Roger Pielke Jr. on FiveThirtyEight and his Climate Critics

By Keith Kloor | July 28, 2014 9:37 am

Earlier in the year, Roger Pielke Jr. was named as a contributing writer for Nate Silver’s newly re-launched FiveThirtyEight site. Shortly after that, Pielke, a climate policy scholar and political scientist at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, published an article at FiveThirtyEight headlined, “Disasters Cost More Than Ever–But Not Because of Climate Change.”

Critics pounced immediately in blogs and on Twitter. That harsh reaction was then reported and commented on at Salon, Huffington Post, Slate, the Columbia Journalism Review, and elsewhere.

I recently conducted a Q & A with Pielke about this episode and the aftermath. The links in my questions are from me. I asked Pielke to provide his own links.

KK: It’s been noted on Twitter that you are not listed on the main contributors page for FiveThirthyEight. Does this mean you no longer write for the site? If so, can you explain what happened?

RPJR: That is correct, I no longer write for 538. Last month, after 538 showed some reluctance in continuing to publish my work, I called up Mike Wilson, the lead editor there, and told him that it was probably best that we part ways. I wished them well in their endeavor going forward. I remain a fan. Since then I have joined up with SportingIntelligence, a UK-based website that focuses on analyses of economic and other quantitative aspects of sport. It’s a great fit. And of course, I continue to publish in places like USA Today and the Financial Times on a wide range of subjects

KK: What do you make of the uproar your FiveThirtyEight piece generated? I know it quickly degenerated into an ugly pile-on, which I and some other journalists found unseemly. But did critics have any legitimate points you want to acknowledge?

RPJR: Well, that first piece was written on a subject that I have written on many times before (and perhaps as much as anyone) – disasters and climate change. The short essay was perfectly consistent with the recent assessments of the IPCC. The fact that some folks didn’t like it was not surprising — most anything on climate change is met with derision by somebody. What was a surprise was the degree to which the negative response to the piece was coordinated among some activist scientists, journalists and social media aficionados. I think that took everyone by surprise. I learned some new things about certain colleagues and journalists — both really good things and some really pathetic things. Seeing a campaign organized to have me fired from 538 also taught me a lesson about the importance of academic tenure.

KK: If you could write the piece over again, what would you do differently, if anything?

RPJR: Looking back, probably the main thing I would do differently would be to simply not write about climate change at 538. When I was originally hired there was actually zero discussion about me focusing on climate or even science, but rather covering a wide range of topics. I made clear to Nate and Mike that I was looking to at least partially escape from the climate change wars by focusing on other issues.  The climate change piece was an obvious place to start even so because the IPCC reports had just been released and the topic is also covered so thoroughly in the peer reviewed literature. Clearly, that judgment was wrong!

KK: Have you and Nate Silver talked about this ordeal? What was his reaction?

RPJR: I have not spoken with or corresponded with Nate since that first piece. Of course, I do wish that 538 had shown a bit more editorial backbone, but hey, it is his operation.  If a widely published academic cannot publish on a subject which he has dozens of peer-reviewed papers and 1000s of citations to his work, what can he write on?  Clearly Nate is a smart guy, and I suspect that he knows very well where the evidence lies on this topic. For me, if the price of playing in the DC-NYC data journalism world is self-censorship for fear of being unpopular, then it is clearly not a good fit for any academic policy scholar.

KK: The condemnation of your 538 piece quickly spiraled into ugly personal broadsides painting you (incorrectly) as a climate skeptic. This happened in various high profile venues, such as Slate. How did you feel when this happened?

RPJR: If you are engaged in public debates on issues that people care passionately about, then you will be called names and worse. It goes with the territory. It is not pleasant of course, but at the same time, it is a pretty strong indication that (a) your arguments matter and (b) people have a hard time countering them on their merits. Even so, it is remarkable to see people like Paul Krugman and John Holdren brazenly make completely false claims in public about my work and my views. That they make such false claims with apparently no consequences says something about the nature of debate surrounding climate.

KK: You say you were surprised by “the degree to which the response to the piece was coordinated among some activist scientists, journalists and social media aficionados.” But this response did not happen in a vacuum, either. For years, your work–or more specifically–pointed statements you’ve made about the climate science establishment–have been heavily criticized by a number of outspoken climate scientists and widely read climate bloggers. Looking back, it appears that animosity directed towards you stems more from sharply-worded commentary on your blog and elsewhere, than your research.

For example, in his recently published book, “Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed–and What it Means for Our Future,” NYU’s Dale Jamieson wrote about you. Here’s an excerpt that was posted at Salon:

In a 2010 book, Roger Pielke Jr. claimed that “[c]limate science is a fully politicized enterprise, desperately in need of reform if integrity is to be restored and sustained.” “Climategate,” the episode in November 2009 in which thousands of documents were stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, revealed scientists “who saw themselves as much as activists as researchers,”  … “plotting to corrupt the peer review system.” According to Pielke Jr., the theft exposed a “clique of activist scientists” engaged in a “coup against peer review.” He went on to accuse a broad range of scientists and public figures of trying to scare people into taking action on climate change or advocating such scare tactics.

One remarkable feature of Pielke Jr.’s discussion is its shrillness. “Clique,” “coup,” and “plotting” are the kinds of terms usually reserved for organized crime syndicates, terrorist organizations, and other conspiracies against the public good. The repeated use of the word “activist” mobilizes a characteristic trope of right-wing ideologues. The term is typically applied to judges, who like scientists are supposed to be neutral when carrying out their duties, but all too often, on this view, betray their professional responsibilities. Even someone who is sympathetic to the claim that political considerations sometimes find their way into climate science might shrink from Pielke Jr.’s characterization of climate science as “a fully politicized enterprise.”

Perhaps you take issue with how Jamieson has characterized your statements. But even still, he appears to have identified the reasons for much of the animosity towards you that has built up over the years. This is the larger context that I think informs the ugly brouhaha over your 538 piece. What are your thoughts on this?

RPJR: Anyone following these debates over the years and has observed whose arguments have actually been vindicated will no doubt understand why some of the louder critics of mine have resorted to bitter personal attacks. More generally, however, there is a common strategy of delegitimization used in the climate debates. It seems that labeling someone a “denier” offers a convenient excuse to avoid taking on arguments on their merits and to call for certain voices to be banished.

I’ve known Dale Jamison for about 25 years, dating back to the time that he was a philosophy professor at Colorado and NCAR. I have always got on well with him and learned a lot from him during the years that we were colleagues. I am perfectly comfortable with my claim that parts of the climate science field are indeed “fully politicized.” At the same time, as I have often said, there are many brilliant and hard-working scientists in the field. It just so happens that some of the most fervent ideologues find themselves in positions of authority. I don’t think that this is at all controversial.

What is controversial is the question whether the ends justify the means. That is to say, is the climate issue so important that we should look past issues of scientific integrity among those whose heart is in the right place? Jamieson suggests that we should:

“I’ve known Roger for a long time, and he’s done a lot of work that I respect. Part of why I called him out in the book is because he’s not a climate change denier. He’s somebody who knows better, but the rhetoric that he’s used against scientists and the exaggerations and the kind of personal fights that he’s gotten into around the issue have really distracted from the broad consensus that actually exists around doing something.”

First, I’m flattered to see that Dale thinks that my views are so influential so as to distract from a broad consensus. I’d just disagree with that conclusion. As I document with evidence in The Climate Fix, there is a very strong and stable consensus in the US and worldwide about doing something on climate. But more generally, should an academic really be measuring his arguments by who they favor in a political debate? Or should I call things like I see them? I’ve chosen to call things as I see them, and I am quite happy with that career choice.

Second, many of the public debates that I have been involved in are associated with efforts to discredit or misrepresent my own academic work. The 538 episode is just one such example. I document in my book an episode when back in 2001 a leading climate scientist asked me to underplay my work for political reasons. Not only do I believe this to be unethical, I also think that it will be  counterproductive for those calling for action. Trying to trick policy makers or the public to believe that — say, disasters are getting worse because of climate change or that we have all the technologies we need for deep decarbonization — will only backfire in the end. I am a big fan of playing it straight with the science, because over the long term that reinforces public trust and leads to more reliable policy recommendations.

KK: I should say that I am in no way excusing or rationalizing the behavior of climate bloggers and others who have previously used slanderous language in an attempt to discredit you. But I guess what I getting at here is this: Do you feel in any way responsible for provoking the deep-seated anger directed at you over the years, which seems to have culminated in this mob-like attack on your reputation after publication of the 538 piece? I  just wonder if you feel like, given the chance to go back in time, might you have phrased your own criticisms of the climate science community differently?

RPJR: It is a fair question. Hindsight is of course 20/20. But let’s say that all the criticisms Jamieson levies are accurate: I have been hard on some climate scientists. I have criticized some of their work in public, and even accused some of exploiting scientific authority for political ends. Sometimes I have used colorful language (“coup against peer review” — though for actual “shrillness” I would point Jamieson over to Joe Romm!). Some people have disagreed with my arguments. I have even been critical of the IPCC at times. Also, I have popularized my work on carbon pricing, decarbonization, energy, disasters, and the politicization of science. My work has occasionally been cited by the bad guys. I have also challenged claims that are seemingly widely accepted, but which my work shows to be wrong. I believe that policy debates deserve a plurality of voices, not a harmonization of views. I do not focus obsessively on the skeptics and deniers.

What part of the above would I change? Not much at all.

To be very clear, it is only a few climate scientists who have engaged in the “mob-like attacks” (it was actually mostly journalists and bloggers). Almost all the feedback I get from colleagues in climate science is overwhelmingly positive. Those climate scientists engaged in the climate debate are all big boys (mostly) and girls. If they cannot take the rough and tumble of public debate, then they should not be in public debate. There is “deep-seate anger” because of colorful language and apparent thin skins? Right. Tell me about it.

Ultimately, what I learned from the 538 episode is how small and insular the community of self-professed “climate hawks” actually is. Sure they made a lot of noise online and got John Stewart’s attention. But that was because of Nate Silver’s fame, not mine. Back in the real world, outside the climate blogosphere and the NY-DC data journalism circle virtually no one knew or much cared about the 538 brouhaha, even within academia. I found that encouraging.

I do wish the 538 folks all the best going forward. They were put in a difficult position. I have no hard feelings. There are some brilliant people there and they will no doubt have some great successes.

But in conclusion, let’s take a step back. Disaster losses continue to increase worldwide. Carbon dioxide continues to accumulate in the atmosphere. The world continues to demand ever more energy. Climate policies in place or proposed are not up to the task. In short, we need more ideas, more debate, more disagreement if we are to make intelligent progress. Efforts to demonize or silence unwelcome voices probably don’t move the dial very far on any of these issues Was this campaign to have me removed from 538 a victory for the climate movement? Was it the right battle to wage? I hope the climate hawks ask themselves these questions.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets.From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine.In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest.He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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