Nate Silver’s New Science Writer Ignores The Data On Climate Science

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CREDIT: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

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.

“Given Nate’s professed obsession with rigorous statistical analysis, it is rather disappointing to see him hire for his new venture an individual who has displayed a pattern of sloppiness when it comes to the analysis of climate data,” said top climate scientist Michael Mann via email. Pointing to a chapter in Silver’s recent book that addresses climate change (for which Mann was interviewed) he adds, “Sadly, this isn’t the first time Nate has been led astray when it comes to dealing with the science of climate change.”

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.’”

Holdren responded to the jabs with an unprecedented six-page response debunking Pielke’s muddling statements and detailing how climate change is in fact exacerbating drought in the west. “Dr. Pielke’s statements about global drought trends, while irrelevant to my comments about drought in California and the Colorado River Basin, are seriously misleading,” Holdren wrote.

The takedown from Holdren is far from the first time Pielke’s confusionist views on climate science have been debunked by actual climate scientists. And Pielke’s numerous distortions of data and statistics would seem to be particularly troubling for a site that has set out to “critique incautious uses of statistics when they arise elsewhere in news coverage.”

Stefan Rahmstorf, Head of Earth System Analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and his colleagues were targeted by Pielke upon the release of their 2011 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) examining the increase of extreme events in a warming world. The paper found that the record-breaking Russian heat of 2010 in particular “is, with 80 percent probability, due to the long-term climatic warming trend.”

Pielke took issue with the conclusions and methodologies, saying he stood by his critique — even after Rahmstorf provided clarification that disputed Pielke’s claims — and accusing the authors of “cherry-picking.”

“Faced with this kind of libelous distortion I will not answer any further questions from Pielke now or in future,” Rahmstorf commented. “As an aside, our paper was reviewed not only by two climate experts but in addition by two statistics experts coming from other fields.”

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.’”

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.’”

After Pielke mistakenly maligned James Hansen, top climate scientist and former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, based on a draft study that had not been completed or publicly released, ScienceBlog wrote that “his latest effort at sabotaging productive discourse on climate science and policy is a really low blow, putting to rest any lingering hopes one might have had that he still had some integrity stashed away in there somewhere.”

And in a rather comical error, Australian scientist Tim Lambert noted that a Pielke blog post claiming “there were 1,264 times as many news stories about a Michael Mann study that suggests that hurricanes are at a 1,000 year high as about a Chris Landsea study that found no increase in hurricanes over the past century” was based on a Google search that included results for a film director named Michael Mann. “Soon after I posted this, Pielke finally made a correction, allowing that being out by a couple of orders of magnitude was a ‘bit sloppy,’” Lambert wrote.

Though he took issue with the distinction, Pielke was included in Foreign Policy’s 2010 Guide to Climate Skeptics.

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. Pielke’s methods echo a key problem observed by leading climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf: “blind application of statistics, without understanding of the science (both in terms of the physics and in terms of knowledge of the technical literature) is very dangerous​.”