Nate Silver, Roger Pielke, and journalism ethics
Nate Silver is a statistician who has analyzed baseball and elections. I don’t know him but it seems that some other people do. At any rate, he started a new expensive online news server FiveThirtyEight.com (the number is 538). Some mostly left-wing pundits have criticized the new server and made its childhood a rocky experience.The first study he happened to publish on that server was one by Dr Roger Pielke Jr, a “climate lukewarmer” [in the middle between skeptics and alarmists] who does research into damages caused by meteorological phenomena:Disasters Cost More Than Ever — But Not Because of Climate Change (by Pielke)His main point is simple: the absolute amount of money destroyed by natural disasters is increasing but so is the total GDP. The ratio stays pretty much constant – as he demonstrates by some graph from the Munich Re reinsurance company – and it should. (Well, there is even some decrease that seems statistically insignificant; if it ever became significant, it would probably be due to people’s increasing ability to protect their assets.) There exists no scientific or otherwise rational reason to think that the “losses to GDP” ratio should be significantly changing with time. As people are getting wealthier, they have more assets that may be destroyed by unpleasant weather and so on.Needless to say, a “lukewarmer” like Pielke Jr is a sufficient heretic for the climate activists to go ballistic; his claims – self-evidently correct claims – were a blasphemy. So they have spammed the comment section with tons of negative comments (80% of comments were claimed to be negative), posted a long pseudoscientific rebuttal at SkepticalScience.COM, a rant at Salon.COM mentioning the grilling of Silver by Jon Stewart, a diatribe at HuffPo, and dozens of other anti-Pielke replies on assorted far left-wing servers and blogs.Spineless Nate Silver has apologized to the working class for his anti-revolutionary, anti-socialist provocation.Of course, fine folks like James Delingpole know where the wind is blowing from. All the data I can access are consistent with the hypothesis that all these insane anti-skeptic “fireworks” you can see on the Internet and in the media are the result of an orchestrated campaign by 25 or fewer unhinged alarmist trolls, at least 90% of the “fireworks”.This is actually the mean value of my estimate. Such a claim may sound remarkable but people who don’t have access to any data about the visitors and commenters on a website generally underestimate how intensely amplified the visibility of certain views becomes due to the relentless work of a very small number of obsessed trolls and spammers.I am fortunately not getting too many truly obnoxious comments these days. But during the last 3 months, I got about 5 comments from different posters praising guest posts on The Reference Frame, with the implicit suggestion that I should stop writing my own essays. OK individual opinions, I thought for a while. After all, I try to pick high-quality guest bloggers (and yes, I prefer native speakers, something I am not) so if the comparison ends up in this way, it shouldn’t shock me.However, when I saw the fifth comment of this sort, I finally checked the IP addresses. Needless to say, every single comment from this set was posted by the very same user in Halifax, Canada. Without this check (I am not doing them often, but sometimes I am), I could easily believe that there were 5 people holding this opinion; in reality, there was just 1 troll. This is just one recent anecdote but over the years, I have accumulated many stories of this kind. The general conclusion seems clear to me: on the Internet, a huge fraction of the “violent opposition” to some opinions is created by a tiny group of people.The critics that were mentioned as contributors to Silver’s apology by the media belonged to this list:Michael MannKevin TrenberthRob HoneycuttDana1981…and a few others. Have I seen the names before? You bet. All of them belong to the aforementioned “list of 25 top climate alarmist trolls”. They keep on trolling, trolling, trolling. They are spamming, spamming, spamming. They are attacking, attacking, attacking climate skeptics. They are whining, whining, whining that they were unfairly attacked even though they haven’t. They are lying 24 hours a day. Michael Mann is threatening others with lawsuits all the time (and sometimes even sues, being supported by some really immoral wealthy individuals), yet he has the breathtaking arrogance to claim that it’s others who are threatening him. They are doing these things all the time, seven days a week, 52 or 53 weeks a year, and a large percentage of the “climatic portion of the blogosphere” is created by this small group of people. If you removed these trolls from the surface of the globe, climate alarmism would pretty much cease to exist on the Internet. Incidentally, yes, this is my recipe how to solve the climate problem.I find it sort of shocking that people like Nate Silver who should already know something about the “behavioral science about the Internet commenters” and about the sociology of the climate debate – election-related statistics are not too far from this discipline – still fail to understand these points. I find it shocking that they still get manipulated by these aggressive yet intrinsically inconsequential scumbags and crackpots.Let me just mention one graph – the only “apparently non-trivial” argument against Pielke’s assertions that I have seen anywhere in the hurricane of vitriol directed against his self-evident assertions. You see that the “number of natural catastrophes” has more than doubled over the last 30 years. But one must be careful about the definition of a “natural catastrophe”. Note that in 1980, the world population was less than 4.5 bilion, so it has “almost” doubled since that time, too. Moreover, the people are much wealthier and they have many more things that may be damaged or insured and damages of these things count as “natural catastrophes”.My point is that the quantity “number of natural catastrophes” doesn’t really have a robust, time-independent definition here. If you actually look at the overall money which have a much more robust definition, as Pielke did, you will see that the claims or losses were increasing proportionally to the total GDP.There’s one more observation that is being mentioned by Pielke’s critics: the number of “geophysical events” like earthquakes, tsunami, and volcanic eruption wasn’t substantially increasing – only “the weather got worse”. But they always prefer to automatically assume that any such asymmetry is due to their favorite “climate change”. The actual reason of the unequal growth is simply that people may escape from the places where earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions are occurring because these places are known and ultimately determined by the fault lines, tectonic plates, and other geological entities. On the other hand, one can’t really escape bad weather! So the rate of the increase of the concentration of people and their wealth in “geologically risky” places was much smaller (and insurance companies wouldn’t insure you at certain places) than the concentration of people in places where “bad weather” may occur (which is the whole surface of the Earth).At any rate, the right interpretation of all these graphs is a science of a sort. It is not as hard a science as particle physics. But one needs some expertise. And Roger Pielke Jr has accumulated about 10,000 citations by work focusing on these questions – despite the fact that his basic philosophy wasn’t exactly aligned with the political establishment of the Academia. Why would Nate Silver surrender to 25 trolls whose total number of citations in these matters is 100 times lower than those of Roger Pielke Jr? And if Nate Silver thinks that the total loudness of the trolls is more important than the truth and the people’s expertise, why did he hire Roger Pielke Jr to write the piece in the first place? Why didn’t he establish a new server as a footnote to a random crackpot’s blog, for example as 538.SkepticalScience.COM?Roger Pielke Jr isn’t necessarily my “#1 cup of tea” but I can still see that Nate Silver’s behavior towards him was disrespectful. More generally, the freedom of expression and journalism ethics seems to be evaporating from the Internet in the U.S. that is increasingly controlled by the aforementioned groups of violent trolls and by the group think they want to impose – and they have really imposed. Twenty-five years ago, I wouldn’t predict that I would be writing these things in 2014. But it’s true, anyway: I think that the freedom of expression – especially journalists’ freedom to evaluate the data in the way they see fit – is much better e.g. in Russia these days than it is in the U.S. And despite all the annoying trends I am observing, I think that the journalism ethics and especially the freedom of expression is in a much better shape in Czechia than it is in either of the countries above.I have embedded Robert Foster’s (“funny fake rapping media host”) “report” about the recent Russian-American tension. He is doing fun of both sides and makes some good points – well, at least good for those who are not following the events in any objective way. The funny video was reposted by Russia Today but I am afraid that it would be censored in all the U.S. media that look at themselves way too seriously when they moralize about the “evils” done by Russia. Around 4:20, journalist Abby Martin adds her contribution to the rap, too. She is saying things that Putin would probably disagree with – but she can do so despite her being an employee of the Kremlin-funded Russia Today. I think that nowadays, the journalists in MSNBC or other American TV channels wouldn’t be able (well, I mean “wouldn’t be allowed”) to display their editorial independence and freedom of expression in this way.So I have grown increasingly disillusioned by the status of human rights and professional ethics in the U.S. It’s a system de facto controlled by several cliques of aggressive fascists who are blackmailing everyone who is inconvenient them, who are spamming the Internet and news with lies, whining, demagogy, and character assassinations, and who are using the gullible brainwashed sheep – the average Americans – both as a weapon and as a final target to be conquered. Couldn’t at least one Nate Silver find the balls to tell Manns and Trenberths of this world “fuck you”? It’s probably too much to ask.
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