Wednesday, May 03, 2017


Liz Spayd, the public editor of The New York Times, has now addresses the controversy surrounding Bret Stephens's first op-ed for the paper. Surprisingly, Spayd doesn't conclude that angry readers are free-speech-hating totalitarian-wannabes:
Most of the people I spoke with said they welcome opinions they don’t share and resent the suggestion that they prefer an ideological safe house. But many are incensed by what they felt was the gall of Stephens to take on climate change as his first column, and then to obliquely suggest that the data underlying climate science may be flawed, just like the data that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in November....

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target....
She seems to grasp that angry readers are tolerant of opinions they don't like, but intolerant of what they see as disinformation. She paraphrases one reader's argument this way: "The Missouri resident believes Stephens is trying to create niggling doubts about the dangers of climate change by employing a tactic similar to that of some industries that stand to lose from stiff environmental regulation." She quotes another reader: “What really annoyed me was seeing Times ads promising to pursue the ‘truth’ and then you get this alert saying, ‘Read this column that questions the fundamental believability of facts.’” Also, she notes that one person who canceled his subscription did so not immediately after reading the Stephens column, but after "he saw the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints." (Insulting your audience is not smart customer outreach.)

So Spayd, given a chance to wag her fingers as Times readers, largely gives them a pass. Good for her. But then the columnist himself dupes her with an oh-so-innocent Eddie Haskell act:
He says he chose climate not to intentionally incite anyone, but because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived. He felt he couldn’t dodge it. What about the assertion that his broader purpose, like that of many industries, is to stoke doubt about global warming and thus reduce the need to act?

Quite the opposite, Stephens said.
The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility. When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.
That may be where conciliation ends. From Stephens’s perspective, the gulf between his intentions and reader reaction is partly explained by how liberals tend to approach ideas with which they disagree.

“The dominant mode of liberal disagreement in many cases is to express contempt,” he said. “That’s a real problem, really for liberals.”
So Stephens was writing about our "fallibility," by which I assume he means everybody's fallibility? Here's the problem: Stephens doesn't think liberals are correct on the subject of science 55 percent of the time -- or 25 percent or 5 percent. He thinks we're wrong all the time. Recall this notorious soundbite, from a 2011 appearance on Fox Business. It comes at 2:10 in the clip:

It's usually the left that says that if you [don't] believe in global warming you basically believe in flat earth. Well, in the 1970s we were supposed to believe in global cooling. In the 1980s it was the nuclear winter. In the 1990s it was mad cow disease. Global warming was the flavor of the decade. I can't wait to see what the next scare's going to be.
The analogy doesn't even make sense -- we don't know whether a nuclear winter would occur because we've never had the sort of nuclear exchange that would theoretically bring one on, and mad cow disease absolutely exists, although we've successfully contained it -- but Stephens says this to make the case that scientific predictions by liberals, and bien-pensants in general, are invariably wrong.

And isn't Stephens expressing contempt here? He tells us that contempt is "the dominant mode of liberal disagreement," strongly implying that conservatives are never contemptuous of their opponents. But he's the guy who wrote the following about President Obama:
... it takes actual smarts to understand that glibness and self-belief are not sufficient proof of genuine intelligence. Stupid is as stupid does, said the great philosopher Forrest Gump. The presidency of Barack Obama is a case study in stupid does.
Maybe I'm too much of a liberal to assess that accurately, but it looks like contempt to me -- as does his description of climate change belief as a "religion ... presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate."

Spayd gets Times readers right -- but Stephens fools her with his my-intentions-are-pure act.

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