There’s really two things that tipped me into cancellation, actually. One is Liz Spayd, the Public Editor of the New York Times, implying that it’s only rigid leftists who were upset with the hiring of Stephens, and that we weren’t really going to cancel for real anyway. That’s some special condescension right there, and it’s also tactically about the dumbest thing you could say to people who are pissed off. It says, in effect: go away then, we didn’t want you as readers anyway. The second was James Bennet, the editor responsible for hiring Stephens, implying that it’s liberal orthodoxy and close-mindedness to not at least listen to Stephens, and that was Stephens said is within the range of legitimate opinion. Bennet here is acting as if this is a single column rather than the hiring of a writer to fulfill a regular role on his pages. He’s also defending the content of Stephens’ content-less column and doing nothing to acknowledge that the worst offense of this column (and his past editorial writing) is the cheap sophistry of his work. I don’t dislike Stephens’ NYT column because I’m rigidly unwilling to talk about issues and problems with standard climate change science or climate change activism. I taught an entire course that compelled students to read several prominent critics of climate change science and activism, and I regularly pipe up with my own criticisms of climate change activism. There is nothing that pisses me off more than someone who just hand-waves criticism away by implying that the critics are ideologically rigid and inattentive to what was actually said. That too shows a kind of casual condescension for a readership.
So let me be clear: there are several versions of what Stephens seemed to want to say that would be completely acceptable, interesting, legitimate, as far as I’m concerned. As it stands, the column says the following:
1. We’re too certain of too many things
2. We’re too certain of too many things, especially science, because we trust in the data we have and the methods we have for collecting it, like Hillary Clinton’s campaign was
3. Because you see, some things are only about probabilities, unlike other things that aren’t
4. Climate science is only about probabilities, not certainties
5. If climate science is only about probability, not certainty, maybe we shouldn’t act on it
6. After all, we have made many mistakes in the past based on probabilities and science
Folks who read this blog regularly have certainly heard me say some similar things, though often in a very different manner and in different, more specific, contexts. And, I hope in my own case, in an actually searching and open-minded way, rather than as sophistry intended to endorse a particular political orthodoxy. The problem here with Stephens is that all science is probabilistic on some level. I could just as easily say, “There is a probability that the aspirin I take in the morning will suddenly cause an unexpected allergic reaction and I will die within 30 minutes, despite having no prior allergy to it.” It’s true! It doesn’t mean I should never take aspirin again. He makes a big move towards epistemological skepticism to open his column and then applies that skepticism in a highly limited way that doesn’t match the opening.
The column is, as Will Bunch noted, a fact-free nothingburger, intended largely to troll and annoy liberals and then to complain that they’re intolerant of alternative opinions when they get annoyed. What annoys me is a newspaper that’s marketing itself as a vehicle for truth, for ambitious attempts to understand the world, for challenging thinking, playing along with the smack-the-imaginary-intolerant-liberal game. Fuck that noise.
I want to prove that there are alternative versions of Stephens’ column that would be perfectly respectable–where I would readily concede the legitimacy of the opinion and would also regard Stephens (or any other writer) as legitimately expanding the range of what we can argue, and I would submit, most of these would be read in a similarly open-minded or appreciative (if perhaps in some cases puzzled) spirit by many “liberals”.
1. Do we really know anything?
2. Maybe formal knowledge doesn’t tell us what’s really true about the world and the universe.
3a. Maybe we should trust our feelings and intuitions more and act impulsively on them. (Basically, this is Romanticism and its various 20th Century descendants).
3b. Or maybe we should look for forms of faith and detachment from this world. (Basically, some forms of spirituality.)
3c. Maybe all knowledge is too entangled in the reproduction of institutional and political power. (Basically, some forms of anti-foundationalist philosophy.)
4. This applies to everything, not just climate action or climate science. What does that look like?
Hey, I grant you: this would not be popular with most readers, liberal and conservative. And it would lead in a really different kind of direction for a weekly or regular column. But all of these exist in the world, they’re possible directions for commentary. The point is that this branch recognizes that a general epistemological or philosophical complaint has to be applied generally.
Risk and the Precautionary Principle
1. A vast amount of our collective and individual action involves projections, hypothetical, models, probabilities, intuitions of risk. Not just conservative AND liberal politics, but businesses, families, etc.
2. How do we know how to map our thinking about what might happen to the costs and challenges of acting because of that thinking?
3. Case Studies guided by some consistent clearly-stated principles
E.g., a column that does this every single week, where that’s the entire focus: how do we reconcile what might happen with what we should do about it? Think of the Ethicist column in the NY Times Magazine or maybe the NPR show modelled on Freakonomics as models here. It’s completely plausible–there are a zillion things to talk about under this heading. This solves the problem of Stephens just applying this entire way of thinking once to question a single political plan, and it makes him set down some kind of consistent logic that could gore his own ox. You want to say someone’s an independent thinker, that’s what he’s got to do. This takes understanding probability, of course, and engaging directly with actual projections by climate scientists rather than hand-waving about how they use probability and so it’s not completely certain. One thing that might lead out from that engagement is that the possibility that things won’t be as bad as the mainstream projections would have it is mirrored by a possibility that things will be vastly worse.
Why Don’t People Trust Science? Or Probability? Historical Explorations
1. Science or social science have often been used in the past to justify public initiatives and governmental programs
2. Sometimes they’ve been badly wrong; sometimes they’ve been wrong in smaller and less damaging ways; sometimes they’ve been right
3. Is there anything about the cases of being wrong that we can learn from, if we review them with an open mind?
4. Do scientists need to engage publics differently with an awareness that at least some of these historical errors (or perceived but misremembered errors) are remembered in various ways?
5. Is this specifically one of the issues hampering attempts to move from climate science to climate action?
This is pretty much a kind of column theme close to my own thinking at times on this blog. I think it’s a useful approach. Maybe this isn’t quite a week-after-week theme, but it surely could support a series of 5-10 columns. The point here is to think deeply about what kinds of mistakes have been made, and what the causality of those mistakes might have been. I think there’s a range of examples and underlying causes–and probably to the discomfort of Stephens’ ideology, at least some of them have to do with the intersection of business interests, the economics of higher education, and science. E.g., they’re not “liberal hubris”, but something grubbier and more tied to the ideology of market conservatism and to governmental authority of all types and ideologies. It wasn’t “liberals” who thought it was a great idea to introduce cane toads to control agricultural pests. But this isn’t exclusively so–I’m just as willing to pile scorn on Paul Ehrlich as any Austrian economist might be.
Again, the saving grace is for Stephens or someone like him would involve not chopping off feet and hands to fit a body onto the bed of Procrustes. If a hypothetical columnist wants to argue that climate action plans and policies closely resemble past mistakes in fitting science to policy, some rich and well-chosen examples have to come into play first. Protip hint: polling during the Clinton campaign is not a rich or well-chosen example.
What’s the Debate About Probability and Projection Within Climate Science?
1. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to making projections
2. Here’s what climate scientists actually say and disagree about when it comes to suggesting strategies for mitigation
3. How are we who are not climate scientists to decide which ideas or research to favor? How literate do we have to be to make those judgments?
If Stephens wants to really think about this just with climate science, he could learn a bit about the rather vigorous debate between climate scientists about what kinds of projections and estimations are responsible and which aren’t. And about the caution that many of them demonstrate when they try to match up their most certain projection ranges with possible strategies for mitigation. There’s a fine column or series of columns in that somewhere. But it takes actually knowing something, which doesn’t seem to be a big thing with most of the New York Times‘ regular columnists.
Is It Actually Possible To Care About the Far Future in a Real Way?
Screw It: I’m Alive Right Now and I Want What I Want
1. Nobody has really ever given up what matters to them right now for the benefit of people who aren’t even born yet
2. Seeming examples of that are deceptive (e.g., people who seem to be sacrificing for their kids and grandkids are just hoping that there will be a reciprocal benefit to them and they’ll be cared for in turn; or they are just making a big deal out of a ‘sacrifice’ they had to make no matter what anyway; or it’s about the real actual emotional relationship they have with a real actual person rather than a hypothetical future person). Etc.
3. What would it take to actually have an ethics that was more about the lives of people (and environments) that are two or three centuries ahead? What would we be like if we lived that way?
1. Who cares about a century from now? Let those people solve their own problems.
2. Look at what Americans a century ago left in our laps to solve: a ruinous war that fueled an even worse one, an unregulated and amateurish financial system that caused a global economic disaster that afflicted people for decades, resurgent racism and lynching that still haunts us today, an incoherent distinction between alcohol and other controlled substances that fueled mass imprisonment on one hand and the ravages of alcoholism on the other, etc. Were they thinking about us? No.
3. People can cope with anything, we’ll figure out a way to live with big changes and nobody will really know the difference.
4. Or we won’t, and so what? The dinosaurs didn’t figure out how to stop volcanoes erupting or how to keep comets away. This is just where our evolution led us. That’s the way it goes.
I am completely ok with either of these approaches as something to read if they’re argued in an interesting, stylistically alive fashion. The first is basically what Roy Scranton does in Learning to Die in the Anthropocene; there are other ways to work this terrain than Scranton’s. I have some sympathy for the approach that says: this is actually a really hard problem that most climate scientists and climate activists underestimate because most of them don’t really think a lot about how other people think or feel. I’m not at all sympathetic to the second approach, but I recognize its hard coherence. It’s a legitimate point of view–though its bleakness applies to way, way more than climate action. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t lend itself to having a political opinion about specific policies–it’s a kind of nihilism that works better as a literary sensibility. But I dunno, a hard nihilist who was brutal and vicious in his/her assessment of EVERYONE would be a breath of fresh air on an opinion page, a kind of 21st Century Mencken.
The major thrust here is to say: do NOT give me this guff about how sensitive snowflakes don’t want to hear unconventional thoughts or diversity of opinion. It is the laziness and conventionality of Stephens’ column that indicts it. If James Bennet is on a mission to broaden the range and form of opinions on his page, Stephens is very nearly the worst possible vehicle to accomplish that. It is as if someone said they were tired of vanilla ice cream and decided to go wild by ordering FRENCH vanilla ice cream.