An empty epithet

This essay on Slate is astonishing. Perhaps it’s naïve of me to be astonished, but there you go. I am astonished.

The very short version: Susan Matthews, Slate’s Science Editor, writes that the NY Times’ new columnist Bret Stephens’ first columns is “nothing more than textbook denialism.” In the column, Stephens writes, among other things, that “[a]nyone 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 recap, and to emphasize the absurdity: Stephens describes anthropogenic global warming as indisputable, and Matthews calls him a climate change denier.

I have long disliked the “denier” epithet. It is fine, of course, to apply the label to someone who actually denies something. But more or less from the get go, there has been “mission creep,” with “denier” doing extra duty as a way to discredit people who agree that climate change is real and caused by human activity but who disagree with one or another implication of these facts.

For example, Judith Curry, who agrees that climate change is real and caused by human activity, and whose CV (pdf) shows that she is a climate scientist with an impressive set of climate-science credentials, but who argues that there is substantial uncertainty with respect to the magnitude of the changes we should expect in the future. So she’s a climate science denier.

For another example, Matt Ridley, who agrees that climate change is real and caused by human activity, but who argues that future changes are likely to be slow and modest, describing himself as a lukewarmer. So he’s a climate change denier.

My point here is not to argue for or against Curry’s or Ridley’s positions (though given Curry’s credentials, I’m very much inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt). My point here is to illustrate how empty the “denier” epithet is.

But it’s still kind of amazing to see something as brazen as Matthews’ use of it in her Slate piece.

Again, just because I kind of can’t get my head wrapped around it, Stephens says that human-caused climate change is indisputable – his word, and it’s quoted by Matthews, who also writes that “Technically, he doesn’t get any facts wrong” – and this is “textbook denialism.”

As far as I can tell, Matthews has just badly misread Stephens’ column. She takes his (alleged) point to be that simply explaining the facts won’t change anyone’s minds, but then asserts that his (real) point is that climate change skeptics have a point. She writes that “He is telling readers that the experts’ wrongness during the 2016 election is a good justification for doubting other established facts,” and that “he’s telling his readers that their decision not to trust the entire institution of science that supports the theory of climate change might actually be reasonable.” She conflates the reality of climate change and the much less certain dangers of climate change. She writes that Stephens’ logic implies that “…the only way to be reasonable about this topic is to give in to those who are unreasonable about it,” and that Stephens is “spewing complete bullshit.”

It seem obvious to me that Stephens’ column is actually about how too much certainty can plant seeds of doubt when overly confident claims turn out to be wrong. It’s about how the motivations behind policy advocacy can justifiably be questioned. It’s about how tossing epithets like “climate change denier” around is counterproductive.

Do you want to know why I think that this is what his column is about? It’s because that’s what he says it’s about:

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.

Just to put some icing on the cake, the very next sentence in Stephens’ column is (emphasis mine): “None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences.” Matthews somehow misses the important distinction between the justifiable certainty of anthropogenic climate change as a phenomenon, on the one hand, and the substantially less certain consequences of climate change, on the other.

To pick a topic that I happen to have read a bit about (to be clear, this is not to imply that I have read all that much – I am very much not an expert on this), some quick googling provides pretty strong evidence that the relationship between hurricanes and climate change involves a lot of uncertainty. See, for example, this from NOVA, or this from NOAA, or this from the Union of Concerned Scientists, or this Washington Post column, or this post from Judith Curry.

The piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists nicely illustrates the role of uncertainty with quotes like this (emphasis mine): “Recent research in this area suggests that hurricanes in the North Atlantic region have been intensifying over the past 40 years.”

Since I am a scientist myself, I feel pretty well-qualified to comment on the use of a word like “suggests” in this context. It means they aren’t certain. That’s how I use it when I write scientific papers, and that’s the only reasonable way to read it here.

To be as clear as possible, I’m not making any claims about the relationship between climate change and hurricane frequency or intensity. As I wrote above, I’m not an expert on this. I’m just trying to illustrate that, even if we accept that climate change is real and that human activity is influencing climate change, it is very, very easy to find evidence that there can be, and is, substantial uncertainty about important related issues, issues like the (possible) danger of (certain) climate change.

The fact that the Science Editor at Slate is unable or unwilling to recognize this is, to come full circle, kind of astonishing.

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