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On his blog, Watts has attempted to defend his claims on PBS news hour by referencing a preliminary, unsubmitted, unpublished paper he has drafted  which purports to identify problems in the temperature record.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:

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

  1. omnologos Says:

    What a waste of time. They disagree with Watts, so…what? Why not put up a list of SkS links and get on with it. At least they would have avoided all the non-sequiturs.

    • skeptictmac57 Says:

      Talk about non sequiturs…sheesh! Why bother indeed.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      I think the point is that Watts disagrees with himself.


    • To paraphrase The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

      • skeptictmac57 Says:

        Hmmm…that’s conceivable 😉

      • omnologos Says:

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

        The SkS author proceeded to respond with the usual litany of studies presumed to deliver a slam-dunk answer, to the tone of “over 100%”. But that doesn’t answer Watts’ point at all. It doesn’t follow: because the SkS author is _presuming_ the ability of those studies to identify how big a contribution is human-CO2, how big is human-non_CO2 and how big is non-human.

        The mere fact that all those studies go above the 100% means they rely on some non-human mechanism to be cooling the planet by a suitably almost-magical rate. Furthermore they are all based on similar assumptions (see the minute solar contribution). Etc etc.

        Hence the question remains open. I wonder what the AR5-WG1 authors would be thinking if they realized there is a website out there who claims to be pro-science and yet almost casually proceed to bypass the whole scientific discussion.

        If SkS were right, the whole WG1 group would be obsolete.

        • dana1981 Says:

          First of all, I’m the SkS author. Second, every question in the universe is “still an open question,” so what’s the point of even making that statement? And providing the evidence to answer the question is in no way a non sequitur. As I noted, the word doesn’t mean what you think it means.

  2. hoooty Says:

    Reality disagrees with Watts, so… do not ask for his opinion. Why not interview someone who is “skeptical” of the HIV-AIDS link and then put up a list of links from the American Medical Association? Because it is not good journalism

    • omnologos Says:

      Sks’ is not journalism. At least, I hope it wasn’t meant to be.

      • skeptictmac57 Says:

        As far as I can tell, SKS is journalism.
        Maybe you have some sort of peculiar definition of the word…or maybe that word does not mean what you think it means…there’s a lot of that going around I hear tell.

        • omnologos Says:

          As a reference, please compare Revkin’s work as journalist for the NYT, and as blogger for dotEarth.

          I repeat myself: SkS is not journalism. SkS is a website of blog posts and other web-based information.

          The writing doesn’t follow a journalistic style, there is no journalistic structure in the articles, etc etc. If SkS were an attempt at journalism, it would be an abysmal failure.

          • skeptictmac57 Says:

            Please explain to me why being a “website” consisting of “blog posts” and other “web-based information” is inherently inferior to a “newspaper” consisting of “articles” and other” sources of information”, or a “TV newscast” consisting of “interviews” and other “verbal and visual information”.
            It is the content that is important in all of these media formats,not the format itself.That should be self evident,and if it is not,then you need to do some reality checking on your biases.
            I find the content on SkS to be credible,relevant,scientifically sourced and sound.They also do something that many, many other sources fail to do,and that is maintain a discussion of the facts, that deters ad hominem attacks,and encourages a coherent discussion thread,by funneling off topic comments to appropriate threads. They also provide references to legitimate research,and correct mistakes on their site when they are pointed out,in a timely fashion.
            If that is not consistent with good journalism,then what is?

      • dana1981 Says:

        I’m not really sure how the question of SkS being ‘journalism’ is at all relevant. The original criticism was that PBS is not practicing good journalism, and omnologos for some reason changes the subject to SkS.

        Regardless, blogging is considered a genre of journalism, so by that measure SkS is a type of journalism. I have no idea why this is relevant or important, but it is what it is.

        And yes again, I do not think that word means what you think it means.

        • rayduray Says:

          Dana,

          I’ve been forewarned. So let me share.

          “Don’t feed the troll.” 🙂

          One useful feature that seems to have vanished from modern comment software is the “ignore” button. I used to find it quite a pleasure to use as a defense against obtuse. otiose and/or obstructionist oafs.

          Cheers!


  3. This is just amazing — putting together a basic app that implements a simple gridding/averaging algorithm and demonstrates that raw, homogenized, rural, and urban data produce very similar global-average warming trends is not that difficult. It could be broken down into a series of reasonable homework assignments for 2nd-semester computer-programming students.

    In fact, just such an app — a python script — was posted to skepticalscience just a few weeks ago. The actual code in the script fits on a single page! That’s how simple the algorithm is.

    I took the script, tweaked it just slightly, added a bunch of comments that explain what it does and how to use it, and uploaded it to this link: https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B0pXYsr8qYS6SXkzMW1nY2Zodlk

    The app generates global-average temperature estimates and writes them out in .CSV (comma-separated value) format for easy plotting with Excel or OpenOffice.
    I also put up a plot showing the output of the script vs. the official NASA/GISS “meteorological stations” results here: tinyurl.com/pythonvsnasa

    The plot shows the script output for all raw-data/all-stations, raw-data/rural-stations, raw-data/urban stations, adjusted-data/all stations, adjusted-data/rural-stations, adjusted-data/urban stations. The official NASA/GISS results are included on the plot for comparison purposes. Without the legend labels,
    you simply wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

    What we are talking about here is not a mere disagreement with Watts — Watts’ claims are based on delusions and incompetence. Watts has claimed that “data
    adjustments” and UHI are responsible for a large share of the global-warming signal — the plot at the above link completely disproves that.

    You can take raw data, run it through a straightforward averaging procedure with no data “adjustments” whatsoever, and produce global-average temperature re
    sults that are very similar to the results published by NASA, NOAA, and the CRU.

    Furthermore, with a little self-study, you can learn enough python to “hack” the script and demonstrate that you can confirm the NASA/NOAA/CRU results with raw data taken from just a few dozen rural stations scattered around the world. How to do that is left as an exercise for the reader.

    So for the Watts-fans out there, here’s a challenge: Download the script, run it per the instructions given in the script comments, and post the first 20 l
    ines of the script output here.


  4. Ugh! My post above has some ugly formatting glitches.

    The discussion-thread commenting system here doesn’t seem to play nicely with Firefox — had to copy/paste text from an text editor; was not able to preview the entire post before submitting it.

  5. franbarlow Says:

    The persistent resort to false balance is scandalous. Those who have no credibility should not be dignified with public airtime as if they were credible, unless we are doing light entertainment or human interest.

    At the very least, rebuttal material should be included and put directly to those challenging the established science.


  6. […] Read the rest here: Dissecting Anthony Watt's Pathetic Climate Disinformation on PBS … […]


  7. It really is bad journalism. One nut job on one side, scientists on the other. Even though they could have interviewed a dissenting scientist, they chose someone with no qualifications. You might just as well have asked a five year old. TV journalism has tended to be less in depth than print journalism for a long time. Time was when journalists would check the soundness of their sources first and print their analysis. Now they find a scientists on one side and grab someone out of an insane asylum for the other. That is what passes for journalism these days. As Mike Royko once said about the impending wave of “new” journalism; No self respecting fish would allow itself to be wrapped in this newspaper.


  8. […] du jour involves a pretty abnormal suspect: the usually intelligent Public Broadcasting Service. In a segment that aired Monday, PBS explored the conversion of a prominent former climate skeptic, the University of California […]

  9. andrewfez Says:

    PBS wouldn’t publish my comment on their blog, where i threw out the idea that the Watts interview came pretty close to defamation pointed towards NOAA, NAS, and the current working body of climate scientists. Further, I called for a budget cut to PBS, secondary to the reduction in their integrity, and responsibility. Wonder why they won’t publish my comment? It would be just 1 small comment in the blog’s sea of infuriation.

  10. Peter Mizla Says:

    Having Watts interviewed seems like a ‘natural’ for PBS- since the Koch Foundation funds both of them!

    • rayduray Says:

      Peter,

      You make a very good point.

      The PBS News Hour lists some of its funders here:
      http://www.pbs.org/newshour/aboutus/funders.html

      I know that the Nova science program’s lead funder for the 2011-12 season was one of the Koch Brothers.

      And I was surprised at the dearth of corporate sponsors listed on the page above, since I regularly have seen ADM, Chevron and other corporations with prominent sponsor ads at the beginning of the broadcast version of the News Hour.

      One thing that this Watts’ interview makes 100% obvious is that the News Hour has now descended entirely into the category of propaganda for the elites who fund the program. Of course I was saying the same thing in utter disgust in 2002 and 2003 when the News Hour was an aggressive cheerleader for Bush/Cheney’s criminal invasion of Iraq. Only in that instance, there was no attempt at “balance”.

      It does make one wonder if we’ll ever be able to fix the criminal mess that’s been created by our corporations on any number of fronts.


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