September 2012, Week 5


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Sun, 30 Sep 2012 21:12:09 -0400
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FiveThirtyEight: The Number of Things Nate Silver 
Gets Wrong About Climate Change
Michael E. Mann
Huffington Post

If you're a science or math geek like me, you can't help
but like Nate Silver. He's the fellow nerd who made
good. His site FiveThirtyEight.com is a must for any
serious polling buff, and he regularly graces the
leading talk shows with his insightful if wonky
commentary. So you can imagine how excited I was a year
ago when Nate's assistant contacted me, indicating that
he wanted to come to State College, PA -- the "happy
valley" -- to interview me for his new book on
"forecasting and prediction."

Nate, I was told, was working on a chapter about global
warming. He sought me out because he felt my expertise
would make me an "excellent guide to the history of
climate modeling". He also expressed interest in my own
upcoming (since published) book The Hockey Stick and the
Climate Wars which details my experiences at the center
of the climate change debate. Needless to say, I was
very much looking forward to the meeting.

And so it was on a crisp early November day that Nate
arrived at my office in the Walker Building of the Penn
State campus. We exchanged pleasantries and proceeded to
engage in a vigorous, in-depth discussion of everything
from climate models and global warming to the role of
scientific uncertainty, and the campaign by industry
front groups to discredit climate science (something
that is the focus of my own book). As I saw Nate off, I
insisted he sample the Penn State Creamery's famous ice
cream before leaving town. I tweeted excitedly about my
meeting with him, and by the end of the day Nate had
even added me to his relatively short list of twitter
followees. Certain our discussion had been productive
and informative, I awaited Nate's book with great

And so I was rather crestfallen earlier this summer when
I finally got a peek at a review copy of The Signal and
the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some
Don't. It's not that Nate revealed himself to be a
climate change denier; He accepts that human-caused
climate change is real, and that it represents a
challenge and potential threat. But he falls victim to a
fallacy that has become all too common among those who
view the issue through the prism of economics rather
than science. Nate conflates problems of prediction in
the realm of human behavior -- where there are no
fundamental governing 'laws' and any "predictions" are
potentially laden with subjective and untestable
assumptions -- with problems such as climate change,
which are governed by laws of physics, like the
greenhouse effect, that are true whether or not you
choose to believe them.

Nate devotes far too much space to the highly
questionable claims of a University of Pennsylvania
marketing Professor named J. Scott Armstrong. Armstrong
made a name for himself in denialist circles back in
2007 by denouncing climate models as having no
predictive value at all. Armstrong's arguments were
fundamentally flawed, belied by a large body of primary
scientific literature -- with which Armstrong was
apparently unfamiliar -- demonstrating that climate
model projections clearly do in fact out-perform naive
predictions which ignore the effect of increasing
greenhouse gas concentrations. As discussed in detail by
my RealClimate.org co-founder, NASA scientist Gavin
Schmidt, Armstrong simply didn't understand the science
well enough to properly interpret, let alone, assess,
the predictive skill of climate model predictions.

That Nate would parrot Armstrong's flawed arguments is a
major disappointment, especially because there are some
obvious red flags that even the most cursory research
should have turned up. A simple check of either
SourceWatch or fossil fuel industry watchdog
ExxonSecrets, reveals that Armstrong is a well-known
climate change denier with close ties to fossil fuel
industry front groups like the Heartland Institute,
which earlier this year campaigned to compare people who
accept the reality of climate change to the Unabomber,
and secretly planned to infiltrate elementary schools
across the country with industry-funded climate change
denial propaganda. I suspect that Nate's failing here
arises from a sort of cultural bias. There is a whole
community of pundits with origins in economics and
marketing who seem more than happy to dismiss the laws
of physics when they conflict with their philosophy of
an unregulated market. Nate may not share that
philosophy, but he was educated by those who do.

Nate Silver was trained in the Chicago school of
Economics, famously characterized by its philosophy of
free market fundamentalism. In addition to courses from
Milton Friedman, Nate might very well have taken a
course from University of Chicago economist Steven
Levitt, known largely for his provocative 2005 book
Freakonomics and its even more audacious 2009 sequel
Super Freakonomics -- a book that, perhaps better than
any other, serves as a cautionary tale of the dangers
that lurk when academics attempt to draw sweeping
conclusions in fields well outside their area of
training. In Super Freakonomics as you might guess,
Levitt drew questionable conclusions about climate
change and related energy issues based on an
extrapolation of principles of economics way, way, way,
outside their domain of applicability. Even some very
basic physics calculations, for example, reveal that his
dismissal of solar energy as a viable alternative to
fossil fuel energy in combating climate change because
of possible waste heat is total nonsense. Ray
Pierrehumbert, a chaired professor himself at the
University of Chicago, in the Department of Geosciences,
pointed this and other serious errors out to Levitt in
an open letter that concluded with a campus map showing
how easy it would have been for Levitt to walk over to
his office to discuss his ideas and, presumably, avoid
the serious pitfalls that ended up undermining much of
what he ended up saying in his book about climate change
and energy policy.

Unlike Levitt, Nate did talk to the scientists (I know.
I'm one of them!). But he didn't listen quite as
carefully as he should have. When it came to areas like
climate change well outside his own expertise, he to
some extent fell into the same "one trick pony" trap
that was the downfall of Levitt (and arguably others
like Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point). That is, he
repeatedly invokes the alluring, but fundamentally
unsound, principle that simple ideas about forecasting
and prediction from one field, like economics, can
readily be appropriated and applied to completely
different fields, without a solid grounding in the
principles, assumptions, and methods of those fields. It
just doesn't work that way (though Nate, to his credit,
does at least allude to that in his discussion of
Armstrong's evaluation of climate forecasts).

As a result, Nate's chapter on climate change (Chapter
12: "A Climate of Healthy Skepticism") is marred by
straw man claims that don't stand up to scrutiny. These
include the assertion that (a) climate scientist James
Hansen's famous 1988 predictions overestimated global
warming (they didn't), that (b) "the Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) settles on just one
forecast that is endorsed by the entire group" (pure
nonsense -- even the most casual reading of the IPCC
reports reveals that great care taken to emphasize the
non-trivial spread among model predictions, and to
denote regions where there is substantial disagreement
between the projections from different models) and that
(c) "relatively little is understood" about the El Nino
cycle (here I imagine that Nate might have
misinterpreted our own discussion about the matter; I
explained in our discussion that there are still open
questions about how climate change will influence the El
Nino phenomenon -- but that hardly means that we know
"relatively little" about the phenomenon itself! In
fact, we know quite a bit about it). Finally, and
perhaps most troubling (d) while Nate's chapter title
explicitly acknowledges the importance of distinguishing
"signal" from "noise", and Nate does gives this topic
some lip service, he repeatedly falls victim to the
fallacy that tracking year-to-year fluctuations in
temperature (the noise) can tell us something about
predictions of global warming trends (the signal). They
can't -- they really can't.

Nate's view of uncertainty, and its implications for
climate model predictions, is particularly misguided. He
asserts that the projections of the IPCC forecasts have
been "too aggressive", but that is simply wrong. It
neglects that in many cases, e.g. as regards the
alarming rate of Arctic sea ice decline (we saw a new
record low set just weeks ago), the climate models have
been far too cautious; We are decades ahead of schedule
relative to what the models predicted. Uncertainty cuts
both ways, and in many respects -- be it the rapid
decline in Arctic sea ice, or the melting of the ice
sheets -- it is cutting against us. Uncertainty, as many
economists recognize, is thus a reason for action, not
inaction! I'm surprised someone as sharp as Nate just
doesn't appear to get that.

Nate also takes some unnecessary cheap shots. In what
has now become a rite of passage for those looking to
establish their "honest broker" bona fides in the
climate change debate, Nate makes the requisite "punch
the hippie" accusation that Al Gore exaggerated the
science of climate change in An Inconvenient Truth (a
team of climate scientists reviewed the movie for
accuracy and found that by-and-large Gore got the
science right). He characterizes climate scientist Gavin
Schmidt as a "sarcastic" individual who is unwilling to
put his money where his mouth is by betting his personal
savings on his climate model predictions (this felt to
me reminiscent of Mitt Romney's widely mocked $10,000
bet challenge to Rick Perry). And while I do appreciate
some of the nice things Nate says in the book about me
personally (e.g. "Mann is exceptionally thoughtful about
the science behind global warming"), he at the same time
deeply misrepresents our discussion on several counts.

I had emphasized the importance of distinguishing the
true uncertainties in climate science (and there are
plenty e.g. the influence of warming on hurricanes, how
the El Nino phenomenon might be affected, or how
regional patterns of rainfall may change) from the
manufactured uncertainties and myths typically promoted
by climate change deniers and contrarians (e.g. "how
come there has been no warming since 1998?" -- the
answer is that, of course, there has been). I stressed
how important it is, when scientists communicate to the
public, to make clear that while there are many details
that are still uncertain, the big picture (that humans
are warming the planet and changing the climate, and
that far larger and potentially more dangerous changes
loom in our future if we don't act) is not.

Nate cherry-picks a single sound bite ("our statements
[should not be] so laden in uncertainty that no one even
listens.") to once again reinforce the false narrative
that scientists are understating uncertainty. The point
I was actually making was that we cannot spend so much
time talking about what we don't know, that we don't end
up telling the public what we do know. That, as Nate
correctly quotes me, "would be irresponsible". Nate
states that "the more dramatic [climate scientists']
claims, the more likely they [are] be quoted...",
seemingly implying that scientists have a motivation to
overstate the science. He ignores the fact that those
scientists willing to feed the false "scientists are
exaggerating" narrative are the true darlings of the
"balance" over "objectivity" school of news reporting --
a school of thought that Nate sadly seems to have
subscribed to.

Most disappointing to me of all was the false
equivalence that Nate draws between the scientific
community's efforts to fight back against intentional
distortions and attacks by an industry-funded attack
machine, and the efforts of that attack machine itself.
He characterizes this simply as a battle between
"consensus" scientists and "skeptical" individuals, as
if we're talking about two worthy adversaries in a
battle. This framing is flawed on multiple levels, not
the least of which is that those he calls "skeptics" are
in fact typically no such thing. There is a difference
between honest skepticism -- something that is not only
valuable but necessary for the progress of science --
and pseudo-skepticism, i.e. denialism posing as
"skepticism" for the sake of obscuring, rather than
clarifying, what is known.

Nate deeply mischaracterizes an editorial published by
the prestigious and staid journal Nature (whose
sentiments are echoed in my book The Hockey Stick and
the Climate Wars) warning scientists that they "must
acknowledge that they are in a street fight, and that
their relationship with the media really matters." Nate
grossly mischaracterizes the quote, claiming that "the
long-term goal of the street fight is to persuade the
public and policy makers about the urgency (or lack
thereof) of action to combat climate change." Nate makes
it sound like the "street fight" was of the scientists
choosing, completely turning on its head what Nature was
actually talking about: scientists finding a better way
to defend science from cynical attacks whose sole aim is
to confuse the public about what we actually do know
about climate change (and therefore forestall any
efforts to deal with it).

I could detail the numerous other problems with the
chapter (and no -- there aren't really 538 of them; I
confess to having taken some "poetic license" with the
title of this commentary). But the real point is that
this book was a lost opportunity when it comes to the
topic of climate change. Nate could have applied his
considerable acumen and insight to shed light on this
important topic. But the result was instead a very mixed
bag of otherwise useful commentary marred by needless
misconceptions and inappropriately laundered denialist

Don't get me wrong. I'm still a FON (Fan Of Nate). I
will continue to follow his thoughtful commentary on all
matters of politics and polling. But when he makes
claims about other topics, like climate change, I think
I'll be a lot more skeptical. Skepticism -- real
skepticism -- is, after all -- a good thing.


Think Again: The Media and Climate Science: ADHD or 
Deliberate Deception?
By Eric Alterman
Center for American Progress
September 27, 2012

Dr. Fran├žois Gonon, a neurobiologist at the University
of Bordeaux, together with his colleagues recently
published an article in The Public Library of Science,
taking a foray into media criticism. Using attention-
deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, for his
experiment metaphor, Gonon and company searched the
databases PubMed and Factiva for articles on ADHD. They
found that 47 papers on ADHD received coverage in 347
articles in English-language newspapers during the
1990s. From these, The Economist reports, Gonon's team
picked 10 papers that had enjoyed fully 223 of the news

What happened next, if you'll forgive me, turned out to
be a case of journalistic ADHD. While 67 later studies
examined those selected 10, the second batch received
attention in only 57 newspaper articles total, with most
of them focusing on only two such studies. Gonon's
conclusion: An "almost complete amnesia in the newspaper
coverage of biomedical findings."

Why does this matter? Well, as it turns out, 80 percent
of the original newspaper articles happened to be
mistaken or at least incomplete, as they either refuted
or substantially modified original findings of the
studies. But readers, by and large, never heard about
this. So even those few readers lucky enough to have
access to one of the few newspapers that take such
matters seriously found themselves uninformed. And
what's more, The Economist found, via Google News, that
no English language newspaper mentioned the release of
Gonon's study.

This kind of failure may be endemic to journalism.
Scientific researchers tend not to have publicists. They
do not go on cable chat shows. And they rarely mention
Justin Bieber. Their papers are difficult to understand
and translate into eighth-grade-level English, and they
do not excite advertisers. The only reason to publish
articles about scientific research is that they
constitute news-and actual news is in shorter and
shorter supply in our media.

But perhaps the most significant problem facing those
scientists seeking increased public dissemination of the
significance of their work-and the rest of us who would
like to try to understand it-is the deliberate
distortion of those results for reasons of ideological
obsession and financial gain. The Union of Concerned
Scientists recently took a hard look at the coverage of
climate science on Fox News and in the editorial pages
of The Wall Street Journal, both owned by Rupert
Murdoch's News Corp. In the case of Fox, they discovered
that 93 percent of segments dealing with the issue were
"misleading." In every single case the distortions led
viewers in the same direction: As Media Matters noted,
Fox News either broadly dismissed the scientific
consensus on man-made climate change or drowned out the
truth with foolish and discredited arguments.

Last year a study published in The International Journal
of Press/Politics concluded, "Fox broadcasts were more
likely to include statements that challenged the
scientific agreement on climate change, undermined the
reality of climate change, and questioned its human
causes." This may not surprise many on an instinctual
level, but it is important to have this impression
confirmed by careful scientific analysis.

In the case of the once-respected Wall Street Journal,
the Union of Concerned Scientists found that 81 percent
of the articles focusing on climate science "attempted
to broadly undermine the major conclusions of climate
science." A separate Media Matters analysis found that
in the last year the newspaper published a op-ed by non-
experts that misled readers on climate science, but
declined to publish an op-ed by a physicist who studied
the issue and reconfirmed the temperature record.

The damage done by this deliberate spread of
misinformation goes well beyond the consumers of Murdoch
properties. The virus corrupts the rest of our media as
well. Reporters and editors at respected, "objective"
news outlets feel pressure to treat false information as
legitimate either through a commitment to what I call
"on the one-handism" and "false balance"-in which two
opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the
facts-or simply because they themselves have been

Case in point: PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler observed
that PBS "stumbled badly" when it broadcast a segment on
"PBS NewsHour" that sought to create "an artificial or
false equivalence" between global warming "skeptics" and
"believers." In what Getler called a "stunning" choice,
"NewsHour" correspondent Spencer Michels interviewed
Anthony Watts-a meteorologist and Heartland Institute-
funded pundit-rather than a scientist or a university-
credentialed researcher to offer "balance" between the
conclusions endorsed by 99.5 percent of climate experts
recently surveyed at a series of America's first-rank
universities versus the nonsense offered up by an
ideological, often industry-funded fringe.

The combination of the inherent weaknesses of
journalism-its ADHD combined with its declining
resources-coupled with an increasing unwillingness to
stand up to the purposeful pollution of the public
sphere by the likes of Murdoch (and now, sadly, PBS)
makes the practice of democracy ever more difficult.
Voters cannot make informed decisions based on
misinformation, much less deliberate disinformation. The
job of the journalist is to combat this disease, not to
spread it.


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