Bret Stephens Is Right About Progressives and Science
When Bret Stephens, former columnist at the Wall Street Journal before joining the New York Times, wrote his inaugural column on April 28th, he broke the Internet. His argument that global warming and the human influence on it are real and undisputable, but that many other facets of the climate change debate are “a matter of probabilities”, did not sit well with opposing pundits. Challenging the accepted orthodoxy on climate change, it seems, is verboten.
The ensuing media storm was scathing. While grudgingly noting that “technically he doesn’t get any facts wrong”, Slate argued the suggestion by Stephens that “reasonable people can be skeptical about the dangers of climate change” is “not actually true.” Only unreasonable people can be, presumably. Going a step further, New Republic contended that the article was merely a further manifestation of the American conservative movement’s ubiquitous attempt to drag any issue inexorably towards the conclusion that the only possible answer is a hands-off, small government.
With threats to cancel subscriptions pouring in, Stephens’ NYT stable mate, public editor Liz Spayd, was compelled to grab the mic and try to intercede between the new columnist and her publication’s incensed liberal readership. The outraged missives complained that climate change was a “meaningful and disturbing choice” for a first column, simply “too important” to cast any doubt on and that the newspaper really shouldn’t be producing content questioning “the fundamental believability of facts.”
However, this is not only fallacious. It also misses the point. And so, the lambasting of Bret Stephens’s first column for the NYT reveals how polarized the debate on science has become: the basic scientific truism that there is no absolute certainty is no longer tolerated.
In fact, asserting that science is fallible is not a denial of it, but on the contrary, a question of its honesty. Without it, the credibility of this noble pursuit couldn’t be upheld. Many “facts” once held sacred – that the earth was flat, the miasma theory of disease – have now all been thoroughly debunked. Scientific consensus and advances in human knowledge are predicated on the idea that there is no absolute knowledge, only premises that haven’t been disproven yet. Even Dave Levitan, science writer and passionate supporter of tackling climate change, points out that in science, nothing is a certainty.
This is what Stephens was discussing in his article, and the angry response rather proves the point. The problem with this reactionary thought process is not limited to the deep corners of the web or the front pages of the New York Times. Rather, it’s in the legislative effect that such scientific misperceptions create. The GOP’s opposition to any meaningful action on climate change, pointing to a couple of fringe studies and think tanks (such as the Heartland Institute) to justify their opposition is well known.
But liberals should know that they are not above reproach either. The general idea of scientific orthodoxy on the left has become divorced from actual scientific consensus. On climate change things line up, while on issues like vaccines or pesticides they don’t. On climate change, one aberrant study is rejected as an outlier. On pesticides and vaccines, one aberrant study becomes the rule setter.
When California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) decided in late March to place glyphosate, a popular herbicide, on the Proposition 65 list of carcinogenic chemicals, it did so precisely by succumbing to reactionary public pressure. The regulator based its edict on one outlier study by the controversial International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and, probably more pertinently, on the assumption that herbicides are evil. This point of view that has been exacerbated by a skewed debate that successfully linked the issue with another highly discussed topic: GMOs.
But in labeling glyphosate a carcinogen, California is out of step with other authorities, such as the US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority, who have found no carcinogenic effects of substance. The reason these other agencies aren’t troubled by glyphosate is that the science is telling them that they shouldn’t be troubled by it. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) assessed the substance again in March of this year. The verdict? Not a carcinogen.
Aiding the reactionary dynamic of public discourse is the increasingly blurry line between scientists and activists that actively feed confirmation bias. Italy’s Ramazzini Institute is currently conducting a study on glyphosate ahead of a crucial EU vote. Although preliminary results don’t show adverse effects, the fact that the Ramazzini researchers have a history of anti-glyphosate activism and strong links to IARC warrants skepticism about what the final results will turn out to be. Establishing the result before the method contributes to the general decay of the traditional foundations erstwhile upholding the scientific consensus. In other words, ideology is masquerading as science.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty of science allows for its politicization. Selena Kyle, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council gleefully said that putting glyphosate on the Prop. 65 list – despite contrary evidence – was the “choice of California’s voters." But what the people consider to be the inalienably correct course of action doesn’t always tally with the data, which is often messy, unpredictable and contradictory – something that can be difficult for those who prefer to think in black and white..
The March for Science helped show that both sides of the political divide have their own problems with turning scientific debates into questions of ideological absolutism. And the “growing anti-intellectual strain” that Neil deGrasse Tyson warned about isn’t just coming from one direction. Scientific theories are always being superseded as new data and knowledge emerges. Maybe it is time for both left and right to accept that what they think they know and what they think is right doesn’t have to be set in stone either.