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Nate Silver's New Site Stirs Climate Controversy 335

Posted by samzenpus
from the hornet's-nest dept.
First time accepted submitter taiwanjohn (103839) writes "One of the first articles on Nate Silver's highly anticipated data-driven news site used flawed data to make its conclusions, according to some of the nation's top climate scientists. Silver's FiveThirtyEight published its first article about climate change on Wednesday, entitled 'Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change.' But climate scientists are condemning the article and its author, Roger Pielke Jr., saying he ignored critical data to produce a 'deeply misleading' result. The crux of Pielke's article is this: Extreme weather events are costing us more and more money, but that is not because climate change is making extreme weather more frequent or intense. The reason we are losing more money, rather, is because we have more money to lose. Pielke came to this conclusion by measuring rising disaster damage costs alongside the rising global Gross Domestic Product. He also cited a U.N. climate report, along with his own research, to assert that extreme weather events have not been increasing in frequency or intensity."
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Nate Silver's New Site Stirs Climate Controversy

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  • by saloomy (2817221) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @07:27PM (#46539347)
    He also cited a U.N. climate report, along with his own research, to assert that extreme weather events have not been increasing in frequency or intensity. Aren't extreme weather events and their relative energy levels easy to gauge and track? Why is this controversial? Either there are more extreme / extremely powerful events, the average energy level increasing, or there aren't. Im sure that (like economists do for inflation), factors that are constant and not constant (like solar output) can be factored.
  • by quantaman (517394) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @07:58PM (#46539543)

    538's original mix, sports and politics, are both essentially spectator sports. The major interest in entertainment and people watch for the narratives. Seeking to drive interest (and appease partisans) media come up with false narratives that ignore data. This creates a lot of low hanging fruit for 538 to take the data and point out the narratives are wrong.

    I think that 538 has made the mistake of believing that this low-hanging fruit exists elsewhere. When you have multiple groups of writers all trying to generate the best 2.5 hours of cable news punditry every week you're going to get a lot of easily debunked BS. When you try to apply that same once over data analysis to areas of serious scientific study you're going to be the one spewing BS.

    I hope Silver can find some additional areas of news that are in real need of analysis because trying to do original scientific research in a news article won't end well.

  • by oneiros27 (46144) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @08:23PM (#46539701) Homepage

    The day before this article came out, the AAAS released a report on The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change [], and seems to be starting a publicity push on the topic.

    Here's what I see -- the majority of scientists believe that there are real problems with global warming, even if there may be some cyclic effects (heat kills off all the humans, they stop causing problems, everything cools back down).

    So instead we have groups trying to sow disinformation with questions about the incidence of some severe weather events (are we just monitoring better and catching more, in part because humans are in more places, or are they actually increasing), and are the increases in intensity statistically significant?

    And at this point, I've seen some data that might've been tainted (eg, temperature monitors that have had buildings encroach), but the general concensus is that yes, storms are getting worse.

    I'm not going to say his results are completely bunk, as he's likely right in that some of the problems can be explained by how and where people build (eg, in the flood plain -- but the flood plain was resurveyed and is growing in my area ... that might be because of silting up of rivers from construction, it could be because of increased rainfall))

    Where I do fault the article is for referencing a 'recent' UN report that hasn't been released yet (website says "The Summary for Policymakers will be released on 31 March 2014"), so we can't actually get to the underlying data that he's basing his claims on.

  • by rahvin112 (446269) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @08:57PM (#46539883)

    Nate made a name for himself doing statistical analysis on events where there are generally two possible outcomes and a fairly limited numbers of possible ways to get there. Sports, voting, etc are ALL yes or no answers with very very limited possible ways to get there.

    Real science on the other hand frequently involves situations where the answer isn't really known and the possible ways to get there are infinite. So rather than evaluating whether the local voters will vote for candidate A or candidate B is an entirely different situation than evaluating whether climate change is increasing the cost of disasters. There are two variables in the first and good data (such as polling) indicating how people in general will vote. With solid statistical analysis this type of situations should be fairly easy to predict IF your data collection is good. He made his name by doing better data picking than the others.

    Climate change disaster levels on the other hand is an entirely different game. Because this is all rather cutting edge science, whether the frequency or size of disasters has gone up (at this time) is a question of open debate in the scientific community. This paper makes blatant assumptions about which side of this debate is right then proceeds to use that assumption as the basis to draw firm conclusions. This isn't good science and it's not good data analysis. Consensus is needed in science if you are going to rely on the conclusions to make predictions on other data sets. And that's exactly the problem, there isn't a yes or no answer to the question there was an assumed answer. There is evidence indicating things and certain scientists may agree or disagree about what that evidence indicates and in time after much research the scientific community will reach a consensus and we'll likely have the real answer with hard evidence at that point.

    Nate should stick to what he's good at, fixed data sets with yes or no answers. He apparently doesn't have the scientific background to realize that not all scientific conclusions drawn in papers are either right nor are they the consensus of the community. After all, any jackass can write a paper and draw conclusions and be completely wrong or even fake data, in fact it happens all to often.

  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pitchpipe (708843) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @08:59PM (#46539889)

    I cannot ever recall a group of scientists like these folks be so opposed and go to the lengths they do to squelch any and all dissenting views.

    I cannot ever recall groups of people who are not experts in a field so fervently trying to discredit the experts in that field, and to disprove the science in that field, all while using anything but the generally accepted methods of that field.

    I don't see wildlife biologists using historical populations of wolves to try to disprove Einstein's theory of relativity. I don't see archaeologists using ancient mummy wrapping techniques to try to disprove the theory of solar spot formation. But here we have a political scientist using statistics from economic data to try to discredit the theory that more energy in a weather system will cause more energetic events. It's getting to be so ridiculous that I bet in the near future we *will* see a wildlife biologist using historical wolf populations to disprove that the globe is heating up, or that it is but man is not the cause, or that man is the cause but you can't do anything about it anyway, or that you could, but it's actually better for everybody so don't do anything, or please, just anything but not to burn less oil.

    You guys that deny climate change is happening (or whatever your flavor of denialism is taking on these days), do you ever wonder if by buying into what these guys are saying that you're just playing the stooge?

  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by reve_etrange (2377702) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @09:01PM (#46539899)
    You've misunderstood the 538 post. The argument there is simply that higher GDP means there is more GDP available to lose. Ergo, greater losses. Its author claims that technological and preparedness advances are not significant.
  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by reve_etrange (2377702) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @09:05PM (#46539915)
    Just because skin wont burst into flames doesn't mean that millions or hundred of millions of people might not be displaced or deprived of food and water.
  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LynnwoodRooster (966895) on Thursday March 20, 2014 @10:27PM (#46540263) Journal

    And from an anecdotal point of view having been in emergency management for 15 years, I can say from personal experience that storms are getting more frequent and more powerful.

    Interesting, must just be your neck of the woods, since hurricane/cyclone frequency and energy is decreasing [] on a global scale. Sure, we're spotting more hurricanes/cyclones, but fewer are making landfall and are weaker as well. Perhaps our ability to spot hurricanes out at sea, and classify them correctly is what is getting better, not the actual number occurring.

    Likewise with tornadoes [], which have remained more-or-less constant. Damage caused by F1 to F5 tornadoes is actually dropping; it's the little guys, the F0s, that are increasing damage. Is that because there are more tornadoes? No, there are not more tornadoes. I suggest it is because there is more lightweight construction in/near tornado zones and so damage is happening where in the past it would not - nothing to damage.

  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:4, Interesting)

    by TapeCutter (624760) on Friday March 21, 2014 @01:19AM (#46540901) Journal
    Yes, unlike Antony Watts, Monckton and other "deniers", Pielke sometimes has the balls to put his ideas into a published paper. He is "a" scientists disagreeing with the conclusions of Science in the proper way. IMO his ideas don't amount to a hill of beans but his critsizims do have the welcome affect of strengthening the existing arguments. At the end of the day, robust debate is how Science is supposed to work.
  • Re:Go after em Nate (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Bongo (13261) on Friday March 21, 2014 @05:16AM (#46541501)

    No the problem for the general public is that there is always risk. Look at nutrition. 50 years ago some sort of consensus was formed that eating fat is bad for your heart. It was a sort of consensus, with politicians, health officials, and manufacturers. You know, all the "stakeholders" as is custom to call them today. And well science, as you know, the reason to trust science more than the next thing, is that it is supposed to be self-correcting. Ie. we expect mistakes will be made but that they will be corrected. But there's the rub, with nutrition, it is taking over 50 years for that correction to take place. 50 years! So the problem for the public is, science is self correcting but that process takes time, so there is always a risk. And what with obesity skyrocketing, apparently because the consensus got everyone to start eating the kind of food that does make them fat and is bad for their heart, the risk wasn't theoretical, it has had a huge negative outcome. That's "consensus". IT IS STILL RISK.

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