Petty Bickering and Checking Sources, Part Four

Today's post is going to be about petty and stupid nonsense in the climate debate. If you think talking about such is a waste of time, I suggest you skip it. If you think truth, accuracy and perhaps even proofreading are desirable and worth campaigning for, I suggest you read on.

Today's post has nothing to do with the subject matter of previous posts in this series. The connection is purely in theme. Just like how I showed people were crying, "Fraud!" over practically nothing by means of exaggeration and misrepresentation, I would like to show how similar behavior is being used to promote the idea there has been a campaign to unfairly target a man named Roger Pielke Jr (not to be confused with his father, who has also written on climate matters).

Now, I am not going to argue the central point of the recent media flurry. Maybe Pielke was unfairly treated. I don't know. It wouldn't surprise me. The only thing I care about is how stupid and petty the nonsense Pielke has managed to get published in the Wall Street Journal about this is (reposted here for those who can't access the WSJ version). If global warming is an important subject, the level of discussion should be far, far higher than this.

Before I go on, I want to point out I counted at least four errors in this article that should have been caught by basic proofreading. That seems crazy to me. The Wall Street Journal is a major newspaper. Even a single typo in an article should be uncommon. That there are four astounds me. I won't fault Pielke for this as people make mistakes. The only people I fault are the editors at the WSJ who I'm not convinced even read this piece.

I won't say anything more about that though. People often tell me I care too much about such matters. Rather than bore everybody with them, I'll just jump into things with a very minor example. Pielke writes:

my research was under constant attack for years by activists, journalists and politicians. In 2011 writers in the journal Foreign Policy signaled that some accused me of being a “climate-change denier.” I earned the title, the authors explained, by “questioning certain graphs presented in IPCC reports.” That an academic who raised questions about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in an area of his expertise was tarred as a denier reveals the groupthink at work.

This sounds more dramatic until you realize what was said is:

: Pielke, whose father is also a scientist and an outspoken critic of the IPCC, is emblematic of just how confusing traditional labels are: For his work questioning certain graphs presented in IPCC reports, Pielke has been accused by some of being a climate change "denier." Meanwhile, for his work on adaptation, he has been accused by others of being an "alarmist."

I won't make hay of how Pielke kind of misquoted this piece (I doubt many people care about the change from "climate change 'denier'" to "climate-change denier"). Instead, just look at the point Pielke's source is making. Because Pielke's position didn't clearly fall in either the "denier" or "alarmist" tribe, he got labeled both things by some people who didn't know how to classify him. That context is interesting. It is also completely absent from Pielke's portrayal.

That's a very minor example of how Pielke spins things. Let's try a more serious example:

n August this year on Twitter, I criticized poor reporting on the website Mashable about a supposed coming hurricane apocalypse—including a bad misquote of me in the cartoon role of climate skeptic. (The misquote was later removed.) The publication’s lead science editor, Andrew Freedman, helpfully explained via Twitter that this sort of behavior “is why you’re on many reporters’ ‘do not call’ lists despite your expertise.”

This sounds dramatic. Pielke makes it sound like reporters won't talk to him because he criticizes ones who do things like misquote people. It's nonsense, of course. First, it's not clear Pielke was misquoted. Pielke was quoted in an article (original version here) four times. On Twitter, he claims he was misquoted:

Explaining:

We don't have a copy of the interview Pielke gave, so it is impossible to know if he actually said the words attributed to him. He doesn't seem to deny it though. His complaint isn't, "I never said that." It's, "I've written something which doesn't match that." It's perfectly possible Pielke contradicted himself or there is some other nuance that makes this not be a misquotation. It may even be an accurate quotation that was misrepresented.

I don't know. It's not the important though. What is important is what came of this. Pielke says:

The publication’s lead science editor, Andrew Freedman, helpfully explained via Twitter that this sort of behavior “is why you’re on many reporters’ ‘do not call’ lists despite your expertise.”

This selective quotation creates a rather misleading impression Freedman did not say "this sort of behavior." What he actually said is:

Note two things. First, that does not say anything about "this sort of behavior." It says, "This Tweet." Second, Freedman says, "Duly noted. Thanks." What is Freedman taking note of? Why, "This Tweet":

Let's be clear about what Pielke is saying. He explicitly told Andrew Freedman, "There are a few media outlets I won't talk to" and that Freedman's was one of them. Freedman responded to say that "is why you're on many reporters' 'do no call' lists" and would take note of the fact Pielke won't talk to him. Pielke portrays that as part of some campaign against him caused by his criticizing things like misquotations.

Yeah, no. If you tell the world you're making a list of media outlets you won't talk to, many reporters won't bother to contact you. This is especially true if you make these announcements without even giving those outlets a chance to resolve things amicably:

Guess what Pielke? If you had maybe not been a dick and publicly declared you wouldn't talk to people because you didn't agree with what they wrote without giving them a chance to address your concerns, maybe reporters would want to talk to you. That you being a dick to people makes people not want to talk to you doesn't mean there is some nefarious plot against you. It doesn't mean:

I didn’t know reporters had such lists. But I get it. No one likes being told that he misreported scientific research, especially on climate change. Some believe that connecting extreme weather with greenhouse gases helps to advance the cause of climate policy. Plus, bad news gets clicks.

Yet more is going on here than thin-skinned reporters responding petulantly to a vocal professor.

The reality is Pielke has a well-earned reputation for being a brat. That's been a big source of trouble for him which he seems to either be unaware of or just ignore. I won't go into the history of that. Instead, let's look at an example from this article of his:

Yet the climate thought police still weren’t done. In 2013 committees in the House and Senate invited me to a several hearings to summarize the science on disasters and climate change. As a professor at a public university, I was happy to do so. My testimony was strong, and it was well aligned with the conclusions of the IPCC and the U.S. government’s climate-science program. Those conclusions indicate no overall increasing trend in hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or droughts—in the U.S. or globally.

In early 2014, not long after I appeared before Congress, President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren testified before the same Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He was asked about his public statements that appeared to contradict the scientific consensus on extreme weather events that I had earlier presented. Mr. Holdren responded with the all-too-common approach of attacking the messenger, telling the senators incorrectly that my views were “not representative of the mainstream scientific opinion.”

Okay, I'm actually going to pause here for a bit of an aside. There's more to this quotation, but I want to take a moment to highlight the hilarity of how pathetic that last sentence is. Pielke says a person claimed his view are "not representative of the mainstream scientific opinion." Right or wrong, that's a simple and relevant point. If Pielke's views match mainstream ones, that tells us what the mainstream views are. If his views don't match mainstream ones, then comparing how they differ would give us insight on what points of dispute there are. Establishing how people's views differ or match is a central part of having reasoned discussions.

So how does Pielke respond to this normal thing of outlining where people agree and disagree? He labels it "attacking the messenger." Think about that. Nothing in that quotation even talks about Pielke. The remark Pielke quotes only talks about Pielke's view, claiming (correctly or incorrectly) that Pielke's views don't represent mainstream ones. That has nothing to do with him as a person.

Anyway, I just thought it was funny Pielke thinks it is beyond the pale to say someone disagrees with mainstream views. It gets even better when you look at what this person actually said. Here is an exchange from a Congressional hearing:

Sen. Sessions: Well let me tell you what Dr. Pileke said who sat in that chair you are sitting in today, just a few months ago, he is a climate impact expert, and he agrees that warming is partly caused by human emissions but he testified quote " it is misleading and just plain incorrect to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or drought have increased on climate change time scales either in the United States or globally" .

Dr. Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama testified quote "there is little or no observational evidence that severe weather of any type has worsened over the last 30, 50 or 100 years. The AEI evaluated the data in the NOAA Palmer Drought Severity Index. Are you familiar with that?

Dr. Holdren: I am

Sen. Sessions: and they concluded quote that the PDSI shows no trend over the record period beginning in 1895 in terms of drought. More areas in the United States have experienced an increase in soil moisture than a decline

In the IPCC in April of last year admitted their previous reports had been in error stating quote "based on updated studies conclusions global increasing trends in drought since the 1970s were probably overstated."

And the Congressional Resource Service, our own group here likewise finds that droughts haven't been increasing

Dr. Holdren: On your last point about global drought of course we know that in a warming world with evaporation increasing precipitation also increases. More places are getting wetter than getting drier

Sen. Sessions: (Interupts) Also we are not having any drought.

Dr. Holdren: When you say global drought, if I may finish. When you say global drought you are averaging out the places that are getting drier and the places that are getting wetter. What I have been talking about is what is happening in drought prone regions. The first few people you quoted are not representative of the mainstream scientific opinion on this point and again I will be happy to submit for the record recent articles from Nature, Nature Geoscience, Nature Climate Change, Science and others showing that in drought prone regions. . .

So John Holdren said if you average records for the entire planet, areas that are getting wetter cancel out the areas which are getting drier and make it seem there is no increased risk of droughts due to global warming. He then says if you only look at drought-prone areas, global warming does increase the risk. That's an important point. Keep that in mind when considering what Pielke goes on to say:

Mr. Holdren followed up by posting a strange essay, of nearly 3,000 words, on the White House website under the heading, “An Analysis of Statements by Roger Pielke Jr.,” where it remains today.

I suppose it is a distinction of a sort to be singled out in this manner by the president’s science adviser. Yet Mr. Holdren’s screed reads more like a dashed-off blog post from the nutty wings of the online climate debate, chock-full of errors and misstatements.

Pielke doesn't give any examples of errors or misstatements. He doesn't give any examples of anything wrong with the document Holdren submitted as part of his Congressional testimony. He derisely refers to it as something akin to "a dashed-off blog post from the nutty wings of the online climate debate," but why?

Since Pielke doesn't give a reason, I can only assume it's because Pielke gets trashed for misrepresenting things in the document. I'm not going to argue the document is perfect or without error, but it makes a number of valid, damning points. For instance, Holdren explains:

Drought is by nature a regional phenomenon. In a world that is warming on the average, there will be more evaporation and therefore more precipitation; that is, a warming world will also get wetter, on the average. In speaking of global trends in drought, then, the meaningful questions are (a) whether the frequency, intensity, and duration of droughts are changing in most or all of the regions historically prone to drought and (b) whether the total area prone to drought is changing.
Any careful reading of the 2013 IPCC report and other recent scientific literature about on the subject reveals that droughts have been worsening in some regions in recent decades while lessening in other regions, and that the IPCC’s “low confidence” about a global trend relates mainly to the question of total area prone to drought and a lack of sufficient measurements to settle it. Here is the key passage from the Technical Summary from IPCC WGI’s 2013 report (http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_TS_FINAL.pdf, p 112):

"Compelling arguments both for and against significant increases in the land area affected
by drought and/or dryness since the mid-20th century have resulted in a low confidence
assessment of observed and attributable large-scale trends. This is due primarily to a lack
and quality of direct observations, dependencies of inferred trends on the index choice,
geographical inconsistencies in the trends and difficulties in distinguishing decadal scale
variability from long term trends."

While Pielke wrote in his testimony for Congress:

It is misleading, and just plain incorrect, to claim that disasters associated with hurricanes, tornadoes, floods or droughts have increased on climate timescales either in the United States or globally.

Drought has “for the most part, become shorter, less, frequent, and cover a smaller portion
of the U.S. over the last century”. Globally, “there has been little change in drought over
the past 60 years.”

For a crude summary of this dispute, Holdren is saying, "Because of global warming, flooding is getting worse in flood-prone areas while droughts are getting worse in drought-prone areas." Pielke is saying, "But if you average those together, there's no trend!" Pielke claims his position is correct because of quotations like:

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that there is “not enough evidence at present to suggest more than low confidence in a global-scale observed trend in drought.”

But while scientists as a whole may tend to acknowledge doing things like averaging records for areas where flooding is getting worse with records for areas where droughts are getting worse results in no clear trend, that doesn't mean scientists as a whole say global warming has no discernible effect on droughts or floods.

What is so "nutty" about Holdren pointing this out? I have no idea. Pielke doesn't say. I have an idea though. Maybe if Pielke addressed people's arguments in a direct, substantive manner rather than being a brat dismissing them with derisive hand-waving, maybe, just maybe, reporters would call him.

Peace out.

5 comments

  1. You speak of grammatical errors a lot, but I notice you tend to use gerunds incorrectly.

    What is so "nutty" about Holdren pointing this out? should be
    What is so "nutty" about Holdren's pointing this out?

    This is a common error, and some sources are saying the correct usage is outdated.

    I don't think you have accurately summarized the argument over floods and droughts, since Holdren and IPCC are saying some drought prone areas are no longer drought prone.

    Also, 'attacking the messenger' would be a valid point if Pielke is in line with mainstream scientific opinion, but Holdren has labeled him as outside the mainstream to win the argument.

  2. MikeN, I like discussing grammar, but I tried to resist. Remember you brought this upon yourself:

    You speak of grammatical errors a lot, but I notice you tend to use gerunds incorrectly.

    What is so "nutty" about Holdren pointing this out? should be
    What is so "nutty" about Holdren's pointing this out?

    This is a common error, and some sources are saying the correct usage is outdated.

    Historically speaking, the "correct usage" you describe has actually never been the correct usage in English. This is like the "rule" people are taught in grade school which says you cannot end a sentence with a preposition. Or that you cannot start a sentence with a conjunction. Or that you can't use a double negative.

    These are all rules strict prescriptivists have tried to force onto the English language, but none of them are rules that have ever been accepted into the English language. They weren't part of the language as it evolved, and none of them have ever "caught on." Many prescriptivists just think the English language should abide by rules taken from other languages (particularly Latin).

    I don't want to start a rant about how abuse by prescriptivists helps lead to terrible abuses of the English language (by non-presciptivists), so let's just consider the difference between the two cases we have here. Gerunds are things where words that'd normally be verbs are instead used (in clauses) as noun phrases. Sometimes the subject of a gerund is only implied, like:

    I like singing.

    It is understood the person "singing" in this case would be me because "I" is taken as belonging to both "like" and "singing." In other cases, the subject needs to be explicitly stated:

    I like Susan's singing.

    In this sentence, we have to specify whose singing I like. This is what you refer to as "correct." It is both valid and useful. There are times I want to say I like Susan's singing. What if that's not what I want to say though? What if instead of wanting to say I like Susan's singing, I want to say I like the act of Susan singing? That would be expressed:

    I like Susan singing.

    Many strict presciptivists would say this is incorrect, but it has a valid and useful meaning. The difference between these two sentences is real and meaningful. Sometimes it conveys information that wouldn't be conveyed otherwise. Other times it's just done for stylistic reasons. In either case, it has been used for hundreds of years. The only reason people say this usage is wrong is because some people have wanted to change the rules of English and have managed to sucker people into believing their desired rules have always existed.

  3. I'm making this a separate comment as it doesn't involve grammar. MikeN, you say:

    I don't think you have accurately summarized the argument over floods and droughts, since Holdren and IPCC are saying some drought prone areas are no longer drought prone.

    Nuances like this will be lost when you average drought and flood-prone areas together (much less if you then include areas that are neither). That's why I didn't mention them. Details and nuances like this are worth considering, but you cannot consider them if you use selective quotation like Roger Pielke Jr. does to pretend the discussion is only about overall averages when the primary concerns is what happens in specific (types of) regions.

    Also, 'attacking the messenger' would be a valid point if Pielke is in line with mainstream scientific opinion, but Holdren has labeled him as outside the mainstream to win the argument.

    Sure, you can make remarks about a person's views for the rhetorical purpose of attacking them as a person. That's not what happened here. Holdren was questioned about the fact two people had expressed certain views. He responded by saying those views aren't representative of the views shared by most scientists then explained what the difference was and why he believed the views he was asked about are wrong. Whether what he said was right or wrong, that's normal and reasonable behavior.

    What Pielke said would only be valid if Holdren had just said something like, "Oh, those guys? Pssh. They don't represent the mainstream view." If Holdren had said something like that and nothing more, Pielke would have a point. Notice, Pielke doesn't argue Holdren did anything like that. He doesn't even attempt to. That's because Pielke knows fully well if he gave a fuller depiction of what happened, nobody would believe his nonsense.

    Almost any phrasing can be used in a rhetorical fashion to attack a person. Even the most innocuous statement can be made derisive just by changing the tone in which one says it. That doesn't mean every innocuous statement about Roger Pielke Jr. is an attack on his character. Not even if he chooses to portray them as such.

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