It’s Saturday morning, the sun is shining in Durham, NC, I’m up early for once, and all I want to do is go outside and enjoy the day. I had idyllic intentions. Fucking idyllic. I wanted to let the city fill my soul—breakfast and a newspaper in a cafe, a leisurely browse through an antique store, a great book on the most comfortable bench in a city park. The day was mine to seize. And sure, maybe I would have chosen to stuff my fat face with donuts while I hate-read the Donald Trump Reddit in a dark living room all day. That’s possible. Point is, the day was mine to seize or waste. (Read: waste.)
Instead, checking my Twitter feed at 7:45, I was inundated with popular rage about a New York Times op-ed on climate change by Bret Stephens, a man whose very hiring at the Times had already pissed off a lot of intelligent people. It seems that Stephens, a known climate change denier, was up to his old tricks. Just denying that ol’ climate change, the way he loves to do. My first instinct was not to care—it’s an instinct that served me well in this life. Then I made the big mistake of actually clicking the link, of actually reading the piece of shit column, and actually growing baffled, morose, and then spitting mad at the stupidity contained therein.
If you also have high ambitions for your Saturday, just read this next sentence and then go outside: Stephens’ op-ed was one of the worst things that has ever appeared in the New York Times, it totally undermines their now-laughable commitment to “truth” in the Trump era—exposing it for a cynical, opportunistic, fashionable co-option of the “resistance” movement, a.k.a. a naked marketing ploy designed to rake in subscriber dollars—and if you have a subscription, you should print out your receipt, travel to New York, and light it on fire in front of their offices while screaming every curse word you’ve ever learned.
If you want to know why it sucks so hard, and have your own day ruined, read on for a line-by-line analysis. Stephens’ text in bold:
When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.
But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
— An old Jew of Galicia
This is the best writing in the entire piece, and that’s entirely because it it was written by somebody other than shill-y neocon gasbag Bret Stephens. This opening passage comes from Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who was not writing about climate change, and who luckily died in 2004 so he didn’t have to commit suicide upon learning that Stephens used his words to defend the utter tripe that follows. Seriously, though, credit where it’s due—it was a savvy move for Stephens to use a different writer’s prose to lead off the column. His fatal flaw was transitioning from using somebody else’s words to using his own, which are shit.
Right from the jump, before he even starts using his own words, you can see exactly what Stephens is doing—he’s making the old, fallacious, dumb-fuck argument that if we can’t prove something is 100% certain, then we shouldn’t act on it. That’s all—that’s the entire piece. In fact, this is your second opportunity to stop reading and go outside, because it won’t get more sophisticated than that. Despite everything we know about human influence on climate change, and the warming of the globe—which our idiot author acknowledges, by the way—we shouldn’t let it affect our ideology or our politics, because there’s a chance it might be fine.
You get it—Stephens is a guy who stumps for the conservative line on climate change. He wants society to do absolutely nothing about the most dire crisis of our time so that the people who make money by exploiting our planet and contributing to its environmental destruction can continue to enrich themselves. Yeah, it could get bad, says Stephens, with a little smirk, but what if it doesn’t?
That’s the whole thesis. Stephens is the Eli Cash of the Times: “Well, everyone knows climate change is a threat to human existence…what this essay presupposes is…maybe it’s not?”
If you’re looking for something more sophisticated, you will be disappointed.
In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.
Oh Christ, here we go. Another anecdote about how something certain was actually not certain, thus illustrating why we should frack the shit out of every square inch of America and invent cars that spray oil from their exhaust pipes onto school playgrounds. And this one will be more insufferable, because Stephens actually wrote it.
Right on the merits. Confident in their methods. Sure of their chances. When Bill Clinton suggested to his wife’s advisers that, considering Brexit, they might be underestimating the strength of the populist tide, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, had a bulletproof answer: The data run counter to your anecdotes.
He’s going to take forever to make the point that we saw coming from the jump, isn’t he? And he’s going to awkwardly ride the wave of the hot new political book while he’s at it. I liked this guy better when he was trying to look smart by quoting dead poets.
That detail comes from “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s compulsively readable account of Clinton’s 2016 train wreck. Mook belonged to a new breed of political technologists with little time for retail campaigning and limitless faith in the power of models and algorithms to minimize uncertainty and all but predict the future.
I’m already convinced—the narrow wrongness of the know-it-all Mook, in a completely unrelated field, tells me that we should deforest the entire Pacific Northwest, fashion the redwoods into giant spears, poke them into the ground until we hit crude oil, and then make poor kids drink it out of pouches in decrepit, defunded public schools.
“Mook and his ‘Moneyball’ approach to politics rankled the old order of political operatives and consultants because it made some of their work obsolete,” Allen and Parnes write about the campaign’s final days. “The memo that one Hillary adviser had sent months earlier warning that they should add three or four points to Trump’s poll position was a distant memory.”
Cool trivia: The original article Stephens submitted to his editors contained 65,000 words summarizing Shattered.
I hate this so much. Has any writer ever telegraphed his approach so obviously? And not to be one of those dudes throwing around the names of logical fallacies willy-nilly, but has false equivalence ever run so amok in an persuasive essay?
Let me lay it out for you, Bret: Some campaign dweeb who devises a closed system for analyzing voter data that tells him not to campaign in Wisconsin is different from the accumulated science of decades that tells us climate change is real and man-made. No matter how you try to harness the energy of electoral populism, it won’t transport you to a reality where, “eh, the planet’s probably fine” is a reasonable extrapolation. Voting is different from climate. VOTING IS DIFFERENT FROM CLIMATE. THEY ARE TWO DIFFERENT THINGS.
And I fucking hate that I just had to write those sentences.
There’s a lesson here.
Oh wow, Stephens is ready to make his point! Wake up, everyone, Bret has finished his nine-hour filibuster on Hillary! Bret is finally preparing to argue that in an ethical society, bicycles should run on coal!
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.
Misreading data to serve one’s own agenda, as in the case of Vietnam, the financial crisis, or the Clinton campaign, is not in the same fucking universe as the rigorous scientific study of climate change that has led to overwhelming consensus. You goddam dolt.
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. Ask Clinton.
I reached out to Hillary Clinton, who had this to say: “Bret Stephens is correct. The existence of even a fraction of uncertainty in our world, on any topic, means we should abandon science and leave our fate to God, for the only certainty lies in the hands of the almighty, and those who live their lives beholden to the secular idea of free will are, in fact, prisoners blinded to this larger truth. Put more simply, it snowed in April once last year, therefore global warming is not true, therefore we should remove every mountaintop in the Ohio River Valley and let the workers toil for 18 hours each day, and sleep in huts made from the refuse of slag heaps.”
With me so far?
Let’s turn to climate change.
Fuck you to the moon.
Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36 percent of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject.
Hmmm, now this is a new wrinkle. On one hand, it doesn’t matter at all if the majority of people are too stupid and/or selfish to care that we’re mutilating our planet, and Stephens’ implication that it holds some significance—that old conservative paean to popular wisdom!—might be the dumbest thing he’s written yet. And if he’s using the fact that people don’t care about climate change and trying to imbue it with significance extracted from Trump’s election, well…I don’t even know how to respond. Frankly, I’m too tired to parse that level of byzantine idiocy.
But is that really the argument here? I admit, I’m a little confused…
Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.
So what? So fucking what?
Why? The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?
Ohhhh, okay. This is how Stephens transitions from the Hillary stuff to sowing his seeds of doubt about climate change. But man, what a clunky transition…how can he be so lazy in his very first column for the Times? Seriously, read that segue again. It goes:
A. Robby Mook was wrong about the election.
B. There are historical examples where people have been wrong about things.
C. Nobody cares about climate change.
D. They don’t care because there’s no drama! No uncertainty!
E. But wait, what if there is? Check this out, everyone…
In this thought process, you can see the beginning of the senility that will undoubtedly take hold of Stephens’ feeble brain within a decade.
Also, needless to say, the fact that two-thirds of people don’t care about climate change has nothing to do with the fact that it’s a “settled” issue. That’s like saying that a family watching their own house burn to ashes feels won’t really give a shit, because after a certain point they realize that, what the hell, the house is beyond rescue.
No, the reason two-thirds of Americans can’t be bothered about climate change boils down to a few other factors. One, humans have an unfortunate myopia when it comes to things that aren’t happening to them right the fuck now. Two, propagandists like Stephens have bent over backwards, for as long as the science has been around, to convince rubes that the threat isn’t real. And three, many people have an economic incentive not to believe in climate change, and that has its own sinister convincing power, because a favorable falsehood is more compelling, sometimes, than an inconvenient truth.
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.
But what’s dishonest is being confronted by the idea that we could be in serious trouble—from loads of very smart people who have studied it for their entire careers—and arguing that we should do nothing about it because, hey, we might get lucky. No reasonable, ethical human being would ever reach that conclusion.
But Bret? Well, if you had told Bret in early 2005 that the levees in greater New Orleans weren’t in great shape, Bret would have advised you to chill out. After all, there’s a chance that years could go by before a big hurricane ever hit!
By now I can almost hear the heads exploding. They shouldn’t, because there’s another lesson here — this one for anyone who wants to advance the cause of good climate policy. As Revkin wisely noted, hyperbole about climate “not only didn’t fit the science at the time but could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public.”
Warning the public about the perils of climate change might fail to engage them, so check out this counter-intuitive bit of genius I just dreamed up: What if we don’t tell them?
Let me put it another way.
I wish you wouldn’t.
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.
Fuck you and your appeals to niceties. Again, a lack of 100 percent certainty—which, by the way, I’ve never heard an environmental advocate claim—does not mean we should ignore the problem. It does not mean that someone who demands policy change has “ideological intentions,” unless those intentions are a desire to save lives.
Stephens’ brainpower has led him down a maze of foggy thinking to two conclusions:
1. No certainty means no action.
2. It’s more important to be polite to people who think it’s not a big deal.
This is who the Times employed, folks.
None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.
No, it’s just to make sure we never do anything about it, you malicious fucking traitor to the human race.
But 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.
TRUST THE REG’LER FOLK, NOT THEM BIG BRAINY SCIENCE BOYS! THEM SCIENCE BOYS IS THE SAME AS ROBBAH MOOOK!
I’ve taken the epigraph for this column from the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who knew something about the evils of certitude.
Translation: If you believe in climate change, you are Hitler.
You knew Stephens was going there, right? There’s no way this essay was going to end without him gleefully invoking Godwin’s Law.
I know I’ve said it in a thousand different ways already, but holy goddam shit, this guy is an embarrassing hack.
Perhaps if there had been less certitude and more second-guessing in Clinton’s campaign, she’d be president.
Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.
If I didn’t make my feelings clear when I called Stephens a “malicious fucking traitor to the human race,” let me state it even more plainly: This op-ed is rotten to its core. If you believe in the magnitude of the threat to our environment, what Stephens proposes is nothing less than an argument for death. The argument isn’t just stupid, and it isn’t just lazy—it’s sinister. And the New York Times should be fucking ashamed.