That sentence was buried in the ninth paragraph of a guest blog post on the Scientific American website yesterday, by the prominent science journalist John Horgan -- where he was making the point that "not all global-warming skeptics are ignorant, irrational idiots."
Horgan, the author of the 1996 book "The End of Science," has written for numerous science publications, as well as the NYT, Time and Newsweek. His work has frequently appeared in The Best American Science and Nature Writing.
His statement is striking, given a hotly-debated perception that the NYT might have downplayed stories last fall about a series of stolen emails -- high-level correspondence among researchers that suggested, to some, a conspiracy to falsely promote theories about human influence on climate change.
At the time, the NYT's environment editor, Erica Goode, defended her staff's objectivity on the topic in an interview with public editor Clark Hoyt.
“We here at The Times are not scientists," Goode told Hoyt. "We don’t collect the data or analyze it, and so the best we can do is to give our readers a sense of what the prevailing scientific view is, based on interviews with scientists.”
But Horgan has come away from private conversations with NYT science staffers with a different point of view -- one suggesting the majority of that staff has "doubts" that global warming poses a "serious threat."
The NYTPicker contacted Horgan yesterday to ask him for further details about his conversations. In an email, he confirmed and expanded on his blog post:
Here's what I can tell you: I had dinner with a Science Times reporter a few years ago and he told me that a majority of the staff had doubts about human-induced global warming. He hadn't done a poll. This was just his impression based on conversations with colleagues. Later I ran this by a second Times reporter. He thought for a moment and then said he agreed with A's assessment. Before writing my blog post, I checked with the second reporter, and he said he stood by his statement about the staff's attitude toward global warming. Surprising, isn't it?
This isn't the first time NYT science reporters have hinted publicly at their own skepticism. In interviews with Hoyt at the time of the so-called "Climategate" email leaks, both Science Times columnist John Tierney and environment reporter Andrew C. Revkin addressed the issue:
But Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists, there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing and how severe the impact will be.
“Our coverage, looked at in toto, has never bought the catastrophe conclusion and always aimed to examine the potential for both overstatement and understatement,” Revkin said.
But Horgan's declarative statement -- that a majority of NYT science staffers doubt the "serious threat to humanity" of global warming -- could alter the perception that the NYT's coverage isn't shaped by the biases of its own reporters and editors.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with reporters having a subjective view of the stories they cover. NYT reporters vote in elections, and political reporters are allowed to cast a vote for -- or against -- a candidate they cover. Even the NYT's own ethics policy states that " this topic defies firm rules," though it states that "it is essential that we preserve professional detachment, free of any hint of bias."
How that's achieved, on a story as rife with conflict as global warming, is going to become an increasingly difficult and highly-charged matter in the years to come.