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Mon Sep 24, 2012, 11:59 AM

FiveThirtyEight: The Number of Things Nate Silver Gets Wrong About Climate Change [View all]

Michael E. Mann

Director of Penn State Earth System Science Center; Author of 'Dire Predictions' and 'The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars'

If you're a science or math geek like me, you can't help but like Nate Silver. He's the fellow nerd who made good. His site FiveThirtyEight.com is a must for any serious polling buff, and he regularly graces the leading talk shows with his insightful if wonky commentary. So you can imagine how excited I was a year ago when Nate's assistant contacted me, indicating that he wanted to come to State College, PA -- the "happy valley" -- to interview me for his new book on "forecasting and prediction."

Nate, I was told, was working on a chapter about global warming. He sought me out because he felt my expertise would make me an "excellent guide to the history of climate modeling". He also expressed interest in my own upcoming (since published) book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars which details my experiences at the center of the climate change debate. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to the meeting.


And so I was rather crestfallen earlier this summer when I finally got a peek at a review copy of the The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don't. It's not that Nate revealed himself to be a climate change denier; He accepts that human-caused climate change is real, and that it represents a challenge and potential threat. But he falls victim to a fallacy that has become all too common among those who view the issue through the prism of economics rather than science. Nate conflates problems of prediction in the realm of human behavior -- where there are no fundamental governing 'laws' and any "predictions" are potentially laden with subjective and untestable assumptions -- with problems such as climate change, which are governed by laws of physics, like the greenhouse effect, that are true whether or not you choose to believe them.

Nate devotes far too much space to the highly questionable claims of a University of Pennsylvania marketing Professor named J. Scott Armstrong. Armstrong made a name for himself in denialist circles back in 2007 by denouncing climate models has having no predictive value at all. Armstrong's arguments were fundamentally flawed, belied by a large body of primary scientific literature -- with which Armstrong was apparently unfamiliar -- demonstrating that climate model projections clearly do in fact out-perform naive predictions which ignore the effect of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. As discussed in detail by my RealClimate.org co-founder, NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt, Armstrong simply didn't understand the science well enough to properly interpret, let alone, assess, the predictive skill of climate model predictions.



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Reply FiveThirtyEight: The Number of Things Nate Silver Gets Wrong About Climate Change [View all]
Viking12 Sep 2012 OP
Speck Tater Sep 2012 #1