Sorry to see Bret Stephens get rough reception at NYT

The last couple of weeks, it occurred to me briefly to wonder why I hadn’t seen any Bret Stephens columns in The Wall Street Journal. I chalked it up to the fact that I don’t look every day, and maybe I wasn’t looking on the right ones.

That wasn’t it.

It seems that Stephens, the WSJ deputy editorial page editor whom I’ve been praising over the past year for his principled criticism of Donald Trump, has left the paper.

He left to write for The New York Times, where readers have not made him welcome, according to a third paper, The Washington Post:

The New York Times thought it was bringing a fresh voice and some ideological diversity to its influential op-ed pages when it hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens from the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago.


Bret Stephens

Readers weren’t impressed by Stephens’s debut column, to say the least.

The cancel-my-subscription outrage flowed freely after Stephens challenged the certitude about climate science in his first piece for the newspaper on Friday. While acknowledging that the planet has warmed over the past century and that humans have contributed to it, he wrote, “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.”…

This news prompts three reactions from me:

  • Why did Stephens leave the WSJ for the NYT? Was it merely a better opportunity, or had he been made to feel unwelcome at the Journal? I would hate to think it was the latter, because he had been one of the best reasons to read the Journal, especially over the past year.
  • What caused him — and, to the extent they had involvement, his editors — to choose this topic for his debut column? Was an anti-Trump column considered, but rejected as seeming like pandering to his new audience? Did he deliberately decide to be more in-your-face, to announce his presence as a new voice? Perhaps these questions don’t interest you, but as I’m someone who has spent years thinking about such things — which message to go with and when — they do me.
  • As for all you howling New York Times readers: Get over yourselves. Has your safe space been invaded? Good.

In searching for more info about Stephens’ move, I ran across quite a bit of fulminating against him and his first column, describing the latter as weak and poorly reasoned.

I thought the piece was fine. Its point, for those who claim to have a problem finding it, was this: If you find yourself being 100 percent certain, or close to it, about something, perhaps you should question yourself more.

Seems like a good choice for a first outing, considering the writer and his new venue. It was even prophetic, in the part where he wrote, “By now I can almost hear the heads exploding….”

46 thoughts on “Sorry to see Bret Stephens get rough reception at NYT

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    I have a new theory for how Stephens came to leave the Journal.

    I think he just got up one day and said, “I uh, I don’t like my job, and, uh, I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore.”

    Seriously, don’t you think he looks, in that one picture anyway, like a double for Peter Gibbons?

    Peter Gibbons

      1. JesseS

        He has mostly been getting bit parts in forgettable movies. Also got a season on Boardwalk Empire.

  2. Norm Ivey

    much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities.

    Right. But if a doctor tells me I have cancer, I’m going seek remedies with a probability of cure.

    Insurance companies operate on probabilities. A few years ago, Farmers sued several municipalities for failing to take actions to limit damages caused by climate change. The US Navy has raised piers at Norfolk because of the probability of rising seas. Are we to do nothing because we are uncertain?

    That things will change because of global warming is fact. Things ARE changing. How much and in what manner can be debated. We have an administration and a Republican-led Congress that simply denies climate change (or worse, ignores it).

    Probabilities? I’ll bet onoverweening scientism being right more often than willful ignorance any day.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But see, he’s not advocating ignorance, willful or otherwise.

      First, he says right out that “the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the Northern Hemisphere since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming.”

      He’s just saying that good science is undermined, as a political force, by overstating it. As he put it, “” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.”

      It’s really a pretty modest proposition he’s setting forth here, with the best point probably being this: “Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts…”

      Most of us SHOULD be able to agree with that, even if reluctantly…

      1. Norm Ivey

        I’ve got no problem with folks who are skeptical–that’s the basis of science. I’ve got problems with people who deny or dismiss the science. He calls 1.5 degrees “modest” (though I would differ on that point). He dismisses the “sophisticated but fallible models and simulations”. I trust the predictions of those who have made their life’s work the study of the physics of the atmosphere more than I trust Bret Stephens’s assertion of their fallibility.

        If the administration and congress acknowledged the perils of climate change (as most did before Obama took office; thanks, Obama), and they were debating what to do about it (if anything), I would take his point to heart. I’d be more receptive to his argument if he focused on convincing people in power to accept the reality of climate change, but his essay only gives fuel to those who don’t want to discuss it. As if “I don’t want to talk about it because you think you’re right” is a reasonable response.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          But here’s the thing…

          I sense that you’re concerned because climate change deniers would FEEL supported by this column, just as I suggested that Bud FELT unsupported.

          But, being an editor type, I look at what he is actually, objectively saying.

          I don’t look at it in terms of whether the ball is moved one way or another.

          However, I can see how someone who is passionately engaged in the game and cares deeply about the outcome (and yes, I know the stakes of climate change are not a “game,” but bear with me) would get impatient with a guy who sits there on the sidelines and pedantically complains that one side’s cheerleaders are cheering a little too loudly.

          Which is essentially what Stephens is doing here. And the cheerleaders he’s criticizing are those rooting for the NYT readers’ home team…

      2. Dave

        Nate Silver had it at a one in three chance that Trump was going to win going into election day. In other words, a good chance. Either Stephens doesn’t understand probability, you don’t understand probability, or neither of you do. But to argue that the evidence was as strong of a Clinton victory going into election day as it is of human-caused climate change suggests that Stephens understands neither election analytics nor climate science.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yeah, I thought Trump had a pretty good chance, too. Anyone who is the nominee of either major party does.

          But of course, Stephens isn’t writing about what Nate Silver thought, or what I thought. He’s talking about what Robby Mook was telling Hillary Clinton, which was to ignore intuitive pols like Bill and believe the data.

          So… I don’t think I’m following what you’re saying. What on Earth did I, or Stephens, write that led to “Either Stephens doesn’t understand probability, you don’t understand probability, or neither of you do.”

          Did you read the column? (I ask because Bud didn’t, before his initial comments…)

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    The debut column starts off observing that the Clinton campaign placed too much faith in campaign manager Robby Mook.

    I would never make that mistake. You know why? ‘Cause he’s a mook…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, I know, as jokes go, that one was fairly trite.

      But I like making “Mean Streets” references, even obvious ones that poor Robby Mook has probably heard a million times…

  4. bud

    Honestly would you be writing this column if a Bernie style populist was hired by the WSJ and he wrote a column about breaking up the big banks then their subscribers protested? I doubt it because your worldview brands that kind of thinking as kooky.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That’s right. I don’t think I would welcome columns by “a Bernie style populist,” in the WSJ or anywhere else. Any more than I would more nonsense from the Trump-style populists.

      I don’t get your point…

      1. bud

        The point is this Stephens guy writes a kooky article defending climate change deniers but instead of criticizing the kooky article you get in a snit about the people who correctly protesting the nonsense.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          There’s nothing kooky about his column. In fact, he’s pretty much urging people to be more moderate, less “kooky” if you will, in making political arguments.

          Look at what Stephens has actually written and what the words mean, not how they make you feel.

          What parts of his column are you talking about when you call it “a kooky article defending climate change deniers?” I missed those parts…

          1. bud

            Just got through reading the Stephen’s column. I’ll call it disturbing instead of kooky. Or perhaps irresponsible would be more apropos. Climate change science needs to be defended vigorously and without injecting false doubt into the reality of it. Articles written to defend those who would dispute a largely settled issue serve no purpose other than to make it more difficult to take action. You could change the subject from ‘climate change science’ to ‘flat earth science’ and pretty much write the same drivel. The impact of climate change is real, well established and ongoing. Failure to address the underlying causes directly and vigorously will lead to spectacular peril within a few years. I see no purpose in giving denial apologists a forum to make it more difficult to address the issue. The NYT needs to re-think this hire.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              While I don’t agree, the objections you just expressed are more on-point than what you said before.

              It always helps to READ the piece… 🙂

              1. bud

                Just to be clear, are you suggesting that climate change science is NOT established beyond the legal definition of reasonable doubt?

      2. Harry Harris

        Calling Trump “populist” is a minor irritant I often hear these days. He’s a demagogue, whose wealth-favoring policies are far from populist. His faux populist pronouncements are mostly rhetoric he has no intention of bringing to bear. The big wall stuff is a ploy he used to use a small set of anti-immigrant followers to capture a larger party with a quite different agenda. Look at his tax proposals vs his claims. Medical insurance as well. Environmental emphases – purely business driven. He just simply lies, and a significant group of believers plus right-leaning and hard right opportunists are willing to support or look the other way because they see him as a help in re-selling Reaganomics, re-segregating schools, rewarding their oil, defense contractor, and drug-maker funders, and keeping the right-driven voter manipulation in place (voter suppression, gerrymandering, campaign funding).

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, he ran a pretty populist campaign, and a lot of populists voted for him, and that’s what I had in mind.

          I didn’t say he believed in it, the way Huey Long probably did.

          Let’s put it this way. Elites had little reason to vote for the guy, whether they were economic elites or intellectual elites.

          No billionaire with half a brain would want to risk everything he and the rest of us have by putting such a loony in charge of the country…

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            And of course, for me “populist” is a bit of a pejorative. That’s because I connect it with the great American tradition of anti-intellectualism, and Trumps fits very neatly into that.

            But I realize not all populists are anti-intellectual, and not all anti-intellectuals are populists…

              1. Norm Ivey

                I’ve seen both the Know Nothings and the Smug Know It Alls at the Township in the past. The Smug Know It Alls were so much better.

                1. Brad Warthen Post author

                  Didn’t one of the Smug Know It Alls later become a member of one of the supergroups — Cream, Blind Faith or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young?

  5. Phillip

    The answer to your first question…It might be so he can work in the same building as his wife, who is a very fine classical music critic for the NYT —and also a very good amateur violinist, I might add. Though they probably don’t need to actually physically appear in the Times’ offices much.

    The only redeeming feature of Stephens’ venturing into global warming territory is that it meant he was not writing yet another one of his typical American-triumphalist WSJ columns advocating yet another American military adventure to set the world straight. All this stuff warning about being “100% certain” never seemed to bother him when it came to certitude that American might would always make right.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “he was not writing yet another one of his typical American-triumphalist WSJ columns advocating yet another American military adventure to set the world straight”

      And why not, say I? That boy needs to get on the ball.

      Seriously, methinks you are overstating when you say, “All this stuff warning about being “100% certain” never seemed to bother him when it came to certitude that American might would always make right.”

      Perhaps you have examples where he did this, but I don’t recall when he or any serious person ever asserted anything like that. I certainly never would.

      Maybe you say that because YOU would never confidently advocate for such actions without being 100 percent sure. But I would, because I know that sometimes such actions are advisable, and that if you never take such actions until you’re 100 percent sure, then you’ll never take such actions, period.

      Assuming 100 percent certainty of what would happen in a military initiative would be sheer madness. What was it Ike said about planning? Before the battle is engaged, it’s everything, but once the battle starts, it’s nothing?

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I was thinking of, “Before a battle, planning is everything. Once the fighting has begun, it’s worthless.”

        I also like this version, also from Ike: “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

          1. bud

            Let’s carry the Ike analogy one step further. Suppose Ike is planning to invade Normandy and doubt is raised as to it’s possibility of success. Then Bret Stephens writes an article suggesting that the possibility of success is in fact less than 100% and calls out those critical of this position. Troops reading this article find Stephens analysis dangerous since it obviously casts doubt onto the legitimacy of the invasion. Brad sees these responses from the troops and derides them for being insensitive to the prospect that the invasion may not be a certainty. Ultimately the effect of Stephen’s article and Brad’s defense of it is to cast enough doubt on the value of the invasion so that planners call it off. Ultimately the Germans continue to occupy France indefinitely as doubt continues in the allied camp. The result is several million more people suffer at the hands of the Nazis.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              “Troops reading this article find Stephens analysis dangerous since it obviously casts doubt onto the legitimacy of the invasion.”

              Why on Earth would they do that? Of course the success of the invasion was never a certainty. Such hubris would have been extraordinarily dangerous.

              If the troops had though it was a sure thing, they probably figured out that it wasn’t when they were required to buy those $10,000 life insurance policies just before jumping into Normandy.

              And if they still thought it was a sure thing, I’m sure they changed their minds within 10 seconds of landing on Omaha. Omar Bradley considered calling it all off a couple of hours after the initial landings…

  6. Bob Amundson

    Heuristics and biases usually lead to bad decisions. Understanding probability (which most do not) helps overcome decision errors humans often make. The probability that climate change is anthropocentric is very high.

      1. bud

        Well what is the point of this really quite irresponsible column if he does believe global warming is a real, man made problem? Lecturing those who are right, if that’s what he’s doing, seems like a strange waste of words to devote to a very serious issue. If he doesn’t believe global warming is proven beyond a reasonable doubt he should just say so. I’m not a fan of these weasel word columns.

        1. bud

          And finally after reading Mr. Stephens article I’m of the opinion that the Times made a bad hire.

      2. Bob Amundson

        I try to remember that opinion writers are allowed to show their biases. I prefer to deal in facts, but understanding differing opinions helps lead me to the relevant facts.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes, it does. Which is why, after perusing a front page, I go straight to opinion.

          I just feel I learn more reading journalism with a point of view, even when I disagree with that point of view. I probably won’t change my mind, but there’s more intellectual stimulation.

          At which point, Joni Mitchell accuses: “You want stimulation, nothing more; that’s what I think…”

  7. JesseS

    “Let me put it another way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions.”

    Would be nice if he said what those expensive changes are. Hard to do a cost/benefit analysis with a blank spreadsheet.

    I read a few outrage columns about Stephens this weekend, and too many of them descended into Byzantine logic or wondering if Stephens is really Steve Bannon (yeah, we’ve gotten that polarized).

    Not that I agree with Stephens in the article. A few degrees of temp change isn’t minuscule; on a global level it’s catastrophic. I can lower the temp a few degrees on your freezer and you won’t be happy with the outcome (ice cream soup, anyone?), but hey, at least he admits that man’s influence is the cause of climate change –honestly that is something. If we are ever going to to do anything about this problem in the US, it’s going to take many different voices saying many different things, aimed at many different IQs, biases, classes, and identities. It’s time to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.

    It’s kinda like one of those old WWII movies where it took a town’s school teacher, the gas station attendant, the bigot who probably beat his wife, the old man who lied about his age, the college kid, the subway car operator from New York, etc. to take that next ridge while we cross our fingers waiting for air support as we keep trudging forward.

    One of those things that needs to be addressed is doubt, but when you ask the truest of the true believers about how we should tackle that doubt, they give you the nastiest looks and their answers too often: Don’t be born an idiot?

    Unfortunately there is little room for that. Too often I hear that the solution is that the rural poors need to sell their crap houses in crap America, crush their cars, vote for Democrats, move to the city, get real jobs with real skills (but they won’t because they are too busy reading their bibles while praying to the sky wizard for the mill to come back), etc. That isn’t a solution. At best that is a re-writing of the old bootstrap argument and at worst it’s a re-writing of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  8. Bryan Caskey

    Pretty classic that someone writes an article that essentially says “maybe the debate would be better if people weren’t so sure of themselves”, and the reaction has essentially been: BURN THE WITCH!

    Push back a little on the climate alarmism, and you get screeching accusations that you’re a “science denier”.

  9. Phillip

    In the final analysis the reason for the extreme frustration with and even anger against climate change deniers (and yes, I realize Stephens is not one, just perhaps a bit of an unwitting apologist for the players with the biggest economic stake in obfuscating the issue) is, quite simply, the stakes involved.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      No, he isn’t. He’s a smart man, and he’s doing what he’s doing deliberately. And I don’t think what he’s doing is being an “apologist for the players with the biggest economic stake in obfuscating the issue.”

      I think he’s doing the job he’s hired to do: Trying to get people to think in ways other than the way they do when reading opinions that reinforce what they choose to believe.

      And he’s not so much being an apologist for anything or anyone as he is giving advice to the readers. He’s saying hubris can be counterproductive. He’s saying if you want to be heard, don’t be so smug and dismissive. And he’s saying that if you take good science (and he says the science is good), and overstate it in a political cause, you can lose ground with your cause if you’re caught doing so….

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