Last week, the New York Times caused a stir when it published the first column of conservative commentator Bret Stephens. In his column, Stephens argued that the inherent uncertainty of empirical data meant that the certitude of scientists in the predictions of climate models was misplaced. The implications of this were that we ought to spend more time and energy debating the nuances and uncertainty of climate models in lieu of taking decisive action to mitigate its effects now.
This argument is, of course, patently absurd. There is ample evidence and scientific consensus to indicate that climate change is both an immediate and existential threat, and the uncertainty of this conclusion is miniscule. Stephens rather insidiously makes a classic climate change denier argument where he calls into question the scientific method’s foundation in empiricism instead of making factual claims that can be debunked with a quick Google search. Instead of asserting that warming is part of some sort of natural cycle, or isn’t really happening, he simply says that the data are uncertain, therefore we must not act immediately.
To illustrate this absurdity, let us consider the probability of an individual in a room dying of asphyxiation because all the air molecules in the room spontaneously relocated to the opposite side, as a consequence of their random thermodynamic fluctuations. Sure, this is a possibility, but a simple calculation tells you that the probability is really, really small — on the order of 10^(10^-22). You would therefore not be worried about spontaneously dying as you sit reading this.
In the same vein, although climate models are inherently uncertain, the uncertainty has been minimized to a point where we are reasonably certain of the disastrous effects and consequences of climate change, just as we are reasonably certain we won’t spontaneously die from asphyxiation. Thus, the potential cost of doing nothing far exceeds any upfront cost from taking decisive action against climate change. This ought to be obvious to anyone who works with data to make informed decisions regularly — which is why numerous scientists, business leaders, generals and even fossil fuel companies are urging climate action.
The Times went on to defend Stephens by asking readers to “tolerate views they did not like,” noting that they were trying to “bust up the liberal echo chamber” and bring a “diversity of opinion” to the opinions pages. Most reasonable people would agree with such sentiments; as a general principle, echo chambers have little intellectual benefit and diversity of opinions is integral to a free thinking society. However, Stephens’ opinion is more than just a view that liberals do not like; it is based on falsehoods, it is intellectually dishonest and has potentially harmful real world consequences. To put it bluntly, it has no intellectual value and comes from a place of malicious intent as well. As such, there is no reason for the Times, a self-professed guardian of “the truth,” to give Stephens a soapbox to spout his BS.
However, the Times’ actions are symptomatic of a much larger problem within political discourse. There is a notion that everything reported in the media must be “fair and balanced,” i.e., it must present the facts without bias while showcasing a diversity of opinion on a given topic as well. Few reasonable people would disagree with this notion — making complex collective decisions requires hearing the views of as many stakeholders in as intellectually honest a way as possible. Fair reporting, therefore, means presenting the facts honestly while bringing out the nuances. But more importantly, it must involve recognizing that opposing views are not always ethically or intellectually equivalent — one could not reasonably justify treating the opinion of a qualified doctor the same as that of a healing crystal hippie on how to cure AIDS, because the healing crystal hippie is clearly an idiot. In the same vein, one could not justify treating a lung cancer researcher and a tobacco industry lobbyist the same, because the lobbyist has a clear financial incentive to misrepresent the impact of cigarettes on lung cancer.
Reporting on this case fairly would mean accurately describing the scientific consensus on tobacco’s carcinogenic effects, clearly highlighting outstanding questions over the consensus, as well as providing context on the effects that anti-smoking policy might have on the tobacco industry’s profits. In this case, it’s very clear that the scientific consensus does not show the tobacco industry in a good light. But that is because it is objectively in the wrong here — it is an empirical fact that its products have contributed to millions of deaths, and there is no way to spin that positively. As such, the reporting is clearly fair – but it is not “balanced,” and nor should it be, because doing so would mean treating a lie — that tobacco products don’t cause cancer – as having the same intellectual and ethical weight as the truth.
However, it is clear that there has been a dearth of fair reporting recently, especially when it comes to contentious political issues like climate change and free trade. Media organizations tend to opt for what one calls “balance“ instead — i.e., a policy of always presenting an opinion on a topic along with an opposing view. Sure, this sounds good — it’s important to lay out cases for and against intervention in a foreign war, for example — but too often it metamorphoses into a platform for idiocy, hate and plain falsehood. We see this with Stephens in The New York Times and with a number of prominent conservative climate change critics with ties to the fossil fuel industry, but we also see it in the recent debate over the Affordable Care Act’s repeal, with Republican leaders openly lying about the effects of their new bill and also with the anti-GMO movement on the left.
It is therefore time to acknowledge that a truly fair media isn’t one that treats all views the same, but is one that is willing to call out bullshit and focus on arguments built on empirical fact. We don’t seem to be too far away from a “Liberals say sky is blue, Conservatives say it’s orange” headline.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.