Dissecting Anthony Watt’s Pathetic Climate Disinformation on PBS

September 21, 2012

It may seem needlessly cruel to dissect the hodgepodge of sociopathically distorted rationalizations and dodges in his recent excruciatingly wrong-headed interview on PBS, but as long as we’ve got him on the table, let’s do it.

Skeptical Science:

When asked to describe his ‘skepticism’ about human-caused global warming, Watts went into a long discussion about his concerns that encroachment of human development near surface temperature stations has introduced a bias into the temperature record.  However, what Watts failed to mention is that the scientific groups who compile the surface temperature record put a great deal of effort into filtering out these sorts of biases.

Watts also failed to mention that there have been many peer-reviewed scientific studiesinvestigating whether these efforts have been successful, and they have almost universally concluded that those extraneous influences on the temperature record have been removed.  For example, Fall et al. (2011) concluded that for all temperature stations classifications with regards to the influence of urban influences, the long-term average global warming trend is the same.

“The lack of a substantial average temperature difference across classes, once the geographical distribution of stations is taken into account, is also consistent with the lack of significant trend differences in average temperatures….average temperature trends were statistically indistinguishable across classes.”

The second author on Fall et al. is a fellow who goes by the name of Anthony Watts.

There are also of course many ‘natural thermometers’ confirming the warming of the globe – rapidly rising seasmelting sea icemelting land ice, etc. (Figure 1).

Peer-Review Irony

When asked about the research of Muller and the BEST team, which has also confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record, Watts provided a very ironic response.

“Unfortunately he has not succeeded in terms of how science views, you know, a successful inquiry. His papers have not passed peer review.”

Anthony Watts himself has co-authored two peer-reviewed scientific papers, one of which was the aforementioned Fall et al., which confirmed the accuracy of the surface temperature record with respect to the average global surface warming.

On his blog, Watts has attempted to defend his claims on PBS news hour by referencing a preliminary, unsubmitted, unpublished paper he has drafted  which purports to identify problems in the temperature record.  However, that preliminary paper contains numerous fundamental flaws which entirely negate its conclusions, and since it has not passed peer-review, according to Watts’ own comments it is not “a successful inquiry.”

So we have Watts dismissing Muller’s comments because his research has not passed peer-review, and yet Watts’ own comments contradict the results of his own peer-reviewed paper.

Global Warming Attributed to Humans

After agreeing that global warming exists, Watts shifted over to the myth “it’s not us.”

“…the ability to attribute the percentage of global warming to CO2 versus other man-made influences is still an open question.”

This comment simply illustrates a lack of awareness of the body of peer-reviewed climate science literature.  A number of studies using a variety of different statistical and physical approaches have investigated how much various factors have contributed to global warming.  These studies have universally concluded that humans are responsible for close to 100% of the observed global surface warming over the past half century (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Net human and natural percent contributions to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

There is a fairly large degree of uncertainty in these figures, primarily because the magnitude of the cooling effect from human aerosol emissions is not well known.  However, the amount of warming caused by human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is known to a high degree of certainty, and these same studies have all found that GHGs are responsible for over 100% of the observed warming over this timeframe (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Percent contributions of various effects to the observed global surface warming over the past 50-65 years according to Tett et al. 2000 (T00, dark blue), Meehl et al. 2004 (M04, red), Stone et al. 2007 (S07, green), Lean and Rind 2008 (LR08, purple), Huber and Knutti 2011 (HK11, light blue), and Gillett et al. 2012 (G12, orange).

Political Tools

In claiming that climate science has become too politicized, Watts claimed

“some of the scientists who are the leaders in the issue have become for lack of a better word, political tools on the issue.”

It is unclear to whom Watts refers here, since the few contrarian climate scientists like John Christy and Richard Lindzen have been trotted out before US Congress virtually every time a congressional committee has held a climate hearing.  It seems unlikely that Watts would refer to his fellow climate contrarians in such unflattering terms, but they do seem to best fit his description as “political tools.”

Watts on His Motives and Double Standards

At Skeptical Science it is against our site policy to speculate about a person’s motives, but in this case, Watts volunteered the information.

SPENCER MICHELS: What’s the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there’s lots of global warming?

ANTHONY WATTS: They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes and these kinds of things may not be the actual solution for making a change to our society.

It is interesting that Watts responds to a question about a science-based opinion with a criticism about policy.  For example, Watts is not most bothered that people are ignoring or unaware of the biases that he incorrectly believes exist in the temperature record.  No, Watts is most bothered that we might implement an economically-beneficial carbon tax.

In another related piece of irony, Watts criticizes his opponents for using “scare tactics” and then claiming that if they get their way, it will mean economic catastrophe.

“Some people don’t respond well to scare tactics and there have been some scare tactics used by some of the proponents on the other side of the issue….We can’t just rip all that up or change it in the space off five, 10 or 15 years because it’ll be catastrophic to our economy.”

Watts Fails Risk Management 101

At the interview, Watts illustrates that he understands neither pragmatism nor risk management.

“I would call myself a pragmatic skeptic…I think that some of the issues have been oversold, may have been oversold, because they allow for more regulation to take place.”

Pragmatism involves taking a practical approach to problem solving.  In terms of climate change, there is no more practical approach than implementing a carbon pricing system so that the costs of climate change are reflected in the price of the products which cause them.  Without knowing the climate costs of the products on the market, consumers cannot take those costs into account when making purchasing decisions.  Yet this pragmatic approach is exactly the one which Anthony Watts most fears.

There are also two key words in the quote above – “I think.”  We know that Anthony Watts personally believes that the consequences of climate change will not be very bad.  However,Watts’ opinion is contradicted by the body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence.  There is a very slim possibility that Watts and his fellow contrarians are right and the consequences of climate change will be manageable.  However, when faced with the mere possibility of a catastrophic scenario, the proper risk management approach is to take steps to prevent that scenario from happening.  In our case, catastrophe is not just possible, it is the most likely outcome if we continue in a business as usual scenario.  It is in no way pragmatic to continue along this path.

Peer Review and False Media Balance

Ultimately Anthony Watts was correct to note that peer review is an important step in ensuring the accuracy of a scientific paper.  It is fair to criticize Muller for publicizing the BEST team results prior to their acceptance in a peer reviewed journal.

However, if we apply that same standard to Anthony Watts, his sole scientific argument against human-caused global warming falls apart.  Not only has the accuracy of the surface temperature record been confirmed by BEST and Watts’ own Fall et al. (2011), but also by a number of other peer-reviewed papers such as Peterson et al. (2003) and Menne et al. (2010).  If Watts believes these studies are flawed, he should attempt to demonstrate it in a peer-reviewed paper.  Until he has accomplished this, by his own standards his argument is invalid.

It is also very concerning that PBS interviewed Watts to begin with.  Watts only has two peer-reviewed studies to his name, and they were not even mentioned in the interview.  In fact, his own peer-reviewed research contradicts the main argument Watts made in the interview.  The PBS interviewer also failed to challenge Watts’ many incorrect and hypocritical statements, instead tossing him one softball question after another.

Apparently Watts was recommended for the interview by the Heartland Institute.  PBS should obviously not be contacting a fossil fuel-funded global warming denying anti-science think tankwhich has previously compared climate realists to mass murderers for interview suggestions on a climate story.  This also isn’t the first time that PBS News Hour has consulted with the Heartland Institute to provide false balance for a climate story.

PBS has responded to criticisms of their News Hour piece here and here, essentially by saying that they have also interviewed climate scientists and done accurate reporting on climate change.  While we applaud their more accurate and informative climate stories, it does not excuse the Heartland-consulted false balance in this particular piece.  In fact, Michels admittedthat he interviewed Watts to “hear more about the skeptical perspective,” which is the very definition of false balance – presenting “the other side” for the sake of presenting it, regardless of its factual accuracy.

We do appreciate that Spencer Michels referenced Skeptical Science in his follow-up post and provided an explanation from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding how we know the temperature record is accurate (which referenced Menne et al. and Fall et al., as we did in the above post).  In fact, this would have been useful information to include in the original PBS News Hour piece – perhaps an interview with NOAA scientists instead of a blogger.  Instead, PBS sacrificed factually accurate scientific reporting for the sake of creating a false perception of balance.


Further Reading:

48 Responses to “Dissecting Anthony Watt’s Pathetic Climate Disinformation on PBS”

  1. rayduray Says:

    PBS’s Ombudman has gotten an earful lately:

    http://mediamatters.org/blog/2012/09/21/pbs-ombud-newshour-climate-change-report-worth/190055

    [COPY]

    A PBS NewsHour global warming report that allowed a climate change contrarian to “counterbalance” mainstream scientific opinion is worth criticizing, according to PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler, who said he received hundreds of emails and calls about the program.

    Getler said he is penning a column on the issue that is likely to be posted late today or Monday, and hinted it will be critical.

    “There’s just a lot of…hundreds of emails about it,” Getler said when asked why he is writing about the issue. “Commentary about it all over and it’s interesting.”

    Getler declined to offer specific views on the NewsHour report, which aired last Monday. But when asked if he has found elements to criticize, he said: “Oh yeah, of course there’s material to be critical about.” [Continues at website]

    [


  2. But I thought the satellite data agreed with the (modified) weather station data!? The whole complaint of the ‘urban heat island effect’ is moot given the correlation between the different data collection methods. I suppose he knows this and just continues to beat up on this straw-man because he has no actual evidence to bring to the table.

  3. guylacrosse Says:

    One definition of insanity is attempting the same Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    -Albert Einstein

    Watts is doing exactly that. He knows his argument has been debunked numerous times but he still keeps trying to make the same argument.

  4. junkdrawer88 Says:

    What will it take to convince Anthony Watts that Climate Change is real so that the world can begin to address this most pressing problem? (Tongue heavily in cheek.)

    • rayduray Says:

      Re: “What will it take to convince Anthony Watts that Climate Change is real ”

      A bigger bribe than the Koch Brothers offer.

      • omnologos Says:

        You’re missing the memo. Actually that’s not surprising as any attempt to listen to the unbelievers is met with illiberal attacks against journalism.

        Anyway…it was Oct 22, 2007, when WUWT guest extraordinaire Willis Eschenbach told the world that “I also think that increasing GHGs will warm the earth”.

        This has been recently re-published at WUWT itself. I can only marvel at the amount of foolishness still being spent to this day as if such a simple and direct concept had never been written. Dozens of CAGWers are literally in denial and no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them.

        ps Eschenbach wrote many other things on that day, but unless and until we can get past the first hurdle, there is no point discussing the rest.

        • otter17 Says:

          And Eschenbach has also readily admitted that it is ok to bypass peer review and go for impact factor rather than scientific rigor. His qualifications are nil, yet he continues to get people fired up on that blog with random assertions such as his hypothesis that storm cells can dissipate any warming effects. He has indicated that he is fighting a climate war against scientists that want to deprive people of energy (for politically liberal reasons he made it sound).

          Even despite all his biases, it isn’t prudent to put your backing behind this lay man, versus the National Academy of Sciences of your country and throughout the world. These are the actual experts that have realized the potential impacts of increased GHG emissions and have given us reduction time-tables that will help the Earth stay in a similar climate.

          Until you stop listening to the fringe that just so happens to agree with your political/economic views, there is no point in discussing the rest. Until you start taking seriously the output of the scientific method and the vast majority of scientists, there is no point in discussing the rest.

          • omnologos Says:

            otter17 – you’re moving the goalposts. We were talking about “What will it take to convince Anthony Watts that Climate Change is real”. I pointed out that it takes zero effort, and it has taken zero effort for the past five years.

            We should be discussing policy, instead it’s always back to the “them deniers!” and other assorted stupidity.


  5. I’m certain that Peter has been missing me and worried about my welfare; so, I will make his day for him with this information about his nemesis, Anthony Watts, that seems to put him in a different light in Dr. Muller’s opinion than the manner in which many of the “omniscience” alarmist here would like to view him.

    “Richard Muller is interviewed in the current issue of Physics World (H/T Jonathan Jones)”

    One of the key quotes from this interview follows and I’m sure if some think that it is not true, I’ll be told about it in no uncertain and sometime profane terms.

    “MulIer says that the BEST team has now cleared up this  issue by showing that when it comes to specifically measuring change in temperature, the 30% of good stations are not significantly more accurate than the 70% of bad stations. “lf Watts hadn’t done his work, we would not have reliable data today. The fact that he did that means he’s a hero; he deserves some sort of international prize.”
    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2012/4/2/muller-on-watts.html

    Some of the comments are also interesting, such as this one by person that compiled of this piece:

    “I have a sense that many of my friends look at global warming and say ‘this is so scary that we have to abandon the objectivity of science’,” he says.

    Muller is worried that these colleagues are abandoning their scientific minds and becoming politicians. This, he fears, is discrediting science in the eyes of the American public, resulting in a form of politics less informed by science.”
    Jonathan Jones

  6. hengistmcstone Says:

    Anthony says AGW is about money. How much is Anthony getting from the Heartland Institute?


    • hengistmcstone is concerned how much money Anthony Watts may be getting from the Heartland Institute. I imagine it is fine that James Hansen is ‘First millionaire bureaucrat’: NASA’s James Hansen earns up to $1.2 million in 2010.
      James Hansen has become one of the most financially rewarded government employed alarmists.

      “Climate scientist Hansen wins $100,000 prize” http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE63636N20100407

      The Heinz Center for Science, Economy and the Environment (run by John Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz) gave Hansen $250,000 in 2001 for promoting the AGW scare [http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/3671] (Enron’s Ken Lay was one of the founding board members of the Heinz Center (http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0407/12/lkl.00.html%5D, and Enron was one of the biggest promoters of the Kyoto cap and trade.)

      George Soros’ Open Society Institute gave Hansen $720,000 to promote alarmist claims
      http://newsbusters.org/blogs/noel-sheppard/2007/09/26/nasa-s-hansen-mentioned-soros-foundations-annual-report

      Please note this hengistmcstone:
      The skeptics have managed to turn the propaganda around against a tide of money, and it is really some achievement.

      Entity USD
       Greenpeace: $300m, 2010 Annual Report
      WWF: $700m, ($524m Euro)
      Pew Charitable Trust: $360m, 2010 Annual Report
      Sierra Club: $56m, 2010 Annual Report
      NSW climate change fund (just one random Gov. example): $750m, NSW Gov. (A$700m)
      UK university climate fund (just another random Gov. example); $360m,UK Gov. (£234 m)
      Heartland Institute: $7m, (actually $6.4m)
      US government funding for climate science and technology: $7,000m, “Climate Money” 2009
      US government funding for “climate related appropriations”: $1,300m
      USAID 2010
      Annual turnover in global carbon markets: $120,000m, 2010 Point Carbon
      Annual investment in renewable energy: $243,000m, 2010 BNEF
      US government funding for skeptical scientists
      $ 0

      • Pangolin Says:

        I’m curious to know who you think paid of John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius along with all the other climate scientists whose work contributed to our current understanding of climate change before James Hansen published his first climate change paper. Most of that work still stands in general if not in precise detail. Are you claiming they were ALL paid off? By whom? The Illuminati?

        Put away your tinfoil hat.


  7. [...] PBS False Balance Hour – What's Up With That? was reposted by Climate Progress, Climate Crocks, and What's Up With Watts, and linked by Media [...]


  8. Obviously judging from the comments, your opinions are only read by those who agree with you. However, many thousands of scientists disagree.
    http://www.climatescienceinternational.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=37&Itemid=1
    and
    http://www.petitionproject.org/
    Furthermore, even the ardent alarmists agree there has not been any global warming for the past 15-16 years.
    Also, there is a strong scientific record of CO2 as a lagging indicator of global warming during past cycles such as the medieval warming period and indeed, Co2 did not start to rise until after the current warming period began.
    If I had the space, I would give you another 100 scientific-based arguments but I’ll leave you to ponder why Mars is warming.

    • rayduray Says:

      Are you riding on the clown car in the parade of the clueless, Harvey?

      I see that you find climate change inconvenient. That doesn’t make your delusions any more desirable to the sane among us.


    • Let us assume that you really think what you have posted is true, how could we validate that information.

      Let just look at your first one:
      “many thousands of scientists disagree” you use the

      http://www.petitionproject.org/instructions_for_signing_petition.php

      Oregon petition is a petition which doesn’t require any validation or proof that they are indeed scientists. So how could you check? Who are scientists? Scientists are people who perform research toward a more comprehensive understanding of their field. So….

      “Most scientists have a detailed knowledge of their own narrow field of specialization, a general knowledge of fundamental science, an understanding of the scientific method, and a mental model that encompasses a broad range of scientific disciplines. This model serves as the basis of their thoughts about scientific questions.

      When a scientist desires to refine his understanding of a specific scientific subject, he often begins by reading one or more review articles about that topic. As he reads, he compares the facts given in the review with his mental model of the subject, refining his model and updating it with current information. Review articles do not present new discoveries. The essential facts given in the review must be referenced to the peer-reviewed scientific research literature, so that the reader can check the assertions and conclusions of the article and obtain more detailed information about aspects that interest him.”

      So are we in agreement with this quote before we continue our discussion?


  9. […] Originally Posted by sanspeur Your list is cooked by Anthony Watts, your biased big oil god. It is monumental BS, and not worth reading. Watts's blog has been criticized for inaccuracy. The Guardian columnist George Monbiot described WUWT as "highly partisan and untrustworthy"………..David Suzuki recommends Skeptical Science for accurate science on the topic of climate change……There are many credible sources of information, and they aren't blog sites run by weathermen like Anthony Watts" Anthony Watts (blogger) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Dissecting Anthony Watt’s Pathetic Climate Disinformation on PBS | Climate Denial Crock of the… […]


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