‘Word salad of nonsense’: scientists denounce Jordan Peterson’s comments on climate models | Climate crisis

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Leading climate scientists have ridiculed and criticised comments made by controversial Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson during an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

During a new four-hour interview on Spotify’s most popular podcast, Peterson – who is not an expert on climate change – claimed that models used to forecast the future state of the climate couldn’t be relied on.

Peterson told Rogan that because the climate was so complex, it couldn’t be accurately modelled.

He said: “Another problem that bedevils climate modelling, too, which is that as you stretch out the models across time, the errors increase radically. And so maybe you can predict out a week or three weeks or a month or a year, but the farther out you predict, the more your model is in error.

“And that’s a huge problem when you’re trying to model over 100 years because the errors compound just like interest.”

Peterson said that if the climate was “about everything” then “your models aren’t right” because they couldn’t include everything.

But climate scientists have described Peterson’s comments as “stunningly ignorant” and said he had fundamentally misunderstood the concept of climate modelling.

Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales Canberra, said Peterson’s description of how climate models work was fundamentally wrong. While weather forecasts do become less accurate the further out they go, this was a different process to climate modelling.

“He seems to think we model the future climate the same way we do the weather. He sounds intelligent, but he’s completely wrong.

“He has no frickin’ idea,” she said.

The backlash from scientists comes as Spotify removes the music of veteran songwriter Neil Young after the singer issued an ultimatum to the company.

Young was furious at what he described as “misinformation” spread on The Joe Rogan Experience podcast about the Covid-19 pandemic. Rogan’s show has previously aired claims by a different guest that hospitals are financially incentivised to falsely diagnose deaths as having been caused by Covid-19 and that world leaders had hypnotised the public into supporting vaccines.

“They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” Young wrote in a letter to his management.

According to Spotify, which paid US$100m for exclusive rights to Rogan’s podcast in 2020, the platform has 381 million users and 172 million subscribers. Rogan tops the platform’s podcast charts in the UK, USA and Australia.

Dr Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeller and senior adviser at Nasa, said on Twitter: “Guys, for the love of everything holy, please, please, have somebody on who knows what the heck a climate model is!!!”

Schmidt told the Guardian he was reminded of a quote from the famous British statistician George Box.

“Peterson has managed to absorb the first part of George Box’s famous dictum that ‘all models are wrong’ but appears to have not worked out the second part ‘but some are useful’,” Schmidt said.

Prof Steve Sherwood, of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, said Peterson was “making the ancient climate sceptic error of mixing up weather and climate”.

“Anyone who has taken an introductory course in climate or atmospheric science would spot this problem,” he said. “Errors in a weather forecast indeed accumulate such that after a couple of weeks the forecast is useless.”

But with climate, Sherwood said, the models work differently to project how the climate will respond to different factors, such as higher levels of CO2.

“[Peterson’s] argument is like saying we can’t predict whether a pot of water on a flame will boil, because we decide in advance what variables to put in our model, and can’t predict each bubble.”

Sherwood said the “laws of thermodynamics and some basic calculations” are enough to give scientists confidence in projections.

Prof Christian Jakob, a climate modelling expert at Monash University, said Peterson’s comments were “ill-informed” and that he’d “mixed up weather prediction with climate projections.

“People are entitled to their opinions, but science and climate modelling isn’t about opinion. If you’re not well informed about how something is done then it’s not right to make comments about it on a large platform.”

Prof Michael Mann, an atmospheric scientist at Penn State University, said Peterson’s comments – and Rogan’s facilitation of them – was an “almost comedic type of nihilism” that would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Peterson’s claim that the climate was too complicated showed “a total lack of understanding of how science works” and could be used to dismiss physics, chemistry, biology, “and every other field of science where one formulates conceptual models”, according to Mann.

“Every great discovery in science – including the physics that allowed Peterson and Rogan to record and broadcast their ridiculous conversation – has arisen through that process,” he said.

Prof John Abraham, a climate scientist at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota, said the episode was “a word salad of nonsense spoken by people who have no sense when it comes to climate.”

“To say that climate model errors increase like compound interest is laughable. Jordan Peterson displays a near complete misunderstanding of climate change, and the tools climate scientists use to understand what is happening to our planet.

“It’s as if someone, with zero expertise and knowledge, made comments about something he knows little about.”

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Earlier this month 270 experts wrote to Spotify demanding it establish “a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation on its platform” after raising concerns about pandemic misinformation on a different episode of The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.

“Mass-misinformation events of this scale have extraordinarily dangerous ramifications,” the experts wrote, saying the podcast had an estimate 11 million listeners.

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