Advocacy organizations like mine can sometimes get ourselves in a difficult position when we engage on a campaign that focuses on the media. As we determine our theory of change we have to sort through the complexities of two competing interests. On one hand, we have to consider protecting freedom of expression. On the other hand, we want to hold the media accountable to deliver the most accurate information available to help foster an informed citizenry.
We weighed these competing interests when we called for Nate Silver to let go of Roger Pielke, Jr., a controversial figure in the climate change debate. FiveThirtyEight brought on Pielke on as a contributor, but controversy soon followed after his first post asserted that climate change has played no role in the increase in damages from natural hazards like hurricanes and other instances of extreme weather.
Many were up in arms, including us. We were concerned for two reasons. The first was Silver's choice of Pielke, who has a long record of impugning the motives of climate scientists and publishing information consistently shown to be suspect. In a recent case, Dr. John Holdren, the White House's chief science expert, took the extraordinary step of publishing a 6-page response to a Pielke paper that wrongly questioned the link between climate change and drought. Given his poor record for scientifically rigorous climate research and reporting, we were calling for a higher standard of climate analysis from FiveThirtyEight.
Our second reason for concern was Silver's choice to publish Pielke's piece, which reflected the questionable methods and unreasonable conclusions that are Pielke's hallmark. Silver tried to remedy the situation after the fact by commissioning a rebuttal from world-renowned climate scientist Dr. Kerry Emanuel, who wrote: "I'm not comfortable with Pielke's assertion that climate change has played no role in the observed increase in damages from natural hazards; I don't see how the data he cites support such a confident assertion."
Last Monday, Pielke told Discover magazine that he is no longer affiliated with FiveThirtyEight, implying that his ouster was due to "coordinated... mob-like attacks" by "activist scientists, journalists and social media aficionados." Commentators on the right pounced, writing that this outcome was "predictable" and saying that those concerned about journalistic integrity behaved with "viscousness" when we questioned Silver's decision to hire Pielke.
This sort of rhetoric follows a recent trend on the right. The Washington Post's syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer called members of my organization the "thought police" when we brought a petition to his editor, Fred Hiatt, calling for higher standards of accuracy from his columnists after Krauthammer repeatedly -- and wrongly -- wrote that the planet is not warming.
We asked the Post to apply the same basic journalistic norms on its editorial page that it does on its news pages, and the same principle guided our campaign at FiveThirtyEight. Before columns are published, they should be fact checked. If the science is incorrect, errors should be fixed before publication. If a mistake slips in, corrections should be published. And if there are repeated factual mistakes, then leadership should consider more aggressive actions.
Our efforts aren't about shutting down debate. Quite the opposite. We're asking for a more robust debate that begins with an accurate accounting of the facts and greater accountability when things go wrong.
Roger Pielke, Jr. is no longer with FiveThirtyEight because of his poor performance and record of injudicious writing on climate change. Other media, the Washington Post included, would do well to look at the Pielke affair as an impetus for action. On global warming, the stakes are too high not to make sure that we are lead by the facts.
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