Climate scientists are Nate Silver, radio edition
Last week, I wrote a post called “Climate science is Nate Silver and U.S. politics is Karl Rove.” PRI’s radio show Living On Earth asked me to do a version of it as a commentary, and so I did. Have a listen:
Or have a read:
Perhaps the most striking thing about the recent presidential election is how predictable it was — or to put it another way, how predicted it was. From the moment Mitt Romney was chosen as the Republican candidate, the polls showed that Obama was on track for a narrow win in most swing states. For all the drama of the campaign, that polling remained remarkably stable, as reflected in the models of poll aggregators like the now-famous statistician Nate Silver. By the time Election Day rolled around, Silver showed Obama with an almost 90 percent chance of winning.
Yet on the day before the election, one-time Reagan speechwriter and long-time conservative pundit Peggy Noonan wrote a column predicting a Romney victory. Her evidence? I quote: “All the vibrations are right.”
Noonan was not alone. Dozens of conservative pundits predicted a Romney win, even a Romney landslide, dismissing models like Silver’s as “scientific gobbledegook,” the overconfidence of pointy-headed nerds.
Well, you know how that turned out. To the great shock of the conservative intelligentsia and, reportedly, the Romney campaign itself, the results reflected the projections of political scientists and pollsters.
The lesson here is twofold. First: the scientific method works. What Nate Silver has is not some superior ideology or truer faith. It is simply applied mathematics and reason, an approach that allows him to look past his personal prejudices and desires.
And secondly, doing what Nate Silver does and what scientists strive to do is extraordinarily difficult. Humans have an astonishing capacity for self-deception. We find reasons to believe what we want to believe, even if those reasons amount to little more than “vibrations.”
But as we saw on Election Day, sometimes reality can come along and snap the spell of wishful thinking. It happened the week before Election Day too. That’s when a super-charged storm slammed into the east coast, leaving hundreds of thousands without homes or power. Sandy brought a heavy dose of reality and served as a kind of exclamation point on a year filled with droughts, wildfires, and floods — the hottest year ever recorded.
According to climatologists, it’s just a taste of what’s to come. Recently, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research compared a range of climate forecasting to observed trends in cloud cover. What they found was the most pessimistic models have produced the most accurate predictions. They show us on track to raise the average global temperatures by as much as eight degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. That’s more than twice the level some scientists have identified as the threshold of serious danger. High enough, that some scientists doubt whether human civilization can survive it.
That is the grim news being brought to us by the Nate Silvers of climate science. And how have we reacted? Like a nation of Peggy Noonans. We don’t want to believe it. It feels too scary to be true. So we dismiss it as extreme or alarmist. Some of us even dismiss the whole thing as a hoax. The “vibrations” just don’t feel right.
And so, in a national election season filled with great clashes of vision and purpose, climate change was scarcely mentioned. But as shell-shocked Republican pundits can tell you, reality always bats last. We will listen to the science and take action, or we will lose this contest. And this loss will be permanent and irreversible. When it comes to the global climate, there are no recounts.