Keith vs Nafeez

Nafeez Ahmed and Keith Kloor are having a feud about Nafeez’s widely reposted piece about a graduate student’s small desktop model.

I like both of these two guys and they both, in general, have a point. In the specific, they are revealingly wrong.

They both have the sort of knowledge deficit that makes me despair for science journalism. Yes, I said deficit. And they are off-base in comparable ways.

In short, I think neither of them understands the varying epistemic status of various models, be they writ large as conceptual models or writ small as computational instantiations of those models. So we’re getting an argument that misses the point. I think this is absolutely crucial to understanding modern science, and especially modern environmental science. Yet the issue itself appears invisible.

The model that is under discussion is of low predictive value; it’s the sort of model that arguably may capture some of the dynamics of the real system, not the sort that can make detailed predictions.

Ahmed is out of line attributing the study to NASA, and his defense is hairsplitting. I’d think he’d know enough about science to understand this.

Kloor is out of line trying to dismiss it as garbage.

Ahmed is altogether too credulous about doom, and Kloor altogether too incredulous.

They’re both wrong in trying to defend the study as valid or invalid. It’s not that type of a study. But though it’s a close decision, and this will drive some of my friends crazy, if you ask me, I have to say Keith is closer to the mark on this one. The Motesharrei study is not big news, and Nafeez’s success in going viral with it is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

UPDATE – NASA Press Release

RELEASE 14-082
NASA Statement on Sustainability Study

The following is a statement from NASA regarding erroneous media reports crediting the agency with an academic paper on population and societal impacts.

“A soon-to-be published research paper ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.

“As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.”


  1. Obviously I don't know Keith personally, but I am certainly less well disposed towards him than you. I'm not a great fan of Nafeez Ahmed's style either, but if Keith Kloor came out with a points win then this is because it's the best of Kloor and the worst of Ahmed.

  2. Writing about gravitational waves before the findings have gone to peer review, I can understand (not least because the team involved announced it), but what's Nafeez doing with this piece? It ties rather nicely to his book, I note.

  3. Keith's question seems more important to me than either of their interpretation of the model: "Why was everyone so quick and seemingly content to parrot a story that contained no actual reporting?"

    As you say, "Nafeez’s success in going viral with it is part of the problem, not part of the solution". Considering what we'd like to see happen with climate science in the press, it's been downright dismaying to watch how the story got echoed by many mainstream outlets. Dramatism is more important than accuracy or content.

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  5. There are accusations about that Nafeez is a "9/11 Truther" (and someone with a spooky middle eastern name to boot.) The Amazon blurb for his 9/11 book says something about "revealing precisely which government policies and operations facilitated the 9/11 intelligence failure", so at first blush the accusation appears grossly unfair.

    Has anyone reading here actually read the book? Or written it?

  6. What a sad lost opportunity to discuss the role of mathematics in social science. The model is what it is; to assign predictive skill to it is absurd. But that is not the purpose of this sort of model.

    A graduate student is trying earnestly to link mathematics to social questions. This is commendable. He has attracted the attention of Eugenia Kalnay. This is enviable.

    And rather than taking it for what it is, people are taking sides, and arguing about a triviality (how involved was NASA, and should Mosharrei's paper have thanked them or not?) While Nafeez's overblown claims for the paper do us no service, Keith's stoking the territory-defending impulses of the obvious suspects (and here I would best acknowledge a great pre-existing respect for Dr Smil) hardly improve the situation.

    The question is what a simple model like this is for. To answer that brings us to a potentially very fruitful discussion of the Club of Rome and the question of how well we really understand the interfaces between society, economics, and the physical and biological environment.

    Instead we are taking sides. It's not an unprecedented disaster. And once again, it's the press visiting an unnecessary and unnatural polarization upon us.

  7. "This despite the headline's tedious focus on the irrelevant NASA/non-NASA controversy..."

    Hum. University of Maryland/Minnesota researchers/students use a model part-funded by NASA. Nafeez writes article with no link to source, with connected tweets saying "NASA study warns `perfect storm' of global crises could lead to `irreversible collapse' of modern society" (tweet since deleted).

    It's important not because of Nafeez' and Keith's argument but what it says about the media. Keith rightly says: "if you bother to read through all the herd-like media coverage of the study, you’ll notice that every piece essentially duplicates what the Guardian published". It's completely true; example from the Independent. It takes until the fourth paragraph to get to the guardian link and there's no indication this is just a rehash of quotes from that story. That happened repeatedly.

    Why? Because "NASA-funded study says end of world nigh" is too good a story. I'm in two minds about Nafeez' use of the NASA link, but I really REALLY would have like to see him say, "if I'd known it had gone this far and provoked NASA to respond the way they did, I might have been more careful in how I sold the piece." He didn't, he dug in - I struggle to see how you think that piece is striking the right notes.

    At any rate, it's turned out to be a fantastic(ly depressing) little live experiment. The story would never have spread as far as it did if titled "University of Minnesota and Maryland researchers produce model..." Did any MSM reporting of it involve follow-up or checking AT ALL? This tells me science reporting in the MSM is seriously broken. Maybe we knew that but I don't recall seeing such a stark example.

    Cf. the Macpherson stuff. We have an endless supply of doomers and can throw horseshoes at them every year if we like. But if the media is capable of this level of blind churn of doom stories, we're in a hell of a predicament.

  8. "if you bother to read through all the herd-like media coverage of the study, you’ll notice that every piece essentially duplicates what the Guardian published".

    That's how most journalism works, so it shouldn't be a surprise. According to research done for "Flat Earth News", it was > 80% of the articles they checked. I forget the exact figure.

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