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
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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 Fiv­, 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.

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