by Judith Curry
A few things that caught my eye this past week.
Some follow-up to my previous post Nate Silver’s 538: inconvenient truths.
Nate Silver has posted a note to his readers: 538 to commission response to disputed climate article. Excerpts:
Reception to the article ran about 80 percent negative in the comments section and on social media. A reaction like that compels us to think carefully about the piece and our editorial process. The responses have fallen into about four broad categories. I list these in order of most to least concern to us:
- Criticisms of Roger’s central thesis about disaster costs
- Concern about how FiveThirtyEight will be covering climate topics
- Criticisms of other claims Roger made in the article, such as those about the overall incidence of weather-related disasters
- Criticisms of things Roger has said or written in other venues, sometimes including ad-hominem attacks against Roger
As I mentioned, the central thesis of Roger’s article concerns the economic costs associated with natural disasters. But we also allowed a number of peripheral claims into the piece. For instance, Roger made a number of references to the overall incidence of natural disasters, as opposed to their economic cost.
We think many of these claims have support in the scientific literature, specifically including the 2013 IPCC report. But there is a range of debate among experts about others. Either way, these claims shouldn’t have been included in the story as offhand remarks. We should either have addressed them in more detail or scrubbed them from the article.
Roger’s article also contained an implicit policy recommendation in its closing paragraph. Whether or not the recommendation was justified by Roger’s thesis and evidence, we generally prefer to avoid these kind of recommendations, and instead allow readers to draw any policy conclusions for themselves. Furthermore, there was some loose language in the article. We pride ourselves on precise, matter-of-fact language. These things reflect a poor job of editing on our part.
Roger knows the literature on disaster costs extremely well, and I know he disagrees with many of the criticisms about his piece. But some dissenters feel just as firmly. The debate is hard for us to adjudicate without turning to experts for help.
Nevertheless, we see value in running a rebuttal to Roger’s article at FiveThirtyEight itself. So we are in the process of commissioning one from someone who 1) has not yet weighed in on Roger’s article and 2) has very strong credentials.
We appreciate your patience in the meantime. Climate change is not going away as an issue, and we want to get this right. All journalism relies on trust — between reporters and sources, between editors and writers, between a publication and its readers. Any time that trust is undermined, it’s a huge concern for us. We thank you for your continued feedback. We’re listening and learning.
JC comment: I find this to be an appropriate and laudatory response by Silver to this situation.
Meanwhile, in climate la-la land, TalkingPointsMemo reports Nate Silver’s climate author threatening critics. Excerpts:
The article drew an extremely negative reaction from the science community, including from Michael Mann and Kevin Trenberth, both of whom were critical of Pielke in an interview with ThinkProgress.
Mann and Trenberth said that Pielke responded to their comments with what appeared to be threats. ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum informed Silver and FiveThirtyEight managing editor Mike Wilson of Pielke’s emails.
Legum told the Huffington Post that he interpreted the emails as threats “to pursue legal action against” Mann and Trenberth.
While Mann opted not to make the email public, Trenberth forwarded a copy to the Huffington Post.
“Once again, I am formally asking you for a public correction and apology,” Pielke wrote in the email that was sent to both Trenberth and his bosses. “If that is not forthcoming I will be pursuing this further. More generally, in the future how about we agree to disagree over scientific topics like gentlemen?”
Pielke dismissed the notion that he was making a threat, calling the claim “ridiculous.” Nevertheless, Silver told the Huffington Post that he apologized to both Mann and Trenberth and made clear that “Roger’s conversations with them did not reflect FiveThirtyEight’s editorial values.”
JC comment: it will be very interesting to see how Silver and RP Jr navigate all this, especially through the conspiracy theorists on the alarmist side that see threats everywhere. In context of the ‘climate wars’, Silver’s apology to Trenberth and Mann is being viewed as throwing RP Jr under the bus. It will be interesting to see what Silver comes up with in terms of a rebuttal to RP Jr’s piece. Editorially, there may have been some issues with RP Jr’s article in terms of 538 expectations, but in terms of the key issues of RP Jr’s analysis of disaster costs, I think it will be difficult for Silver to come up with a convincing critique.
Times Higher Education has a post Science and Politics – Mix for Best Results. Excerpts:
Successful policymaking partnerships between academics and politicians are possible if, as in a happy marriage, each party appreciates the strengths and limitations of the other.
For their part, researchers sometimes behave as if science has the power to make difficult decisions for society. Science can’t prove which policy option should be adopted. That’s what free speech, public debate and elections are for, and it’s dangerous to democracy for scientists to imply otherwise.
Academics and politicians need to stick to exercising their own, different strengths. Academics are particularly skilled at identifying emerging problems that elude casual observation, such as an increase in overdose deaths in particular neighbourhoods. The ability to convincingly document threats before they reach crisis levels is a literally lifesaving virtue of scientific enquiry. Without it, public policy responses may come too late to be of value.
[Politicians] know when and where a study can have an impact, who needs to see it, how the voters will react and how it can be leveraged in the policy world.
With this demarcation of roles, academics expand the impact of their work and politicians obtain access to new information that can aid them in defending their stances on issues. The even bigger winner is society, which benefits from empirically informed, clearly explained and rigorously evaluated public policy.
JC comments: This article makes some goods, but ignores the dark side of mixing science and politics.
The best ‘rant’ I’ve seen in awhile comes from Sultan Knish: The end of science. Well worth reading the whole article. Excerpts:
The reemergence of Cosmos could not have come at a better time, not because it has something to teach us about science, but because we are living in Sagan’s world where real science is harder than ever to come by.
Carl Sagan was the country’s leading practitioner of the mythologization of science, transforming a process into a philosophy, substituting political agendas for inquiry and arrogance for research.
There’s more money in predicting an apocalypse that can only be stopped with trendy progressive policies than the recognition that environmental debates are complex and often come down to a tug of war between competing interests. Reality doesn’t pay. Politicized and prostituted science does.
Science has become a substitute religion for secularists who imagine that they are more intelligent than religious people because they are more skeptical, when in reality the things that they are skeptical about are the ones that don’t touch on their own unexamined and unquestioned beliefs.
The Cosmos crowd have always been eager to mock televangelists predicting the end of the world, but have little to say about Sagan’s equally bogus predictions about the end of the world. They made science into a culture filled with ‘awe and wonder’ as if the universe were their own private church, while jettisoning the rational inquiry and reasoned debate.
There is nothing to cheer about the return of Cosmos. It’s not science, instead it’s more of the popularized punditry that distorts science into an absolute dogma with a cynical agenda.
Some satire from NewBiscuit: Scientists reveal Occam’s Razor with 3 blades. Excerpt:
“With our original Occam’s Razor, our proposed theories were gaining outlandish and unverifiable statements within hours and, quite frankly by the end of the academic day they were looking pretty unprofessional. With the new three-bladed razor, our ideas still look clean and elegant all day long.”
Combining a pivoting razor head with anti-friction blades, the new Occam’s Razor can glide smoothly over any proposed academic paper, leaving only smooth scientific plausibility and a slight scent of aloe vera.
U.S. policy & politics
From the NYTimes: White House Unveils Plans to Cut Methane Emissions.
From the National Journal, an article about threats to the electric grid: Newt Gingrich’s Plan to Stave Off the Apocalypse.
From the WashPo’s Capital Weather Gang: Sense of urgency needed to steady U.S. weather forecasting.
The big news is the forthcoming release of the IPCC AR5 WG2 Report. I will have a post on this tomorrow, in preparation for some media interviews. Looks like BBC is lining up an extensive discussion on Monday – I will be on at 8:30 a.m. (UK time; unfortunately 4:30 a.m. US east coast time).