DeSmog Blog

We Are 100% Certain That Bret Stephens Should Not Be Writing For The New York Times

Climate change is real, regardless of who the NYT gives a voice to.

SCIENCE AF STAFF
6 SEP 2017
 

Remember how the New York Times started the year out with an aggressive campaign for the truth? Remember those full-page spreads that proclaimed "The truth is more important now than ever"? Well, apparently the NYT has forgotten their own message.

 

Earlier this month, in a controversial and widely criticised decision, the NYT hired Bret Stephens, a notorious climate change denier, as a writer and deputy editorial page editor.

This morning, Stephens published his first column with the NYT, and it is just as awful as we thought it would be.

Stephens is an outspoken climate change-denier who has written several columns for the Wall Street Journal, where he vigorously belittles climate science and climate scientists alike. He has even gone so far as to say that climate science is a "religion". Now, he has moved to the NYT to spread the same misinformed message.

Stephens' first NYT op-ed begins with a quote from an Old Jew of Galicia that claims "Whoever says he's 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal."

The quote sets up Stephens' whole argument: that scientists claim they are 100% right about climate change and, therefore, they are fanatics and thugs. This displays Stephens' deep misunderstanding of the scientific method.

Certainty is defined as the "firm conviction that something is the case." And the scientific method is about being as certain as we possibly can with the information that is available to us. Therefore, science is the pursuit of truth, not of 100% certainty.

 

Stephens then moves on to comparing the pollsters who were wrong about the presidential election to the climate scientists who he believes are wrong about global warming.

"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," Stephens writes. 

"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."

Stephens' article argues that just like the data that we receive from polls, we should be equally skeptical of the data that we receive from climate scientists.

This is a dangerously false comparison. Pollsters and scientists are not one and the same. Pollsters, for starters, do not collect their data using the scientific method. In fact, polls are largely based on assumptions.  And after last year's presidential election, we all know how easy it for incorrect assumptions to drastically skew poll results.

For instance, an analysis at UK Polling Report explains that various weights and turnout models can incorrectly skew Brexit polls so that it looks like "Remain" will win, when in reality "Leave" won by nearly 4 points.

 

If polling is largely based on assumption then the data cannot be scientific. In order to uncover the truth about the natural world, the scientific method demands the removal of personal conviction, bias, assumption and emotion.

"Let me put it another way," writes Stephens.

"Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong."

Again, Stephens misunderstands what scientists mean when they say that the science behind climate change is settled. When scientists use this phrase, they are not saying they are 100% certain. They are saying that there is abundant evidence to suggest that climate change is real and that it is caused by humans.

But just because there is abundant evidence, does not mean that their job is done. Climate scientists are constantly conducting new and improved experiments and studies to further their knowledge on the subject in order to come up with solutions. If climate scientists were 100% certain, they would not be continuing to study this global phenomenon.

Stephens ends his article by arguing, rather ridiculously, that any certainty in climate science makes Americans uninterested in solving climate change.

"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."

The argument that certainty necessarily breeds complacency is ridiculous.

If there were less certainty about climate change, there would be zero incentive to create public policy that lowers Co2 emissions, supports the renewable energy industry and protects our environment from the effects of global warming.

In fact, Americans who are concerned about climate issues are much more likely to support policy solutions that address the effects of climate change. And nearly two-thirds of Americans think that climate scientists should play a major role in policy decisions.

Climate change is real and it is caused by humans, regardless of who the New York Times gives a voice to.

That's the truth.