17/52: Climate of Complete Certainty

For week of April 24

The last 3 years have been an abrupt transition for me in terms of becoming aware of "politics". In particular, the political leaning of news media had always been a strange concept to me throughout even undergrad: aren't journalism and "news" suppose to be unbiased and fact-based? Since starting school in the U.S., however, I've become exposed - actually, probably over-exposed - to the politicization of media, mainly fueled by the contrasting coverage of stories like police shootings, immigration issues, and of course, the 2016 American election. Over time, it became an accepted fact to me that Fox News is simply not unbiased in its presentation of, well, anything. Frankly, neither is the New York Times, but one brand of politically-motivated messaging seems to me much more dangerous than the other. Regardless, I often wondered how it was that a network like Fox became to be known as the fox den (heh) of conservative agenda. After all, the channel seemed fairly normal in every other aspect (but mostly because of the Saturday morning cartoons on Fox Kids). 

This week, though, I got the chance to observe firsthand how a news outlet could potentially start its transition into single-sided coverage, and it dawned on me that perhaps news outlets don't (entirely) choose to be biased one way or another - it is chosen by the people who consume them. I am, of course, referring to the whole New York Times debacle, where a "known climate change denier", Bret Stephens, wrote an op-ed article that triggered a swath of readers to cancel their NYT subscription. In particular, it seemed like it was left-leaning, science-loving folks who jumped ship on NYT, a newspaper that, to my knowledge, has been a relatively unbiased news outlet. On the one hand, it made perfect sense: consumers, whether liberal- or conservative-leaning, has the right to choose how they spend their money. It is through this choice of how we spend our money that subtly shifts the market-based world around us - "voting with our cash". If casually picking up your Sunday morning read gives you high-blood pressure, why bother? At the same time, though, it made me realize this: this whole controversy generated enough of a discussion that NYT probably thought hard about what its position is on climate change, and on the politically-motivated discussion thereafter. But if enough liberals cancel their subscription, the next time a pseudo-scientist or climate-change denier pens an op-ed, less people will be outraged. Over time, maybe NYT will degenerate into Fox news? In other words, NYT will turn into Fox news when reasonable and educated people stop reading the NYT. Again, this is not a criticism towards the people that canceled their subscriptions, especially if you see a better organization that supports your views. Also, this is not really relevant but I just want to make a note to say that I doubt this is how Fox news came to its current sad state. In any case, I followed this development with a lot of passive curiosity: why are people so angry, and how are people's actions going to change the future of NYT as well as the debate on climate change?

Honestly, I probably know as much about climate change as a high school senior knows "mathematics". Nevertheless, I, first and foremost, trust in the scientific process that generated the results and predictions about human-caused climate change. I don't have an understanding of the complex models that were applied to get at these inferences, but I trust that the climate science community did their due diligence (in ways, for example, that the psychological sciences community was recently shown to have not throughout the replication crisis). Furthermore, when someone - ANYONE - tells me "if you don't slow down the car, there's a 90% probability that you will crash into the next tree and die", I will PROBABLY slow down, much more so if the person telling me this was my driving instructor. These two things form my belief on supporting science-based policy changes with regards to environmental protection and alternative energy, but I would not tell anyone that the scientific predictions were 100% for certain going to happen, that's just not how science works. Based on this last caveat, my first read-through of the NYT op-ed was of mild disinterest: aside from the terrible Hilary Clinton analogy, which many people have pointed out to be a logical fallacy and clearly a dirty trick, what this man was saying did not seem as unreasonable as I thought it would be when I first heard of the debacle on Twitter. After reading through a few responses to it (here, here, here, and I really like this one), I understand the outrage a bit better. It wasn't so much what he was saying in the article, as opposed to what he was NOT saying. The entire piece is structured as a reasonable and amicable call for further discussion on the matter. After all, the fact that science is not 100% Truth and Certainty is nothing new. However, by omitting the danger of inaction, as well as the relatively strong degree of certainty in the information we DO have, it invisibly undercuts the scientific credibility of the argument. One of the responses above framed it as a "dog-whistle" to the mass populace of climate change deniers, a term that I find both hilarious and accurate. Furthermore, when considering the context of the author Stephen Brit's apparent history of denying climate change and other policies largely embraced by the left, I can see how this op-ed can be equated to demonic chants in writing. Again, I think this is a case of me being too literal and not seeing the context, implications, and reading between the lines. Had he truly wanted to bring the two sides together, it would've been very easy to add a sentence or two stating the relative certainty we have about climate change and the dangers of inaction, if nothing else than to throw liberals a bone. As it stands, though, this does read like a thinly-veiled attack on the facts we have gathered about climate change. But to be honest, I can also see how this could sound fairly reasonable to a person naive to the whole situation, like myself. In any case, I'm curious to see how NYT responds to this onslaught of criticism and how it frames future op-eds on sensitive issues.