The Science Witch Trials

If “Science” is the religion of modern-day progressivism—and it surely is—then climate change hysteria has to be its greatest sacrament, a visible sign of the invisible ideology underlying progressive political and social thought. Aside from abortion, can you think of an issue that animates the Left more these days than climate change? It is, in many cases, the source and the summit of liberal political engagement. They take it very seriously.

Case in point: Bret Stephens’s introductory column at the New York Times.  Stephens is fresh off the boat from the Wall Street Journal, from which he was hired—I assume—to offer some ideological balance to the Times‘s op/ed section (and presumably some air support to poor old Ross Douthat). His first column deals with the flawed “climate of complete certainty” surrounding climate science. As he points out, given the gap between actual climate science and popular climate change rhetoric, as well as history’s dismal record of “scientific errors married to political power,” then maybe “if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.”

Well, perhaps! But probably not. Actually, lots of people kind of lost their minds:

Stephens’ column evoked a swift and angry response from many of the paper’s subscribers, who promptly canceled their subscriptions and bashed the Times’ decision to hire Stephens as a writer.

Stephens’ column also prompted backlash from those within the scientific community, like Stefan Rahmstorf, the head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Rahmstorf sharply criticized the Times’ decision to hire Stephens, as well as Stephens’ column, in a letter to the executive editor.

“I enjoy reading different opinions from my own, but this is not a matter of different opinions,” Rahmstorf wrote. He added that in its defense of Stephens, “The Times argued that ‘millions agree with Stephens.’ It made me wonder what’s next — when are you hiring a columnist claiming that the sun and stars revolve around the Earth, because millions agree with that?”

Now, you might be under the impression that Stephens wrote something really bad—that he said something along the lines of “Climate change is fake,” or “Climate change is a hoax,” or “Climate scientists are all frauds.” Indeed, what could lead a smart man like Professor Rahmstorf to compare Stephens’s rhetoric to the long-debunked and plainly false geocentric model of astronomy? What could compel climate scientist Michael Mann to lead a public subscription cancellation campaign against the Times?  Stephens must have really stepped in it.

Well, let’s look at some excerpts from his column: “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…To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly…None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences…” (Emphasis added.)

Now, Stephens actually appears to commit some basic data errors in his summary of the state of global temperature increase over the past near-century-and-a-half. That being said, the basic gist of his point remains. In other words, Stephens acknowledges a warming climate—specifically a warming climate influenced by human beings—and he also concedes that such warming may produce disastrous effects in the future. Nevertheless, a climate scientist still believes it is reasonable to compare Stephens to the cranks who might believe that “the sun and stars revolve around the Earth!” Does this seem reasonable to you? Of course not. But there is no room for dissent among climate mavens, not even half-dissent; only lockstep  conformity, imposed by a ruthless and unbending public outrage machine. And it probably works, too: in an era of declining print news fortunes, how long will a newspaper continue to publish climate change heterodoxy if every instance of such means a wave of cancelled subscriptions?

There are a number of reasons that people are mistrustful of the pop-science consensus on global warming. Part of it is that, for decades and decades, hysterical environmentalists have been completely wrong about their doomsday predictions. It gets harder and harder as time goes by to trust the oracles whose basic repeated message is, “Well, okay, today didn’t pan out, but tomorrow the world will definitely end!” But I suspect another, larger part of the public’s apathy towards climate change orthodoxy is this: people recognize an overwrought and irrational witch hunt when they see it. If your response to a man’s reasonable dissent in a respected newspaper is “YOU’RE A FLAT EARTHER AND I’M CANCELLING MY SUBSCRIPTION,” then maybe—just maybe—people aren’t going to take you very seriously. Nor should they.

One comment

  1. David

    I agree it is a shame that Mr. Stephen’s reasonable comments have met with such criticism. The conversation has become extraordinarily polarized, like so much of our political discussion. Just because those on the left had to listen to “respected” politician’s s.a. James Inhofe go on about the “hoax” for so long & the fact that major corporations s.a. ExxonMobil have made such strong efforts to delay any action to mitigate human activity’s impact on climate is no reason to give up on good science. People with a weak understanding of the scientific process are too readily duped by those with whom they politically align when it comes to politics & science. The importance of scientific research in informing our public policy has made it too susceptible to the use of hyperbole on both the right & left. Too many people want their worlds to be defined in “black & white” & are unwilling to accept that there is very little that can be truly known with 100% certitude. When it comes down to fundamental philosophy the only things you can truly know with 100% certitude are “I am” & so is something that appears to be “other than me.” But then, to expect people to be able to act with wisdom is a truly foolish endeavor.

    (BTW, I hope my html links worked, I’m not certain of what formatting you allow for your comments)