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.”
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: Read More
To recap: The self-proclaimed “Health Ranger” said that certain publishers, journalists and scientists “have signed on to the Nazi genocide machine of our day,” which he identifies as the agricultural biotech industry dominated by Monsanto. The unspecified genocide-promoting group was the equivalent of Hitler’s propagandists, “paid biotech muckrakers — people I call “Monsanto collaborators,” Adams wrote.
He then suggested (his emphasis), that
it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.
Several days after this incitement was published, Adams noted that a “Monsanto Collaborators” website had been created, naming specific individuals (including myself) and publishers. It was baldly transparent. Some colleagues didn’t mince words.
— Phil McKenna (@mckennapr) July 24, 2014
The sinister piece by Adams and the follow-on “Monsanto Collaborators” website was chilling, prompting some of those named on the site to alert the FBI.
Adams has since tried walking back the most menacing aspects of this episode. True to conspiratorial form, he now says the “Monsanto Collaborators” website is part of a “false flag operation.” (See my updates here.) This is a person who makes Glenn Beck and his chalkboard look quaint.
Leaving aside the febrile mind we are dealing with here, it’s worth taking a step back to discuss one claim that Adams has seized on as a main building block for his twisted reasoning. This claim–that GMOs have driven more than 250,000 Indian farmers to commit suicide–is widely dispersed in the mainstream biotech discourse (amplified by influential thought leaders) and accepted by many, especially by those already inclined to be suspicious of GMOs.
If you want the short explanation, read this piece by a Canadian reporter. If you want the long, complicated version of how this myth came to be so established, read a feature story of mine, published last year in Issues in Science and Technology. (An overview, with links, can be read here.)
I recently discussed what is perhaps the most twisted, disgusting anti-GMO tract ever written. It’s by Mike Adams, who as Jon Entine said earlier this year, is “a titan in the booming alternative lifestyle business, running dozens of websites promoting ‘natural’ products, many of them bogus or dangerous, which he relentlessly hawks online.”
The main communication portal for Adams is Naturalnews.com. According to Alexa, the site receives 219, 877 daily unique visitors and 407, 386 daily pageviews. Dr. Oz featured Adams on his show several months ago. Earlier this week, Adams published a screed at his main site that carried this headline:
Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as justification for murder
The article was accompanied by Nazi imagery and horrible pictures of the Holocaust. Adams equated Hitler’s propagandists with today’s media outlets and journalists who “have signed on to accelerate heinous crimes being committed against humanity under the false promise of ‘feeding the world’ with toxic GMOs.” Adams refers to this as a modern-day genocide being perpetrated by “Monsanto collaborators.”
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Adams then chillingly suggests (his emphasis),
that it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.
I really thought Mike Adams couldn’t write anything more possibly deranged than he already has at his Natural News website. (Readers of this blog have seen a freaky side of Adams.) Jon Entine has the scoop on his editorial output and alt-med empire. Entine’s piece, which Forbes cravenly took down (after Adams threatened to sue), asked if Adams was the “most ‘dangerous’ anti-science GMO critic?”
That was meant as a rhetorical question, since Adams spouts all manner of outrageous misinformation on GMOs. But after reading the latest piece on GMOs by Adams, I have to wonder if he is literally dangerous. Here’s the title of his piece:
Biotech genocide, Monsanto collaborators and the Nazi legacy of ‘science’ as justification for murder
Here’s how it starts:
(NaturalNews) Monsanto is widely recognized as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto’s orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.
These Monsanto collaborator sites tend to be “leftist” publications but also include at least one prominent business and finance publisher on the political right. All of them are Monsanto collaborators who have signed on to accelerate heinous crimes being committed against humanity under the false promise of “feeding the world” with toxic GMOs.
This is the mind of a person who Dr. Oz proudly brought on his show earlier in the year. Here’s the sentence from above I want you to keep in mind as you keep reading: “All of them are Monsanto collaborators who have signed on to accelerate heinous crimes being committed against humanity…”
Here’s what follows:
Monsanto is called the IG Farben of modern world [by Adams of course, if you click on the link] because its actions reflect the kind of crimes against humanity that remind me of those pursued by IG Farben, the chemical conglomerate run by Nazi collaborators during the Adolf Hitler regime. IG Farben used Jewish prisoners as human guinea pigs in horrific medical experiments, and the company pioneered so-called “science-based breakthroughs” for the development of psychiatric drugs, chemical pesticides, chemotherapy agents and gas chamber death chemicals like Zyklon B.
He goes on to talk about Nazi collaborators and how this history has a modern-day parallel:
Today, a number of once-independent media sites are selling out to corporate interests and quickly becoming Monsanto collaborators. This is readily apparent by noticing which media sites attack Dr. Mercola, the Food Babe, Jeffrey Smith, the Health Ranger or anyone else fighting against the scourge of GMO genocide against humanity. These attacks all have one thing in common: they are orchestrated by paid biotech muckrakers — people I call “Monsanto collaborators.”
Trust me, it gets even crazier. But towards the end is where this rant turns really disturbing:
Interestingly, just yesterday German President Joachim Gauck celebrated the lives of those brave Nazi officers who attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Their attempted Wolf’s Lair bombing failed, but it was an honorable attempt to rid the world of tremendous evil by killing one of the people responsible for it.
This official ceremony sends a message to the world, and that official message from the nation of Germany to the rest of the world says that it is the moral right — and even the obligation — of human beings everywhere to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity.
Adams bolded those words for emphasis. What do you think he’s suggesting there? Maybe Dr. Oz could ask him the next time he invites Adams on to his show.
My recent Washington Post magazine piece on Robert Kennedy Jr. has prompted numerous reactions in media outlets, on Twitter, and in the blogosphere. Generally speaking, readers have found the story both compelling and maddening. What folks seem to be divided on is how Kennedy comes off in the story.
Laura Helmuth at Slate says I was “remarkably generous” to Kennedy, “presenting him as dogged and genuine.” I disagree, in part. I don’t believe my story can be read as “remarkably generous” to him, but yes, he is portrayed as relentless and sincere.
Phil Plait, also at Slate, similarly felt that I should have been tougher on Kennedy:
Now, I don’t mean that Kloor treats RFK Jr. with kid gloves; the article actually shows his claims to be dead wrong and portrays him as an outcast from the mainstream. That’s all fine. I just don’t think Kloor really showed RFK Jr.’s true nature; something we here at Slate have seen for ourselves.
This perplexes me, since I thought where the piece most succeeds is in showing Kennedy’s true nature. Some science journalists appear to have picked up on that.
— George Johnson (@byGeorgeJohnson) July 20, 2014
Nonetheless, I think both Helmuth and Plait offer valuable perspectives and I appreciate them engaging respectfully with my story.
Writing in Forbes, Steven Salzberg confirms, based on his own experience, what I discovered:
What was shocking to me, the first time I heard Kennedy talk about thimerosal in vaccines, was how absolutely certain he is that he is right. Today’s Washington Post article describes a man who remains utterly convinced, despite the mountain of evidence against him.
Last September, Robert Kennedy Jr. and Mark Hyman received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It pertained to a “report” that Kennedy, an environmental attorney and Hyman, a medical doctor, had sent to federal health officials on the dangers of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative once commonly used in pediatric vaccines in the United States, until the early 2000s. The ingredient is still used in some flu vaccines, which Kennedy and Hyman said was inadvisable. The Kennedy/Hyman report on thimerosal was a draft of the book they are publishing next week.
The letter (PDF) from HHS was signed by Bruce Gellin, the Director of the National Vaccine Program Office (NVPO). He explained why U.S. federal agencies would disregard Kennedy and Hyman’s advice:
The many federal partners involved in immunizations have closely followed and evaluated the scientific discussion on thimerosal and are well aware of the significant amount of information that has been generated in addressing this question. We have read your report and NVPO and the other agencies are intimately familiar with the complexity of the results and the science that frames your arguments. In addition to a thorough review of the evidence we sought the input of the independent Institute of Medicine on this issue. The conclusion of the scientific community is clear that thimerosal-containing vaccines are safe and effective and do not represent a public health risk.
Kennedy and Hyman don’t accept this conclusion. My cover story in today’s Washington Post magazine is a chronicle of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s relentless efforts to persuade the world at large that the scientific community is wrong on the thimerosal issue.
He’s pretty much failed. In the process, he’s hurt his reputation in the public advocacy world. As I was reporting this story, I learned some surprising things. One is that Kennedy doesn’t seem to care that he’s hurt his reputation. Oh sure, it bothers him, but not enough to abandon his crusade. When I met with him last year in his home, he was frank about how he’s exasperated his closest allies and associates. At one juncture in the interview, he shared his own frustration over their icy response to his then unpublished book:
Nobody wants to read this. Their advice is, ‘don’t wreck my career, don’t destroy my credibility, this is hurting me. My business partner said, ‘don’t do this, you’re going to destroy yourself financially. You’re making yourself radioactive.’
To which I asked Kennedy: “What do you tell your business partners and everybody else who tells you to give up?
I tell them, ‘if I die poor, then I go down fighting for what’s right.’
I don’t envision him or anyone in the Kennedy clan dying poor, but the sentiment struck me. He then mentioned this: “The team of researchers who worked with me on this [book] were top researchers. People who were cautious, like Mark [Hyman].”
That led to the second surprising thing I learned (later on), which was that two of these researchers were bona fide, mainstream science journalists. In fact, they had played a substantive, behind the scenes role in the book. (Due to the emotionally and politically charged politics of anything to do with vaccines, they requested anonymity.) Not that this confers an automatic seal of approval on the book’s content (which should be judged on its merits alone), but it did make me go, Huh.
As for the book, I have now read it several times. The third and final surprising thing is that I wasn’t able to dismiss everything between the book’s covers as hogwash. No, I don’t think thimerosal is a contributing factor to autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders, as the book argues. Nor do I believe that thimerosal has been proven to be an unsafe vaccine preservative in trace amounts–even with repeated exposures–which is another argument in the book.
That said, there is a larger body of science on thimerosal/ethylmercury–such as toxicological and animal studies–that I was not aware of. This is laid out in the book. Do these studies add up enough to indict thimerosal as a dangerous vaccine ingredient for a potentially vulnerable subset of the population? That is a loaded question.
I’ve been promising to dive into the weeds on all this, but I want to be extra careful with how I discuss the book’s evidence and arguments. I know that there are many people who would prefer that Kennedy and his book be ignored. But that is not possible if he continues to stoke the controversial thimerosal fires.
So check back in a few days for a comprehensive review of the book.
This weekend I have a profile on Robert Kennedy Jr. in the Washington Post magazine. During our numerous conversations over the phone and in person, I found him to be candid, self-deprecating, and unshakably confident in his belief that thimerosal was a dangerous ingredient that should not be in vaccines. (It was phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s, but it remains in some flu vaccines.) Today, no leading public health advocate shares Kennedy’s view. So why has he maintained his position when scientific authorities, including the CDC, the FDA, World Health Organization, Institute of Medicine, have concluded that thimerosal is safe in trace amounts?
“Because I looked at the science,” he said to me. The evidence that convinced him is compiled in a soon-to-be published book called, “Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak.” I promised Kennedy I would read the book and tell him where he got it wrong, if I came to that conclusion. Before I attempt to do that (in part 2 of this post), let me back up a bit.
Last year, I characterized Kennedy as anti-science. I regret this and apologize for using such language. I have since come to believe that labeling people as “anti-science” is lazy and unfair–no matter what the issue. If we were to apply the label in a consistent manner, then there would be a large anti-science tent, as I have said before. I think Kennedy is misguided in his relentless thimerosal campaign–especially in the way he has gone about it–which is outlined in my Washington Post story. That said, I think Kennedy is well-meaning and sincere in his beliefs. He is what I would consider a flawed messenger, someone who inflames passions with irresponsible, over-heated rhetoric, which undermines whatever legitimate points he might have.
Kennedy knows that his combative, prosecutorial style is unhelpful to his cause. (He is a lawyer, after all.) So in recent years he recruited several medical professionals to his campaign. One of them is Mark Hyman, a physician, best-selling author, and doctor to the Clintons. Hyman is likable and diplomatic. He is also untainted by the vaccine wars, in the way Kennedy is.
Hyman became a major collaborator on Kennedy’s book, smoothing out its sharp language and shaping it into what he and Kennedy believe is a sober, scientific discussion of thimerosal.
In his preface, Hyman attempts to pre-empt the anticipated criticism: Read More
Some stories I pursue, others I let unwind a bit to make sure they are for real. The cover story I wrote on Robert Kennedy Jr. for this Sunday’s Washington Post magazine falls into the latter category.
You couldn’t find a more unlikely author of this story than me. Last summer, I wrote two critical posts about Kennedy. The first was in response to a keynote talk he gave at an annual autism advocacy conference that is notorious for bringing half-baked diagnostic theories, anti-vaccine fervor, and alternative therapy boosterism under one tent.
The second post discussed a phone call between myself and Kennedy, in which I learned he was hellbent on proving that increasing autism rates and an array of developmental disorders could be linked to thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in some flu vaccines and phased out of U.S. pediatric vaccines in the early 2000s.
Kennedy said he amassed the proof in a new book and challenged me to read it. I said I would.
He sent me the manuscript later in the summer. Shortly after that, we talked some more. He told me of several upcoming meetings in Washington D.C. that he had been able to arrange, relating to his book. One was with a senator and another with government health officials.
This piqued my interest. Read More
This week the New York Times published a profile of longtime climate skeptic John Christy. I found the piece perplexing because it contained no obvious hook or peg, as we say in journalism.
There were no newsy events in Christy’s life that might have prompted a story about him in a prestige media outlet: No new studies published by him being debated (or debunked) by the climate science community, no new book making a splash, no new controversial statements by him lighting up social media, no academic recriminations at his university, no close personal friendships suddenly and irrevocably breached because of his outlier stance.
The NYT profile could have been published last year or five years ago.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to journalists writing about high profile contrarians that have scientific standing. I applauded the 2009 New York Times magazine profile on Freeman Dyson, which climate partisans attacked. Dyson is a supernova intellect with huge stature in the science world, so his outspoken and widely publicized contrarian views were a legitimate peg for a magazine-style profile of him.
The same goes for Michael Lemonick’s 2010 profile of Judith Curry in Scientific American. At the time, Curry was undergoing a professional metamorphosis, from respected member of the mainstream climate science community to pointed critic of her peers and renunciation of her own previously held views on consensus positions. Naturally, the same climate partisans vehemently objected to Lemonick’s fair and evenhanded profile. (He explained here why he thought Curry’s turnabout merited a profile.)
So it doesn’t surprise me that a profile of Christy would trigger similar disapproval from those most passionately concerned about climate change and who are always on the lookout for media coverage that gives any voice to outlier positions. I’m not a fan of false balance myself, and I certainly don’t approve of shoddy journalism about any science topics of enormous public interest, be it climate change, GMOs, or evolution. But sometimes, as in the cases of Dyson and Curry, there is legitimate news value when well known, highly credentialed individuals promote views that are at odds with the majority of their peers in the scientific community. To ignore such individuals entirely would be a journalistic dereliction of duty.
My beef with the Christy profile is not that it was written, but that it had no discernible relevant news hook or theme (which it would have had, were it done as a magazine-style profile). It seemed pointless. It didn’t explore why or how Christy arrived at his contrarian position. (Might political persuasion, ideology, or religion played a role?) It didn’t put his situation into any larger context by bringing into the picture someone like Richard Lindzen, perhaps the most controversial and influential climate skeptic. If I were to pitch a profile of Christy to an editor, I would only do so if he had recently made news (he has appeared before Congress numerous times) or if there was something notable he recently did or something newly revealing about him I could explore. I don’t see the NTY profile meeting any of that criteria.
As a stand-alone piece in the news section, it amounts to little more than a story about one man’s battle against a science establishment that scorns and rejects him. That’s a legitimate story, in of itself. I just wish it was more probing and contextualized. But as with anything climate related, the story’s importance has been breathlessly elevated by some. Salon asserts that the NYT profile “sets back science.”
This from an outlet that ran a piece earlier in the year that shouted:
Your cellphone is killing you: What people don’t want you to know about electromagnetic fields
Salon, when you publish laughable, scare-mongering crap like that (which is not supported by evidence), you are in no position to be telling others what sets back science.
In 2013, Jeff Goodell wrote a long piece in Rolling Stone explaining how rising seas would eventually drown the city of Miami, Florida. The money quote:
“Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,” says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.
Later in the story, Goodell is with Wanless in Miami Beach when the skies open up. They watch flood waters stall a Toyota driver on a main road:
“This is what global warming looks like,” he [Wanless] explained. “If you live in South Florida and you’re not building a boat, you’re not facing reality.”
Call me crazy, but this sounds a tad hyperbolic.
In May, Coral Davenport in the New York Times wrote a much less shouty story on South Florida’s climate change-challenged future. But like the Rolling Stone piece, her story emphasized the seeming inevitability of Miami’s demise and the culpability of Florida’s leading Republicans.
This weekend, a long feature by Robin McKie in the UK’s Observer, a sunday paper that shares a website with the Guardian, covered much the same territory.* It even features some of the same characters in both the Rolling Stone and NYT pieces. Here is McKie quoting Wanless: Read More