Tag Archives: journalism

Nate Silver falls off

In 2012, Nate Silver faced a conservative and media-led backlash for bringing rigor to election forecasting. His newly launched journalism project is now facing a backlash for failing to live up to its promise.

I am probably the ideal audience for Nate Silver’s new journalism project FiveThirtyEight.com. I am someone who values data in a frequently-substance-free world of reporting. Although I am an unabashed Sam Wang PEC partisan, I certainly appreciated Silver mainstreaming election forecasting based on factors other than wishful thinking and journalism biases towards “the horse race” and “momentum”. When Silver was attacked by know-nothings in the media and the conservative blogosphere, I cheered him on, and savored his election day vindication, anti-climatic as it was.

Rather than topping my “must read” list, however, the new FiveThirtyEight is something I won’t be reading. Here’s why:

I became aware of Silver’s imminent launch by his public Twitter announcement of two hires to cover science for his new venture: Emily Oster, a University of Chicago economist famous for counter-intuitive revelations (sound familiar?); and Roger Pielke Jr.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “ferdicam”, used under Creative Commons.

Now, I am not going to get into Roger’s pathological attacks on climate scientists. I am not going to get into his sweaty delusions of persecution. I am not going to get into Roger’s complete misunderstanding of elementary aspects of climate science. I am going to focus on just two things: what Nate Silver is known for, and what Roger Pielke Jr. is known for.

Nate Silver’s reputation is based on being a stats wiz. This is what his blogging was devoted to, what his best-selling book is about, and the one thing he has that his competition/peers like Ezra Klein or Matt Yglesias don’t. And one of Nate Silver’s very first, very public hires (Roger Pielke Jr.) sucks at statistics. Not “published something in need of minor correction once or twice” sucks. “Doesn’t understand how a t-test works” sucks. “Doesn’t understand basic probability” sucks. Sucks out loud. Sucks on ice.

Roger’s very first article for Silver’s new site is, unsurprisingly, about Roger’s hobbyhorse. The claim that disaster losses are not increasing due to climate change.

Let’s be clear about some things. Climate change is real. Humans are not just “contributing” to it, we are responsible for essentially all of it over the past several decades. Our perturbation of the climate through our emissions of greenhouse gases is fundamentally changing the Earth system. The biosphere and human systems are going to have to adapt to a rate of change as of now unseen anywhere else in the paleoclimatic record. In the absence of emissions stabilization, a difficult but decidedly achievable outcome, the threat to the biosphere and society is daunting. The amount of climate change we’ve already experienced, while extremely serious, is tiny compared to the impacts we will see in world of unchecked fossil fuel exploitation. In addition to changes in the average or mean state of the system, we have already begun to see changes in some types of extreme weather events, and changes to the drivers of yet other extreme events.

Ostensibly, Roger Pielke Jr. accepts all of the above. He just doesn’t want you to focus on this big picture. Instead Pielke wants you to believe and to focus on the claim that we’ve seen no increase in “normalized” damages due to climate change. The fundamental conceit of this claim is that even though disaster losses are unquestionably on the rise, once you account for changes in the value of infrastructure being built in areas affected by disaster (due to population growth, inflation, etc.), there is no “statistically significant increase”.

This claim rests on our ability to account for factors which might spuriously inflate the damages caused by disasters, but also our complete failure to account for factors that have allowed us to avoid even greater losses.

The case of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy is illustrative. While Roger spent the first few days of the disaster trying to play down the magnitude of the mounting carnage, Sandy ultimately ranked among the most costly storms on record, even using normalized losses. Preliminary estimates range from $50-65 billion USD.

And yet it could have been so much worse.

Hurricane Sandy uncharacteristically failed to recurve out to sea, and barreled back towards the East Coast of the US. Due to the amazing advances we’ve seen in our ability to model the global weather system, we knew well in advance that this unexpected turn by Sandy was a real possibility.

This possibility was taken into consideration by those trying to game out the impact of Sandy’s landfall. The impact of rising sea levels on the frequency and severity of storm surge flooding was as well. Looking to a future of warming-boosted surges, researchers identified huge vulnerabilities in the New York transportation infrastructure to previously rare events. Such considerations ultimately led the MTA to shutdown the subway system in order to avoid the corrosive impact of salt water if the tunnels were flooded. This decision, informed by modeling and meteorological sophistication unimaginable in the early 1900s, saved the subway system and prevented New York City from being paralyzed for weeks and nearly doubling the economic damages.

Image via Twitter

Roger Pielke Jr.’s “normalized” disaster loss fixation takes none of this into account. Nor does it account for the benefits of building code improvements. Or other disaster prevention measures like dikes.

Paul Krugman is among a growing list of knowledgeable folks who were hopeful about Silver’s new enterprise but are less than impressed. Krugman writes:

… data are never a substitute for hard thinking. If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

I feel bad about picking on a young staffer [Note: not Pielke Jr.], but I think this piece on corporate cash hoards — which is the site’s inaugural economic analysis — is a good example. The post tells us that the much-cited $2 trillion corporate cash hoard has been revised down by half a trillion dollars…

… what does this downward revision tell us? We’re told that the “whole narrative” is gone; which narrative? Is the notion that profits are high, but investment remains low, no longer borne out by the data? (I’m pretty sure it’s still true.) What is the model that has been refuted?

“Neener neener, people have been citing a number that was wrong” is just not helpful. Tell me something meaningful! Tell me why the data matter!

Though Krugman is referring to a different 538 article, he could easily be making the same criticism of Pielke’s. Why do Pielke’s data matter? Are disaster losses not increasing? They are. Does “normalizing” the loss data tell the whole, unbiased, story? No, it doesn’t. Are extreme events, and drivers of yet more extreme events, changing in response to GHG emissions? They are.

If Nate Silver’s mission is to bring statistical cachet to good journalism, he’s off to a terrible start. One of his first big hires is terrible at statistics. If Silver wants to tell us something meaningful instead of peddling freakonomics-lite contrarianism, he’s similarly off to a poor start. Pielke’s personal hobbyhorse obscures far more than it enlightens. It offers a cocktail party morsel of contra-conventional wisdom instead of intellectual nourishment.

There are probably a lot of people who would like to see Silver fail. I’m not one of them. I just won’t be one of his readers, either, unless he makes some big changes to his current model.

Hurricane Sandy and the Climate Hens

Image courtesy of NASA, used under Creative Commons

Hurricane Sandy is one for the record books in a number of senses, and as New York and the world struggle to grapple with its enormity, some discussion has turned to climate change. A topic that has been damningly absent from discussion in the U.S. Presidential election.

It is inevitable that when anyone anywhere tries to talk about climate change in relation to things in the here and now rather than some murky, distant future, a particular group descends to cluck their tongues and admonish everyone that climate change can’t be tied to any individual event (a proposition that is not true, and grows increasingly less defensible as the field of fractional attribution matures). This group includes many who also fall into the camp of those who style themselves as non-partisans or above the “tribal” nature of climate debates. The parallels with Jay Rosen’s larger media critique of the View from Nowhere have been noted by Michael Tobis among others.

Dave Roberts has a thoughtful piece about this phenomenon. He refers to this group as climate “scolds” in contrast to climate hawks (and yes, I do have my own problems with the latter moniker). And while I do think that “scold” captures a lot of the flavor of the group Roberts is describing, I think the hawk vs. “___” setup favors a different term for the group: climate hens.

Image courtesy of Flickr user “Ann Blair”, used under Creative Commons

Climate hens by and large acknowledge the human perturbation of the climate system. But they are very, very hesitant to highlight (or are even downright resistant to) the idea that humans are shaping the present climate in ways that are affecting the public now. This may be because it doesn’t jibe with what they learned about climate years ago. It may be because they view erring on the side of making climate change seem more serious than it is to be as bad or worse than denying that it’s a problem. It may be because they don’t really understand climate science very well- Eric Berger and Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, are two climate hens that have displayed a remarkable ignorance about basic aspects of climate science pertaining to natural variability in a warming world. (Pielke Jr. is also infamous for playing bait and switch by turning conversations about human contribution to extreme events into discussions about an economic signal in normalized disaster losses.) Whatever the reason, climate hens are just plain uncomfortable with people attempting to tie extreme events to our increasing influence on the planet’s climate.

Roberts points out, correctly and convincingly, that the climate hens are clucking about a problem that doesn’t really exist- at least not the one that they’re ostensibly worried about. When the general public sees something like the record US heat, the summer drought, or a hurricane like Sandy, and they start asking about global warming, they don’t really want a belabored lecture on fractional attribution or paleoclimatic precedents that the climate hens think should determine the answer. What the public is looking for is some way to connect this thing- that scientists are telling them is real and a real problem- to their own experiences of the world. That’s what we humans do. Climate hens are, by mistake or by design, frustrating one of the best avenues of facilitating public recognition of climate change as a problem they need to take seriously. Roberts frames it this way:

That’s the key missing ingredient on climate change: not a technical understanding of stochastic modeling, forensic attribution, and degrees of probability, but a visceral, more-than-intellectual sense of what climate change means. Most people simply lack a social and ethical context for it, so they end up jamming it into other, more familiar contexts (“big government,” “environmental problem,” “liberal special interest group”).

A storm like Sandy provides an opportunity for those who understand climate change to help construct that context. It provides a set of experiences — a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences — that can inscribe climate change with the cultural resonance it lacks. That’s what persuades and motivates people: not the clinical language of science, but experiences and emotions and associations. Of course communicating scientific facts is important too, but it’s not the primary need, nor the standard by which other communications should be judged. What scolds often do is interpret the language of emotion and association through the filter of science. That’s neither helpful nor admirable.

And this perspective has supporters amongst those studying climate communication. Elke Weber (2010) makes this point:

Behavioral research over the past 30 years strongly suggests that attention-catching and emotionally engaging informational interventions may be required to engender the public concern necessary for individual or collective action in response to climate change… To the extent that time-delayed consequences of our actions do not attract the attention or generate the concern ex-ante that they would seem to warrant ex-post, behavioral research provides some corrective actions. The concretization of future events and moving them closer in time and space seem to hold promise as interventions that will raise visceral concern.

The science of tropical cyclogenesis in a warming world is undoubtedly complex and uncertain- a point I’ve been making for years. But when the public starts asking questions about climate after an event like Hurricane Sandy, they aren’t looking for navel-gazing about ensembles of modeling runs, wind shear, and overwash sediment coring. They are asking for a way to connect something they keep hearing they are supposed to care about to things they already do. The proper response to such questions is not, as the climate hens would have it, to shut them down and turn them away. And it should go without saying that nor is it a reason to overstate the connections between our increasingly heavy influence on the climate and extreme events like Hurricane Sandy. Rather, the appropriate response is to treat the questions for what they are: an invitation to talk about climate change in a way that is meaningful to a curious but decidedly lay public. Climate change means sea levels rising, it means storm surge increases, it means heavier precipitation events (Schaeffer et al., 2012; Sriver et al., 2012; Shepard et al., 2012; Min et al., 2011). If Hurricane Sandy makes these threats more concrete, if it moves them closer in time and space, if- in Roberts’ words- it provides “a set of images, sounds, smells, feelings, experiences”, we should absolutely be talking about it. And perhaps something good will come of this disaster. Clucking from the climate hens be damned.

References

  • Min, S.-K., X. Zhang, F. W. Zwiers, and G. C. Hegerl (2011), Human contribution to more-intense precipitation extremes, Nature, 470(7334), 378–381, doi:10.1038/nature09763.
  • Schaeffer, M., W. Hare, S. Rahmstorf, and M. Vermeer (2012), Long-term sea-level rise implied by 1.5 °C and 2 °C warming levels, Nature Climate Change, doi:10.1038/nclimate1584.
  • Shepard, C., V. Agostini, B. Gilmer, T. Allen, J. Stone, W. Brooks, and M. Beck (2012), Assessing future risk: quantifying the effects of sea level rise on storm surge risk for the southern shores of Long Island, New York, Natural Hazards, 60(2), 727–745, doi:10.1007/s11069-011-0046-8.
  • Sriver, R., N. Urban, R. Olson, and K. Keller (2012), Toward a physically plausible upper bound of sea-level rise projections, Climatic Change, 1–10, doi:10.1007/s10584-012-0610-6.
  • Weber, E. U. (2010), What shapes perceptions of climate change?, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 332–342, doi:10.1002/wcc.41.

Making an honest hack out of Fred Pearce in five easy steps

Image courtesy of Flickr user “bLOGOS/HA HA”, used under Creative Commons

Attempting to convince those in the grip of denialism is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. Take the case of the DDT-holocaust lie. No sooner has one false claim been thrown out (e.g. DDT ban in Malaysia in 1999 resulted in an increase in malaria) and shown to be nonsense than a new claim bearing no particular relation to its predecessor is deployed. Rather than chase down every single mutually contradictory claim made by those perpetuating the lie, I invite them to put themselves on record in a manner that makes their claims easily assessable.

In order to claim, as rubbish journalist Fred Pearce has, that anti-science environmentalism is responsible for “blanket opposition” to DDT use in fighting malaria resulting in a “virtual ban” for “more than three decades” and “millions of deaths”, one only has to satisfy a handful of conditions:

  1. Quantify how many, from where, and over what time interval the “millions of deaths” are supposed to have occurred.
  2. Demonstrate that there was a ban (actual or “virtual”), restriction, or other meaningful impediment to using DDT for malaria control (vs. for example agricultural spraying) in place for all deaths claimed in the above.
  3. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, all deaths claimed in the above would have been prevented (taking into consideration obvious confounding factors like the increase in resistance to DDT).
  4. Demonstrate that had DDT been implemented, the overall net result including health, economic, and environmental problems would have been positive- in other words, that using DDT would have resulted in more good than harm.
  5. Demonstrate that the cause of DDT not being implemented in all of the above cases was specifically attributable to “blanket” anti-science environmentalist opposition, rather than science-, economics-, efficacy-, and logistics-based reasons from professional science and health organizations like the World Health Organization, or implementation problems that had nothing to do with Silent Spring (such as replastering and bedbug concerns raised in places like South Africa).

Pretty simple. If you can’t satisfy the conditions, you don’t get to toss corpses at the feet of supposed anti-science environmentalist opposition arising from Silent Spring. Just how serious a case do people like Fred Pearce and Roy Spencer really believe they have?

My guess? Most won’t even  get past the first question or two.

Fred Pearce is *still* a rubbish journalist

Image courtesy of Flickr user urbangarden

When last we left Pearce, he was enthusiastically attempting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the vile, rotting corpse of He said; She said “journalism” that has long wreaked havoc on public understanding of climate.

Checking in, we now find Pearce has sunk to just making statements up and attributing them to people without their knowledge or consent. Specifically NASA GISS researcher (and RealClimate blogger) Gavin Schmidt. As Schmidt has written to New Scientist:

In the piece entitled “Climate sceptics and scientists attempt peace deal” Fred Pearce includes a statement about me that is patently untrue.

“But the leaders of mainstream climate science turned down the gig, including NASA’s Gavin Schmidt, who said the science was settled so there was nothing to discuss.”

This is completely made up. My decision not to accept the invitation to this meeting was based entirely on the organiser’s initial diagnosis of the cause of the ‘conflict’ in the climate change debate. I quote from their introductory letter:

“At this stage we are planning to have a workshop where the main scientific issues can be discussed, so that some clarity on points of agreement and disagreement might be reached. We would try to stay off the policy issues, and will also exclude personal arguments.

The issues we have in mind are Medieval Warm Period, ice, climate sensitivity, and temperature data. We would hope to have smaller groups discussing these in some detail, hopefully with scientists who are very familiar with the technical issues to lead the discussion.”

Since, in my opinion, the causes of conflict in the climate change debate relate almost entirely to politics and not the MWP, climate sensitivity or ‘ice’, dismissing this from any discussion did not seem likely to be to help foster any reconciliation.

At no point did I declare that the ‘science was settled’ and that there was nothing to discuss. Indeed, I am on record as saying the exact opposite: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/12/unsettled-science/

Pearce might well note that even I am included in the “spectrum” that “disagree[s] with Schmidt”!

Fred Pearce did not interview me for this piece. I should like to request that in future, if my views are of interest, that he (or anyone else) should actually ask me directly. I am not hard to contact.

Yours respectfully,

Gavin Schmidt

PS. I am not a ‘leader of mainstream climate science’ either.

I’d ask whether New Scientist wants this kind of indefensible behavior associated with their brand, but clearly they’ve given Pearce free reign to troll for page views however he sees fit.

Pearce should be ashamed of himself.

Videobreak: Brian Cox – Science: A Challenge to TV Orthodoxy

And speaking of the duty the media has to communicate the scientific mainstream rather than “controversy”, here’s a bang on presentation to the Royal Television Society by Brian Cox:

[h/t BA]

New study lays out 11 indicators of a warming world, media focuses on contrarian views

From time to time, journalists like Andy Revkin and Keith Kloor protest that the mainstream media doesn’t do an awful job covering the issue of climate change. They believe that the well-documented, systematic bias of undermining scientific conclusions by “balancing” them with contrarianism is behind us. Unfortunately, this is demonstrably false.

The above image is from the self-proclaimed “Most Trusted Name in News” CNN’s coverage of NOAA’s just-released 2009 State of the Climate Report, copy from The Financial Times. The State of the Climate report details how the planet is warming as captured by 11 different indices, from land surface temperature to glacial mass balance.

In the Financial Times article republished by CNN, equal if not more time is devoted to discussing the manufactured scandal over the stolen CRU emails and getting reactions from cranks like Steve Goddard and industry shills like Pat Michaels and Myron Ebell vs. covering the actual contents of the report itself.

The release of this report represented a huge opportunity for CNN and The Financial Times to explore the signs of a warming world in detail- perhaps to discuss with credible experts the causes and expected effects, to explain why specific humidity would be expected to increase in a warming world, or why Antarctic sea ice is not a representative indicator of enhanced greenhouse warming while Arctic sea ice is, etc. And who knows- perhaps they eventually will. For now, however, “most trusted name in news” is continuing to grossly mislead its audience because it simply can’t give up the outmoded narrative crutch of “balance”.

“Never get involved in a land war in Asia”

And never go in against Bora when your interwebs rep is on the line! Ouch.

[For those who don't get the reference]

[UPDATE: Or Gareth either it would seem. But promise me, guys, no more purple prose for a bit?]