Sunday, 1 September 2013

Humiliation - Learn Etiquette with Anthony Watts

Willard Anthony Watts has posted a guest post by someone called Richard Guy who happens (and I wonder if this is his fault) to be an engineer. I hope Sou doesn't mind that I used her archive rather than linking to WUWT so you can see for yourself how rubbish it is.

Anyway, Willard reckons that posting bad science is useful.  In some ways it might be but the comments on WUWT don't reflect that.  They tend to point out it is rubbish and they are not holding it to the same level of accountability as they do for real, proper and worthwhile climate science.  Odd, that.

A "disclaimer" of sorts was posted at the end of the piece but it seems WUWT commenters don't actually read the whole thing, they just skim it and nod or shake their heads in unison.  At least in this case they got the answer right.  The article is rubbish.

But it is no more bad science than a great many other articles that Watts puts on his site and one of the ways to tell that is the way it is written.  You see, if it were science then it would be highly evidenced, with lots of references and plenty of discussions of alternative hypotheses.  Just putting a graph in does not make it scientific, good, bad or otherwise.

As Richard Lindzen told us in his barely scientific article in JPANDS recently, science is a powerful process.  And we can learn from Guy's awful article.  How not to do it.  For someone who has completed a degree and the post graduate qualifications needed for him to practice as an engineer, you'd think he'd understand that a few unevidenced random thoughts on a subject are not worthy of anyone else's time.

Bad science happens in two ways, as far as I can tell.  The first is when qualified experts take a biassed position on a scientific subject, whether because their bosses demand it or they take it upon themselves.  At this point they begin to cherry pick evidence, quotes and who knows what else. For the science to be good it has to make a coherent whole. Bad science concentrates on a little bit of the picture, hoping that such an approach will destroy the whole thing.  And quite often the bad scientists are working on different hypotheses, each of which they believe is the key to bringing down an established theory or making their name.  So in WUWT case there are multiple authors plying multiple hypotheses. Nature seems to be parsimonious and multiple explanations for events or phenomena tend not to happen.  One thing I do know - climate change is not down to the insects.

The second way for bad science to happen is for someone to go down a wrong path and convince themselves they are right. This is an occupational hazard amongst real scientists which is why they question one another and subject themselves to the questions at conferences and the process of peer review. But for non-scientists it is often a way of life.  Amateurs can make discoveries in science - geology and astronomy are areas where that is possible and indeed happens - but those discoveries are almost always on small parts of the picture and add to it, not take away. Those amateurs who believe they have uncovered a flaw in someone's theory tend to forget that, rather than being conservative about their ideas, scientists want genuine proof of why a small part of the picture can take down the whole thing because they understand that the pieces have to fit together and that multiple lines of evidence support scientific theories.  It's why you learn about particles and energy and chemical reactions when you are 11.  They are fundamental ideas in science and science works as a result.

The armchair scientist who sits around, comes up with an idea and scribbles it down has a long, ignominious history. Very few amateurs have done anything fundamental in the last hunded years.  The reason is simple, they don't have the expertise.  Science has moved too far.  Not that it isn't possible, just that sitting at home means your ideas don't get tested at the birth stage.  When you ask a colleague what they think of your idea, if they don't show enthusiasm at the beginning, you might as well bin it. At home, your armchair won't tell you that your idea stinks.

The commenters have humiliated Guy, whose self published book is available on Amazon and shows signs of being total crank science (bad archaeology, bad theology as well as bad science), by not returning his piece and saying this is how it could be improved. That's what peer review and editing is about. Your idea has merit but you need to tighten it up or correct some bits before it can be published is good.  Sticking rubbish up so it can be shown up as rubbish is bad.  WUWT has probably lost a reader. A few more aware readers might also turn away. Watts won't care. He doesn't really care about science or he would have asked Guy to rewrite. And just to say he puts claim in front of things he's not convinced by is a bit disingenuous too. 

But Watts and his cronies are not self aware enough to know that they also put up material like Guy.  Willis Eschenbach, Jim Steele, Lord Monckton and others have trodden a similar path, if perhaps a little more polished. It is another simplistic denial method - say something is wrong, give an explanation and leave it at that. Unsophisticated argument aimed at ensuring no one considers other explanations.  But if you think you are a skeptic, you first step is to check that there is a problem, then that this is an explanation and finally that there are no other explanations.  And if there are other explanations, are any of them better, more likely, less complex and so on.  It's what scientists actually do.  When their idea has passed the that's interesting test, find out some more, they do that.  And the way to do it best is to find out if someone else has come up with the idea and what happened to it.  A scientist looks especially stupid if they produce a paper repeating someone of twenty years ago whose work was thoroughly discredited in the next few months. Search the literature. Find out why it was wrong.  Then think up better ideas.

Richard Guy has all the signs of science denier and probably is a climate science denier (supposition). He probably will tell his friends not to bother with WUWT because it has a nasty streak in it, right from top to bottom. But then he might have noticed that already. When a realistic commenter joins in and points out why a post is no good, the comments become insulting, personal and, usually, wrong.  No, sorry, they are often wrong anyway.

So, Willard, a message to you.  Respect your audience. Without them, to be honest, you are absolutely nothing.  No weather news to give on the breakfast show any more. No peer reviewed paper to look back on in a prestigious journal. No chats with Glen Beck (more time for him to talk to himself then). No potty peers coming around. Stop humiliating people who might be your allies. They will become your enemies.

PS I learned something. There are people out there who think the Earth is expanding (other than the extremely trivial addition of meteoritic material as a ratio of the mass of the Earth). More odd ideas for me to have to worry about.  Search expanding earth if you dare.


  1. Using is using a public service... Sou published her link and it is public property. And it's a fine way to
    1) not give Willard the clicks he doesn't deserve, and
    2) document for posterity something that may easily fall victim to historical revisionism once the sheer stupidity comes home.

    BTW one expanding-Earth theory was of an honourable pedigree.

    1. So the expanding Earth theory is slightly less obsolete than the "CO2 doesn't warm Earth" theory.

    2. Thanks on both points, Martin. I wasn't sure if I was stepping on Sou's territory so I thought I'd best give her credit for making the archive. I didn't know about Celsius having a similar idea but he does at least have the excuse of not having access to all the science we've learned since he died. Guy doesn't have that excuse.

    3. > I thought I'd best give her credit for making the archive

      Acknowledgement is always a good thing!

  2. Hello,

    I believe your are referring to Willard Tony. At least that's what Eli uses.

    I like your argument about Willard Tony's double standard.

    1. Willard,

      Welcome and thank you. I am referring to Anthony Watts and, yes, I do reckon he is good at double standards. Guy's piece is clearly bad and he should have recognised it. But it is hardly any worse than some other posts over the last few months - the one about insects and the carbon cycle was an example. He allows people to bear grudges (Jim Steele's series of pieces seems like one of these) and he himself bears grudges against successful climate scientists like Mann and Hansen.

      By the way, I like the fact that Eli winds up the WUWT crowd with his literary trick. Long may it continue.