Why did the Times hire Bret Stephens?

The Culture Gabfest Unpacks the Rhetorical Tricks of Climate Change Deniers

The Culture Gabfest Unpacks the Rhetorical Tricks of Climate Change Deniers

Slate Plus
Your all-access pass
May 18 2017 3:38 PM

The Rhetorical Tricks of Climate Change Deniers

The Culture Gabfest deconstructs a controversial column by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.



This is a transcript of the May 3 edition of the Culture Gabfest. Slate Plus transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.

Stephen Metcalf: Bret Stephens was the “Never Trump” columnist for the Wall Street Journal. This gave him some liberal bona fides, so he was hired by the Times. His first column cast doubt on the certainty of climate science, which, of course, gives him huge conservative bona fides. But as people have pointed out, the essence of his criticism wasn’t in citing instances of bad faith or data on the part of scientists, but by claiming that certitude is somehow itself a form of hubris. It is this hubris, he concludes, that has choked off the possibility of an honest debate about climate change.

Julia, it’s fair to say there’s been a huge backlash against this column in media, social media. Let’s start with the substance itself, though. Does he have any kind of a point?

Julia Turner: I read this column early this week after having read much of the flap about it beforehand and was somehow astonished by how anodyne the column seemed compared to the, I think, somewhat hysterical response to it. I’m not saying the column was good. I don’t think the column was good, but I had seen many people calling him a climate denier, and wondering how could the New York Times have a publicity campaign around truth and justice, and how could people give their subscription dollars to a place that would allow climate denialism to stand in its pages.

He stipulates in the column that the climate is changing and that that change is man-made. Where he attempts to center his questions around scientific certitude is around the question of, “Do we really know how bad the impacts of climate change will be, and should we base our policy around those impacts?” He then does a fucking disastrous job of rhetorically arguing that point. It’s a complete strawman argument. He doesn’t actually cite any examples of scientists claiming certitude about what the range of potential damage might be.

Dana Stevens: And can I jump in and say the one hard number he supplies, there was a correction run later. It was actually slightly off.

Turner: Yes, although, that was around the question of warming, which he acknowledged, so I think that’s less pertinent to the flaws of the argument. Although correction is never a good thing,

But he never actually cites any examples of scientists claiming certitude about what the results of climate change will be. Saying, “We know the seas will rise exactly eight inches by 2050,” or whatever the hell. All he does is use the rhetorical trick of citing Andy Revkin, who is a prominent climate-science reporter and thinker, acknowledging that sometimes there is too much certitude on the side of people who are advocating for strong action against climate change. Like, “Let me quote your friend, potential rhetorical opponent, and surely you will cede all grounds to him.”

Then he wraps the whole thing up in this “Isn’t certainty dangerous? Isn’t hubris dangerous? Didn’t we know that Hillary was going to win, and weren’t we wrong? Might we be wrong about this, too?”

And he puts in this long, long epigraph. I have a very, very firm anti-epigraph policy at Slate. No epigraphs may ever appear on Slate columns. I think it’s more appropriate for digital than print, but basically you can always cut the epigraph off of any piece and make it better. It definitely would’ve been true in this case. He squanders 100 or 125 words that he could’ve used citing some fucking examples.

Stevens: A Galician proverb.

Actually, in the kicker, he says it is Czesław Miłosz. He says at the end of the piece that it’s a proverb from Galecia, “but I’ve taken the epigraph for this column from the Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, who knew something about the evils of certitude.”

Basically, he is comparing climate scientists and their mode of rhetoric to, I think, Hitler and Stalin there. What the ever-loving? It’s just a really, really badly argued column.

However, I think the much stronger response to it is to argue its points down, not to rend one’s garments that this was allowed to appear in the pages of the Times.

Metcalf: Right. Part of the conservative playbook is inspiring a hysterical liberal backlash, then making that backlash and hysteria the topic of conversation, and not the substance. Dana, we won’t play into that at all.

Let me just point out a couple of the rhetorical tricks in the argument. I want to hear what you have to say about them. It opens with a description, it doesn’t make any allusion to climate science for the first paragraph or two—

Stevens: Because it’s too busy trashing Hillary, just as a basic substrate of the column. Let’s just get started with that. We all hate Hillary. Oh, now let’s turn to climate science.

Metcalf: Right. He tees up the right-wing golf ball very gingerly, and very carefully, by saying the Hillary campaign employed supersmart data wonks to crunch numbers and they were all absolutely sure of victory.

I think this is a backhanded swipe at data journalists as well, who were obviously modeling the election on a daily, even hourly, basis and had her at something like whatever it was, 90 percent or 95 percent. They all turned out to be wrong.

And then he does this pivot, “Are you with me so far? Good,” which you made fun of very brilliantly on Twitter.

Stevens: Oh, God. That pivot is so intellectually dishonest.

That was the moment that I emailed you guys and said, “We have to talk about this Bret Stephens column.” It’s so sophistic and irritating.

Metcalf: I don’t want to stop your momentum, but I just want to say that it seems to me the substance of the column runs together a very prejudicial reading of the arrogance of the Democratic Party with something like a technically accurate, but ultimately insidiously misconstrued, notion of how science engages probabilities rather than certainties with the epigraph, which is existentially one should never feel entirely certain of anything other than death and misery. These three are all run together in this mélange.

On first reading, I agree with Julia, it’s anodyne, but on inspection, doesn’t that mean it’s just that much more insidious?

Turner: To me, the anodyne tone of it, the friendly tone, like let’s just all be reasonable and have a conversation, is where the sophistry lies. I feel like I’m not scientist enough or a historian of science enough to analyze that exactly. You can sense the condescension to the reader in that pivot of With me? OK, now let’s turn to this completely unrelated set of data and bring with it our knowledge that we’ve now gleaned from this anecdote about the Hillary campaign that no reliable data exists for anything. A shift where nothing can be known by the end of this column. Nothing can be known if you agree with the Galician proverb and Czesław Miłosz and the climate deniers. The group of people that he’s creating, the group of allies that he creates in this column, is so vague and so suspect.

Very early on in the column, if I remember right, there is also an appeal to people who don’t believe, to skeptics. He essentially says there are many Americans who don’t believe this, and don’t they count, too? And that, again, seems like a strange wedge to drive into the concept of truth or scientific data actually being useful for creating policy in any way. If we’re just bringing in a democratic vote of who believes, for one thing, there are a lot more Americans who believe in climate change than who don’t. But if you’re going to take this—I don’t know what the number is—say it’s 20 percent of people who are going to be hardcore deniers, then why don’t we just have a column about flat-Earthing?

Metcalf: Right, exactly. Also, the other issue is intellectual diversity. Just thinking diversity first, where is the first black woman columnist for the New York Times? We’re still waiting. That might have been a more salient box to check than, along with Ross Douthat and David Brooks, another conservative. And where is the socialist that has ever appeared as a permanent fixture of the New York Times? What kind of outcry would there be if you had someone who is as far left as Bernie Sanders? Intellectual diversity has only one end of the political spectrum represented on it. That’s complete nonsense.

I’ll tell you what I find most utterly insidious about this. The physicist Richard Feynman once said that science is the frontier of our own ignorance. Stephens says something that is correct which is that, as with religion, science is done right when it’s done in the spirit of incredible humility about what we don’t know, and it’s always done wrong in the spirit of certitude. Science is inherently disproving what we used to believe, so behind us lies this vast well of ignorance, and coming to grips with what we don’t yet know. In front of us, there is this incredible eternity of ignorance. It’s a frontier of ignorance, as Feynman says. Ignorance pervades science, and the spirit of science, and always has.

To try to turn that into an almost postmodernist critique of the ability to know anything for sure—to me, what’s really toxic about that is that it’s purely an instrumental weapon. Bret Stephens doesn’t have firm or deeply held beliefs about the nature of indeterminacy relative to human knowledge at all. It is purely instrumental for him to take this kind of postmodernist stance as a way of sowing doubt toward the end of forestalling social action against private actors whose interests he takes more seriously than climate change. That is what the nature of that argument is, and to use the word “probability” and the notion of “probabilism” as a way of saying that scientists can’t really know anything for sure is so sophistic.

I think he’s playing grossly to the ignorance of a certain portion of his readership under the guise of sounding sophisticated by citing probabilism in this way.

Turner: Yeah, and Slate science editor Susan Matthews wrote a very smart piece in response. She made the case that in fact just sowing doubt about any of it is straight out of the Exxon playbook, and still amounts to denialism even if the target of the denial has shifted, because it tries to undercut people’s sense of urgency or concern around this thing that is very abstract and in the future, and very hard to mobilize around because it’s not Do I have health care this month? or What is in my paycheck? or any of the more immediate order concerns that are still difficult to politically mobilize around, but somehow more directly tangent to people’s daily life right now.

Stevens: Stephens tries to make the claim, in fact, that he is reaching out to those people. I think in a couple different places in the column he seems to be saying, Look, I want to bring us all together so we can have this conversation, but we can’t leave out the people who are skeptics. Let’s reach out to them, too. The completely unacknowledged allies in this weird Miłosz club that he is creating for himself, and the reasonable doubters, the unacknowledged allies, are the corporations and the businessmen who profit from failing to pursue any public policy at all. That goes completely left out of the column. Is there a mention of Rex Tillerson or Scott Pruitt or what is actually fucking happening in the government right now?

Anyway, this column, I felt like the Times should just fall on their sword and fire this guy. I feel more strongly about it than Julia. There are a lot of conservative stances that I would be interested in hearing defended in the Times and hearing the argument afterward, but to act as the Times has done in their response to the backlash, that this is some sort of vibrant, healthy debate, it just seems false to me.

Metcalf: I will pinpoint what I think is the single most insidious part of the short piece, which is his insinuation that this is a socialist Trojan horse. That there are purely ideological reasons for overstating the dangers of climate change in order to have governments and liberals seize more power, via the solution. To insinuate that in a column in which you don’t also mention a 50-year, multibillion-dollar campaign, against even the reality of climate change is a gross public disservice.

If I were James Bennet, I would fire him. I really would.