We may not know the full complexity of the climate system and our data sets may be patchy, flawed and incomplete, but we can actually pretty easily check some claims.
In a current weekend magazine article by Nathaniel Rich, the New York Times claims
Nearly everything we understand about global warming was understood in 1979. By that year, data collected since 1957 confirmed what had been known since before the turn of the 20th century: Human beings have altered Earth’s atmosphere through the indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels. The main scientific questions were settled beyond debate, and as the 1980s began, attention turned from diagnosis of the problem to refinement of the predicted consequences. Compared with string theory and genetic engineering, the “greenhouse effect” — a metaphor dating to the early 1900s — was ancient history, described in any Introduction to Biology textbook. Nor was the basic science especially complicated. It could be reduced to a simple axiom: The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the planet. And every year, by burning coal, oil and gas, humankind belched increasingly obscene quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.Manhattan Contrarian then simply goes to articles and headlines from the NYT in 1979 and earlier (and later) which explicitly demonstrate that we did not then, as we do not now, really understand the complexity of the climate system and our measurement mechanisms are not robust enough yet to answer the questions which we consider pressing.
Climate change is sufficiently complex that either side of the debate might be substantially correct. We simply do not know. But we can know that the New York Times is lying in 2018 when it claims that all this was understood in 1979 when we can directly read articles in the NYT in 1979 indicating that in fact we were back then still trying to understand what was happening.
A damning image from 1979:
Even a decade later, the NYT was still reporting our uncertainty.
So why would Rich make such a demonstrably incorrect claim? I don't have a good answer. He didn't think to check his own beliefs? They have no fact checkers? They can't access the New York Times's own internet archives? He simply assumed that we would not check? Who knows? It doesn't make sense. But the press can't keep running such insultingly incorrect reports without further tarnishing its reputation for accuracy and factualness.