On Saturday, brand new New York Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens penned a moderate column about climate change. In that column, he says that global warming due to man-made activity is a certainty:
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.
Stephens cautions against false certainty — failing to report uncertainty in data. “We live in a world in which data convey authority,” Stephens says. “But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris.” Stephens’ language about certainty is actually designed to help climate change enthusiasts — if they keep making claims that keep being proved wrong, without any doubts baked into the cake, people will simply discount what they’re saying.
This moderate take has led a mass revolt by leftists who insist they will now cancel The New York Times. They call Stephens’ column denialism, even though Stephens acknowledges global warming has taken place. They say that it’s just wrong on a factual level. Susan Matthews of Slate called the piece “classic climate change denialism,” explaining that reasonable people could not be “skeptical about the dangers of climate change.” Erik Wemple of The Washington Post actually wrote an email to the paper complaining about the op-ed and asking for answers on Stephens’ piece — something he hasn’t done on any other New York Times op-ed he’s ever reported.
Here was Stephens’ eminently correct response:
— Dylan Byers (@DylanByers) April 30, 2017
Nonetheless, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight complained:
There’s nothing conservative (or liberal) about the Stephens column. The issue is about evidence vs. bullshit. He doesn’t know his subject. https://t.co/r4OuPDlVcI
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 30, 2017
I wrote a book chapter on uncertainty in climate models. That Stephens/NYT column is sophistry passing itself off as reasoned skepticism. https://t.co/WBKMkA4Tzn
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 28, 2017
I’ve read Silver’s book, The Signal and The Noise. It’s an excellent primer on data analysis. He has an entire chapter on climate change. In that chapter, he states, “In climate science, this healthy skepticism is generally directed as the reliability of computer models used to forecast the climate’s course” — in other words, precisely the sort of data Stephens seems to be questioning in this piece. Silver continues, “A survey of climate scientists conducted in 2008 found that almost all (94 percent) were agreed that climate change is occurring now, and 84 percent were persuaded that it was the result of human activity. But there was much less agreement about the accuracy of climate computer models.” In fact, here is Silver’s conclusion: “When we advance more confident claims and they fail to come to fruition, this constitutes much more powerful evidence against our hypothesis. … [Science] is a work in progress, always subject to further refinement and testing. This is what scientific skepticism is all about.”
Which is exactly Stephens’ point.
But because Stephens is a conservative, when he says that he wants climate change advocates to be more exact in their phraseology without overstating levels of certainty, that’s a cause for outrage. You can only express scientific skepticism if you express no scientific skepticism, apparently.