Climate change and the politics of science

Last month, Bret Stephens, the newly-hired, conservative columnist for the New York Times poked a finger in the eye of climate science in his debut column “Climate of Complete Certainty.” He wrote that “total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong.” His column sparked outrage not just in the science community but among many of the paper’s readership, some of whom went so far as to post their subscriptions on Twitter with the hashtag #ShowYourCancellation.  

Did Stephens raise a legitimate perspective? Or were his claims outside the accepted boundaries of public debate? Erik Wemple, media critic for the Washington Post told To the Point that dealing with “fact and opinion on climate change is a tough thing to do” but “busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber… is a good idea.”

Stephens’ op-ed also revealed a blurring of politics and science. According to Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, “The term ‘scientism’ itself is a very carefully coined term that intends to somehow call into question scientific findings by implying that science itself is intrinsically political. Well, science can be political but it’s not partisan as my friend Bill Nye likes to say.”

Critics also noted that in publishing Stephen’s op-ed the New York Times failed to acknowledge the paper’s own factual reporting on climate change.

Michael Mann said he started the hashtag #ShowYourCancellation not as a result of Stephen’s op-ed, but in the wake of the tone-deaf  response from the Times’ own Public Editor, Liz Spayd.  “She equated the legitimate criticism with left-leaning politics and she dismissed the evidence fact based criticism.”

Speaking on To the Point, Mark Hemingway, senior writer for the Weekly Standard didn’t agree with Mann’s argument.“Mass distortions happen when science collides with public policy“ and when advocates “push their own agenda,” he said.

No matter what your politics, perhaps scientists themselves need to become better messengers of their work. Oxford Professor of Mathematics and for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus DuSautoy said that scientists should do a better job of engaging directly with the public. “We must not leave it to political columnists to interpret the science,” he said, “op-ed’s simply cannot do justice to the nuances of the science.”   

(Photo: Mobilus In Mobili)