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From climate change to campus change: How climate discussions highlight a need for more productive debates

On Monday, the Stanford Daily published two op-ed pieces – a point/counterpoint pairing titled “The Debate on Man-made Climate Change.” The first article was a thought piece on the Republican Party’s reluctance to engage constructively with climate science, and a call for the GOP to change this stance. The second argued that engaging constructively with climate science is pointless, because anthropogenic climate change isn’t actually happening.

We were initially appalled by the misinformation cited to refute human-made climate change. We planned a point-by-point rebuttal of Smitherman’s argument. We wanted to contribute to the discussion of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. But that’s not the fundamental problem with the op-ed, and, despite our stance on climate change, that’s not the point we want to make. Our point is that these two pieces, despite The Daily’s billing, are not a productive debate.

High-quality journalism strives to make scientifically-verified facts the common ground for discussion. Facts can be challenged, but with scientific rigor rather than political statements. This allows people to compare and contrast their values productively in debate. Value-based debates are public discussions of policy, opinion, morality, and behavior. Stifling value-based debate is censorship; ensuring that science-related opinions are factually accurate is journalistic integrity.

The Daily is responsible for upholding the distinction between fact and value in its Opinion section, but the two pieces in question fail to do so. Humans are changing the climate (NOAA, National Academy of Sciences, and NASA provide comprehensive and unbiased background). What is open to debate is what is to be done, if anything, about the fact of human-caused climate change. This is an example of a values-based debate, pitting ideas, policy proposals, and beliefs against each other in productive discourse. This is what opinion pieces are for.

Both Kaufman and Smitherman fail to engage in a productive discussion for different reasons. Kaufman has command of the facts and uses the scientific consensus to establish the grounds of his argument. However, he uses these facts in his piece to dismiss legitimate opinions on topics like the role of government instead of discussing them critically. By doing this, he fails to engage in a productive debate. Smitherman, on the other hand, entirely misses the distinction between facts and values. He attempts to engage in a fact-driven debate–but from a purely factual standpoint, his citations do not support his statements, and his argument fails to meet the standard of rigor necessary to have a productive discussion about well-established science.

Smitherman has valuable, if controversial, beliefs on economic policy and individual liberty. He should own these beliefs and argue them based on their ideological, social, and economic merits. Instead, he cherry-picks data and pseudoscience to justify his opinions. This not only undermines the validity of his opinions, but also demeans the quality and value of the discussion.

Across the world, well-regarded media outlets have begun to recognize the dangers of conflating the facts and values surrounding climate change. The Los Angeles Times, for one, no longer allows editorial debates on the facts of climate science. As Paul Thornton writes in explaining this decision, “The debate right now isn’t whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.” By upholding the integrity of the debate, The LA Times, The Guardian, Popular Science, and a number of other journalistic publications are helping to preserve the quality of public discussion.

As a forum for our community’s discussions, and thus the public face of student opinions at one of the top universities in the country, the Stanford Daily has a responsibility to communicate about scientific topics in an accurate and accessible way. Effective articles on climate change should not discuss whether climate change is happening but what we can do about it. Effective articles should fuel continued, productive discussion, not limit it.

We sat down to write an article refuting climate change denial. That would miss the point. We cannot risk allowing our most important debates to degenerate into arguments over settled factuality. This is more than an environmental issue. What’s at stake is how we communicate: how we find common ground and solve our problems. Highlighting the shortcomings of this particular piece calls attention to the critical need to improve dialogue on campus and beyond. We must become more thoughtful in how we debate contentious issues. Our community deserves it.

Maria Doerr ‘17, Jake Glassman ‘17, Emma Hutchinson ‘17, Ashley Jowell ’17, Sage Lagron ‘17, Josh Lappen ‘17, Fiona Noonan ’17, Meghan Shea ‘17, Caroline Spears ‘17

Contact the authors of this op-ed through Meghan Shea at [email protected]

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