When Integrity-checking is More Important than Fact-checking: More Bad Faith from Bret Stephens

Yesterday, I posted a quick series of Tweets in response to Bret Stephens’s latest climate column for the New York Times. I was surprised to see my musings get so much traction, including shares from journalists, editors, scholars and thoughtful, passionate people who are fed up with our society’s inability to address climate change.

So, why did my little rant resonate? I think it’s because I don’t make the mistake of treating Stephens’s arguments seriously. After all, he doesn’t treat the topic I’ve worked on for more than a decade seriously. For instance, when he was at the Wall Street Journal, he published conspiracy theories about climate scientists. His move to the Times simply means that he’s had to clean up his arguments a bit, justifying climate inaction for other reasons.

Anyone who’s worked on climate policy for more than a few years has heard every iteration of Stephens’s arguments. But he doesn’t seem to care. For instance, instead of responding to substantive criticisms of his track record from climate experts, Stephens complained about the tone of a Tweet from someone named Jay with a dog and cat avatar and 289 followers. Later, after scientists thoroughly and sometimes hilariously factchecked his first climate column, he left Twitter. Not exactly the paragon of #NeverTrump conservative intellectual courage he bills himself as.

Tellingly, Stephens only responded to his climate critics obliquely when fellow columnist Gail Collins asked him about what kind of climate policy he actually supports. He made a hand-waving call for more research, something policy experts would be happy to tell him is wholly insufficient for reducing the heat-trapping emissions that cause climate change.

Stephens also plays the refs, trying to appeal to journalists, think tankers and other columnists, eagerly pointing to incivility in response to his bad ideas as evidence that his ideas aren’t bad. But this sort of discourse-policing doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t slow the rise of the seas, help a community recover from a storm or put an electron of clean energy on the grid. All it does is make people with bad ideas feel better about themselves.

As law professor David Kaye put it in response to this point:

this is really the key point. stephens reflects not some idealized ‘diversity of views’ but instead a lack of rigor & honesty. https://t.co/PPS9zfWReP
— David Kaye (@davidakaye) August 31, 2017

So it’s helpful to ask what someone with the same conservative ideology but more integrity would do in Stephens’s situation. A conservative columnist who actually cared about addressing climate change would use their column to advance conservative ideas on adaptation and energy markets. For instance reforming our broken flood insurance system is one of the rare areas where libertarians and greens have been able to work together on climate policy and it’s obviously relevant to storm recovery. A conservative columnist who cared would see the conspiratorial parallels between birtherism and climate denial and try to cure the rot in their own movement.

Alas, that’s not Bret Stephens. He cares more about people being polite to him online than he does about addressing climate change. But Stephens’s writings are an object lesson for other issues. When we run into people like this in public debates, yes, science advocates and policy wonks should factcheck their claims. But we should also integrity-check their actions. When we ask ourselves what a constructive person with integrity would do in their shoes, it makes their lack of intellectual honesty all the more clear.


Originally published at sciencecommunicationmedia.com on September 1, 2017.