by Judith Curry
If Silver’s data-drive approach gets in the way of your political aims, so much the better. – Michael Brendan Dougherty
Nate Silver has a new blog FiveThirtyEight (well a relaunch and extension of his blog, which is now owned by ESPN). What he is trying to accomplish is outlined in the post What the Fox Knows – basically he is promoting ‘data journalism’ .
I’m a Fan of Nate, and I applaud what he is trying to do. But there have been a number of criticisms, and none more vociferous than the choice to publish an article by Roger Pielke Jr.
Criticisms of 538
A roundup of bad reviews of 538 is provided in this Salon article Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is getting some high profile bad reviews.
The Science section of 538 has been the particular focus of bad reviews. The Columbia Journalism Review has an article FiveThirtyEight’s disappointing science section. Excerpts:
A piece assessing the freezing weather this winter as compared to historic temperatures isn’t wrong, but it’s a confusing version of a story published by other outlets during polar vortex hype in January.
JC comment: I read the piece, how is it confusing? I thought it had some straightforward, useful analysis.
One of the dangerous things about purporting objectivity because your journalism uses data is that even data can be conveyed with prejudice. “In a perfect world the data would just speak for itself, but that’s never the case,” the economist Allison Schranger wrote at Quartz following FiveThirtyEight’s launch. “Interpreting and presenting data requires making judgments and possibly mistakes.” That’s why so many writers have been concerned about FiveThirtyEight’s climate writer, Roger Pielke, Jr, a University of Colorado professor, who ThinkProgress once called “the most debunked person in the science blogosphere, possibly the entire Web.”
JC comment: You can see where all this is going.
The Week has a post Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and the dangers of being ideologically neutral. Excerpts:
One major problem has to do with ideology. In an attempt to focus solely on objective analysis, Silver is ignoring one of the hardest-won journalistic lessons of the last decade — there is no such thing as ideology-free journalism.
The way to get past this, it was thought, is to wear your ideology on your sleeve. If writers are straightforward about their ideological commitments, then readers can judge their biases more easily and avoid sublimated thinking.
Because FiveThirtyEight’s science coverage stinks of sublimated ideology. The opening science pieces were pretty bad, but far more telling was Silver’s hiring of climate troll Roger Pielke Jr.
JC comment: Now I get it, there is a big danger of being ideologically neutral – journalists who demand that science support their ideology will attack someone who attempts to be neutral.
Michael Mann has a post FiveThirty Eight: the number of things Nate Silver gets wrong on climate change. This post is worth reading if only because it is not Mann’s usual hatchet job.
Michael Brendan Dougherty has an article in The Week entitled In defense of Nate Silver. Excerpts:
FiveThirtyEight’s critics are unhinged.
ince FiveThirtyEight’s launch, some of the most intense criticism has dwelled on the hiring of Roger Pielke Jr., whose moderating work on climate change has mostly been to say that some of the direst warnings exceed the science. This criticism has the tone of close betrayal. Pielke accepts and promotes the science on climate change, but is sometimes skeptical of the sweeping policy proposals and rhetorical flourishes of other political actors and activists in the arena.
[I]t seems long overdue that in a media world overpopulated with fluff projects, ideological anvil-pounders, outrage porn, and a million and one precious niches, one little corner would dedicate itself to numerical investigation, train some of its journalists in statistical programming languages, and run some data visualizations.
A world where businesses file public documents with the SEC means we need some business journalists experienced in reading a 10-K, not just in regurgitating industry hype. Similarly, in a world drowning in new data, collected everywhere, it’s worthwhile to have journalists who are trained in making sense of it.
Silver is plainly right that a kind of innumeracy pervades journalism. Many journalists don’t know how to evaluate academic studies. If, occasionally, Silver’s empirical research gets in the way of your ideological priors, you have an opportunity to rethink them. He’s done you a favor, not a disservice.
RP Jr’s 538 post
Ok, so what did Roger Pielke actually write for 538 that is causing this kerfuffle? His article is Disasters cost more than ever but not because of climate change. The post is vintage RP Jr, citing results from the IPCC SREX and using data from SwissRe.
RP Jr’s post at 538 has elicited what is probably the most reprehensible and contemptible smear job that I have ever seen of a scientist, at least from an organization that has any pretense of respectability. Kiley Kroh of ClimateProgress has a post entitled Nate Silver’s New Science Writer Ignores the Data on Climate Science. Excerpts:
Nate Silver’s highly anticipated data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight launched on Monday, with a controversial figure covering science issues. Silver has brought on Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, as a contributing writer – a political scientist who comes with a long history of data distortion and confrontations with climate scientists.
Pielke routinely seeks to minimize the impacts and severity of climate change and in the process, has been repeatedly criticized as inaccurate and misleading by some of the nation’s foremost climate scientists.
Most recently, Pielke tangled with Obama science advisor and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, John Holdren, over the relationship between the severity of California’s epic drought and climate change. In February, Pielke slammed Holdren for offering a scientifically-grounded explanation of how climate change is worsening western drought. As Joe Romm observed, “Holdren’s views are right in the mainstream of climatologists’ view of drought. I can think of no climate scientists who share Pielke’s startling assessment of Holdren’s views as ‘zombie science.’”
James Annan, another climate scientist, has written numerous takedowns of Pielke’s flawed analyses. “There’s obviously a simple conceptual misunderstanding underlying Roger’s attempts at analysis,” Annan observed. For example, Annan debunked a 2008 post by Pielke that called into question whether actual observed trends are consistent with the climate models employed by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its projections. Pielke concludes that they are inconsistent, but Annan is quick to point out the lack of a foundation on which to base that claim. “I challenged this obvious absurdity and repeatedly asked him to back it up with a calculation,” Annan wrote. “After a lot of ducking and weaving, about the 30th comment under the post, he eventually admits ‘I honestly don’t know what the proper test is.’”
JC comment: James Annan, how is that observation-climate model intercomparison thing going for you lately?
While many prominent climate scientists view the IPCC’s climate change projections as overly cautious, it is widely acknowledged that the panel is comprised of a large number of accomplished scientists whose conclusions are heavily scrutinized. Pielke takes the opposite approach, telling the Wall Street Journal in 2010 that “it’s very much an advocacy organization that’s couched in the role of advice … He [Pielke] says many IPCC participants want ‘to compel action’ instead of ‘just summarizing science.’”
While discourse amongst scientists is necessary and beneficial, Pielke has a track record of consistently cherry-picking and mischaracterizing the work done by climate scientists and has made a name for himself by disparaging their work.
In this article, there is not a single critique of anything RP Jr actually said in his 538 post. Before looking at the author of the post, I assumed it was either Joe Romm or Michael Mann, since it has their unmistakable hatchet job signature. Instead, the author is Kiley Kroh, co-editor of Climate Progress (Joe Romm is the founder and overseer of ClimateProgress). ClimateProgress is an element of ThinkProgress, a liberal American political blog that is an outlet for the Center for American Progress. CAP’s first President and CEO was John Podesta, who is now a Special Advisor to the Obama Administration (and also Chairman of the Board of CAP).
Pielke Jr’s analyses are clearly inconvenient to the political agenda of Obama/Holdren/Podesta. RP Jr. has written on this topic at the New Republic An Obama Advisor is Attacking me for Testifying That Climate Change Hasn’t Increased Extreme Weather.
A new post in the Washington Times by Chip Knappenberger is entitled Mainstreaming Fringe Science with John Holdren, subtitled The White House science advisor confuses global warming facts and fancy. Excerpts:
In recent months, White House science adviser John Holdren has repeatedly pushed the link between extreme weather events and human-caused climate change well beyond the bounds of established science. Now, veteran climate scientists are pushing back.
Is the president giving orders to his science adviser to make the case that carbon-dioxide emissions are the cause of weather disasters in the United States despite the best science that argues otherwise? Or is his science adviser misinforming the president as to what the collection of science actually says, leading him to pursue carbon-dioxide regulation where it is not needed?
In either case, the situation is badly in need of repair.
Well as recently as 5 years ago, I never thought I’d live to see the day when I am very grateful that I have tenure at a university, which provides my job with some protection against politically inconvenient scientific analyses.
Back to the topic of Nate Silver’s 538:
If Silver’s data-drive approach gets in the way of your political aims, so much the better.