Honestly, it is hard to have an honest conversation about science with science obstructors or deniers. That is how you know you are conversing with a denier. You try to have the conversation, and it gets derailed by cherry picking, misdirection, faux misunderstanding, or lies.

I don’t care how far a person is from understanding a scientific concept or finding. I don’t care how complex and nuanced such a finding is. As long as the science is in an area that I comfortable with as a scientist, educator, and science communicator, I’ll take up the challenge of transforming scientific mumbo jumbo into normal descriptive language or an appropriate story, so the person gets from not having a clue to getting the basic idea. That’s for regular people having an honest conversation, which generally includes students.

But that is often not how it goes.

A common theme in the non-honest conversation is false balance. The fact that there is an opposing view, regardless of its merits or lack of merit, is sufficient to insist that that view be on the table and given a fair hearing. Someone recently said that global warming is not real because CO2 molecules are the same temperature as the other molecules in the atmosphere, an utterly irrelevant thing meant to confuse and misdirect. That statement is not a required part of an honest conversation, it is utterly non-honest, and should be ignored as nefarious yammering. But, we often see media giving equal weight to such yammering, ignoring the motives behind it.

You already know that the New York Times has hired an OpEd columnist who has a history of denial of science, including climate science. He also has a history of analyses of social or political things that has offended a lot of people.

When pressed to reconsider, by the scientific community widespread, the New York Times responded that lots of people agree with this columnist about climate change, therefore his hire is legit. Here, the New York Times is guilty of false balance, of giving credence to senseless yammering as though it was the same as real science.

I personally don’t like the idea of having a lot of far right wing (or even medium right wing) columnists in a publication that I pay for, so I don’t subscribe to such publications. But, major national media outlets are going to have a range of columnists and commenters, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. That is why I am happy to subscribe to the Washington Post even though there are a few right wing columnists there.

But here’s the thing. A columnist with a hard right viewpoint is one thing. An Editorial Staff that allows columnists, of any political stripe, to abuse reality and misstate facts about science in order to make a political point is incompetent.

Readers should expect editors to strictly enforce the concept that columnists are very much entitled to their own opinions, but in no way entitled to their own facts. The New York Times is making the mistake of confusing objections to this columnist with an attempt to silence a particular point of view. That is not what it is. Rather, the objections are to the New York Times editorial policy, on the OpEd page, supporting alt-facts.

The facts at risk of denigration and dismissal here are widely accepted and established, usually. In some cases, there are uncertainties that are dishonestly exploited and incorrectly characterized, which is pretty much the same thing as trying to have one’s opinions and one’s facts at the same time: not valid commentary and bad journalistic practice. This particular columnist has exploited the fact that there is variation in nature to assert that there is variation in scientific opinion. This is a misreading of both nature and science, coming from someone who knows little about either, and that misreading is being sanctioned by the people who run the New York Times.

I don’t care, and I think most don’t care, if he New York Times has a right winger like Bret Stephens on the OpEd staff. But if the editors of that section of this news outlet allow this individual or any columnist to misrepresent important aspects of reality, as he very much did in his very first column just out, then that editorial staff is acting unprofessionally and should probably look for a job at one of those entertainment outlets that disguises itself as “news.”

I’m pretty sure that at this time the editors at the New York Times do not understand this distinction. Keep your conservative columnist, Grey Lady, that’s up to you. Some will like that, some will not. But do know that you can’t keep being thought of as the paper of record if you allow frequent and unchecked abuse of facts and reality within that discourse. That is just a bad idea, beneath such a widely respected publication, and I and others expect it to stop soon.

Comments

  1. #1 MikeN
    May 1, 2017

    Greg, instead of writing a letter asking them to fire the person who wrote something you don’t like, why not just write a letter challenging the points made? I imagine the editors of letters would be eager to run that one.

  2. #2 Obstreperous Applesauce
    May 1, 2017

    NYT: The Tabloid of Record

    So, since we’re blurring the lines between good and bad journalism, why stop at the OpEd pages? Why stop at all?

    For some helpful inspiration, see how the pros do it by studying actual tabloid headlines from the past:

    – Sadaam and Osama Adopt Shaved Ape Baby
    – Satan’s Skull Found in New Mexico
    – Farmer Shoots 23-Pound Grasshopper
    – Bigfoot Kept Lumberjack as Love Slave
    – Man’s Head Explodes in Barber’s Chair
    – Gordon Ramsay Sex Dwarf Eaten by Badger
    – Dick Cheney Is a Robot…

    Wait, forget that last one. Anyway, this list should be enough to serve as a template.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    May 1, 2017

    that editorial staff is acting unprofessionally and should probably look for a job at one of those entertainment outlets that disguises itself as “news.”

    They already work for such an organization. It’s called the New York Times.

  4. #4 SteveP
    May 1, 2017

    Bret Stephens is just exercising his right to write in a post truth (PT) style. He is being PT , that’s all. In a world where the ability to create simulacrums of reality increasingly exceeds the ability of perceivers to discern real from fake, is it not unreasonable to expect that smirk faced punks will take advantage of the zeitgeist to create and sell snake oil? What we are seeing here is just the the interface between PC and PT. So I suggest that we give Bret Stephens and the Gray Lady some slack. That way, when they use up their slack and hit the end of their rope, the abrupt change in momentum will be all the more dramatic and entertaining to watch!

    Also, i think that we have to be aware of the fact that, even though scientists have been increasingly marginalized since the time of Ronnie Raygun, there is still, amongst the non-sense crowd, a lot of wistful Science envy . Lacking knowledge of the rules of the physics game, or knowledge of the depths of their ignorance, they wade into the fray and think that they are scoring victory after victory, when, in fact, they are just immortalizing their stupidity in patented Dunning Krueger fossil cement.

  5. #5 Mentifex (Arthur T. Murray)
    Seattle WA USA
    May 1, 2017

    I have subscribed to only two newspapers in my entire life, and they both had stirring slogans on their front page. The one I bought today at Starbucks for $2.50 says, “All the News That’s Fit to Print” and the other that I obtained by mail dirt-cheap from Victor Kamkin’s said (in a foreign language): “Proletarians of All Countries, Unite Yourselves!” The White House says that my New York Times is a “failing newspaper,” but I buy it every day anyway, because I have been addicted to it since 1989. The other newspaper, Pravda, was extremely boring except in times of world crisis, so I often threw whole stacks of unread Pravdas in the Dumpster at my U.S. Army duty station in Germany. Some sergeant retrieved them from the Dumpster and laid them on the desk of the commanding colonel of the 101st Ordnance Battalion and said that I must be some kind of Commie infiltrator, but the colonel had no objection to my reading Pravda. Today’s Mon.1.MAY.2017 New York Times has a column in which Charles M. Blow says, “Trump has the intellectual depth of a coat of paint.” Where else can we get such pithy writing in this day and age? http://ai.neocities.org/NYT.html is my new web-page where I intend to answer back to the “failing New York Times”. Tomorrow on Tuesday I get to read the weekly Science Times. So maybe the NYT is a terrible, biased newspaper — remember what they did to Dr. David Baltimore? — but I still regard it, among all those awful newspapers world-wide, as the best of the lot.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    May 1, 2017

    “All the News That’s Fit to Print”

    The New York Times does indeed make that claim.

    The reality is closer to, “All the News That Fits, We Print”.

  7. #7 Wow
    May 1, 2017

    “Greg, instead of writing a letter asking them to fire the person who wrote something you don’t like,”

    Ah, so he doesn’t have freedom of his speech, is it? How about you take a sip of shut-up juice instead?

  8. #8 Tyvor Winn
    USA
    May 1, 2017

    #1: Shouldn’t Greg’s or anyone’s response to what somewhat writes in a newspaper depend on what kind of thing was written. There’s a big difference between not liking what someone writes in a newspaper as an opinion and what someone writes as a fact.

    Suppose it were a piece on the sports pages and someone claimed that some player did not belong in the Hall of Fame because his lifetime batting average was only so and so and his RBIs totaled only so and so but the writer’s numbers were just plain wrong?

    Should that writer just be just challenged in a letter citing the right numbers or should he be be challenged as being unworthy of the job he holds? Is there any adequate excuse for getting freely available facts wrong to further your own agenda?

    #6 Very good. I wish I’d thought of that.

  9. #9 Walt Garage
    US
    May 1, 2017

    The NYT has spent a LOT of time in the past chasing the Clintons, DESPERATE to find something illegal that they could hang on them and chasing every stupid rumor that came along.

    The NYT was a cheerleader for Dubya in the lead up to the Iraq war.

    I don’t see how this climate change denialism is any different.