they’ll do (some of whom have motivations to lie), and the effects of global warming are already clear. Yes, polls can be wrong, and so can science, but that says nothing about whether the data supporting climate change are convincing. They are (see here, for instance). He adduces no evidence against climate change, but simply is telling readers to be deeply suspicious of science, as if science were the equivalent of a political poll.

  • Climate scientists falsely convey an attitude of complete certainty, demonizing opponents as lunatics and moral inferiors.

“Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth 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. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.

By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”

Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.”

First, no scientist ever says they have the absolute truth. A spirit of openness toward conflicting data is in fact part of the true spirit of science (of course we’re humans, and that’s not the spirit of some scientists!). We always operate on probabilities, making the best inference we can from data. Yes, the data supporting climate change may be wrong, but the likelihood of that is very small. We do not have “total certainty”, but we have enough assurance to begin to take the problem very seriously and try to do something about it. (Stephens cavalierly dismisses climate-change models as “sophisticated and fallible”, as if they are surely wrong.)  But what is the “hyperbole” that Stephens is talking about?

And really, “ideological intentions” underlie our desire to prevent the destruction of our planet? Why would scientists have a bias against finding climate change and an ideology that prompts them to lie about its possible disasterous effects? How would we benefit from that? As for making “few converts”, nearly half of all Americans already accept anthropogenic global warming, not a bad figure given that its disastrous effects aren’t yet clearly visible to the average person.

Further, surely the opposition to global warming is not based on scientists’ supposed “moral superiority”—no more than opposition to evolution (as strong in America as is opposition to climate change) does not rest on evolutionists acting “morally superior.” It’s based on religion; just as climate change is based on secular faith or wish-thinking that “everything’s all right.”

The parallels between Stephens’s attitude and Americans’ denial of evolution becomes clear at the end when he makes his last argument:

  • The “total certainty” evinced by scientists in general degrades their credibility.

“None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.

I’ve taken the epigraph for this column* [JAC: see below] from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who knew something about the evils of certitude. 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.”

We see here that Stephens’s real objection is not science, but “scientism,” normally taken to be the extension of science into areas where it supposedly doesn’t belong, but to Stephens it’s a form of scientific arrogance.

But there is no scientist who would say that we are absolutely certain about climate change, or about evolution, either. Stephens is tilting at a windmill. The best data available tell us that both pheomena are real, and the probability we are wrong is very, very low. Yes, we could both be wrong, but Stephens is using that very small possibility to do down science as a whole and—let’s face it—to give heart to climate-change denialists.

The Washington Post which is owned by the New York Times, has written a critique of Stephens’s column, as has Slate.  The Post‘s piece in particularly good at pointing out the ambiguities and misstatements in Stephen’s column. They asked the Times’s editorial-page boss James Bennett, responsible for overseeing Stephens’s column, to respond to their critique, and got this response, which they call “Editorial Page Editor’s Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage”:

If all of our columnists and all of our contributors and all of our editorials agreed all of the time, we wouldn’t be promoting the free exchange of ideas, and we wouldn’t be serving our readers very well.

The crux of the matter here is whether the questions Bret’s raising and the positions he’s taking are outside the bounds of reasonable discussion. I don’t think a fair reading of his column remotely supports that conclusion — quite the opposite, actually. He’s capturing and contributing to a vitally important debate, and engaging that debate directly helps each of us clarify what we think. We’re already getting some spirited and constructive responses, and I’m looking forward to reflecting those views in our pages, too.

A “fair reading” of Stephens’s column shows that he’s concluding that science can’t be trusted in general, and perhaps for climate change as well—at least as far as the certainty of the phenomenon is concerned.

In hiring Stephens and allowing him to spew anti-science rhetoric as opinion, the Times is doing the equivalent of publishing an evolution-criticizing piece by a closet creationist. To see that, just rewrite Stephens’s column, but substitute “evolution” for “climate change”. Would such a piece merit inclusion on the paper’s op-ed page?


*[Column epigraph]

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.

But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.

— An old Jew of Galicia


  1. George
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    NYT does not own the Washington Post. Jeff Bezos owns WaPo. NYT owns the Boston Globe.

    Unfortunately, Stephens is a University of Chicago alumnus.

    • ethologist
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      I don’t think the Times owns the Globe any more. From Boston Globe Wikipedia page: “In February 2013, The New York Times Company announced that it would sell the New England Media Group, which encompasses the Globe ; bids were received by six parties, of them included John Gormally (then-owner of WGGB-TV in Springfield, Massachusetts), another group included members of former Globe publishers, the Taylor family, and Boston Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry, who bid for the paper through the New England Sports Network (majority owned by Fenway Sports Group alongside the Boston Bruins). However, after the NESN group dropped out of the running to buy the paper, Henry made his own separate bid to purchase The Globe in July 2013.[24][25] On October 24, 2013, he took ownership of The Globe, at a $70 million purchase price.[26][27] “

    • Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      You’re right; I made a mistake and will fix that.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, c’mon, the Times owning the Post would be like Macy’s owning Gimbels, or the Yankees owning the Red Sox, or Exxon owning Mobil … oh, wait … never mind.

  2. Jay
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Stephens drivel isn’t adequately addressed with opposing op-eds, rather, he should be de-platformed by the Times.

    So your free speech absolutism ends at the border of the college campus? Seems rather arbitrary.

    • Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      A newspaper doesn’t have to give a columnist the right to say whatever he/she wants; “free speech” doesn’t hold for op-eds in private newspapers. If the Times fired him if he continued to publish such drivel, I would not cry “censorship” because that is the paper’s decision.

      But you are also rude and I think you should go away now.

    • Kevin
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      Stephens can take criticism but in case he cannot he has every right to bury his head under a pillow and cry himself to sleep. This has nothing to do with free speech. Stephens makes a lot of effort without accomplishing much.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Hiring professional liars for the appearance of non-bias or to add heat to a debate is a pernicious practice indulged in recently by CNN, the NYT, and other outlets. It is not journalism.

    • josh
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

      A college campus is a public space, occupied by students of many different inclinations who can all invite whom they please and who can choose to listen or not to other groups’ opinions. What is not acceptable is for one group to censor others by threats of violence and disruption, nor to co-opt what should be a neutral governing authority in order to censor. (In contrast, a speaker *representing* a university, e.g. at commencement, should be subject to much more restrictive vetting.)

      A Times op-ed is a private platform with limited space paid for by its readers. They have every right to ask that crappy columnists not be hired. However, if someone were threatening to burn down newsstands or steal copies of The Wall Street Journal in order to prevent readers who want to see drivel like Stephens’s, then you might have a relevant comparison. Those hypothetical people would also be censorious jerks.

    • BJ
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

      You clearly lack an understanding of the laws (and ideals) that undercut your argument. The Times, like any other privately owned news organization, is a private institution, run by private citizens, with private money. A publicly funded university is, as decided by the Supreme Court, a government actor, and therefore must uphold the First Amendment.

      Regarding the ideals aspect, private corporations, just like private citizens, can espouse whatever ideology they like. A university, be it public or private, is supposed to uphold the ideal of free exchange of ideas, civil debate, and allowance of marginalized views.

    • somer
      Posted May 5, 2017 at 3:57 am | Permalink

      There is the world of difference between being paid to do a job with professional standards – and one at a major media outlet where the position pays to regularly provide comments – and just expressing a view or argument that can be critiqued (or rejected altogether) as a member of the public. For a publication like the Times – the standard of such a job should include an acceptance of the basics of science. There is overwhelming evidence for climate change and de facto climate change denialism is not acceptable in such a position. Period.

  3. George
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    On a totally unrelated note, I saw Hamilton on Tuesday. Anyone want to hear me gush?

  4. ethologist
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Correction, the Washington Post is not owned by the New York Times, it is owned by Jeff Bezos (Amazon founder).

  5. ethologist
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    By the way, the hiring of Stephens, but especially the publication of his first column, finally tipped the balance and caused me to cancel my subscription after 35 years of buying the paper via subscription or on the news stand

  6. Howard Neufeld
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Good review of awful hiring of Stephens, but note that the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, who then formed a holding company to run the paper. The New York Times is owned by the Ochs-Sulzberger family, and they do NOT own the Washington Post.

    • Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      Yes, see above. I’ve corrected that error by striking out the relevant words. Thanks to all for correcting me.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Wish folks would read comments or at least glance before so much repetition. I saw just a bit of a program last Sunday on CNN where I think the editor of the times was being asked about hiring this guy. He claimed, if I understood correctly, that he had no part in hiring him because he ran the news side of the times and this guy, Stephens is on the other side (not news). The only problem with this attitude is, the opinion side reflects on the entire paper, including the news side. So he gets himself off the hook but not his paper.

    • BJ
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

      But it is pretty crucial for the opinion and news departments to be separated within a news organization.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 4, 2017 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I understand that very well. Just don’t think the masses who still read the paper understand it. The general editor seems to be saying, sorry the guy is nutty but it has no affect at all on the news or the readers.

  8. Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    “…history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.”

    News flash. It is the climate change deniers, not the climate change scientists, who have the political power.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      Anyone can join the party of NO. Power is always fleeting as they are already learning, if learning is still possible for them.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      Only in the US. In the rest of the world, man-made climate change is accepted as real by a majority in most political parties, and by a majority of people.

      Opponents of the theory in the US are always saying “follow the money” to find out why people think climate change is real. I would suggest that that it’s deniers whose motivation is financial.

    • Sshort
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Trenchant observation. Well-played.

  9. Peter
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Stephens makes a few good points, but, as PCC(E) correctly argues, also says things that are wrong or irrelevant. So the science is not certain. Does this mean we should ignore the risks? Of course not.
    Stephens replied to reader responses to his first column here:

    The good points relate to the issue that we need to think carefully about how to address the problem of global warming. I mean how to do it effectively. It’s not enough to do something just for the sake of being able to tell ourselves that we are doing something.
    If Stephens is serious about the issue, he will report and discuss potential solutions that have been put forward. So I will wait and see before judging him on this. Maybe he is coming around on the issue and his column shows him in transition mode.

    Stephens says that global warming is for real, it is caused by man, we need insurance against it. So now it is about the effectiveness of alternative measures.

    For people who want to inform themselves about the issue I recommend Dieter Helm’s book “The carbon crunch.Revised and updated edition”, 2015, Yale University Press.
    Helm is professor of energy policy at University of Oxford. I suppose part 3 of the book, “What should be done” is the most important. But part 2, “Why is so little being achieved”, is important too.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Hmm. I found the piece completely unobjectionable.

    Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

    He’s not saying that that is the fault of science, but of some of the popularizers of global warming. I don’t see how you can argue with his statement given the rush to attach every progressive goal to global warming, and the calls to censor ‘skpetics.’ Frankly, it turns people off to the core message.

    I see the reaction to his as a perfect example of what he’s talking about, and of the Regressive Left’s practice of squelcing any discourse they see as violating in any way their view of the issue.

    I think someone saw a ‘conservative’ writing about ‘global warming,’ and called out the ballyho boys.

    • Zach
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I, too, found the piece unobjectionable. And his point about climate change alarmists acting morally superior is a fair one. Surely I’m not the only one who has noticed the “Repent, ye wretched sinners!” tone in some of their rhetoric.

      With that said, I think his concern about “ideological intentions” can easily be turned back on him. Would he support a carbon tax, or some other measure, that would incentivize people and industries to move away from fossil fuels as an energy source? I somehow doubt it.

    • Zach
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Speaking about carbon emissions, I got into a bit of an argument with someone awhile back about the carbon footprint of Tesla cars—specifically about how much the production of lithium ion batteries contributes to it.

      I didn’t feel like looking up numbers at the time, and I’ve regretted my intellectual laziness ever since. So here: this article seems to be a pretty fair tally. It concludes that, once gasoline production is weighted against battery production (including all the other variables), the carbon footprint of a Model S “is roughly comparable to that of the Scion iQ.”

      I am still an Elon Musk fanboi.

      • Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Even if there’s significant amounts of carbon going into the production of batteries today, battery manufacturing is especially well suited to being solar-powered. Yet the refining of petroleum into gasoline cannot, even in principle, be carbon-neutral. And overwhelming numbers of EV owners have PV panels on their rooftops.

        A certain degree of bootstrapping is inevitable. If you have two systems with equal impact today but radically different future impacts, wisdom indicates you should consider the future.




      • Randy schenck
        Posted May 4, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        I would also not give upon Musk. Much rather be driving a Model S than a Scion IQ.

    • Dean Reimer
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to the point. I’m glad I’m not the only one who read the piece that way. I didn’t read it as an attack on science or scientists, but rather people that take scientific research findings, strip it of all the probabilities and other qualifiers that contextualize them, then present outcomes as a certainty.

    • Craw
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      “First, no scientist ever says they have the absolute truth.”
      That is true, but it supports what Stephens is saying. Climate alarmists in contrast often *do* claim to have absolute truth. That’s inherent in comparing people who question particular simulation programs to Holocaust deniers, or calling for their prosecution. And that surely does traduce the spririt of science; it surely does evince overwheening certitude.

      Count me as one who found the article unobjectionable.

    • josh
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      The column is misleading and dishonest. It’s purpose is to sow doubt, not to cogently address the actual issues. It starts with an inapposite smirk at Clinton. It implies that scientists and/or global warming activists are to blame for public doubt without citing any examples and while ignoring the much more important, obvious cause: a concerted campaign of denial rooted in political attitudes and monied interests. I haven’t seen one “skeptic” who was on-board with mainstream science but fell off because some unspecified person was “too certain”. I’ve seen hundreds who regurgitate misinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by the denial machine.

      The IPCC doesn’t claim “total certainty”; like any good scientific enterprise it specifically tries to quantify a range of likely outcomes. BUT, that doesn’t mean that said range is so wide that just any belief is reasonable. “Demanding abrupt changes in policy” isn’t a sign of “ideological intentions” but a sign of people taking the stated problem very seriously.

      If skeptics act like imbeciles or in bad faith it’s hard to blame people for pointing it out. Not getting sloppy fringe claims published is not censorship. However, if Stephens were genuinely concerned about how to persuade these people he would have tried to do it in his column, or at least offered constructive advice. He didn’t because his goal is to justify not acting on climate change. Ten years ago he could write about “the 20th anniversary of the mass hysteria phenomenon known as global warming. Much of the science has since been discredited.” Under the spotlight now he says he’s not denying it, just that ‘we can’t claim total certainty’, as though that were relevant to the discussion. He’s moved on to saying it may be happening but we just don’t know what to do and we have to weigh the costs. But there is again no real discussion because the point is only a delaying tactic.

      This doesn’t have a thing to do with the Regressive Left except perhaps that Stephens would like to conflate scientists with his cultural enemies in order to smear them. (C.f. the dogwhistle “deplorables”, which was not a term used with respect to the climate wars.) Trans rights or police shootings just don’t overlap significantly with climate science. Nonetheless, if these kind of groups do want to attach themselves to climate change, Stephens could argue against them without impugning the science or the overall importance of climate issues. You’ll note that he does not.

  11. Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    And this is why “balanced” can be awkward.

    Also, I’m not sure the acceptance of climate change is to be lauded – why? I’ll look up a reference, but I think it was linked to here once, where it was pointed out that American acceptance of the facts of the matter was going *down*. At least with evolution things are sort of looking up or perhaps trending the “right way”.

    It does seem to be a matter of ideological purity for some: I reread Sowell’s _Intellectuals and Society_ – I had forgotten that he’s a climate change denier! (He’s a US-sense libertarian economist, so …)

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      But…since when did science do polling to confirm findings?

  12. dabertini
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    And what these ham-hock journalists don’t get is that scientists are expert skeptics. They are skeptical of their own results for they run the risk of being ridiculed for the conclusions they make. No better poster child of this than Linus Pauling.

    • colnago80
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Or Physics Nobel Laurette Brian Josephson, believer in PK, ESP, and cold fusion. The fact is that even Nobel Prize winners can engage in crackpottery.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    Stephens and his ilk think they can staunch the tide of Big Data in favor of the gut instincts, old fishwives’ tales, and superstitions that pass for “common knowledge.”

    He reminds me of the track-birds who eschew the past-performance charts in The Daily Racing Form in favor of lucky numbers, favorite colors, and rumors about the oats a horse ate for breakfast. Sure, every so often they hit a big perfecta bet. But soon enough they’re back scrounging around the $2 windows.

    • Sshort
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:51 pm | Permalink


  14. Posted May 4, 2017 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    You know, it’s curious.

    The very first thing to do to ameliorate the effects of carbon pollution is to improve the efficiency of carbon-powered systems and to reduce waste.

    Conservatives and business leaders seemingly can’t stop talking about how much they love to improve efficiency and reduce waste in nearly every context…

    …and, yet, they’re the staunchest opponents of efforts to improve efficiency and reduce waste when it comes to carbon.

    Of course, once you get past the “efficiency and waste” rhetoric, you see that what they really do is accrue unto themselves as much wealth and power as they possibly can, and all “waste and efficiency” talk is simply code language for “transferring” the “wasted” resources of others into their own pocketbooks.

    But, still. You’d at least expect some of their supporters to take them at face value, no?



    • Posted May 8, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      Also, you’d think that this would be a great opportunity to invent a process or machine that would help mitigate some of the concerns. But no entrepreneurial attitude here, no sir!

      (Up to a point this applies to *any* complaint about “regulations”. Surely they are often business opportunities!)

  15. Mary Drake
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Maybe the Times hired Stephens to show that they are at least attempting to show all sides. This fellow is probably the least objectionable choice. I just won’t click on his column – I will let Media Matters do that for me and read bits of it there. By the way, does anyone know – if one clicks on a column and opens it up, is that counted by the Times as a mark of that writer’s popularity?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      The Times has a long history of keeping a “house conservative” on its editorial pages, from William Safire to David Brooks to Ross Douthat.

      Apparently, they thought it was time to bring on-board another, since Brooks and Douthat have occasionally spewed sense about Trump’s bat-shit insanity.

  16. colnago80
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of its not so friendly rival, the Washington Post, they don’t exactly have clean hands in this dispute either. The Post published at least two columns by George Will doing exactly what Stephens did relative to climate change. However, it appears that the powers that be at the Post have put the kibosh on Will’s activities in this subject as he hasn’t said anything on the subject for several years (possibly since Bezos took over).

  17. Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    “Scientism” is clearly a bullshit term, used to preemptively dismiss a scientific thesis you don’t like without actually confronting it. Here’s a similar trick, following Stephens’s logic: the next time someone presents you with a well-reasoned argument whose consequences you wish to avoid, just say “I have a right to be skeptical of your overweening reasonablism.” If they persist, tell them their assertions of certitude and moral superiority raise fair questions about their ideological intentions, then blame them for the failure of conversation. You might lose a friend, but maybe you’ll get a column in the Times!

    I’ve written a critique of Stephens’s column here.

  18. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t this a form of the “Galileo gambit” which Wikipedia defines as follows

    “A form of the association fallacy often used by those denying a well-established scientific or historical proposition is the so-called “Galileo Gambit.” The argument goes that since Galileo was ridiculed in his time but later acknowledged to be right, that since their non-mainstream views are provoking ridicule and rejection from other scientists, they will later be recognized as correct too.[2]”
    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_fallacy#Galileo_Gambit )

    If he claims that there have been “to block freedom of information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process,” etc., does he have supporting evidence for this???

    Sure, follow the money, but follow the evidence as well.

    P.S. It’s certainly likely that some science journalists have overstated the appropriate level of certainty.

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Meant to only italicize the word journalists, not rest of sentence.

  19. Posted May 4, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    My main problem with Stephens’ piece, and it’s a big one, is how he seems to have no appreciation at all for the different types of uncertainty that we deal with in different sciences. It is either ignorant or extremely disingenuous to prime the reader with a version of “Look, those scientific pollsters are routinely wrong”, and then launch into a discussion about the uncertainty behind communicating climate science. This is like saying your cellphone won’t work underwater, so why should it work in the city?

    The worst part about his rhetorical gambit is that it is effective. It capitalizes off common misunderstandings about science to reinforce those same misunderstandings.

  20. BJ
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Obviously, I believe in climate change, believe it is mostly driven by human activity, that it needs to be addressed immediately, and that it will be a threat in the future if we fail to address it.

    The thing is, Stephens seems to agree with all this. What he is arguing against, and what I agree with him about, is that there is too much hysteria cloaked in certainty surrounding the issue, especially when it comes to the various models that have come out over the past two or so decades about what will happen and when. Such attitudes often make people who may otherwise be open to the information about human-driven climate change (and the need to address it) suddenly become closed-minded. I mean, does anyone remember all the false statements and models of catastrophe in An Inconvenient Truth? Such false statements said with utmost certainty, are continuing today, and I have a huge problem with that. It does seem ideologically driven, and science should be more nuanced anyway.

    Jerry, you write, “We do not have ‘total certainty’, but we have enough assurance to begin to take the problem very seriously and try to do something about it. (Stephens cavalierly dismisses climate-change models as “sophisticated and fallible”, as if they are surely wrong.)”

    The phrase “sophisticated and fallible” does not in any way imply that all models are surely wrong. The word fallible means just that, not “surely wrong.” And it has been demonstrated by time alone that many of the models on which we have based our predictions have been fallible. Stephens admits to all the things I outlined above: that global warming is real, caused by human activity, likely to be a future threat, and needs to be dealt with. His problem is with some people in the scientific community making some incredible extrapolations to make the problem look worse and more immediate than it may be, and I agree with him on that. It doesn’t help one’s cause (in this case, the cause of convincing the public of the problem and coming up with viable solutions to it) to exaggerate or prevaricate.

    Further, you write, “Yes, polls can be wrong, and so can science, but that says nothing about whether the data supporting climate change are convincing. They are (see here, for instance). He adduces no evidence against climate change, but simply is telling readers to be deeply suspicious of science, as if science were the equivalent of a political poll.”

    Again, Stephens doesn’t seem to have said that climate change is wrong or isn’t happening or that the data supporting it isn’t real; he seems to be criticizing many of the future-telling models, presented with unwarranted certitude (as has happened several times since the mid-90’s) that tell us gloom and doom is coming in the next few years and we will be absolutely screwed very, very soon.

    I have quite a few problems with some things he wrote, but I feel you’ve gone overboard in your critique of him because his words “give ammunition” to the wrong people. Stephens does not in any way seem to be a denialist, and I don’t think we should be calling for the heads of people asking for less exaggeration and more nuance just because it gives the less sophisticated and denialist-leaning among the population at large more ammunition. OI think we need to be able to discuss the problems with some of global warming science without being immediately shouted down as denialists working for the other side.

    • Posted May 4, 2017 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      I said he admitted climate change–TWICE; I called him a “science denialist”, not a “climate change denialist” which appears to be the case, and someone who gave ammunition to climate-change denialists, which he did. I stand by what I said.

      • Zach
        Posted May 4, 2017 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        “…and someone who gave ammunition to climate-change denialists, which he did.”

        Certainly. I think BJ’s point was that that’s an unhelpful criticism to make.

        For example, those who cry “Islamophobia” whenever someone speaks too candidly about the tenets of Islam are are often not enamored with the religion themselves, but worried about “giving ammunition” to bigots. While they may have a point, to a limited extent, that shouldn’t stop us from talking about Islam.

        Likewise, we should engage those who are skeptical about the C in CAW (Catastrophic Anthropogenic Warming) on their own terms, without worrying too much about what the A and W deniers think.

        • BJ
          Posted May 4, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          Exactly. Thanks for getting around to responding before I did. I have nothing to add to that excellent response.

  21. Posted May 4, 2017 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    There is room to disagree with both Dr. Coyne and Stephens. Stephens chooses a very poor analogy: polling vs. rest of science. A charitable reading makes you wonder if it was just poor editing that he tarred all of science rather than just climate science as being too certain. I really enjoy his articles on geopolitics, liberal values, etc. and cringe at his pieces on climate change.

    I think Dr. Coyne too makes a mistake in comparing evolution with climate science. Evolutionary biology is more mature and is backed by more evidence than climate science. Climate science is a mature field and its predictions are generally quite robust. These predictions about the future hold broadly and are based on sound science and the world would be better off overcorrecting for climate change.

    Yet, the level of certainty and specificity of claims made by climate change are probably an order of magnitude more uncertain than the general field of evolutionary biology.

    Dealing in analogies is hazardous, but I’ll attempt another: antibiotic resistance is certain to be a severe problem in the near future thanks to the high degree of understanding we have of evolution and other fundamental concepts of biological sciences, skewed incentives for pharma companies, and societal issues (overprescription to cattle, etc.). Yet, it would be wrong to predict the future extent of this problem (e.g. # of deaths in 2040 due to antibiotic resistance) with any degree of certainty! One can perhaps set a broad lower bound with lots of caveats.

    Anthropogenic global warming is a similarly complex and interconnected phenomenon which is soundly grounded in the fundamentals of climate science. Future predictions are similarly dire, and likely more consequential than antibiotic resistance. Specific predictions about the future are similarly fraught with uncertainties. Yet, IPCC and others routinely publicize numbers for the purpose of advocacy. There is, in my opinion, some room for criticism of the certainty with which absurdly specific predictions are touted.

    Stephens should set aside his ideological blinders, make an attempt to understand science better, and to read climate science research (or reviews by ‘neutral’ (since Stephens has already made up his mind about climate scientists) people like physicist Richard Muller of Berkeley). He’d then be able to make more nuanced arguments.

    • BJ
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

      I just have to commend you on a perfect analogy. Antibiotic resistance/overuse is just as likely to be disastrous in the near future, and, when it happens, could end up having more dangerous and deleterious effects on the human population than global warming in the near term, but there isn’t nearly the same amount of hysteria, there aren’t crazy prediction models, etc. around it. The point of my post above was that the hysteria and the off-base models trying to “prove” that we need to do X and Y and do it right now or Z will happen haven’t been helpful to the debate.

  22. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 4, 2017 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    And while the debate goes on we have a stupid president with a promise to a hand full of goal miners that he is going to get their jobs back so they can finish up on that black lung disease and provide more of that dirtiest energy. Many that are already too sick to work are worried about losing their medical insurance and or who is going to pay. It’s all just great! Trump is a guy in denial of all reality.

    • BJ
      Posted May 4, 2017 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t worry about anything the President promised. He also promised his new version of healthcare would keep the preexisting conditions provision, among many other promises he has already broken.

      Nobody can know what that egotistical freak is thinking.

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