Saturday, April 29, 2017

Bret and Butter

Update: Now with a newly improved paragraph somewhere near the bottom!

The "butter" in the headline refers to the oleaginous tone with which Stephens tries to lull or perhaps lubricate the reader into acquiescence in his revolting project.

Klezmer band from Munkács, Hungary, in the Subcarpathian Rus' region, between the wars. From the World Holocaust Remembrance Center at Yad Vashem.
Rectification Central welcomes Bret Stephens, late of the Wall Street Journal, to the pages of The New York Times, and his maiden effort, "Climate of Complete Certainty", which showed up online Friday afternoon. Shorter:
Hillary Clinton thought she was 100% right or thereabouts in the presidential election last November, and yet she didn't win. In the same way, global warming crusaders think they're 100% right, but there's a chance they could be wrong. Even the liberal Andrew Revkin agrees people would take it more seriously if you'd admit it might be trivial.
Yes, it's pretty dispiriting. It seems a lot longer than it really is, too, perhaps because it wanders so widely, and starts off with a rather lengthy epigraph:
When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.
But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.
— An old Jew of Galicia
Actually not an old Jew of Galicia but the great poet Czesław Miłosz, as Stephens explains at the bottom, and actually not really from Miłosz either, as I found out, but from his friend and fellow exile Stanisław Vincenz, who put it in his 1936 story "Bałaguła", in the mouth of a fictional old Jew of Subcarpathia, "Stary Żyd z Podkarpacia", of the Hucul region of southeastern Poland, shared in the old days among Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians, which is really in Galicia and Subcarpathia both; presumably the garrulous cart-driver Byumen. Miłosz used it as the epigraph of his book The Captive Mind, a kind of debriefing written at the beginning of his exile in Paris, on the inner conflicts experienced by Polish intellectuals with the coming of Stalinism after World War II, originally published in English in 1953.

I can't find the text as Vincenz wrote it in any language (the page it's on is hidden from us in the only Google Books version of the story), but I've found the Polish text as Miłosz sliced it, and I think, in fact, Miłosz's translator, Jane Zielonko, hadn't gotten it quite right. My crude rendering:
If two people are having a dispute and one of them is genuinely 55% right, that's very good and there's nothing to get into a commotion over. And someone who's 60% right? That's beautiful, that's a big blessing, and he should thank the Lord God! And what to say about 75% right? Wise folks will tell you, there's something pretty suspicious going on. Nu, and what about 100%? The kind of person who says he's 100% right is an assaulting paskudnyak, a horrible thief, the worst scoundrel there is.
What old Byumen was talking about was Hasidim quarreling over Torah interpretation and the like, as equals, but Zielonko has turned it into a passage about Stalinist oppression, by omitting those first eight words and by introducing the politically loaded "fanatic" and "thug" into the list of insults (possibly defeated by Yiddishisms and making stuff up). And sucked much of the humor and humanity out of it, cutting out the point of view from which it's spoken, that of the debater who is in the wrong, and who is laughing at himself for being so offended.

But you can be sure it'll be the Stalinism part Stephens focuses on, accusing some enemy of being 100% sure of something.

Sure enough:

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.
Right on the merits. Confident in their methods. Sure of their chances. When Bill Clinton suggested to his wife’s advisers that, considering Brexit, they might be underestimating the strength of the populist tide, the campaign manager, Robby Mook, had a bulletproof answer: The data run counter to your anecdotes.
That detail comes from “Shattered,” Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s compulsively readable account of Clinton’s 2016 train wreck.
That's 100% of what? Is it a kind of cumulative grade, 33% for merits, 33% for methods, and 33% for betting odds in your favor? I'm not getting how this is a concept. I can say in hindsight that Clinton was better than Trump "on the merits" in every possible way, as I understood at the time, and that Trump or his team were plainly doing something stunningly effective "in the methods" that I wasn't appreciating, though not enough to make the difference without the help of Director Comey and the Giuliani-Mercer cabal at the end of October. I haven't read the Allen and Parnes book (and I'd like to pause here to say how much I despise the phrase "compulsively readable", as if books can have mental disorders), but I can point to evidence that Mook was urgently warning people that Trump could win around October 27.

I also don't understand how the "strength of the populist tide" is demonstrated by the total of three counties in Pennsylvania, 12 in Michigan, and 18 in Wisconsin that unexpectedly switched to the Republican candidate and carried the Electoral College for Trump. But I do know was giving Clinton approximately 7-to-3 odds on the morning of November 8, which means to me that if they had held ten elections in identical parallel universes that day, Trump would have won three of them. That proves we live in a universe that may actually exist.

What I above all don't see, though, is what my friends and I are supposed to have claimed upwards of 75% rightness on that would have made Bret Stephens feel bad. As far as I'm concerned, I got all the pain. Does this column have any idea what it's about, or does it have any plans to find out?

“Mook and his ‘Moneyball’ approach to politics rankled the old order of political operatives and consultants because it made some of their work obsolete,” Allen and Parnes write...
It made Mark Penn feel bad?

There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.
I'll let the McNamara point go for the time being, but not what he's trying to say about the Lehman Brothers collapse, which was all about the lack of data, from their undocumented Alt-A loans to their failure to notice how the default rate was shooting up as they held on to their worthless portfolio. It was willful ignorance that caused their downfall: they refused to have adequate data on those mortgages because if they had it they'd never have been able to sell them. And data hounds at Goldman Sachs were the ones who made it out of the crisis richer than they'd been before.

With me so far? Good. Let’s turn to climate change.
Last October, the Pew Research Center published a survey on the politics of climate change. Among its findings: Just 36 percent of Americans care “a great deal” about the subject. Despite 30 years of efforts by scientists, politicians and activists to raise the alarm, nearly two-thirds of Americans are either indifferent to or only somewhat bothered by the prospect of planetary calamity.
That is a kind of distressing survey, to the degree that the 38% who care only "some" really don't seem to care much, optimistic about how much harm climate change can do and pessimistic about mitigating it through policy. Though on the more general view the survey found that 75% were "particularly concerned" about the environment, and some 83% made an effort to live in ways that protect the environment at least some of the time, and overwhelming majorities favored the development of renewable fuel sources while smaller but decisive majorities opposed offshore drilling, fracking, and coal mines.

It's interesting that the Pew survey used the cautious term "climate change", while Gallup, in a survey of March 2016, went with the alarmist "global warming" and registered a good bit more serious concern. It may be that in switching from scary "warming" to neutral "change", to placate the conservatives,  the authorities and media have had a numbing effect on the public—that the TV audience doesn't even have a clear sense of what "climate change" is supposed to be.

... The science is settled. The threat is clear. Isn’t this one instance, at least, where 100 percent of the truth resides on one side of the argument?
Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.
Revkin seems to have joined those identified by Pew as caring "some":
I find global warming doesn’t worry me—at least not in a gut-twisting, obsessive way. Rather, a stripped-down agnostic version of the Serenity Prayer has come to mind lately as I’ve grappled with humanity’s “only one planet” predicament: change what can be changed, accept what can’t, and know the difference. Science can help clarify which is which.
What he's learned, though, isn't as Stephens suggests that advocates are spreading false information; it's that fixating on a single, sometimes symbolic response to the crisis, like stopping the Keystone Pipeline, isn't necessarily productive, and a maximal diversity of responses is what's needed:
It’s utterly human to have varied responses to change and challenges—in this case, humanity’s intertwined energy and climate challenges. I see great value, for example, in the work of students and academic colleagues pursuing divestment from fossil fuel companies....
But I also see the value in engaging with—dare I say it, even working for or investing in—big companies as a way to test the possibility of building a different culture from the inside out.
Rather than looking at either strategy as right or wrong, I see both as part of a broadening commitment to a new and durable human relationship with both energy and climate.
Which is a position worth arguing with: maybe he's 55% right! But that's not where Stephens is going:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while 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, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. 
Stephens is going to tell us the exact opposite of what Revkin is saying, that we may well not need to do anything at all, since the warming is "modest"—it's only the warmest 30 years in the last 1,400, it's only a temperature rise of 0.65 to 1.06 degrees, though it's also a 26% rise in ocean acidity, a decrease in Arctic sea ice of from from 3.5 to 4.1% every decade, and a rise in sea level greater than the mean increase over the past two millennia, increases in extreme high sea levels and heavy precipitation events, heat waves, droughts, cyclones, and wildfires, and a prospect of more of the same, severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems that can be still be mitigated by substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. All this directly from the same pages of the same report from which Stephens cites his single datum:
When Stephens calls all this "a matter of probabilities", he's tying to pull a particular rhetorical trick that brings us back to old Byumen and his resentment of the 100% right:

That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.
He's trying to suggest—and he's trying to suggest falsely that Revkin is suggesting it for him—that there is some kind of environmentalist conspiracy to hide the fact that the models of climate change are probabilistic and fallible. That we don't "acknowledge it honestly".

This is what makes me sick. Every scientist and every person who cares about science knows that nothing is 100% certain (especially in gigantic and chaotic phenomena like climate systems) and emphasizes it at all times. Nobody has ever said "I'm 100% right" other than an idiot. But in working his way through this labyrinth from Stanisław Vincenz through Robby Mook to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even as he displays his gentlemanly ignorance and bad faith at every turn, Stephens has managed to construct this strawman of hundred-percent-rightness and then attack it:

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.
Saying we should let the whole thing go—it looks "ideological", God forbid, if we try to save our environment even though it might not be necessary. The only honest choice is to keep burning carbon and let our planet become uninhabitable, because scientists have admitted we're no more than 95% right on the prospects of this, and only an ideologue would insist on acting in such an uncertain situation. (No, he didn't say that, he was just making sure we would hear it—the Douthatian "just sayin" strategy of backing up the crazy reactionaries without appearing to be one of them.)

By the way, if we eliminate the fossil fuel industry and change society totally and global warming fizzles out because the calculations were wrong, I don't see any problem, as Naomi Klein has said:

It'll still be a better world!

This is an awful début. I think I really don't like this guy, people. It's not what James Bennett has promised us, in the form of a "brave, honest journalist" who will provide "intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion". He's as faux-sophisticated as Brooks and as disingenuous as Douthat and lacks the personality weirdness that gives me something to hold on to with them. He's smug, pretentious, charmless, and dishonest. I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this twice a week, if it keeps being this much work.

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