It comes as news to readers of the New York Times, but it’s old news to readers of this blog.
Yesterday, newly minted Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote his first op-ed column since leaving the Wall Street Journal. Obviously, it’s an important move for the Times, since it gives its op-ed page a strong supporter of Israel. Considering that it recently ran an op-ed by a Palestinian terrorist, and failed to identify the crimes for which he has been sentenced, the Times needed Stephens.
Since Stephens had remained intrepidly anti-Trump, some Journal readers did not regret seeing him go. On the other hand, Stephens strongly supports Israel, has no tolerance for people who want to kill Jews and has cast doubt on climate change dogma.
His first column addressed the latter.
Sensibly, Stephens made the case that scientific fact is not dogma. Just because we have some data we should not be lulled into thinking that we have attained a higher truth, a truth that may never be questioned.
In his words:
We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.
We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous.
As for the dogma of anthropogenic climate change, Stephens quoted a Times story:
As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.
Hmmm… so much for settled science:
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.
… ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.
As you might imagine, the left was up in arms, outraged at Stephens and the New York Times. The New York Post reported some of the reaction this morning. No longer even pretending to defend free speech, increasingly unwilling to address any dissent, they naturally wanted to shut Stephens down. When you have no arguments, you resort to censorship.
The Post reported on their obscene fulminations:
“Go eat dog d—s,” fumed one Twitter user.
“When is the Times going to get rid of you?” another asked.
Stephens even managed to tick off fellow journalists.
“You’re a s–thead. a crybaby lil f–kin weenie. a massive twat too,” tweeted Libby Watson, staff writer at Gizmodo.
“I’m gonna lose my mind,” seethed Eve Peyser, politics writer at Vice.
“The ideas ppl like @BretStephensNYT espouse are violently hateful & should not be given a platform by @NYTimes,” she said.
And, of course, some readers were canceling their Times subscriptions. How much time will it take for them to start demanding that advertisers boycott the Times?
Apparently, not very long:
“Each and every one of us should fully boycott the NY Times — don’t link to them, don’t click on their links. Their actions are inexcusable,” wrote one Twitter user. “You cannot be an ostensible paper-of-record and allow a science denier to spread propaganda.”
Adriana Heguy, a genomics scientist and professor of pathology at NYU, urged her colleagues to scrap their subscriptions, as well.
“Composing my letter to the editor today and canceling @nytimes,” she tweeted. “‘Balance’ means a VALID alternative opinion, not pseudoscience. I’m so sad.”
Feel free to look at some of the other vitriol that Times readers have put up on Twitter. Secure in their bubble they are appalled and outraged that their newspaper, the echo chamber of their minds, would utter a discouraging or even dissenting word.
As I said at the opening of this post, readers of this blog will not be especially surprised by the Stephens view. We have it on the best scientific authority that science is never settled. It runs on skepticism. There are degrees of certainty, but there is no such thing as absolute scientific certainty. I have often referred to the views of famed climate scientist Richard Lindzen, emeritus professor at MIT, who sides with the climate skeptics.
In a 2011 post I quoted Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman on the subject of scientific certainty. In his book, The Meaning of It All, Feynman wrote:
“It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments. . . .”
“Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.
“So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, ’How can you live without knowing?’ I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing.”
Now, that settles the issue, doesn’t it?