Watt about being gobsmacked?

My previous post seems to have hit a bit of a nerve in some quarters. Ben Pile, who authors the climate resistant blog, seems particularly annoyed. All I really said about Ben and his blog was that I found engaging there unpleasant, and that it was pretty tricky to have an actual debate there as he and his other commentators seemed unwilling to consider any issues with their own thinking. Ben’s response to this has been to call me a prick and write the following comment on his own blog (you could also read the comment he makes a bit later which suggests that he would acknowledge mistakes if any mistakes were identified). I think maybe Ben should look up the definition of the word ironic. I’m always more than happy to consider that I may have characterised someone unfairly. I’m, however, unlikely to do so if they immediately provide evidence to suggest that my initial characterisation was entirely reasonable.

Anyway, Anthony Watts is gobsmacked about a recent Guardian article that paints him in a fairly positive light. The article is called are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method? It’s written by Warren Pearce who is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham on the Making Science Public programme (which is actually where Ben Pile’s post – that started most of this debate – about the consensus project was published). I think the basic conclusion of the article is no, climate sceptics are not the true defenders of the scientific method. If I understood the point being made (and I found the article a little confusing to follow) it’s because it’s hard to differentiate between politically motivated views and views that are motivated by a genuine desire to understand the evidence. Also, one should distinguish between discussions on policy – in which opinion does play a valid role – and discussions about the science – in which opinion really shouldn’t play a role.

However, the article did paint Anthony Watts and other sceptic bloggers in a reasonably positive light. Anthony Watts objects to the views of those who are often called slayers. Slayers, as far as I can tell, do not believe that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and do not believe in the greenhouse effect (which is what keeps the Earth at a nice balmy +15oC, rather than a rather frigid -18oC). There is no evidence to support these views and such people are – given the evidence – simply wrong. Anthony Watts apparently carried out an experiment to show this and posted the results on youtube. Basically, as far as I can tell, Anthony Watts believes, and has shown, that there is no evidence to support the views of slayers and hence their views should be dismissed. I agree. Kudos to Anthony.

However, this is where I get a little less complimentary. What Anthony did was a good example of the scientific method. However, he should be willing to go further and consider the possibility that some of his ideas, or the ideas presented on his blog, are also wrong. In fairness, everyone should be willing to consider that. However, as you may imagine, it’s certainly my view that there are far more ideas presented on sceptic blogs that are demonstrably incorrect, than on non-sceptic blogs. The main motivation behind me starting this blog was because I was tired of reading things on Anthony’s blog that were clearly scientifically incorrect. I thought I may write a post every now and again that tried to address something said on Anthony’s blog. I started in April and am now on post 153. In fairness, I’m sure I’ve got some things wrong, so feel free to point out what and where (in fact, some already have). I really don’t mind being wrong. I don’t think being wrong really means anything. It’s part of the scientific process. It’s much more concerning if someone thinks nothing they’ve said is wrong than if they appear willing to admit to an error. I will say, however, that simply telling me that I’m wrong is not going to be enough to convince me that I am.

So, yes, it would be wonderful if the debate/discussion about climate science could be more open and pleasant. It would be wonderful if everyone was willing to present their evidence and consider the evidence of others. I’m all for that. There is, however, a caveat – in my opinion at least. Climate science is difficult and complicated. It involves an understanding of physics and chemistry. It requires an ability to understand data analysis, computer modelling, errors and uncertainties, and many other complex scientific practices and procedures. There seem, however, to be a reasonable number of intelligent, well-educated lay-people who think that because they can use Excel and because they can plot complicated functions, that they’ve somehow highlighted a major problem with climate science that climate scientists are simply ignoring.

There are only two things that I can conclude from such claims. They either think that climate scientists are stupid, or they think there’s a conspiracy. Although, at some miniscule level, this could be possible, it does seem highly unlikely. It is much more likely that such people simply do not know enough about climate science to draw the kind of conclusions that they are drawing from the data that they’re analysing. It is very easy to mis-interpret data associated with a very complex science area. So, in my opinion, what’s required is that people stop under-mining climate scientists and their employers (I’m amazed by the criticism leveled at the UK Met Office, for example). These are, by and large, very bright, well-qualified people, many of whom have been working professionally in this field for a long time. The chance that they are all (or a majority) simply wrong is vanishingly small. That’s not to say that they aren’t wrong about some things. Science is always changing as new evidence emerges. Simply that their understanding of climate science and what the evidence is telling us is almost certainly better than some economist (just a example, not trying to pick on economists especially) who knows how to use Excel.

So, I’m all in favour of the debate about climate science being more open, honest and pleasant. This will, however, require some major changes in how some people behave. I’m sure there are aspects of how scientists are engaging that could be improved but I do think that the major problem is that many are simply ignoring or under-mining what scientists are trying to say. Until sceptics can accept that climate scientists are not carrying out some kind of conspiracy or are not complete idiots, I don’t really see how the discussion is going to improve. You may think I’m expecting more from the sceptic community than from the formal climate science community and you’d probably be right. But, science isn’t a democracy and isn’t about opinion. Just because you have a view doesn’t mean that it deserves to be heard or considered. If we aren’t willing to recognise that the first group we should be turning to to explain the evidence associated climate science are climate scientists, then I think we’ve failed before we’ve even started.

You’re welcome to disagree, of course. What I’ve written here is my opinion and I can’t prove that I’m right using some fundamental law of physics. However, recognising that how we should discuss aspects of this debate in which opinions have validity is different to how we should approach discussions associated with the scientific evidence would be, in my opinion, a major step forward.

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34 Responses to Watt about being gobsmacked?

  1. Not directly relevant to your post, but I’ve recently been reading a fair bit of the skeptic stuff online as well as your blog, and each time I do this cartoon comes to mind: http://greenupgrader.com/9996/sunday-funnies-what-if-its-all-a-hoax/

    Regardless of whether climate change is anthropogenic or not, the moves toward more sustainable use of our planet’s resources (as advocated by those who are certain in anthropogenic climate change) can ONLY be a good thing. And when one hears skeptics/deniers bemoaning the “vast” amounts of money allocated for green projects and research, they conveniently forget the “even more vast” amounts of money that go to any number of polluting, corrupt, and unethical fossil fuel companies. Don’t seem to hear them campaigning so vigourously about that, now do we?

  2. Yes, I really like that cartoon. I think I’ve included it in an earlier post. It does encapsulate, quite nicely, why I’m often incredulous about some of the rhetoric associated with the climate science debate.

  3. BBD says:

    The fake sceptics will not stop attempting to delegitimise and smear climate scientists. It is an obligate tactic. They have no scientific counter-argument, only (variously) politics, vested interest and denial borne of fear. So the smearing and the lies will go on. Must go on.

    There is still far too much tolerance of this in the mainstream media. Far too much false balance. This needs to change. It is dangerous and it affords the contrarians and their sponsors a grotesquely unfair advantage which they exploit with vigour and glee.

  4. Marco says:

    I think Bart Verheggen summed it up best in the comment section, essentially pointing out that if an extremist is less extreme than another extremist, this does not make the first extremist any less an extremist. It’s the middle-of-the-road fallacy. There’s a cartoon of that, too, but I can’t find it.

    It’s like saying that the cdesign proponentsists (look it up, it is really funny) may be right and worth listening, simply because they are less crazy than the young-earth creationists.

  5. Yes. When I was writing this, I initially was much more accommodating to the sceptic side of the argument. I then thought, why? The real problem seems to be that they feel that their views (in general) should have the same credibility as those of professional climate scientists or, even worse, think they’re somehow better and more credible than professional climate scientists. So, I changed the tone slightly. I also can’t see how the debate can progress while climate scientists are undermined in the media and by policy makers. Sceptics can have whatever views they like, it’s taking this views seriously, when there’s no evidence that we should, that’s the problem, IMO.

  6. Yes, Bart makes a great point. I considered making a similar point myself in the post, but thought I would avoid being quite that confrontational.

  7. Eli Rabett says:

    One of the entertainments of being a physicist is meeting other physicists (yes with doctorates) who have some crazy bug and have piles of school notebooks filled with algebra showing (pick one) relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, etc are wrong wrong wrong. Engineers appear to specialize in wanting to build second law perpetual motion machines. The ENTERTAINMENTNET has made this sort of thing available to everyone.

  8. This also illustrates that WUWT is not the real problem. Fringe ideas are nice, are part of a swarm search algorithm for better ideas and once in a while a good idea with solid arguments is born this way.

    The problem is that too many people the WUWT nonsense seriously. The problem is the spin doctors that amplify the nonsense and organise congressional hearing with such people, “organise” friendly (Guardian) articles and syndicated columns. Wasn’t the Guardian supposed to be a good newspaper once?

  9. dana1981 says:

    “I think the basic conclusion of the article is no, climate sceptics are not the true defenders of the scientific method.”

    Do you think so? I got the impression he was saying yes, they are. The way I interpreted it, he was basically arguing that those who I would call ‘concern trolls’ are genuinely concerned about climate science not being done properly, hence they would be the ‘true defenders of the scientific method’. But maybe I misinterpreted it.

  10. dana1981 says:

    Let’s be fair, this is just one article. The Guardian is still a very good paper overall. Granted I’m biased, but I still think it’s one of the best if not the best, at least in climate and environment coverage.

  11. dana1981 says:

    I think it was Michael Tobis who said if you want a moderate to find a murderer not guilty, accuse him of two murders. That seems to fit the bill here.

  12. There were comments in the article about being associated with the fringe and also distinguishing between those who are politically motivated and those who are genuinely interested in the science, that made me think that maybe he was arguing that the answer was no. However, as I said in the post, I didn’t quite follow the logic in the article terribly well (or didn’t find it particular well argued), so could be convinced that the article was actually arguing the sceptics were the true defenders of the scientific method.

    I do think that Bart’s comment on the article (that was highlighted above) was pretty spot-on though.

  13. chris says:

    One of the encouraging elements of this mini-fracas is that Ed Davey (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) seems to be quite clued up on the science and unlikely to be taken in by specious arguments of the sort propagated by fringe bloggers and other so-called “skeptics”..

    Warren Peace (were his parents having a laugh?!) is rather deluded judging by his Guardian article. I think I mentioned on another thread here that Ben Pile (and Peace it seems) are in a difficult position since they don’t understand the science terribly well but wish to carve out a niche for themselves in the “debate” – perhaps they’ve taken what they consider to be a sort of “middle-of-the road” stance between science and “skeptics”. I spent half a day yesterday discussing the “consensus” with Ben Pile on the Nottingham Uni “Making Science Public” Dana Nuccitelli thread – Ben Pile simply isn’t very honest and simply reinterprets comments others (me!) make according to some tedious agenda position; his misrepresentations seem not to arise from naievity.

    Personally I think it’s rather sad for Pile (and maybe Peace ‘though I can imagine him being sufficiently sensible to interact with scientist and learn some of the relevant physics and chemistry). Ultimately the natural world and our understanding of this will win the day and one may as well make policy decisions based on best scientific understanding – I suspect Ed Davey recognises that. Otherwise I don’t see anything wrong at all with plugging away at highlighting and countering misrepresentation.

  14. Yes, I think you make a very good point. I think I’ve rather annoyed Ben Pile, so can’t imagine he and I will be discussing climate science again anytime soon. Sadly, I agree that he tends to rather mis-represent what others say. He’s added another comment – on his blog post about Tom Curtis – that discusses this post, but seems to criticise me by comparing something I said here with something Tom Curtis said in a comment on another post. I started writing a comment to try and understand why he had chosen to make that comparison and then just decided to not bother. I’d be kind of interested to know why he thinks that comparison was appropriate, but suspect I’d never really get a proper answer and I can’t imagine a discussion with Ben being particularly constructive – sadly.

  15. chris says:

    The Guardian is a great paper – I buy it every day. One dull article does not a tragedy make!

    Considering the public discussions (at least) of President Obama and Ed Davey (UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) it seems that policymakers are largely sourcing their information from scientists. It doesn’t matter too much if the occasional duff article is published, even if it does keep the blogosphere in a state of ferment.

  16. Rachel says:

    It’s ludicrous that so many arm-chair scientists think they know more than someone who has spent years or even decades studying and researching their field.

    As for The Guardian article, I had to re-read the last couple of paragraphs numerous times to get the gist. If public policy is overly scientised then perhaps this would give greater weight to an argument for the precautionary principle. Personally I think the precautionary principle ought to have been applied more than a decade ago.

  17. I agree that it is amazing that anyone can seriously consider that a bunch of – as you say – armchair scientists are more likely to be credible than a group of people who have been researching something full-time for years or decades.

    I, like you, found the latter part of the article hard to get to grips with. I also think that we should have applied the precautionary principle. The problems seems to be that libertarian, free-market think tanks then present “evidence” as to why what is proposed would damage the world economy and harm the poor (ignoring that not doing anything is more likely to harm the poor). Ideally one could point out that evidence from these think-tanks is not actually scientific evidence but, more likely, opinion. Currently, however, many of our current policy makers seem to ascribe to this right-wing ideology and so typically seem to buy the arguments that doing something would be more damaging than doing nothing.

  18. chris says:

    Policymakers are in a difficult position don’t you think Rachel? The science is very clear on fundamental aspects of climate science. Enhanced greenhouse forcing is categorically going to cause the world to continue to warm, glaciers and ice caps to become further denuded, sea levels to rise, oceans to acidify further and so on. The scientific evidence strongly supports a continuing rise of at least another oC during the next 60-70 years even with a climate sensitivity at the low end of the scientifically-justifiable range (e.g. 2 oC per doubling of CO2 equivalemt).

    At the very least policymakers have to make commitments to limit emissions, and transition towards carbon-neutral energy production. Policy needs to incentivise energy conservation and sustainable energy production. I think the policymaking politicians in the US and UK (and Europe generally) recognise this, even if there are some cranks that assert otherwise. So I don’t consider that the so-called “skeptical” POV is making much traction. But it is a difficult balance particularly when the problems will incrementally impact the future. I’m reasonably encouraged by what Pres Obama and Ed Davey are saying (as I’ve said already on this thread, but I don’t think it can be reemphasised too often!)

    I’m going to respond further to your post in a different vein below!

  19. chris says:

    Agree with you that the last couple of paragraphs are weird. These assertions are simply astonishing:

    “Both climate change sceptics and advocates of climate policy see this question as important; sharing a faith that scientific evidence is the basis for public policy. However, such a faith omits the possibility that science is not suited to such a role, and that “solving” climate change does not flow linearly from agreement on the science. “

    “The conundrum is that both “sides” (if one can use that term) seem to focus on real science as the arbiter of knowledge claims.”

    This can only be sensible if one takes the view that Peace considers “scientific evidence” and “real science” to mean anything that anyone claims to be “science” or “evidence”, much along the lines that ciggie company spokesmen asserted that their “science” showed that ciggie smoking is perfectly safe, and (a selection of) pharmaceutical companies in the early 80’s asserted that their “science” showed that aspirin taking doesn’t increase the risk of Reyes syndrome in kids…and so on, in dozens of examples one could name in which so-called “skeptics” claimed that their science was valid and should be part of the consideration

    I do agree with Peace that “solving” climate change doesn’t flow linearly from agreement on the science” – life isn’t so easy. But one does have to recognise what is and isn’t “real science”! .

  20. Paul says:

    I think what we really need is a financial market to allow people to bet on the value for the total heat stored up in the earth 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, 10 years from now say. I am sure some smart financial person could figure out how to structure the market to make it work. My guess is that this process would be very efficient in establishing what the scientific consensus really is on this topic because a lot more people would actually read the scientific literature hoping to get an edge. I would love to see the deniers putting their money where their mouth is and shorting the market betting on no increase in stored heat. If there is really enough of them out there climate scientists could really clean up taking their bets (Imagine the Michael Mann Newsletter with insider tips…). We could then base policy decisions on the value of the market’s consensus. In fact if Exxon Mobile wants to try to lower the concensus to promote more favorable policies we would then have the ability to bet against them and claim some of their future profits.

    Actually in many ways this is what scientists do every day. They bet their careers on where the most productive scientific investigations can be made. Betting against the scientific consensus is a high risk game more like buying a lottery ticket. If you are young, you are only going to pursue this angle if you have a new insight that you really believe in. Otherwise you are better off going a safer route and studying one of the many exciting and under investigated problems (basically the scientific equivalent of starting your own company rather than trying to beat the market). My guess is that this probably also explains why the skeptical scientific community seems to be overly populated by older scientists. They get a shot a being famous at a low potential cost since they probably already have tenure and their careers are going to be over soon anyway, making the contrarian bet relatively cheap.

  21. BBD says:

    What do you expect from Pile? Only look at the man’s connections and activism.

    Quite a strange trajectory from Living Marxism to UKIP.

  22. Yes, that is somewhat revealing. I am now no longer really interested in what he was thinking when he decided to try and criticise something I’ve said using something Tom Curtis said.

  23. Rachel says:

    Yes, I agree that policymakers have some tough decisions to make and I certainly don’t have the answers. I do find myself somewhat surprised when I read about things like subsidies for the fossil fuel industry though.

    My understanding of what Pearce is saying in those last couple of paras is that by continuing to debate the science like we do or by pretending there is a debate, we ignore the perhaps more important discussions of policy. Perhaps there’s some truth to this.

  24. Marco says:

    And as pointed out on Hot Whopper, Watts has today given Tim Ball a forum. Tim Ball is one of the authors of Slaying the Sky Dragon, which purports to falsify the greenhouse effect. Now, that’s not what Tim Ball discusses in the post, but it is quite telling that Watts doesn’t mind the “fringes”.

  25. Rather odd that Anthony would do that today after having been praised in the Guardian for showing, through science, that the views of slayers was wrong. A little ironic, it would seem.

  26. The thing you may well have also encountered are members of the public who email you with their theory of why Einstein was wrong. I did initially (when young and more naive than I am now – and when it used to be faxed) respond to these. Now, sadly maybe, these emails tend to – somewhat conveniently possibly – disappear down my inbox until I’ve forgotten that I ever got them.

  27. This article is spot on:

    at least as far as the first part of this sentence is concerned.

    I might be biased.

  28. Pingback: Two opinion pieces. Or three, if you count James. But that’s four if you count me. Oh hang on, I’ll come in again. – Stoat

  29. Hank Roberts says:

    There’s a subtlety to that famous Joel Pett cartoon that isn’t sufficiently remarked on.
    Read what he says about his work on that one, at that link.

    My take on that one:
    The guy saying “… for nothing?” isn’t complaining about creating a better world.
    He’s complaining about doing it in a way that doesn’t pay him a profit on the work.

    It’s really hard to make a killing in the public health and safety field. Ask any financier.

    Others:

    and especially

    More: http://www.cartoonistgroup.com/search/advsearch.php

  30. Sorry, maybe you can explain your reasoning because my interpretation of the cartoon appears to be completely different to yours. Reading your first link doesn’t seem to provide any evidence that I should change my interpretation.

  31. toby52 says:

    If you annoyed Ben Pile, then you have a day well spent. Monckton used to be UKIP – is he still Scottish Deputy Leader or some such?

  32. Bernard J. says:

    Marco.

    Those Cdesign proponentsists remind me of the sheep who leapt aboard McIntyre’s vexatious FoI bombing of UEA:

    http://rabett.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/steve-had-little-list.html

    And they wonder why so few rational folk take them seriously…

  33. jbowers2 says:

    “Quite a strange trajectory from Living Marxism to UKIP.”

    Not strange at all. From LM to Austrian School is a common path.

  34. Hank Roberts says:

    I read the original poster’s comment:

    “when one hears skeptics/deniers bemoaning the “vast” amounts of money allocated for green projects and research, they conveniently forget the “even more vast” amounts of money that go to any number of polluting, corrupt, and unethical fossil fuel companies”

    and I thought, well, most public health interventions don’t have the kind of profitability that the polluting industries have — unsustainable profits, overshoot, externalized costs

    The total economic benefit of stopping climate change gets spread over six billion people.
    The total economic benefit from causing climate change has mostly gone to a few.

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