Progressives had a collective conniption last month when the Times announced it had hired neoconservative Bret Stephens, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, as an op-ed writer. The outrage stemmed from fear that Stephens, a known denier of climate science, would attempt to spread dangerous falsehoods about climate change in the paper of record.
Their outrage proved justified. Stephens’s first column, published last week, was dedicated to criticizing the liberal “certainty” about climate science, all while refusing to engage with that science. Instead of explaining why the science wasn’t certain (which would have been impossible, because it is), Stephens urged readers to be “humble” about what they think they know, citing Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss to Donald Trump in the presidential election.
The column sparked a flood of complaints and cancellation threats, which forced Times public editor Liz Spayd to respond in a new column today. But her response makes the very same mistake as Stephens did: It refuses to engage with the science.
Spayd admits that she’s not trying “to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics”; rather, she’s trying to figure out why readers can’t seem to tolerate “a diversity of views on the Opinion pages.” After summarizing a few complaints, Spayd concludes that Times readers are fine with having a conservative commentator—they’re just mad that Stephens chose climate change as his first subject, which is “as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.” Spayd then punts to Stephens, who explains that he chose to write about climate change first “because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived.” Spayd worries that Stephens is “minimizing the serious risk of climate change” with his factual arguments, but insists “that The Times should be giving readers a range of views.”
Spayd never grapples with the complaint that Stephens pushes falsehoods. She never says whether it was within the Times’ standards to allow Stephens to incongruously compare the reliability of polling data with the reliability of climatology. And she never says whether Stephens should have been allowed to describe the 0.85 degree Celsius warming of the world since 1880 as “modest,” when in fact climate scientists consider this warming “large and rapid.” It’s perhaps understandable why the public editor would focus more on reader reaction than on scientific facts, but Stephens has no such excuse. Here’s hoping his next column engages with the science of climate change rather than the climate of liberal opinion.