The 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 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 the 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.