Nate Silver Is Having an Ezra Klein Moment

FiveThirtyEight hasn’t hired a global-warming denier, but Silver’s new writer has fully flunked the green purity test.

National Journal
Ben Geman
March 20, 2014, 1:20 p.m.

A wun­der­kind journ­al­ist leaves a huge news­pa­per, starts a highly an­ti­cip­ated ex­plan­at­ory re­port­ing pro­ject — and promptly gets bashed on the left for hir­ing a con­tro­ver­sial writer.

But this isn’t a story about former Wash­ing­ton Post journ­al­ist Ezra Klein, who earli­er this month risked es­tranging fans by hir­ing Brandon Am­brosino — au­thor of sev­er­al pieces that en­raged mem­bers of the LGBT com­munity — as a writ­ing fel­low at his Vox Me­dia ven­ture.

This week it’s former New York Times data journ­al­ism wiz Nate Sil­ver, founder of the newly launched Fiv­eThirtyEight.com, who is un­der fire. Act­iv­ists and at least one high-pro­file cli­mate sci­ent­ist are tak­ing aim at Sil­ver’s de­cision to add Uni­versity of Col­or­ado en­vir­on­ment­al stud­ies pro­fess­or Ro­ger Pielke Jr. as a con­trib­ut­ing writer.

That’s an un­fa­mil­i­ar space for Sil­ver, whom sci­ent­ists have gen­er­ally held in high­er es­teem for his brand of data-driv­en journ­al­ism than for the “he said, she said” cov­er­age of the cli­mate-sci­ence “de­bate.”

But this isn’t just an­oth­er entry in­to the sci­entif­ic con­sensus vs. glob­al-warm­ing den­iers chron­icles. This battle — much like Pielke’s take on cli­mate — is far more nu­anced.

Pielke, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist with a Ph.D., doesn’t deny hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change. He says it’s real and de­mands ac­tion.

But he has of­ten tussled with some prom­in­ent cli­mate sci­ent­ists and left-lean­ing policy ad­voc­ates on sev­er­al fronts, and there are reas­ons why it’s the Re­pub­lic­ans who in­vite him as a wit­ness at cli­mate-change hear­ings.

One front: He al­leges some ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s sci­ence ad­viser John Hold­ren, have gone too far in claim­ing cli­mate change has worsened ex­treme weath­er events like hur­ricanes and severe droughts, or in­creased their fre­quency.

Hold­ren re­cently took the un­usu­al step of cri­ti­ciz­ing Pielke dir­ectly in a memo about links between drought and cli­mate change, which was part of a wider thrust-and-parry between them (Hold­ren’s memo is here, Pielke’s re­sponse is here).

Pielke ar­gues that his real sin is flunk­ing a pur­ity test among cli­mate sci­ent­ists and ad­voc­ates that he calls coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.

“I see my views on cli­mate change de­vi­at­ing in small but sig­ni­fic­ant ways from, ba­sic­ally, the main­stream view, which makes the vit­ri­ol so much more dis­turb­ing,” he said, ar­guing that a di­versity of ideas is needed to con­front cli­mate change. “There is a small but vo­cal con­tin­gent that ba­sic­ally brokers no dis­sent, and I am very em­phat­ic that if ac­tion on cli­mate change is go­ing to sur­vive polit­ic­ally over dec­ades, that those call­ing for ac­tion have to hold them­selves to the ut­most of sci­entif­ic stand­ards.”

Pielke has cri­ti­cized the cli­mate move­ment for pur­su­ing what he ar­gues are polit­ic­ally im­prac­tic­al and in­ef­fect­ive solu­tions. For in­stance, he calls the cam­paign against the Key­stone pipeline “mis­guided” and is skep­tic­al of the polit­ic­al vi­ab­il­ity of ef­forts to put a sub­stan­tial price on car­bon.

He’s af­fil­i­ated with the Break­through In­sti­tute, a con­trari­an en­vir­on­ment­al think tank whose founders have spent a dec­ade telling oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al­ists that they’re do­ing it wrong for one reas­on or an­oth­er.

Pielke’s first piece in Fiv­eThirtyEight on Wed­nes­day ar­gues that in­creas­ing costs of weath­er-re­lated dis­asters like ma­jor hur­ricanes stem from rising glob­al wealth — not cli­mate change. “We’re see­ing ever-lar­ger losses simply be­cause we have more to lose — when an earth­quake or flood oc­curs, more stuff gets dam­aged,” he writes.

Though Pielke doesn’t deny glob­al warm­ing, his de­vi­ations from oth­ers in the move­ment hasn’t won him him many act­iv­ist friends — and they’ve not been shy in send­ing Sil­ver that mes­sage.

“It seems like wherever cli­mate sci­ence is, Ro­ger Pielke is there say­ing that it’s wrong in some way,” said Miles Grant, a seni­or com­mu­nic­a­tions of­fi­cial with the Na­tion­al Wild­life Fed­er­a­tion. “With friends like these, who needs the Koch broth­ers.”

“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 top cli­mate sci­ent­ists,” states a post Wed­nes­day on Cli­mate­Pro­gress, a blog run by the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress Ac­tion Fund.

And that was just the first of two anti-Pielke stor­ies Cli­mate­Pro­gress ran on Wed­nes­day. A second quoted sev­er­al cli­mate re­search­ers cri­ti­ciz­ing Pielke’s first piece for Sil­ver’s site (the item was also up­dated with a re­but­tal from Pielke).

Penn State’s Mi­chael Mann, one of the world’s most prom­in­ent cli­mate sci­ent­ists, has joined the fray, knock­ing both Pielke and Sil­ver’s de­cision to hire him. And sev­er­al cli­mate act­iv­ists have been at­tack­ing the Pielke hire on Twit­ter too.

For Klein, Sil­ver’s scen­ario is all-too-fa­mil­i­ar.

After hir­ing Am­brosino, Klein was ripped by groups — in­clud­ing Me­dia Mat­ters — that had pre­vi­ously praised Klein’s data-driv­en work at the Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Wonkblog. But those groups ar­gued that by hir­ing Am­brosino (who is openly gay), Klein was sac­ri­fi­cing that stand­ard, of­fer­ing a plat­form to an au­thor whose pieces were widely re­garded as in­flam­mat­ory at­tempts for at­ten­tion rather than ef­forts to provide in­sight.

In de­fend­ing the hire, Klein said Am­brosino would be writ­ing about a range of is­sues bey­ond gender and sexu­al­ity — and said that all of this work would be ed­ited to meet Vox’s stand­ard for fair­ness, ac­cur­acy, and qual­ity.

Sil­ver en­joys a sim­il­ar (if not more ster­ling) repu­ta­tion as an hon­est broker when it comes time to crunch — or mod­el — the num­bers, and those as­sur­ances could pro­tect the brand as a whole, even among those who find Pielke him­self tough to stom­ach.

And as Pielke’s first post demon­strates, the con­tro­versy over his hire will do noth­ing to scare him off writ­ing about cli­mate, nor will it lim­it his sub­ject mat­ter.

Pielke’s said his next story will be about eval­u­at­ing pre­dic­tions. But not, he said, pre­dic­tions about cli­mate change.

What We're Following See More »
SUFFOLK POLL
New Survey Shows Clinton Up 9 in Pennsylvania
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

If a new poll is to be believed, Hillary Clinton has a big lead in the all-important swing state of Pennsylvania. A new Suffolk University survey shows her ahead of Donald Trump, 50%-41%. In a four-way race, she maintains her nine-point lead, 46%-37%. "Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in the past six presidential elections, going back to Bill Clinton’s first win in 1992. Yet it is a rust belt state that could be in play, as indicated by recent general-election polling showing a close race."

Source:
$500 MILLION PROJECT
Obama Library Heading to Jackson Park in Chicago
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"President Barack Obama has chosen Jackson Park, a lakefront park that once hosted the world’s fair on the city’s South Side, for his $500 million presidential library, according to a person familiar with the matter."

Source:
THREE NIGHTS RUNNING
Democrats Beat Republicans in Convention Ratings So Far
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Wednesday was the third night in a row that the Democratic convention enjoyed a ratings win over the Republican convention last week. Which might have prompted a fundraising email from Donald Trump exhorting supporters not to watch. "Unless you want to be lied to, belittled, and attacked for your beliefs, don't watch Hillary's DNC speech tonight," the email read. "Instead, help Donald Trump hold her accountable, call out her lies and fight back against her nasty attacks."

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Many VIPs Were the Secret Service Protecting in Philly Last Night?
8 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Seven, according to an official Secret Service tweet.

Source:
‘MOGUL,’ ‘DAREDEVIL’
Candidates’ Code Names Revealed
9 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Clintons will retain their Secret Service "code names from the last time they lived in the White House. Hillary Clinton is EVERGREEN and Bill ClintonEAGLE. Donald Trump is MOGUL, according to reports, and Melania Trump MUSE. The vice presidents get code names, too: Mike Pence is HOOSIER—a little on the nose—and his wife HUMMINGBIRD. Tim Kaine is DAREDEVIL, somewhat ambitiously. His wife's? To be determined."

Source:
×