Legitimate Versions of Bret Stephens’ Column

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”.

Epistemological Rebel

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.

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25 Responses to Legitimate Versions of Bret Stephens’ Column

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, as I think you know, I think you’re one of the smartest and most fair-minded people around, and I have learned a great deal from you over the years. It is pretty much unprecedented for me to disagree with you as completely as I do here. I feel that I must be missing something huge, which is disconcerting. But anyway:

    It seems to me that you have ignored what Stephens actually wrote (it’s telling that you don’t quote him) because you think you know what he really meant, what he was really trying to achieve. And maybe you’re right, but you’re avoiding altogether the explicit thesis of the column, which is about what constitutes, or might constitute, for climate-change activists, effective strategies of persuasion. And that strikes me as something worth talking about — even if the point is raised by someone who has bad intentions (or intentions that are not as good as they might be — Andrew Revkin thinks Stephens has changed his views a good bit, but not enough).

    One more quick note: you quote that Will Bunch post with approval, but his argument is very different than yours. He doesn’t say that the NYT is “marketing itself as a vehicle for truth”: he says that it’s a liberal newspaper and if it doesn’t faithfully and consistently offer liberal views then it’s betraying its clientele.

  2. Thanks for writing this and taking the time to engage the Stephens question further. I really would like to see an article–in lay language that I can understand–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.”

    For what it’s worth, I’ve sometimes been critical in these pages of what you’ve said, but I am a fan of this blog and have been reading it for at least a couple years. Thanks for writing it.

  3. Well put. I found Spayd also to be very off-putting. And, yes, I think that Stephens’ column was little more than trolling. That said, even worse was that he deliberately did that right out of the gates.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    He’s saying that the NYT is marketing itself as a liberal newspaper–and using the slogan TRUTH as a perceived call-out to its liberal readership. Much as the WaPo is calling out with “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. And that it’s fucking dumb to market yourself to a particular audience and look to them to keep you viable and then turn around and troll them. Which it is. If I got hired by The Chronicle of Higher Education and the first column I wrote was a trollish piece called “We Don’t Need Universities Any More”, it would be kind of dumb move for them, right? It might get a lot of clicks on the one article, but it’s not as if people who hate higher education are going to say, “Hey, I need to subscribe to the Chronicle of Higher Education”. Liberals do not necessarily need to hear liberal arguments only, but they are perfectly within their rights to say, “Don’t fucking troll me”. I am not buying anything that thinks that someone trolling me is an interesting “reasoned opinion” that I need to think about. If the newspaper of record and its peer journalistic institutions want to hold themselves as being a higher-quality public sphere that stands apart from the worst of online culture, this is a specific area that they have to avoid. They have to model what real debate looks like, what real thoughtful opinion looks like, what news analysis that isn’t trying to maneuver people into narrowly predesignated kill chutes looks like. If you want to tell me that I got fed up with the NYT because I just want to read liberal opinions and news coverage, then you’re perilously close to trolling as well. You should know better.

    I did not ignore what Stephens really wrote. Because he didn’t write much of anything. It’s a trollish piece and again you surprise me very much by trying to pretend otherwise. It can’t stay focused enough on an actual argument amid the trolling to be given credit for “really” anything. You know only too well, I hope, that the point about what persuades in climate change discourse is something that very much interests me. Again, I taught an entire course about that issue. Stephens’ column is not raising that point in any kind of remotely focused way. To think about persuasion either takes asking, seriously, “what is it some particular sociological subset of people think ‘climate change’ means, and what is it some particular sociological subset of people think ‘climate change science’ is?’ That’s an empirical question–and there are many people who ask it. Or it takes asking, “Is there some argument that makes the case for the reality of climate change and the need for climate action that is not being used enough?” That’s a focused question, and there are many people who ask it within climate change activism. All that garbage about probability and certainty in Stephens’ column, which sucks up about half of it, is about a completely different kind of question (which is why I pull out different versions of possibly-real discussions from the trollish fragments of the actual column). If I were going to ask, “When is it that people are convinced enough about the probability of an event to endorse collective action to prevent it?” in an open-minded way, I’d have to concede at the outset that the actual probability of an event seems to have little to do with our willingness to act on that imagined probability. Many of us are far more fearful about crime than probability warrants and endorse a huge and expensive carceral system because of it; many of us are far more fearful of terrorist attack than probability warrants and endorse hugely expensive military activity because of it; many of us are far less fearful than probability warrants of hopping in our cars and driving, and so on. There are good reasons for all of these relationships between probability, belief and action, some of them historical, some of them emotional, some of them rooted in our understandings of agency and individuality. But a real argument about what makes for a strategy of persuasion on probability and action should acknowledge that terrain rather than isolate climate change from it.

    Or he should just talk about persuasion period–there are reasons to wonder whether anything’s persuasive. Look right here: I have a long record of being interested in and open to the conversations Stephens is allegedly interested in with that column, and a long willingness to be indifferent about conventional lines between “liberals”, “conservatives” and the like, and yet: here we are, you assuming that I missed an “explicit thesis” in a bit of smarmy trollish word salad that was written precisely to triangulate on its audience, make its author appear to be a reasonable fellow, and provoke much tut-tutting about the intolerance of liberals and wave the false equivalency flag. You can toil in the mines of persuasion a whole life and yet be regarded as a slacker in a mere afternoon, it seems.

  5. Alan Jacobs says:

    “You can toil in the mines of persuasion a whole life and yet be regarded as a slacker in a mere afternoon, it seems.”

    Well, no — I’m not canceling my subscription to this blog because I think you’re off-base this one time. 🙂

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Humor me then, and lay on me some exegesis. Where is the precise moment in the Stephens’ column that you believe he makes a substantive, sincere argument that I should respectfully engage and regard as a legitimate form of quality opinion writing? If it is merely a moment–a sentence, two of them–what’s the rest of the essay doing? Is it leading to that moment? Exploring the edge-space around that moment? A harmless amount of air pudding and throat-clearing to introduce that moment?

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Okay, I’ll humor you! Here’s hoping I don’t regret it …

    The first thing I have to say may be the most important: Pay attention to the genre. It’s an 800-word op-ed, which means that, like virtually every other example of the genre, it offers a reductive, wildly oversimplified, idiosyncratically or just-plain-poorly sourced picture of a vitally important issue. The NYT, like every other paper in the country, publishes this kind of thing every single day, and maybe they shouldn’t, maybe it’s ultimately counterproductive for our political discourse, but it’s part of our world, and if we’re going to evaluate it, we need to keep the limitations of the genre in mind. (I should perhaps say that I’ve written this kind of thing, for a few newspapers, and hated every second of it, so maybe I’m a bit defensive.) Given those limitations, Stephens’s op-ed strikes me as a fairly standard example. I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse. To interrogate it as intensely as many have done strikes me as a case of breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

    Second: it takes Stephens a while to wind his way around to his thesis, or his primary point, but I do think he has one, and here it is: “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.”

    And that seems true to me — as I said in my post on the subject, self-evidently true, though I would add that Stephens gives us plenty of reasons for questioning his “ideological intentions.” And I could add many other questions as well, because Stephens seems to be way more cautious than he ought to be about accepting the general consensus, and because, being sort of a conservative myself, I believe that the proper conservative impulse is to err on the side of conserving the world we have.

    So I think Stephens gets several things wrong in that op-ed, but I think his main point (if indeed I have accurately identified it) is a good one. The leading advocates for addressing climate change, and addressing it aggressively, are right, but they really can be assholes, and their advocates on social media are indeed far more aggressive and far less informed. So I think there’s a legitimate word to the wise there.

    What Andrew Revkin said in response to Stephens is interesting: “In some ways, the column made clear Stephens had come a distance in his views. And he flirted with some thoughtfulness about the perils of certainty. But his prime conclusion amounted to a defense of forestalling action on climate change while awaiting more certitude.” That seems to me a fair assessment, and indeed Revkin’s whole post, which is extremely critical, takes a tone that I wish other critics had taken. I would encourage everyone to note Revkin’s (clearly accurate) claim that Stephens has moved quite a way, from treating climate change as a hoax to taking it far more seriously. And I think that op-ed is a way of saying that he could have made that move more readily if his skepticism (and that of others) hadn’t been treated with such mockery.

    Again, I think that’s a legit word to the wise, even if it comes from someone whose motives we have good reason to question. As I said in one of my posts on the subject, the “backfire effect” is real and needs to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to persuade. And it’s because I know, from long and positive experience, that you do believe in persuasion that I was somewhat taken aback by the intensity of your response. That other people responded with even greater intensity, and far more contempt, doesn’t, of course, surprise me at all.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok, so. Thank you.

    1. The genre thing is a separate question: let’s table it. Part of the thrust of my objection to the NYT opinion pages as a whole is to their dull acceptance of an especially turgid version of the genre, and my frustration is that every single time they add a columnist they claim to be widening the range of opinion *and* expressive content and every single time they do neither. It’s important to how I read Stephens, but is not something we can work through a detailed analysis of his content. You are right to say that the whisper-thin nature of any NYT column can’t really stand up to a demanding breakdown of its arguments, but that is really at least one of my major points and sources of irritation.

    2. Let’s go then to what you identify as his argument. I am still bothered that it doesn’t strike you as sophistry in the form that he makes it. To me, it is very nearly identical to a creationist claiming that evolution is only a theory and therefore why do we teach it as fact, and is at least in screaming distance of some much more noxious attempts to use doubt/ambiguity to call into question the factual nature of various things–the Holocaust, etc.

    “Claiming total certainty about the science”. Can we talk about this? Does anyone, at this level of strawman exaggeration, claim ‘total certainty’? Stephens himself claimed total certainty early in the column, if prophylactically: e.g., he announced that yes the climate is changing and yes it’s got something to do with anthropogenic causes. In the vast majority of climate science, you will get statements like “confidence is very high”, “the evidence is very strong”. If we’re going to call those “total certainty”, then we should also be complaining about statements like “We’re very certain that Trappist-1 has planets revolving around it”, “We’re very certain Enceladus has a liquid water interior”, “We’re very certain that HIV is the cause of AIDS”, “We’re very certain that smoking causes lung cancer”. In some sense, this type of rhetoric, if we’re to treat Stephens’ sentence as an actual argument, is always a mistake. Because “claiming certainty” always claims an opportunity for doubt.

    But in fact, curiously enough, it doesn’t, or at least, not the doubt that occasions a column in the NYT. Science is a long history of previous certainties corrected or overthrown by later research. That history is in fact a central part of the scientific method. So one might wonder: where’s the fire here? What makes the certainty of a claim about climate different from all those other claims of confidence being high, of results being very strong? Where’s the argument to explain why he’s worried about getting it wrong on climate more than any other possible wrongness, and why climate more than any other creates resentment about moral superiority?

    Is it that only climate science asks, from its confidence in its findings, for expensive changes in public policy? Biomedical scientists frequently announce findings with confidence that have massively expensive consequences for public policy. Self-driving cars, defended with confidence by scientists and engineers working on them, will have massively expensive consequences for public policy. If they get those kinds of science wrong, in fact, there’s often public consternation.

    The argument as you isolate it depends on climate science being special in this respect. How is it special? This is where I think the sophistry is going on and where I think you’re being terribly forgiving of it (and unforgiving of my irritation with it). This is precisely what the textbook definition of concern trolling is: “Oh, I’m terribly concerned that climate scientists communicate less arrogantly and modify their overly certain predictions, because I’m so terribly concerned about climate change.” But it’s nonsense, because the certainty of climate scientists can’t be the unique variable that makes them more worth his attention and more worth his concern than any other scientific specialists whose work has implications for public policy.

  9. Let’s also note, which Stephens most certainly does NOT, that the uncertainty issue cuts both ways. Many climate scientists think that, at a minimum, the IPCC is conservative with its reports, and that at a maximum, it pulls its punches.

  10. Alan Jacobs says:

    “The argument as you isolate it depends on climate science being special in this respect.” I dont see how. We’re talking about climate science rather than self-driving cards or evolution or exoplanets in the Trappist-1 system because the column is about climate science, not self-driving cars or evolution or exoplanets in the Trappist-1 system. If Stephens writes more columns about science and applies different standards of evidence to them, then the case may look different. But right now we’re working with a sample of one.

    As far as I’m concerned the same standards of evidence apply in those other cases as well — but maybe not always the same rhetorical strategies. Because when people have heavy investments in believing or disbelieving something you might have to tread more carefully than you do in other cases. Nobody has a life-determining reason to believe or disbelieve that the Trappist-1 planets are inhabitable, but there is genuine fear that taking climate science with the seriousness it deserves could wreck the world economy; just as fundamentalists feel profoundly threatened by Darwinian science.

    I have tons of experience — more than a lifetime’s worth — dealing with fundamentalists who are terrified by Darwinian science, and I can report to you (with great confidence) that telling them that they’re scientifically illiterate morons is a counterproductive strategy. So when they say that evolution by natural selection is “only a theory” you can reply by granting the point — and then going on to say what a theory is, how a theory differs from a mere guess, what makes a given theory well-attested, why natural selection is a theory that is far better attested than many other theories that they themselves take as obvious fact, etc. etc. — and by the way, natural selection is something that you can actually see happening among drosophila in the laboratory and among finches in the Galapagos. And no other theory has anything remotely approaching this level of attestation, indeed no other has any measurable attestation at all, which is why we don’t teach other theories in our schools. It’s long, slow, dreary work, and it’s not nearly as effective as you’d like to think, but the alternatives are positively counterproductive. And all of this applies quite precisely to climate skeptics, I think.

    And that’s why I also think what I have identified as Stephens’s thesis is one that people like us ought to heed, even if he gets other things wrong, even if he’s concern-trolling, even if he’s actively trying to sow uncertainty, and even if you think that this argument ought to be long since over. That thesis is, nonetheless, still correct. That’s as far as I’m willing to go to defend Stephens, but, as you can tell, I think it’s important to go that far.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    So ok! You have come to precisely what I was thinking, which is this: the problem, in some sense, is with the heavy investment people have in believing or disbelieving. And this is why I say: concern trolling. Because if that is the problem, then to pretend that the only thing that matters is the rhetorical strategies you adopt in relationship to that investment–that the only agency involved is yours, and how you communicate–is outrageously unfair. Or it would be if we shifted the frame. If I’m talking to folks who are deeply anti-Semitic and you tell me that it’s my job as a historian to convince them of the reality of the Holocaust in a way that takes their anti-Semitism as an immobile fact of no moral significance in and of itself, then, well, I revise my opinion of you. But wait! That is what is: is it not conservatism to leave it unmolested, or to make extraordinary arguments about the reasons why it should be disturbed?

    If Stephens showed signs of being a person who applied what you and I agree is his pathetic stub of a half-argument to a much wider variety of cases, and who could explain why or whether “climate” is a special case, your pleading for consideration would make sense to me. I see no such signs in him, nor in a wide variety of sophists and concern trolls who refuse to apply the argument widely. So here I stand. Maybe this is what “conservatism” is now: a mulligan for concern trolling.

  12. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, apologies, but I don’t understand your last comment well enough to respond to it.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Sorry, I was interrupted while composing that reply–it’s a bit jumbled.

    You identify Stephens’ argument as the following: ““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.” You feel that he’s basically correct on this point–that climate scientists are overly certain, and that this is specifically a rhetorically unpersuasive strategy in the face of considerable public unease about climate action and given the potentially momentous consequences of adopting climate action plans.

    As you know, on some basic level, I also agree with this argument and have made versions of it at times. What I object to here is that I think it’s fairly obvious that Stephens is fundamentally insincere in making it, and thus, is basically a concern troll.

    Let us say I approach a Baptist preacher who has been exhorting me to convert and say, “You are trying to convince me to let Jesus into my heart and join your congregation. But you know, I’m an uneasy agnostic and you’re coming on too strongly for me. Perhaps if you could address some of my concerns about Christianity in a way more suited to my inclinations, I might see the light. I can see you have some good points.” He says, “Well, what do you have in mind?” I say, “Well, first off, I don’t really see how it’s possible that God actually intervenes in our daily affairs–theodicy and all that–so perhaps you could leave out all the messaging on praying.” He grumbles. “Ok.” I say, “Well, second, I know too much about how the New Testament was actually composed and what was left out and so on, so let’s not treat it as the literal word of God, and let me add the Gnostic Gospels and other materials as having equivalent status for myself and other congregants.” He grumbles more. “Ok”. I say, “Well, really, this Trinity thing, it really doesn’t make sense to me, can we just leave that up to each worshipper?” He’s getting impatient, but finally nods. I scratch my head and then I say, “Look, could we just leave it open about whether there’s actually a God or not? I really feel agnostic about the whole thing.” So what I’ve done is waste the man’s time: I never intended to join the congregation, nor was I sincere in saying that I might see the light. But I created a conversation in which the presumption is that it’s his failure for not delivering the good word to me in a fashion that I would find amenable.

    This is also what I was thinking about in the example of Holocaust denial. If I’m scheduled to give a talk on the history of the Holocaust in a small town somewhere, and just before I begin, my host sidles up to me and says, “Look, actually, this entire town is anti-Semitic and believes the Holocaust never happened, so go easy on them. Maybe you shouldn’t be so certain it happened. You’re challenging their entire worldview after all”, well, if I want to persuade them, don’t I need to take my host’s advice? Shouldn’t I be patient and forgiving and humble, and walk them through some of the evidence for the reality of the Holocaust in the most careful and generous way, allowing as we go that it’s perfectly legitimate if they don’t agree, that they’re entitled to their own opinions–after all, that’s how they feel? Perhaps I should, if I really want to persuade them. But what this leaves out, or renders unimportant, is the question of how on Earth this community of people exist. It’s not an accident that they exist. It’s not random. There is a will-to-denial in this town: it takes investment of energy, deliberate agency, to make this town. They are not people who just happen to have not heard what I have to say. So I am being to some extent a dupe or a dunce if I take my host’s advice and tip-toe carefully around their sensibilities. There is no sincerity in that audience: they are not here to listen with an open mind to what I have to say, no matter how I present it–whether I blast them with rhetorical thunderbolts or coo and purr seductively at them.

    This is the only thing in the end that separates “climate” from Trappist-1 or anything else. That climate arrives as something which is always already framed for some Americans as a thing about which they should be aggressively skeptical. This is where I think Naomi Oreskes is basically correct in her historical research: that disposition towards “climate” and “climate science” is the successful result of a project to make them something which signifies “arrogance” and “certainty”, and signifies “scientists who try to rule your lives and have better jobs than you do”. Big Tobacco tried to pull off a similar move and succeeded for a while, but after enough uncles and mothers and friends die of lung cancer and one’s own fingernails turn yellow, the evidence of everyday life started to outpull all the p.r. money in the world.

    Imagine for a moment that climate scientists were consistently humble in their messaging. “Well, we think the data’s pretty good. There seems to be some evidence. We’re not sure, of course, nothing’s ever sure. But probably. We did publish some articles, we’d be glad to talk with you about them. Maybe we should try to do something? Because at least some of the things that might happen, maybe could happen? are pretty awful. There’s a chance, maybe, that if we did less of some of what we’re doing, that might be helpful. Maybe? We’re not sure. But it might be a good thing.” Ok. So if you think Stephens is making an argument, and is not just another version of the agnostic concern-trolling the minister, he’s arguing (and you’re arguing) that this would actually work in the case of climate. Long, slow, dreary work, but it will work. Do you think that’s true? You only can if you think there is an actual disposition out there that will actually respond positively to that slow, patient, humble, low-key mode of persuasion and that there is no active agency of people “on the other side” who are trying to poison whatever well there might be, no matter whether it gets filled with an eyedropper or a flood. If there is such a will, then to leave that out of the picture is either naive or it is a sign that one is part of the attempt to poison the well.

    If I am going to advise scientists or policy experts to communicate differently about what I think are valid findings and proposals, then I am also going to see it as part of my charge to take account of whatever active agency might be involved in frustrating or opposing their communications regardless of their method of rhetorical approach. And I am going to hold that active agency accountable for its attempts to confuse the issue. If I’m dealing with an audience that I think has a certain kind of malicious will-to-untruth, that will move the goalposts regardless of how they are spoken to, I will include them in my critique. If I hold the scientists alone responsible, if I say that it is only their choices in how to communicate that matters, I’m being both empirically impoverished and philosophically bereft. If I do that on purpose just to score a cheap point in a preset partisan game, I’m not making “an argument”. I’m a concern troll.

  14. Alan Jacobs says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Tim — I really appreciate it. I think the conversation has gotten more and more complicated, so let me begin by going back to the points I want to make specifically about Bret Stephens’s column. Here are those points:

    1) A good deal of the superficiality and oversimplification you (rightly) perceive in the column are a function of the genre;

    2) Stephens does have a thesis;

    3) That thesis is, generally speaking, correct.

    I have no interest in defending him or his views in any other respect. My whole purpose in responding here has been to say that, if those three points are correct, then a proportionate response to the column would be something more like a giant eye-roll than anything else.

    If I understand you rightly, your counter is that the thesis is not proposed in good faith but is rather an instance of concern-trolling, and therefore should not be taken seriously. So is Stephens a concern troll? I’d say that he could well be, probably is — I don’t know, I’m not that interested. You and I have had this debate before, I believe about David Brooks. Inquiries into motives tend to make me throw up my hands, because I think human motivation (including my own) is labyrinthine. So I have repeatedly waived that point: on this page control-f “even if.” Even if Stephens is all you fear he is, that thesis qua thesis is still sound. (Even if Hitler was, you know, Hitler, he was still right to say that the Treaty of Versailles was unjust.) That’s all I’m saying.

    But — and here’s where it gets really interesting — even though I doubt my grasp, in most cases, of human motives, I still have to make prudential judgments about whether or not to engage with people under the assumption of good faith. And sometimes I take a pass. This shifts our discussion from Stephens himself to the people he claims to speak for, the people who are offended or alienated by (supposedly) excessive scientistic certainty.

    So, to take your hypothetical example of the Holocaust-denying small town, that might well be a case where I’d decide the chances of my getting a real hearing are not high enough to justify my time and effort. Probably only a few, or none, are “here to listen with an open mind to what I have to say.” So thanks but no thanks.

    But I might be inclined to take that pass in large part because I know that, in the country as a whole, there are very few Holocaust deniers or people who would curtail the civil rights of Jews. But what if around half the country were virulently anti-Semitic? What if the President and other members of the executive branch were removing references to the Holocaust from .gov websites, and Congress were dominated by people who declare that there’s just not enough evidence to say that the Holocaust happened, so we need to defund and possibly close the Holocaust Museum? In that case simply declining the debate might not be a legitimate option. I would need votes, which means that I might have do a little tip-toeing around sensibilities. I could of course also stage protests, but I’m not sure that I could do wholly without suasion.

    This is why I don’t think your Holocaust-denial comparison really works. Holocaust skepticism may be evidentially equivalent to climate-science skepticism, but it’s not demographically equivalent, which is why we can probably get away with ignoring Holocaust deniers. But given how common disbelief in anthropogenic climate change is, we might have to pursue the “long, slow, dreary work” of patient suasion even if we know that the returns aren’t likely to be great — because it might well be that a few votes here or there will make a difference.

    To engage skeptics in an epistemically humble way would not mean being as wishy-washy as your imagined “humble climate scientist” is: “Well, we think the data’s pretty good. There seems to be some evidence…. There’s a chance, maybe, that if we did less of some of what we’re doing, that might be helpful. Maybe? We’re not sure. But it might be a good thing.” You don’t have to say that the data is “pretty good” when you think it’s overwhelmingly good, you don’t have to say that “there seems to be some evidence” when there is a great deal of evidence. If you decline apodictic certainty you don’t have to accept equivocation as the only alternative.

    Anyway, that’s why I think that the rhetorical considerations are so important.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Ok. So fundamentally we keep tracking back to this basic point: you in some sense are willing to settle for the genre limitations of op-eds and I am not. Which is why my own unsubscription to the NYTs was not “Oh, Bret Stephens touched me on my sensitive spot, I have to quit”, it was “Here’s another opportunity for the NYT to break the mold and what do they do, they choose a typically limited representative of a limited genre”. And I think the harms of that genre’s limitations are not merely in the itches it does not scratch, but also in the way that genre reinforces the worst aspects of partisan thinking.

    This seems to me a coherent statement of preference consistent with my long-stated views. Hence my irritation with a statement that this is somehow surprising, atypical or unworthy of me.


    Two additional thoughts.

    1) As you say, everyone’s got a valid thesis somewhere in the midst of their great invalidity–you use the example of Hitler being right, for example, about the unfairness of Versailles. This is true and yet as valueless a truth as I can imagine. Any seven-paragraph column will have an argument somewhere for which pleading can be made, and maybe a statement somewhere that can be noted as truth. I made this point myself a few weeks back about conspiracy theories: that they have truths to them even when they’re also deranged. What is being argued about here is not, “are there no truths in that column?” It is: is this a product worth paying for? Is this a wise hiring decision? Does this writer do this limited genre well enough to deserve a berth at one of the most influential platforms for it? You and I are both already practiced at making the argument you identify as his argument. Do we need him? Is your own view of the need to speak prudentially with modesty about science so fragile that you need the one-sentence echo of Bret Stephens to buck you up? Is it absent from the public sphere as an argument? Or even from debates within climate activism? No, it’s not. It’s really not. So I am struggling to understand why your ability to say, “Well, he is making an argument which has some truth to it”, is sufficient to the actual issue at hand: is this guy a good hire, and does the NYT make good hires? By your standard, it is impossible to make a bad hire. Even Thomas Friedman has “an argument” somewhere in his work, though it make take truly heroic efforts to find it.

    2) There may at times be a value to speaking an important truth in your own voice according to your own inclinations regardless of whether it is persuasive. There may also at times be a reason not to instrumentalize one’s rhetorical style purely according to sociological determinations. Meaning, it should not be ok to be certain, arrogant, decisive as long as you know your opponents are a small, marginal, politically unimportant constituency; and not ok if you know your opponents are a large constituency with real political power. Rhetorical realpolitik is important: we agree strongly on this. It is very much what I want liberals and radicals to understand. They don’t have to be nice to Trump voters, but they do have to recognize the social reality of Trump voters and rethink their modes of engagement accordingly. But an overly instrumental style is essentially Madison Avenue. Or Iago. It is always trying to tell someone what you think they want to hear in order to get them to do what you think you want them to do. It is in and of itself a bad rhetorical strategy, I believe. It may work for a day or a year, but the inauthenticity and deception it requires will in time lose the would-be persuader everything they sought to win.

  16. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, the first two paragraphs of your reply make perfect sense to me. I see your point and it’s a good one, and helps me to make better sense of your position.

    As for “By your standard, it is impossible to make a bad hire” — well no, of course not. That’s a pure non sequitur. I haven’t said anything at all about whether Stephens is a bad hire, but if you asked me I’d say that Stephens is indeed a bad hire — but exactly the sort of bad hire I’d expect the Times to make, and consistent with many bad hires they’ve made in the past, and therefore not such a big deal (merely eye-rollable, as I’ve said). But this leads back to those first two paragraphs of yours, and the validity of, having accepted many bad hires and various forms of waffling in an enterprise you help pay for, finally reaching the point where you say Fuck this shit. I have complete respect for that position and you make me wonder whether I’m wrong to have such low expectations.

    “There may at times be a value to speaking an important truth in your own voice according to your own inclinations regardless of whether it is persuasive.” Absolutely. Agreed 100%. But again you need to remember the conditionals of my argument: I have said that if you wish to persuade, there are compromises you will have to make. But certainly there are often compelling reasons (and not wholly instrumental ones, though I doubt that in speech and style one can ever wholly escape instrumentality and the awareness of affect) to refuse those compromises.

  17. Sam Zhang says:

    I thought the preposterousness of Bret Stephen’s argument was summed up in the last two sentences of his article:

    “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.”

    1) Why is there a connection at all between Hillary and climate change? It seems like he is doing this just to insinuate that liberals have some vague, innate propensity toward trusting data at the expense of “intuition”. Lol.

    2) The last sentence itself is its own work of art. I mean, for one, the reason America has suffered from political inaction on climate isn’t for lack of “reasoned conversations”. It’s more because of people deploying this exact tactic from the climate denier playbook, which is to sow doubt on strong scientific consensus by false appeals to a skeptical epistemology.

    It’s really malicious how his argument ignores the history of how climate change communication has evolved too. It’s not as if the scientists came out swinging with certainty a few decades ago — even since I started using my brain fairly recently, I remember there being a long, painful time of scientists being scientists (i.e., not rhetorical geniuses), and speaking in probabilities about climate where they could probably have gotten away with being _more_ certain. It’s a positive and recent development for the scientific community to have found its voice in asserting an urgent message. But Bret Stephens has a problem with that… why? Because it is stifling an imaginary discussion that didn’t exist ten years ago? Why would it exist now?

    A lot of this is also just classic “blame the activists” discourse, which argues one way or another that the agitators are themselves causing the problem. I’m pretty familiar with this argument because I used to think it myself, before I thought too much. The difference is that I was literally not an adult at the time, while Bret Stephens has a huge, valuable platform, which he uses it to annoy people into rebutting strawmen in the name of civic discourse.

  18. dkane says:

    ” prominent critics of climate change science”

    Which authors/articles/books did you assign from amongst the critics?

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    Bjorn Lomborg and Oren Cass.

  20. This is a really interesting discussion. It will take me a while to see if I can find within it the answers to the questions it raises in my mind.

    But there is one question that I know I can never answer and that is: “In your class on climate change, did you ever develop a course of action that society should follow to deal with it–and if you did, what was it, and where can I go to read it?”

    Thank you very much.

  21. Timothy Burke says:

    I had my own preferences, Jerry, and primarily that was best expressed by Mike Hulme’s book Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Alan Jacobs might find it odd that I prefer Hulme’s book since it’s what he seems to see as Bret Stephens’ “argument” in his column. I think Hulme is the difference here: he’s honestly interested in why communicating climate change is hard, he believes that what people think locally or in particular contexts about “climate” is important and worth investigating, and that the only way to successfully communicate the urgency of dealing with climate change is with patience and sensitivity. The point is that he thinks it can be done, he’s not particularly out to condemn or dismiss climate scientists, and he isn’t just validating a general “public” distrust of science or climate change activism, but instead a far more specific set of local perspectives and attitudes.

  22. I live in a small Texas town. Most of the people here are very religious, Baptist or Methodist mostly, and they do not pay much attention to the outside world. But, they did pay attention, you might say they came alive, when Donald Trump announced his candidacy. They voted for him and they reveled in his combativeness and anger.

    I live alone and keep pretty much to myself. I am old and I live here because some younger family members can’t move and they need my help. I grew up near here in an almost identical environment, and at an early age I began to follow the path of math, science, and rationality. The folks here tolerate me because they know I have roots here and I don’t challenge what they believe. We are friendly with each other, but we stand a little apart.

    My close neighbors either don’t have children or their children left home quite a while ago. But one neighbor has four children, two not yet in school, one in the third grade, and the fourth has just finished his freshman year in high school. The adults in the family are well-educated and successful. He is a manager with a very large national corporation, and she is a nurse with some very special specialty who works when she wants–but mostly she stays home with the kids. I am very careful not to say or do anything that any of my neighbors would find out of place in their world. I don’t go out of my way to support their thinking, but I never challenge it. My neighbors do realize that I do not agree with their thinking, because they know what I did for a living.

    About three weeks ago, the father of the four children rang my doorbell. I invited him in, which I always do, and he came in, which he has never done–not a single time in fourteen years has he come in. Usually we step out into the front yard and stand under the trees while we talk. Often other neighbors will drift over to see what is going on and we all have a nice chat. It is all good. I wouldn’t change a thing.

    But on this occasion my neighbor came in and sat down. He looked upset. He came straight to the point. He said he was worried about global warming and its effects on his children as they grow up and start their own families. I knew he was a Trump supporter, and I hesitated for a moment. But then we spent about an hour talking about it and I told him exactly what I thought.

    So, what would you have done? What would you have told him? What would have advised him to tell his children? Would you have advised him to find out what his children were being taught in school?

    Just last Friday, I attended by 60th class reunion in another small Texas town not very far away. I was the odd fellow there because I followed math and science, and rationality. As usual my classmates avoided any subjects that would breach the wall that separated us and possibly set off any battles. At one point I wandered over to a table where several of my friends were having an animated conversation. As I approached, I could tell that they were in the middle of a discussion about how they could say that Mexico was paying for Trump’s wall. They were developing an argument, a theory, that would enable to take that position. When I sat down, they changed the subject. I am sorry that I missed their theory. I’ll bet it was a lulu. Most of these people have three generations of living descendants. I am at a loss to understand how they ever came to reject math and science, and rationality, but they have rejected them.

    My theory is that it is in them. In their very souls. It is natural. The combination of inheritance and culture reinforces in them a world view that is filled with magic and magical beings and I am one the demons that threaten that world.

    They are nice to me and I love them all. But we exist in two very different worlds.

    Not only do they not believe in global warming, but they are not willing to analyze the data. Their minds are made up, and they get to vote. Like my neighbor, who was very concerned about the future of his descendants, I am concerned about the future of our species. So, in the next 9,000 word discussion you host here, please cover what is going to happen to us. I would like to know, and I won’t be able to see it unfold. I am too old. So, take your best shot. What will happen?

  23. Timothy Burke says:

    My current intuition about a lot of these things is that we all would be better off if we tried in these difficult conversations to take things back to deep fundamentals and to be curious and exploratory about each other. The problem in so much public discourse is that we are having disagreements about very fully realized issue-oriented and policy-directed matters, way downstream of our deep intuitions and ethical understandings, and that creates a lot of noise and confusion when we mistake those more specific views for deeper ethical and personal commitments. If it turns out that my neighbor honestly believes that there is little to nothing to be done about most things in the world, and lives his/her life that way, with some consistency, then I might be able to peaceably dissent from that view–e.g., we could talk about why we’re different, where that comes from, and what we derive out of that, and learn something. Now if it turns out my neighbor says they believe there’s nothing to be done about most things in the world but they want to bomb Syria and build a wall on the border and a bunch of other things, I might ask them how they reconcile that deep belief with all that other stuff. Maybe they’re wrong about what they believe. So maybe we can discover what they really think about human agency and possibility and then talk about what ought to follow from that. Or vice-versa: talk about how they shouldn’t be supporting a lot of that stuff. Maybe we’d find out that the real thing they support is sticking a bit cultural thumb in the eye of people who offend them–like me! And actually, if the will is there, we can talk about that too. If we’ve been good neighbors so far, then tell me: why are people like me bothersome? Maybe I’ll be the one to learn something.

  24. I was writing the above comment while you were responding to my earlier one.

    I did read the Preface to Hulme’s book and I liked it. I found his writing to be comfortable. But I am not interested in why we disagree about climate change, I am interested in what should be done about climate change. What should we do, and when should we do it?

    in my working life I was constantly involved in the efforts of large enterprises to deal with the future. Whenever I appeared on the scene the usual camps had already formed and the debate was underway about what changes, if any, should be made. My task was to listen to the opposing sides and then develop and present a plan for making changes. It was rare for me to walk away, but it did happen. Most of the time my proposal was accepted, with some changes induced by top management, then I had to develop and install the system. When I finished, the enterprise had been transformed–and for the better. So, I am not interested in hearing the debate, I am interested in understanding the range of possible effects, the available options, the range of available resources, and the minimum time before disaster strikes.

    In 1956, I was in high school and a man named Hubbert published his “peak oil theory.” It made sense to me. The oil industry did everything it could do to squash his theory. I, a child, thought that even if Hubbert was wrong about the date that we would reach peak oil, it was inevitable. It was certain that there was a finite amount of oil in our planet, and the smartest thing for us to do was to find a way to stretch out the time we would have oil while we worked to replace it as a source of power. To me this was obvious to the most casual observer–which, of course, I was. And I was right. We could have reduced greatly our dependence on oil if we had wanted to, and we would not be facing this crisis today.

    Whenever I tell this story, people usually say that it is easy to second-guess things. But I am not second-guessing, I am learning a lesson from history. What I saw, over decades, was that very powerful men all around the planet deliberately did things that were harmful to our natural life support systems, and those same men are in control today. If we let them repeat what they have done for the last 61 years it will be 2078 and our civilization could be, probably will be, a colossal wreck–and someone, but not me, will be Ozymandias.

    So, I don’t want to be involved in, or encourage, aimless intellectual discussions. I want to find people who are doers. Who will get busy doing what needs to be done. I want to help them in any way I can. If you know who and where they are let me know. I find that people who know enough to get us started on the right road are afraid to speak. Just like the days of “peak oil.”

    It is a critical mistake, a fatal mistake, to avoid action because we are not certain. When the gunman you encounter at the shopping mall turns to face you and begins to lift his pistol you should take his life immediately. If you wait to be certain that he is going to shoot you, it will be too late–you will not be able to realize that fact because you will be pitching backward with a bullet in your brain.

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