I should start this post by saying that I couldn’t care one way or the other about the success of FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver has done good work on both sports and elections, but that doesn’t mean that he is inherently better at reporting or shaping news than a lot of other people. I certainly don’t wish him bad luck because I want quality analysis to read. But it’s notable how strongly negative the response to the rollout of the new site has been. Krugman has perhaps the most important run-down, if for no other reason than that’s the type of writer to whom Silver is supposed to appeal. First, there was the ridiculous manifesto. Then there was the bizarre idea that one could somehow be objective about data and therefore non-ideological, an absurd claim. But whatever. A lot more problematic is the idea that all subjects are equally reported poorly and thus he needs to save the day by hiring people who can bring data to the problem. Silver has brought known climate skeptic Roger Pielke on board to write about climate. Pielke’s first article basically says that natural disasters aren’t increasing and not to worry about climate change caused disasters in any case because the world’s getting richer so we can clean them up. The final paragraph:
When you next hear someone tell you that worthy and useful efforts to mitigate climate change will lead to fewer natural disasters, remember these numbers and instead focus on what we can control. There is some good news to be found in the ever-mounting toll of disaster losses. As countries become richer, they are better able to deal with disasters — meaning more people are protected and fewer lose their lives. Increased property losses, it turns out, are a price worth paying.
A price worth paying for what precisely? And what are the limits of this price? This is the kind of data-centered reporting we were promised by Silver? Uh…. People who actually know climate data, i.e., the kind of data Silver is supposed to provide, are more than unhappy by Pielke’s article and worried about what FiveThirtyEight is going to bring to climate reporting. Given Silver’s prominence, these sorts of stories could do real damage to the battle to build support to fight climate change. Bad stuff.
Silver probably should understand that there are some fields where ridiculous fact-free bloviating dominates and some where it doesn’t. It exists in politics because of the need to fill 24 hours of cable content and generate website hits. It does in sports because sports don’t really matter that much. It does not in climate science–except from the kind of people Silver himself is hiring. If Silver wants to be serious about climate data, it’s there in a gigantic literature that pretty much all agrees on what’s happening. Allowing sketchy climate skeptics to present “data” to question the actual data is basically him becoming what he says he hates.
In the end, creating a website primarily to massage your own enormous ego may come with problems.