Bret Stephens, Intolerance, and Bad Journalism
By now, everyone has heard of the firestorm (or as some would say, freak-out) that greeted new New York Times columnist Bret Stephens’s debut column, questioning excessive certainty on the issue of climate change. (While Stephens acknowledges global warming caused by human activity, he argues that many claims made on this issue are shaky and excessive and that calls for drastic action are not based on solid evidence.)
Opinion | Climate of Complete Certainty
We ought to know this by now, but we don't. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more…
In response, the Times has been furiously denounced for harboring a “denier.” People have tweeted about canceling their subscriptions. To conservatives, this reaction is proof that the left is closed-minded, dogmatic and uninterested in debate. Liberals respond that it’s not about different opinion or debate, but about good journalism vs. propaganda that undermines scientific fact: imagine the reaction if a respectable newspaper hired a columnist who was a vaccination skeptic or a Holocaust denier.
I’m not going to wade into the science and politics of climate change. (Maybe some day.) For now, I’ll just say I agree with liberal Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus when she says that Stephens’s column is within the bounds of acceptable opinion in the paper’s opinion section.
What I want to point out is that much the hostility toward Stephens is about deviation from left-wing orthodoxy — and that some of the criticism directed of him is based on very shaky arguments.
Exhibit A: A New Republic online article by the magazine’s social media editor Sarah Jones, titled “Bret Stephens Isn’t the Only Problem at the New York Times Op-Ed Page.” Before moving on to lambasting the paper’s line-up of columnists as too white, too male, and insufficiently left-wing, Jones takes some potshots at Stephens.
According to her, the case against giving him a Times column includes not only climate change skepticism but the fact that he “doubts the validity of campus rape statistics” (which means that, for instance, Laura Kipnis, the feminist author of the acclaimed new book Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, is also unfit to print in Jones’s view). And:
I clicked on the link Jones provides, which leads to the “United States Hunger Facts, Poverty Facts” page of the organization WorldHunger.org. It opens with the statement:
The estimated percentage of U.S. households that were food insecure declined significantly in 2015 to 12.7 percent of U.S. households (15.8 million households, approximately one in eight). This is down significantly from 2014, when 14.0 percent of households (17.5 million households, approximately one in seven), were food insecure.
But “food insecurity,” as this resource page makes clear, is not actually hunger; households classified as “food insecure” were ones that “had difficulty at some time during the year providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” Another page on the site states:
Households classified as having low food security have reported multiple indications of food acquisition problems and reduced diet quality, but typically have reported few, if any, indications of reduced food intake.
On the other hand, “In households with very low food security … normal eating patterns of one or more household members were disrupted and food intake was reduced at times during the year because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.” That is, people (nearly always adults) reported that they had occasionally skipped a meal or cut the size of a meal because there wasn’t enough money for food.
In 2015, 5 percent of households in the United States — one in twenty — were classified as having “very low food security.”
Should those numbers be a cause for concern? Certainly. Is the claim that one in seven Americans experience hunger correct? No. The numbers don’t even show that one in twenty Americans experience hunger, since not all members of households with low food insecurity skip meals or reduce their food intake. And as with just about any issue, alarmism and distorted numbers don’t help; all they do is discredit and undercut whatever cause alarmists are trying to promote.
In this case, it’s Bret Stephens 1 : Bret Stephens Hate Club 0. And Stephens is not the one doing bad journalism.