In our so-called post-truth era, when the White House itself is brazenly peddling alternative facts as official news, it is more important than ever for the media to speak truth to power. When The New York Times launched its post-election ad campaign on “The Pursuit of Truth”—featuring a 30 second TV spot aired during the Academy Awards, along with print and billboard ads—it positioned the Pulitzer-laden paper on the side of courageous and responsible journalism.
Weeks after advertising itself as the guardian of truth, however, The Times hired a conservative climate skeptic by the name of Bret Stephens as its newest Op-Ed columnist. Stephens is an avowedly anti-Trump foreign policy writer with a knack for making acerbic comments on topics ranging from the Arab world to climate change. His first op-ed for the Times was a poetic meditation on the dangers of certitude in science, targeting (especially) claims being made for the reality of anthropogenic climate change. His second, titled “Answering Your Climate Questions,” responded to some of the grief he'd gotten from his first column, much of which faulted the author for disregarding proven realities in the realm of climate science.
Stephens’s editorial has generated a firestorm of responses from The Times’ readership, including thousands of letters to the editor and escalating calls to boycott the paper until Stephens is dismissed. This week, an array of prominent climate scientists released an open letter picking apart the questionable logic and bad science woven into Stephens’s editorial.
Stephens's appointment is clearly part of an effort by The Times to “diversify” its opinion pages and to stir up a bit of controversy in the process. But the newspaper is getting more than it bargained for. Stephens is not just offering another perspective on climate change or “contrarian” conservatism; he's conscripting the Opinion pages of The Times to a long-standing and well-documented campaign to mislead the public on what has actually been proven about the reality of climate change.
His first response to critics has been that he’s not actually a climate change denier. He calls himself a “climate agnostic,” maintaining that the science remains unsettled. He admits there is some evidence of anthropogenic climate change, but argues that we need more research before acting decisively. He thinks that we need to keep the conversation open, to avoid the dangers of “scientism.” We need more time to sift through data.
Stephens rails against scientism, and alludes darkly to the dangers of marrying uncritical science to politics, without giving specifics (the race theories of the Nazis? The Lysenkoism of the Soviets?).
The irony is that Stephens himself seems to presume that climate science must be understood in political terms—as part of a larger struggle between liberals and conservatives. But the reality of climate change has nothing to do with politics: it's an atmospheric fact, not a political fact. And the whole idea of needing to keep “an open mind” to a legitimate “controversy” is the very essence of modern “soft” denialism.
As often as not, modern science denialism is not overt but rather indirect, with a qualification. Stephens himself admits there is some evidence for global warming, but also claims that we need more research—there is room for doubt, we shouldn't rush to judgement or start taking precautions that may prove “costly.”
That was precisely the strategy taken by the tobacco industry for so many years: the effort was not so much to deny outright that cigarettes cause cancer, but rather to claim that we need more research, that mice are not men, that the facts are not all in, that “you can prove anything with statistics.” This was the “open-minded approach” taken by the Tobacco Institute, which managed to simultaneously capture liberal rhetorics of tolerance while casting public health advocates as closed-minded tyrants. It was a stroke of rhetorical genius, harnessing the very skepticism of science itself.
One name for such a strategy (and its study) is agnotology, the black art of creating ignorance. Agnotology has a long history, and is probably as old as lying, secrecy, or even animal mimicry and camouflage. In modern corporate form, it often entails a kind of misdirection: cigarette makers funded research into all manner of non-tobacco causes of cancer—viruses, genetics, exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, etc. They poured hundreds of millions of dollars into such projects as part of a massive campaign to redirect fears about cigarettes causing death.
Hill and Knowlton, the PR firm hired to orchestrate the conspiracy, outlined a multi-pronged strategy to deal with scientific critics: “smearing or belittling them"; "trying to overwhelm them" with publication of opposing viewpoints; and "debating them in the public arena." These and many other methods were employed to diminish or denigrate the science, consistent with tobacco firm Brown & Williamson's claim that "Doubt is our product."
There was also a crucial part of this scheme that involved exploiting the “balance routine” of journalists. Journalists like to imagine that objective reporting means presenting both sides of a purported controversy. Cigarette makers exploited this to great effect by confusing two very different senses of controversy, much as we still have today with climate change: there was an honest controversy about what to do about cigarettes causing harm, and a dishonest controversy about whether such harms had been scientifically proven. The genius of the industry was to confuse these two senses of controversy, one political, one empirical.
We find something similar in Stephens's op-ed and the misfired decision by The Times to “diversify” its editorial pages by including an avowed climate denier. Responsible journalism cannot thrive by balancing truth against falsehoods any more than a fine meal is improved by stirring in a pile of crap. In science as in good journalism, untruths are corrupting, not enriching. The truth is not a coin with two sides. The flip side of the truth is a lie.
Which is also why we were disturbed to see how The Times has defended Stephens’ appointment to the Op-Ed pages. Responding to those who complained about Stephens’ first editorial, editors from The Times sent this note:
In response to your inquiry, The New York Times is committed to bringing our readers every side to every story, and part of that is telling stories from multiple perspectives and voices. We often find that providing our readers with different perspectives that challenge their own is crucial to understanding the whole story. Hiring Bret Stephens is an effort to provide a new perspective to The Times, and bring our readers greater understanding of the world (and all the different voices within it) …
The danger here is that The Times is allowing itself to be used as a vehicle for the spread of ignorance. At a time when the White House, EPA, and other government agencies are wiping any reference to climate change from their websites, The Times’s inclusion of a denialist voice in its Opinion pages is both damaging and unconscionable.
As people around the world face the catastrophic impacts of climate change, there’s no time for denial or delay. If The Times wants to pursue truth it must start by affirming the truth of science and refusing to print misinformation masquerading as opinion.