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Anatomy of a Smear Job

I'm canceling my Washington Post subscription because of its hit piece on Alex Epstein.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
April 19, 2022; ported here on June 4, 2024

"Your subscription will renew in 30 days," says a recent email from the Washington Post. I don't think so. After reading the newspaper's smear-job on energy writer Alex Epstein, I no longer wish to help finance its operations.

An irony here is that I have become increasingly skeptical of Epstein's stance favoring the continued (long term) robust use of fossil fuels. I'll get to that later. The problem is that the Post's April 6 article by Maxine Joselow seeks not to honestly evaluate Epstein's claims but instead to tar him as a crypto-racist who lies about his motives.

Before I dig into Joselow's article, I'll mention that I have a minor history with Epstein, who used to work at the Ayn Rand Institute. I've met him a number of times through Objectivist events (associated with Rand), I interviewed him in 2014 for the Objective Standard, and I positively reviewed his previous book in 2015 for the same publication. In 2016 I helped arrange a shipment of Epstein's book to a Colorado classroom. I distanced myself from Objectivism with my 2018 book critical of Rand's metaethics. I have not had any direct interactions with Epstein for the last few years (other than on social media).

I like Epstein and know him as an honest person deeply devoted to human flourishing. I have no problem with people criticizing his factual claims or his framing of the issues. I do have a problem with people ignoring or downplaying his factual claims and arguments in favor of personal smears—which is what Joselow does.

Let us begin with the headline and subhead (which Joselow may or may not have written):

Advocate promotes fossil fuels for poor nations he once disparaged. Alex Epstein, author of "The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels," while at Duke University wrote pieces for a conservative paper that criticized non-Western cultures.

The premise here is that what fundamentally matters is not the case that Epstein makes for fossil fuels, but the alleged fact (more insinuation) that Epstein is a racist and a liar. Because Epstein is a racist and a liar, imply the headline and subhead, readers don't need to worry about the facts and arguments that Epstein presents. Instead, readers can just presume that everything Epstein says is bullshit, and the only point of reading the story is to discover the details of Epstein's racism and deception.

And what is the evidence that Epstein is a racist and a liar? There is none. This is a smear-job. Joselow's article contains some news, but it is not fundamentally a news article. It is fundamentally a hit piece.

Joselow quotes Epstein, "This modern green movement, I think, is fundamentally immoral and in practice is harming the poorest people in the world."

Here is Joselow's reply:

The defense of fossil fuels Epstein has helped inject into this debate has previously been dismissed by critics as ethnocentric and paternalistic. Now they are pointing to newly resurfaced articles he wrote in 1999 while in college that dismissed non-Western cultures as inferior, saying they raise further questions about whether his argument is rooted in a "moral" concern for developing nations or is a cynical attempt to promote the use of oil, coal and natural gas.

This is Joselow's cynical attempt to smear Epstein in the guise of a news story.

Joselow quotes something Epstein wrote in college two decades ago (because, you know, what people write in college always is perfectly indicative of their mature views) to the effect that the "Western" culture of New York is superior to the "anti-reason" culture of (say) Chad. So what? Chad is one of the world's poorest nations, racked by corruption, violence, and oppression. Literally no one holds up the culture of Chad as a model for the rest of the world.

Epstein's point is the opposite of what Joselow implies: Culture is a matter of choice, not race, and people can improve the culture in which they live. The point is not to "disparage" Chad or any other poor country, but rather to indicate that, given the right conditions, it can develop and thrive.

Joselow further writes:

Epstein and other advocates are "suddenly concerned about poverty in Africa when it has to do with the policy they want to favor," said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who studies climate disinformation. "Epstein is latching onto that argument to try to make a moral case for fossil fuels, when there's many alternatives to get those people out of poverty. . . . For me, this is also a colonialist attitude."

This is just a personal smear. Brulle claims (and Joselow quotes), without any evidence at all, that Epstein doesn't really care about poverty in Africa (or elsewhere). This is pure psychologizing, and it has no place in a serious news piece.

The claims that Epstein is "ethnocentric," "paternalistic," and "colonialist" are the opposite of the truth. Epstein's point is that poorer nations should have the freedom to develop fossil fuels, not be prevented by wealthier nations from doing so. So who are the real paternalists and colonialists here?

Notice this particularly disingenuous line by Joselow: "When asked to specify which parts of the information provided [as part of the article] he believed were false, he declined to comment further."

Give me a break. Epstein went on for a solid hour detailing the problems with Joselow's piece (that was before the piece was edited down for publication). Joselow even quotes (selectively) from that commentary.

Any sensible person realizes that it is possible to frame individual facts to paint a distorted picture—and that is what Joselow does. Fact: Epstein wrote about the superiority of Western culture in college. Fact: Someone offered a particular slant to what Epstein wrote two decades ago in order to denigrate him and his current work. No one disputes those facts. The problem is that Joselow frames her article around the misinterpretation of what Epstein wrote in college, to the near-exclusion of the case for fossil fuels that Epstein makes today. The thrust of the article is, "We all know Epstein is a racist and a liar, even though he says he isn't, so anything else he might say is irrelevant."

A serious news piece would have related important aspects of the case that Epstein makes for the continued use of fossil fuels, with discussion of serious critiques of that case. By almost entirely ignoring Epstein's positive case, Joselow leaves the impression that all that is left is Epstein's racism and lies. Anyone who actually reads Epstein's work knows that isn't the case. Joselow's aim is to smear Epstein and so deter people from learning his case.

Here is how Joselow frames Epstein's position: "Epstein's argument [is] that burning fossil fuels will not cause serious harm." This is misleading for two reasons. First, it omits discussion of Epstein's positive case, which revolves around the enormous benefits to human life provided by fossil fuels. Largely from fossil fuels we get global transportation, home heating and cooling, manufacturing, and so on. We also get greater climate security, argues Epstein, as indicated by the massive drop in climate-related deaths. Second, Epstein readily concedes that that global warming will cause harms. But, he says, the harms will be manageable rather than catastrophic, and the harms of cutting off fossil fuels would be worse. One can argue with Epstein's cost-benefit analysis; Joselow instead pretends he doesn't make one.

Joselow also claims that "independent experts have debunked" Epstein's claim that renewable energy was behind the failure of the Texas power grid. On the contrary, writes Joselow, "the blackouts were largely caused by freezing natural gas pipelines." What an idiot that Epstein is! Except that Epstein's point was that Texas should have "hardened" its fossil-fuel resources rather than divert resources to solar and wind.

As indicated, I do worry about aspects of Epstein's case. I'll take this as an opportunity to pose some questions to him. Doing so, I hope, will point the way to more productive discussions in the future than what Joselow offers.

1. Epstein is very supportive of nuclear energy, as indicated by his recent interview with Robert Zubrin on the topic. I didn't take solar energy as a realistic possibility until I read about the massively falling prices of solar and battery technologies. So I don't understand why Epstein's main point is "let's burn more fossil fuels" rather than "let's transition to nuclear energy as fast as we can." (I think Epstein still thinks solar with batteries is not a realistic option. I assume he addresses this matter in his forthcoming book, which I have not read.)

2. Epstein seems more interested in a global CBA regarding fossil fuels than in looking at localized harms caused by global warming. But, as people interested in individual rights, shouldn't we worry a lot about localized harms, even if on net fossil fuels are highly beneficial? I discussed some of these issues in a 2017 post.

3. The burning of fossil fuels also generates a lot of air pollution (besides CO2), which kills lots of people every year. True, insofar as people switch from heating their homes and cooking their foods with wood and dung (and the like) to natural gas and other fossil fuels, they massively improve their local air quality. Still, the burning of fossil fuels itself causes a lot of nontrivial air pollution. Doesn't that count as an addition reason to switch to less-polluting sources quickly?

4. Even given that fossil fuels helps us protect ourselves from climate harms, even given that global warming may not cause the catastrophic harm that some claim, even given that some effects of global warming are okay or even beneficial, isn't it still the case that, over the next few decades, the harms of global warming will become substantial? We're talking about very rapid changes in geological terms. Epstein is right that we can't ignore the benefits of burning fossil fuels. But his critics also are right that we ought not ignore the benefits of switching to cleaner energy over the next few decades.

5. This question is a little out of Epstein's wheelhouse, I think, but I find it interesting. To what degree did government subsidies drive the rise of the American automobile and of the suburbs? Should "we" get back to denser, more energy efficient, more walkable development with more public transportation? Recently someone posted an image of Manhattan with the comment, "Imagine living here and thinking rural conservatives are the ones who don't care about the environment." (I pulled a different image below.) Various critics pointed out that, of course, denser development is easier on the environment overall, relative to spreading the same number of people over a much larger area (given comparable living standards).

These are the sort of questions that are interesting. They are the sort of questions that Joselow ignores here in favor of producing a smear-job. True, "Democracy dies in darkness." It also drowns in bullshit.

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