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Each day, @BretStephensNYT & @NYTimes lowering ‘bar for intellectual honesty’

May 4th, 2017 · 5 Comments

Facing criticism for the hiring of Bret Stephens (who, during his time at the Wall Street Journal, established a long track record of attacking climate science and scientists along with other rather egregious statements/writings on other issues), The New York Times editorial page editor James Bennet of the NYT  said: “I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

Stephens chose, out-of-the-box, to write his first column on ‘uncertainty’ related to climate science and solutions. Knowledgeable people — including numerous experts … including top scientists — found error and distortion and misdirection after error and distortion and misdirection in that column.  As one dissection concluded,

This bloke was touted by the NYT as a recipient of a Pulitzer, which was meant to justify their purchase. His first NYT article showed no sign of that. His article looked to have been dashed off in about five minutes with no thought, no research, no facts, and logical fallacy from woe to go. Is this really and truly why the NYT pays him the big bucks?

As to that bar …

Today’s article shows that NYT editorial page editor James Bennet of the NYT was wrong when he said: “I have no doubt he crosses our bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.” The only way Bret Stephens can cross the bar is if the NYT lowers the bar.

So many surprising things with what is morphing into The Stephens Affair.  Like many established institutions, insiders rally to defend the (pretty much) indefensible and their spines go up in the face of further criticism. They will attack those questioning them, question motives, avoid dealing with the substance of challenge, and — all too often — dig the hole deeper and deeper. In the process, they can wreak ever more havoc than if there had been swift and serious action up front.

While many critics (okay, including me) might have wanted to see Gray Lady decide not to bring in Stephens, I had a seemingly reasonable expectation: that the New York Times editors would recognize the criticism as having some substance and spend serious effort in the editing process to avoid having Stephens spew distortions and nonsense related to climate change from the pretty huge soap box that a NY Times OPED position provides. As the first column showed, they utterly failed to do this.  As Dave Roberts put it a few days ago:

It’s time for the opinion page to take climate change as seriously as the paper’s reporters do.

In the face of substantive, fact-based, expert criticism of Stephens’ ‘work’, the Times editors aren’t showing any signs — when it comes to Stephens ‘ that they plan “to take climate change as seriously as the paper’s reporters do.”

Today, Stephens published Climate of Unintended Consequences.  This piece attacks corn ethanol as not achieving its objectives and hurting climate efforts. Okay, many of us never were too enthused about claims that this pork barrel system enriching the farm belt was a climate measure of merit. (There is some basis to lay down that it helped in ‘energy independence’, but that is a different subject than Stephens really focuses on.)

As one interlocuter put it to me,

You mean a pork-barrel policy turned out to not be so great after all?


No seriously NYT, stop it.

With this OPED attacking corn ethanol, Stephens target isn’t corn ethanol but to (pretty explicitly) attack and undermine climate science as a basis for policy making. He opens this piece with a quote from a 1990s National Renewable Energy Laboratory pamphlet.

Converting biomass feedstocks to biofuels is an environmentally friendly process. So is using biofuels for transportation. When we use bioethanol instead of gasoline, we help reduce atmospheric CO2.

Stephens then — in a few short words of an OPED — takes us on a voyage from Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol to the upper Midwest’s corn ethanol to demonstrate the (seeming) fallacy of these words and that summary pamphlet.

Why ‘seeming’ … Stephens’ focus is on crops grown for biofuel production while that pamphlet, really, focuses on the potential from leveraging agricultural waste for fuel production. As per

Our nation’s biomass resource base is extensive (about 200 million dry tons of various waste feedstocks are available annually). Using a fraction of this resource could probably supply the equivalent of 350,000 barrels of oil in 2010, or 3.6% of the projected light-duty vehicle energy demand.

and …

working to improve government/industry cooperation with efforts to facilitate industry access to the Biofuels Program’s technologies, resources, and facilities. For example, it is working with BC International to construct a biomass-to-ethanol plant in Jennings, Louisiana. The primary feedstock will be bagasse, the waste product of sugar production from sugarcane. Also, OFD is working with Arkenol, which plans to produce ethanol by converting rice straw in California’s Sacramento Valley, and with Masada Resources Group, which is planning a municipal solid waste-to-ethanol plant in New York state.

and … well, you get the drift.

Stephens highlights in his OPED one study (of the many studies) that concluded that CORN ethanol actually leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions.  Corn appeared once in the DOE report:

A CORNerstone of the program …

At best, charitably, this was a sloppy linkage — to peg an overview report focused on biomass waste conversion into fuel as the strawman for attacking sugar cane and corn ethanol to undermine climate science — that serious editing, concerned to assure honest engagement with its readership, would have caught and stopped.  That it didn’t is yet another indication that The New York Times opinion editors are comfortable “lowering the bar for intellectual honesty and fairness.”

Of course, to be clear, that one OPED is filled with deceptive playing with ‘facts’ that are true but not truthful.  Take a look at this paragraph:

There’s also been some acknowledgment that Germany’s Energiewende — the uber-ambitious “energy turn” embarked upon by Angela Merkel in 2010 — has been less than a model for others. The country is producing record levels of energy from wind and solar power, but emissions are almost exactly what they were in 2009. Meanwhile, German households pay nearly the highest electricity bills in Europe, all for what amounts to an illusion of ecological virtue.

So much packed in there, but lets point out several items:

  • Choosing 2009 for German emissions is like choosing 1998 for temperature comparisons. A ‘fact’ that is not truthful in use.  2009 was a low year in emissions (almost 8% lower than 2008, perhaps due to the 2008 financial crisis/economic crash, and 4% less than 2010) and there hasn’t been huge progress since … due, primarily, to one pesky little word: Fukushima.  Fukushima drove a German decision to accelerate nuclear

    Stephens carefully selected 1998 …

    power plant retirements.  Impressive that Germany, with retiring half its nuclear fleet in a short period, actually managed to continue to reduce emissions (even if at a slower pace).  Yes, sort of flat fall since 2009 … because 2009 was low.  Just like the cherry picking from climate science deniers focus on 1998, which is one of the hottest years in history, to falsely assert a ‘pause’ when 1998 was an outlier year by far.

  • Yes, Germans do pay somewhat high electricity bills. However, these are (a) right in line with average US bills, (b) roughly 1/4th of the bill is general taxes having nothing to do — per se — with energy nor with the Energiewende, (c) with subsidization for clean energy and energy efficiency, the bills somewhat cover real costs (externalities like cancer-causing pollution from coal plants) that are ignored in the United States and by ‘thinkers’ like Stephens, (d) etc …..

Monographs could be written on the direct and implicit of that one Stephens’ paragraph. And, well, for pretty much every other one he has published as a New York Times employee.

Not sure how The New York Times‘ judges its ‘bar for intellectual honesty and fairness’ but, when it comes to Bret Stephens, it sure seems pretty close to the ground.







Years ago, the Washington Post editorial page faced a wave of serious criticism due to serial George Will climate science distortions in what became know as The Will Affair.  Here are some top-notch discussions related to The Stephens Affair.

Sadly, there are 100s more pieces re Stephens — the above make a pretty solid and convincing case of the New York Times editors professional malfeasance in — if not in their hiring of Stephens — of their editorial responsibilities related to Stephens’ serial distortions: a solid case that they are lowering the ‘bar for intellectual honesty and fairness’ with every paragraph that they allow Bret Stephens to publish under The New York Times banner.

NOTE: There is a sign-on letter for scientists and petition for lay-people calling for honesty re climate change in the NY Times opinion section.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Meteor Blades // May 6, 2017 at 1:02 am

    Excellent, thorough smackdown.

  • 2 Somewhat Negative News Coverage Likely to Impact New York Times (NYT) Stock Price - Markets Daily // May 7, 2017 at 5:59 am

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  • 3 John Egan // May 7, 2017 at 8:16 am

    Nor only are you attitudes disturbingly illiberal, they are also ineffective. My views towards climate issues used to be quite similar to yours, but I began to diverge when climate activists worked to silence those with whom they disagreed – none more so than Judith Curry.

    So, when Judith Curry began to spew material that did not stand up to scrutiny, perhaps as an attempt to embrace climate denialist, scientists should simply have been silent? When scrutinized, Curry didn’t take a scientist’s approach — (perhaps grumbling but) saying ‘okay, you have found a problem in my calculation/assertion/approach that I understand and here is how I adapt my work to that but, instead, to shut out and attack those who found erroneous material. Your embrace of Curry, Lomborg, and, well, Stephens is telling.

    Rather than engage in debate, they demanded that the “debate was over” and that anyone who demurred was a pariah. Although I may have agreed on most issues surrounding climate, I found this completely unacceptable. In addition, there are gaps, uncertainties, a potential range of explanations – all of which have been swept under the carpet in the rush for a lockstep uniformity.

    “Swept under the rug …” Wow … what absurdity …

    Btw, seems clear that you don’t really look at the science … spend time looking at the scientist’s interactions and, well, “lockstep uniformity” isn’t a term that seems to fit that reality.

    It is laughable the near-complete silence on population

    “Laughable” … no … humanity’s climate/environmental/etc impacts can be boiled down to pretty simple equation: population x footprint = impact Footprint can be measured many ways — whether in land use, CO2, etc … e.g., that ‘simple’ can get quite complex. But, a key part of the equation is population. Writ large, humanity is heading toward ‘peak’ population and then declining numbers, based on demographic trends around the world. Now, want to argue that population — whether by environmental community or even by me — isn’t discussed enough, okay. But, ZPG isn’t my focus or massive interest — thus, in yet another arena, holding me to account for what you attack a larger world of discussion is pretty much absurd.

    and the attempts to dismiss the Medieval Warm Period and the urban heat island effect.

    Sigh … take a look at the science … and stop spewing denier space BS.
    Re MWP:
    Heat Island Impact: (1) Very real thing in terms of an arena to address. Ever looked into the Heat Island Group or, for example, the excellent book Heat Island Or perhaps you are having too much fun with Watts ( — no, the measurement stations around urban heat islands are not distorting measurements to the extent of falsifying climate science.

    Your and others’ attacks on Stephens do not work. Stephens is not so wrong as to deny him access to media, particularly when to do otherwise simply reinforces the views he holds.

    1. I do not think that the NYTimes should have hired him.
    2. Having hired him, the editors should be diligent in their editing — making an effort for due diligence that he is not distorting and his material stands up to scrutiny. As documented here, they utterly failed.

    I agree with you that you did not, single-handedly, bring about the election of Trump, the rise of Marine Le Pen, or growth of alt-right groups worldwide – but a cursory look at the global political scene indicates a near-collapse of the left and a surge of the right. The “safest” bet for progressives, at present, is neoliberalism or center-rightism?!?! I have consistently challenged you because your approach and that of climate activists represents exactly why the left in in full-scale retreat. Jeremiads, threats, and brow-beating – and, most of all, failed attempts to silence opponents – will only exacerbate the political tailspin.

  • 4 John Egan // May 7, 2017 at 8:51 am

    Blair King really nails it.

    Not sure ‘nails it’, but makes some good points and has some challenges.
    1. Re Stephens, his links are far outside what my laydown is. Note that none of what he cites / links to is listed here.
    2. Re Plumer, didn’t write a post re NYTimes hiring him — just like I didn’t write one about Vox hiring Roberts, HuffPost hiring … etc … though, believe that I retweeted/liked several of the items about his moving there. Most of those seriously commenting re Stephens’ hiring have contrasted that with the quality of the energy/environmental reporting. Which now includes Brad.
    3. Partially agree with him re Trudeau. He isn’t Trump, has managed to work on climate/etc, yet is working to increase tar sands accessibility to market — even as we are learning that Tar Sands is (potentially far) worse in pollution levels than has been realized/reported:
    4. King is difficult, as well, to read. For example, re nuclear and Germany. [1] I don’t agree with the German decision. [2] There are many complicated reasons for the coal rather than nuclear that include (a) financial contracts that are prohibitive for closing some coal plants, (b) perspectives about eased path forward, (c) etc …, and (d) that pesky little word Fukushima. Without mentioning Fukushima and its dramatic impact on German energy policy, post introduction/start of Energiewende, is disingenuous. To better understand that domain, this is a great place to start:
    5. A challenge in reading him is who embraces him and comments there — dominated by pretty basic science denial &
    science denial talking points. Could pretty much play ‘climate science denial by the number'( bingo in the comments’ section.

    You don’t advance any environmental goals by taking your plans straight out of the WCTU play-book.

  • 5 .@BretStephensNYT is upset w/@HillaryClinton: “I voted for her and she says …” // May 26, 2017 at 9:29 pm

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