Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bret Stephens lowers the bar for intellectual honesty and more @NYTimes

Sou | 2:13 PM Go to the first of 45 comments. Add a comment
Many climate scientists have been quite horrified that the New York Times boasted how it had hired Bret Stephens. They pointed out he is a climate science denier, though he's probably more correctly labeled (if you like labels) a climate change disinformer of the usual ideological kind. (Irrational commitment to an ideology can do strange things to the brain. It can kill logic for one thing.)

I thought, okay, let's see what he writes and, hopefully, the NYT will have arranged for Bret to stick to subjects he knows something about and not let him spout his climate science denial.

That didn't happen.

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 hack paid to spread disinformation by one of those flaky denier groups so prevalent in the USA, someone from fake insinuation and straw man land.

Brett wrote under a misleading headline: "Climate of Complete Certainty". This set the tone for his disinformation. He likened climate science to political polls, and touted his personal brand of FUD, which has the same look as the climate science FUD you can read in any of the dim corners of climate conspiracy cyberspace.

Lazy, sloppy thinking

In his article Bret Stephens strung together various unrelated notions as if there was a logical link. He also included a few logical fallacies for good measure. But first, the unrelated thoughts:
  • Hillary Clinton didn't win the Presidency, despite the polls.
  • In the USA, the polls show there are still a lot of people who are not "a great deal" worried about climate change.
  • Climate scientists are generally meticulous when reporting science.
  • Some climate activists are unscrupulous (no examples are provided)
  • Smiling at deniers is all it takes to have them change their opinion and accept science (well, that's an extrapolation from what Bret wrote, but it's close enough).
What was he trying to argue? I think his main points were that climate science might get overturned by opinion polls, and that deniers will do an about face on their science denial if you're nice to them. He is also hopeful that climate science will be disproven one of these days. Fat chance on all counts.

Bret demonstrated that he's one of the unscrupulous climate activists he mentioned. He doesn't want to take action to protect us and our planet. He doesn't want us to invest in mitigating or adapting to climate change.

He showed he is not meticulous about reporting science, downplaying the the huge and rapid increase in global temperature as "modest".

He showed that he doesn't understand probability. He portrayed temperature measurements as having 100% probability. (They aren't all that far off but the mean temperature reported is not 100% certain, as the error bars on temperature charts demonstrate.) He then wrote how climate model projections have likelihood estimates also, but acted as if they are not reported - the strawman fallacy.

Logical fallacies, loaded language, climate disinformation

This is what Bret Stephens wrote, denier-style. Spot the fallacies. Check out the loaded language.
    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 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. 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.
    Bret then showed that he is is a fudger-style disinformer. He wrote another strawman:
    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.
    Now we get to the nitty gritty. Bret is a fossil fuel advocate but not game to come out and say so. He talks about "ideological intentions" and "expensive changes", but doesn't admit to his own ideological intentions, nor mention the much bigger cost of inaction.

    Notice his opening strawman. No-one is claiming total certainty of science. That's not how science works. And if fake sceptics and disinformers like Bret Stephens act like imbeciles and deplorables, then they can expect that some people will treat them that way.

    Bret finishes with a whimper, not a flourish, writing as his confusing penultimate paragraph:
    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.
    What is his "opinion" here? Is he doing a denier and saying he has hope that the greenhouse effect will be disproven? If not, then what is he trying to argue?

    He provides no further clues to his message. He does demonstrate that his intellectual capability is pretty poor by NYT standards generally, finishing off with this mix of logical fallacies - a false analogy and a strawman:
    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.


    Hands up everyone who thinks Bret Stephens would be capable of having a "reasoned conversation" about climate science? That is, one that he doesn't fill up with logical fallacies. I cannot see any hands raised - can you? Which proves my point every bit as well as Bret Stephens proved his.

    Is this why the NYT hired Bret Stephens?

    This bloke was touted by the NYT as a recipient of a Pulitzer, which was meant to justify their purchase. His first NYT article showed no sign of that. His article looked to have been dashed off in about five minutes with no thought, no research, no facts, and logical fallacy from woe to go. Is this really and truly why the NYT pays him the big bucks? Heck, Anthony Watts at WUWT gets his readers to write this sort of junk for free.

    To take a leaf from Bret Stephens' book, let me pose some questions:
    • Is the NYT getting ready to sell to Rupert Murdoch, and wanting to make the paper more appealing to him by joining his "war on science"?
    • Is the NYT suffering because Donald Trump has been taking potshots at it, and got Bret Stephens to write shallow denier nonsense to appease Trump and the GOP?
    • Is the NYT considering a change of market segment, and about to shift holus bolus to the sensationalist gutter press tabloid audience?
    • Is there a KGB sleeper among the NYT editors who has awakened to destroy the paper?
    • Is NYT against the Climate March and wanting to discredit climate science?
    • Has Bret Stephens got writers' block and sold himself to NYT for a song, thinking he could write any crap he felt like and get away with it?
    I'm sure you can think of other plausible and not so plausible explanations for this new hire at the NYT, particularly given the very first "opinion" from Bret Stephens, and particularly given the timing of it - just ahead of the Climate March.

    Now if Bret had written an opinion that made any sense, exhibited logic, and was based in fact, and if he'd written about something on which there are legitimate different opinions, then NYT could have held it's head up high and said - this is why we hired him.

    But he didn't. So they can't.

    A long way from Pulitzer material

    Bret was awarded a Pulitzer in the Commentary category back in 2013 "For his incisive columns on American foreign policy and domestic politics, often enlivened by a contrarian twist." There's nothing incisive about his first article at NYT. Nor is it enlivened by anything.  It's nothing more than a lazy rehash and mishmash of what you've been seeing from US disinformation lobby groups for around 30 years. Tired, wrong, and outdated.

    If NYT was persuaded to hire Bret Stephens hoping for some Pulitzer content he's shown them their huge mistake. If NYT is prepared to lose the respect of its subscribers in order to try to expand its reach then I believe it will succeed in the former and will fail in the latter.

    Today's article shows that NYT editorial page editor James Bennet of the NYT was wrong when he said: "I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness." The only way Bret Stephens can cross the bar is if the NYT lowers the bar.


    1. It is strange the NYT took on this journalist. I was thinking of taking out a subscription to them when they were being called out by Donald Trump as fake news to show some support and encouragement to them. One wonders what the NYT was thinking. Perhaps it is part of a Machiavellian strategy. They will send Bret Stephens along to a White House press briefing ...

      1. I thought he was a journalist, too, initially. I don't think that's the case. I think he's just an opinion columnist, not a proper journo, meaning he can spout off whatever thought happens to pop into his head when he's rushing to meet the editor's deadline. No thinking or research necessary. (Like Andrew Bolt in Australia.) A page filler when there isn't enough advertising. Fodder for people who want to get their daily dose of outrage from the NYT (as a change from getting it from Twitter or elsewhere.)

        Some opinion writers make you think. Some make you wonder how they think. Some get you to ask yourself if they are able to think. Bret hasn't started off too well, or not by NYT standards.

      2. WAPO's probably a better target for your subscription.

        The NYT's behaviour is bizarre, and fits the model that for most mainstream journalists what they do is a kind of theatre criticism, picking at the required level of drama and the scope of the cast; as if the whole world really is a stage, and only a stage, with attendant hazards limited to being called out for bad performance...

    2. Sou I sent this at 0906 this morning.

      I want to cancel my subscription immediately.

      I have been a long-time subscriber to the NYT from Australia and I have also recently taken out a subscription for my son.

      I want my subscription cancelled immediately.

      Bret Stephens’ first column was far worse than anybody expected. Why is the NYT involving itself in such egregious conduct?

      I enjoy reading good conservative/RW writing. I do not live in a bubble but at a time when facts, science and scientists are being smeared, defunded and defamed and mitigation in the US is under very effective attack the NYT hires a desperate science denier and gives him free rein to manufacture the appalling equivalence that was central to his first column.

      I may consider coming back when Stephens is paid out or assigned to the Shipping News.


      And then the very quick reply @ 1103 Note the bribe as though my protest could dissolve in the face of a fucking discount.

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for reaching out. I hope you’ll reconsider cancelling your digital subscription, and accept our offer : Basic Digital Access with 50% discount for the next 52 weeks at A$8 every 4 weeks thereafter at A$16 every 4 weeks, as a thank you for your loyalty. The Basic Digital Access comes with a tablet app access as an add on to the benefits you receive from your current plan.

      Rest assured, we will forward your comments to the relevant department.

      But then this sanctimonious condescension where the Times reveals its opinion of its readers. We are idiots whose narrow outlook requires broadening by the likes of a famously perverse denier.

      The New York Times is committed to bringing our readers every side to every story, and part of that is telling stories from multiple perspectives and voices. We often find that providing our readers with different perspectives that challenge their own is crucial to understanding the whole story. Hiring Bret Stephens is an effort to provide a new perspective to The Times, and bring our readers greater understanding of the world (and all the different voices within it)

      If you choose to end your service, you'll no longer receive unlimited access to NYTimes.com, and you’ll instead be limited to 10 free articles online per month.

      I’d love the opportunity to speak with you about your subscription. Please feel free to reply directly back to this email if you'd like to accept my offer. If you don’t reach out to me by 6th May 2017, I’ll cancel your subscription.



      Customer Care Advocate

      The New York Times

      (Sou I have also posted a version of this on Mediaite today)

      1. I'd suggest that when people cancel their subs, they link to pages such as this one, and others like Greg Laden's posts and Tamino's, so that the Times get the message that there is a movement afoot...

      2. Oh, but you can now be misinformed at a discount. Sad that the New York Times does not understand that the paradigm of "alternative facts" (even when excused by weasel words like "different perspectives") is nothing more than bad journalism.


      3. Any organization that has a "Customer Care Advocate" is not one I want to deal with.

    3. Even in the USA conservatives can remain conservative without having to follow the denialist line.

      How a professional climate change denier discovered the lies and decided to fight for science.

    4. From my cancellation email to NYT customer service:

      I refuse to subsidize a news organization that hires a climate change 'skeptic' to write dangerous and condescending nonsense for its opinion pages. Would the Times hire an anti-vaxxer as a columnist and then tell outraged immunologists, microbiologists and public health specialists to 'lighten up, everyone has an opinion'?

      If I want to be misinformed or see the expertise of my fellow scientists insulted by someone who knows little or nothing of science, I don't have to pay a subscription for that. But you know what? I've seen more than enough of that over the past decade and am not going to pay to have willful ignorance rubbed in my face.

    5. "I thought he was a journalist, too, initially. I don't think that's the case. I think he's just an opinion columnist, not a proper journo, meaning he can spout off whatever thought happens to pop into his head when he's rushing to meet the editor's deadline."

      From 2002 to 2004, Stephens was the Editor of The Jerusalem Post.

      Though born in New York ,his Mexican-born father was long VP of General Products in Mexico City , which like the NYTimes company is largely owned by Carlos Slim.

      Stephens journalistic credentials as an anti-Trump neocon may have weighed more in his hire than his climate politics.

    6. The whole "we need to provide the alternative opinion for balance" is done purely from a financial perspective; deniers probably comprise more than 40% of the population, so they've calculated that any cancellations from believers will be more than made up from extra subscriptions. That's the only reason I can think of that makes sense; the offering a different opinion line is false equivalence which is nonsensical in a scientific context and the editors at the NYT I'm sure understand that.

      1. "false balance", not "false equivalence".

      2. If it works (which I doubt), it means that more people will get to read articles by the excellent Justin Gillis.

        I understand the cancellation of subs in protest. However, for the record, I haven't cancelled my NYT subscription. (If I did that with every paper that published nonsense of one sort or another, I'd not get to read any mainstream media. Plus rebutting nonsense is what this blog is for.)

      3. I'm hoping my previous comment hasn't got anyone offside.

        This tweet thread from Joss Fong of Vox is a pretty good explanation for why I understand and support those who've cancelled their NYT subscriptions.

        This tweet thread from Judd Legum of ThinkProgress is not a bad explanation of why I haven't cancelled.

    7. From Climate Crocks. http://youtu.be/4i--Uq8VXas

      This in my morning's mail from the Editor of the NYT editorial page


      The last paragraph is ominous.

      1. Thanks, PG.

        Given the excerpt from your link below, I expect the next thing we'll see are differing opinions about whether vaccines have any benefits; then whether gravity is really all it's made out to be and how it's quite possible people can jump off their roofs and not fall to the ground. The ground being flat, and all, like the earth just might happen to be. Surely we all have the courage and humility to understand those are worth testing our "assumptions and arguments".

        But, particularly during this turbulent and searching time in America and around the world, we should have the humility to recognize we may not be right about everything and the courage to test our own assumptions and arguments. In the Opinion pages of The Times, I believe the best way to do that, and to serve you, is to foster collegial debate among brave, honest journalists with very different points of view.

        Those NYT editors are really something else. They should be apologising to their readers, not making up lame excuses for their decisions.

      2. "Ominous" is an understatement. The NYT is basically declaring they are going tabloid.

        The current media meltdown is impressive. I don't know about anyone else, but I do not watch TV anymore except for the ABC News 30 min bulletin in the morning to see what is happening overseas. To be honest I won't be unhappy to see the major networks go.

        I am hoping out of the carnage will come a good news service that is not compromised by advertising or government. Maybe it will be a subscription service worth a few dollars a week.

      3. They certainly accept his employment of tabloid "logic":

        1. Trump was given "only" a 25% chance of winning by pollsters.
        2. In defiance of these impossible odds, Trump won the presidency.
        3. "Therefore" we should view 95% and greater odds in climate research as ignorable from a policy perspective.

        Anyone who could accept that "logic" holus bolus is almost surely a tabloid level reader.

    8. "I'm not a climate change denier, but ..." sounds like it comes from the Lomborg, Tol, Ridley, Brand, Ecomodern, GWPF, lukewarmist song book.

      1. Brand? Stewart Brand? A denier? It's news to me - he was very much on-side a few years back - anything you can link?

      2. It's subtle. And Lukewarmist is a better description. Or even Techno-cornucopian. But just do a fast scan through his twitter feed and the old Google Plus pages to see what he promotes. It's full of re-tweets from Matt Ridley and GWPF. And that kind of mis-information that gets spread about wind turbines, solar power and other green issues. You know the kind of thing. Renewables pulverise and burn birds. Diablo Canyon must be saved. Population growth isn't that bad. Potential Climate change damage is overstated. The reefs aren't dying. Geo-engineering, de-extinction, GMOs will save us all. NeoNics aren't that bad. Increased CO2 leads to global greening. And on and on.

        I can accept a certain amount of scepticism. But it's important to be able to accept when you're wrong and actually state it instead of ignoring the old holes and digging a new hole to get stuck in. Especially if you write about how accepting you're wrong and moving on is important.


      3. I knew SB was pro nuclear expansion and GMOs but not that he was retweeting the GWPF (eek!). That's really very sad.

      4. I watched the interview he did with Bill Mayer - and he seemed to spout all the bullshit bingo deniers use

        even managing to use the Galileo Gambit!!! yey

      5. OMG BBD, I can't beleive you're still banging your head against (the wrong side of) the wall on this. Everyone else has managed to work out the reported DOOM has been greatly exaggerated.

        "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."

        Good luck with your loonie environmentalist friends.

      6. https://twitter.com/shubclimate/status/859766156508397568

      7. And yet not one of the prestigious scientific organisations on this planet has "managed to work out the reported DOOM has been greatly exaggerated".

      8. GSW approvingly quotes Bret Stephens:

        "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."

        This is a paragraph so light on substance as to be useless.
        Stephens does not give specific examples of the much-elseness he claims are 'accepted facts' which are in reality 'probabilities'...
        He doesn't bother to state who has been making these claims...

        He frames models as 'sophisticated' but 'fallible'...like some esoteric gimmicky gift...but can't tell you what is sophisticated about them, or quantify any fallibility, or measure it against modellers claims.
        He's not acknowledging anything honestly, he's attempting to make things more obscure, while projecting some easy confidence about his 'insights' into climate science and the public citing of it.
        There is nothing there, at all. Stephens has managed to fill a paragraph with words that have no use.
        It's just twaddle, GSW.

      9. "It's just twaddle, GSW."

        Twaddle is a topic that GSW has specialised in for years, over at Deltoid :(

      10. OMG, we may have peer reviewed science on our side, but he's got a tweet!

      11. "Everyone else has managed to work out the reported DOOM has been greatly exaggerated."

        Meanwhile, back in the real world.

      12. No point in talking to GSW, folks. He's too stupid to understand what you are saying. Sou knows :-)

      13. "Everyone else has managed to work out the reported DOOM has been greatly exaggerated."

        Haven't looked at Millicent's link yet so it might say pretty much the same thing, but in terms of the the impacts of global warming, just about every manifestation to date has been worse that what scientists projected. GSW is simply bending the facts into a pretzel in order to avoid the slow motion train wreck that is the Anthropocene.

      14. I think I have finally managed to make "sense" of GSW's viewpoint. When he says "everyone" he refers only to people who work for the fossil fuel industry. The rest of humanity simply does not count for anything to him.

    9. As a NYTimes "verified" commenter I spend way too much time with it. One thing that goes missing is that this was hire in the "Opinion" section for a weekly column (not intended to be factual reporting, that is).

      The same week there were nearly a dozen fine articles on climate change from a range of views, a Magazine feature that was very well done. The clamor of outrage - justified in many ways - was out of proportion and ignored all the other work they did, which was not trivial.

      Today there was this about Chinese and fishing.
      China’s Appetite Pushes Fisheries to the Brink

      Justin Gillis says their new climate headperson is very fine, and to expect more.

      But if you are going to cut Bret Stephens slack on other subjects, you might check out his opinions about how women are to blame for being raped. Some of his other views are not pretty either. He's a puzzling choice from the right as well as from climate honesty.

      The Clinton to climate change poll-based argument was, if anything, helpful, as it was so idiotic. If his reasoning had been more careful it would have been harder to make him look silly/stupid.

      There was quite a bit of pile-on to the Public Editor, and that too seemed justified to me. She replaced the excellent Margaret Sullivan, and seems to make a lot of excuses for her bosses; that might even be her job. And I suspect her personal politics are a bit to the right of the NYT readership.

      OTOH, it is silly of the NYT to try to triangulate with people who already think it is too liberal. And they should report on Trump less and the rest of the world more. Fox and Breitbart don't make the effort; why should they?

      1. Susan Anderson.

        I think Bret Stephen's is going for the edgy, contrarian, provocative approach - in other words just one step up from the shock-jocks.

        Yes the Clinton campaign - climate change false equivalence was appalling, he is doing his readers a great disservice.

      2. It wasn't any of those things. It was just dumb. If you are a NYT reader, try Readers' Picks: great stuff, and huge votes. The Chinese fishing article was a good job. Most don't get that Opinion is not supposed to be factual, and given the reaction, perhaps that is what the NYT needs to address.

      3. Susan, I disagree. Even Editorial Opinion columns should be factual - especially in a paper like the NY Times. Alt-facts need to be discouraged everywhere and while the opinion columns may be expected to have a bit more 'spin,' surely not their own facts.

      4. Opinion is not supposed to be factual - so it is satire then?

        Well if the NYT does not want to be taken seriously, they will get that in spades.

    10. If my memory is correct, the New York Times has a long history of requiring fact checking for its Op Eds. I am going to give them a little time to come clean with Stephens. I expect right now there is a lot of internal debate going on about Stephens' misrepresentation of the science. I'm hoping it results in the printing of a very public correction. This same scenario played itself out a few years ago when the NYT hired William Kristol: an error-riddled column followed by a correction. That happened enough times that the NYT quietly dumped him. I'm hoping the same thing happens with Stephens. -- Dennis

    11. Having read the article, my objection to it is that it was, frankly, moronic.

    12. Per tonight's Nightly Business Report, NYT digital subscriptions are up by a substantial amount (I'm thinking 5%, but that might be the jump in the stock price.)

      Print subscriptions are down, but I gather not by an equivalent amount.

      1. I suspect those figures are lagged by at least several weeks.

    13. My subscription did not last a month. I too was supportive of the NYT as they were annoying the angry pumpkin. The defence of Stephens by the newspaper was the worst part of the sage, along with the silly response from their subscription department about "courage to test our own assumptions". Bloody hell, I test my assumptions all the time. If Stephens had anything worthwhile, novel, or factual in his climate pieces, then I would be all ears. Regurgitating factoids is not "testing assumptions"

    14. I feel very lucky that Australia
      has dedicated articulate science journalists like Robyn Williams,
      amongst other notables.
      Stuff opinion. I want journalism.

    15. Jeesh, the NYT has now doubled (trebled?) down. The note from the publisher to those who cancelled their subscription is incredibly offensive and inane. I can't imagine that drivel winning back many, if any, subscribers. My favourite line:

      "This does not mean that The Times will publish any commentary. Some points of view are not welcome, including those promoting prejudice or denying basic truths about our world."

      Really!? Sulzberger and Bennet, like Stephens, are clearly deluded.


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