Friday, August 2, 2013

Not quite 100% - Anthony Watts doesn't understand the fundamentals of science

Sou | 5:57 PM Go to the first of 6 comments. Add a comment

Has anyone noticed that Anthony Watts only rarely writes any blog articles himself, which is probably a good thing because otherwise he'd be showing his ignorance too often.

Today he's copied an extract from some denier blog elsewhere in cyberspace.  He takes any opportunity he thinks he might have to poke fun at real scientists, particularly his favourites.  Professor Michael Mann is a favourite of Anthony's.  Anthony agrees with this:
In a post over at Peter Guest’s blog, Michael “Hockey Stick” Mann is quoted making one of the most remarkable statements that I’ve ever heard coming out of a supposed scientist’s mouth:

Proof is for mathematical theorems and alcoholic beverages. It’s not for science.
He goes on to explain that science is all about “credible theories” and “best explanations” and his gosh-darn critics supposedly don’t offer up any of those.

Now I know Anthony agrees with the blogger who criticises Mann because he writes a comment in the thread:
Anthony Watts says:
August 1, 2013 at 9:57 am

@Mosher if proof isn’t for science, then maybe it is wrong to ask for data, equations, and code to replicate and “prove” assertions. Let’s just take the scientists word for it then. That’s basically what Mann is saying. – Anthony
But Anthony is very wrong. That's not what Dr Mann is saying.  He's talking about something completely different.  Interestingly, many comments from science deniers as well as people who accept science are trying to explain to Anthony how science works and why science isn't about "proof" in an absolute sense.  Anthony doesn't appear to know the difference between evidence supporting a theory and "proof" as in solving mathematical equations (or as in a measure of the purity of alcohol).

In science, explanations for real world observations are developed over time.  Those explanations may start out with a simple idea.  Different ideas get rejected as the testing proceeds and it's found they don't fit with the evidence.  Other ideas get developed further as hypotheses, tested with more data, modified and developed further and eventually a complex explanation emerges and become accepted as a scientific theory.  That is, an explanation of why things happen the way they do.  If something is observed that conflicts with the theory then the whole thing gets looked at again to see if the theory is incomplete, lacking in some way or fundamentally wrong - or if it's an error in the observations.  In that way theories continue to be subject to further refinement and knowledge grows.

One of the more dramatic examples recently was the apparent conflict between observations and the speed of light.  It turned out that the observations were in error, not the theory.

People talk about evidence supporting a theory (ie evidence supporting an explanation of how things work), and evidence that conflicts with or that doesn't support an explanation.

I have to say I'm surprised that Anthony doesn't understand this.  I probably shouldn't have been so surprised, given some of the ridiculous stuff he posts on his blog as if he thinks it's credible.

Here's another example of Anthony not understanding what science is.  Ryan comments on the difference between scientists and those who don't understand science, and Anthony again misses the point completely.  In so doing he shows he belongs in the "those who don't understand science" camp, that Ryan referred to.  Ryan says:
August 1, 2013 at 10:27 am He was just pointing out that people who don’t understand science dand proof while scientists demand evidence. Way to be in the wrong, lol. 
REPLY: Ok then next time you complain about some issue here on WUWT, I’ll direct commenters to address your concerns by just providing “best opinions” rather than any proof. Way to shoot yourself in the foot. – Anthony
It's Anthony who is shooting himself in the foot (in the broader scheme of things), not Ryan.

And here again.  Anthony builds a strawman.  Climate science is arguably the most transparent of sciences when it comes to making data freely available.  Anthony wouldn't know what to do with it if he got it.  The only evidence he's ever collected is surface station data and look what difficulty he has with understanding that.  (He still doesn't understand the meaning of a temperature anomaly from a baseline average.)  Steven Mosher says:
August 1, 2013 at 12:15 pm  Anthony Watts says: August 1, 2013 at 9:57 am
@Mosher if proof isn’t for science, then maybe it is wrong to ask for data, equations, and code to replicate and “prove” assertions. Let’s just take the scientists word for it then. That’s basically what Mann is saying. – Anthony
If I told you that 2+2 =5, you would not ask to see my code or data because you know that 2+2=4. No evidence could change your mind. If I tell you that C02 causes warming you will want to see my code and data because you know all science “proofs” are open to question, open to challenge, open to different explanations, open to revision, open to refinement, open to being wrong.
REPLY: this is the same argument that warmists use. i.e. we “know” that C02 is the cause of all the warming, therefore you don’t need to see any data or code. – Anthony
Anthony is wrong here in more ways than one.  Steven seems to be saying that it's legitimate to ask for data because scientific theories are always "open to question, open to challenge".  Anthony misinterprets what Steven wrote as meaning that science isn't open to being wrong (even though Steven wrote that science is open to being wrong).  Not only that, but data and even code are widely available for free, contrary to what Anthony implies.  As for how much warming CO2 is causing - I doubt very much Anthony would understand attribution studies if he ever did try to read any.


  1. This reminds me of the discussion about "truth" and "science" I have had. You immediately recognize the poor academics when they claim science is a search for the truth. It isn't. Science is a search for the best (descriptive and predictive) explanation of our observations. Whether that constitutes "truth" is a different matter.


    1. Marco, I may be one of these poor academics. At least I can live with both formulations. As long as no one claims to have found the truth.

      What is the subtle difference between these two formulations? How would searching for truth make me a worse scientist, hinder my academic work?

    2. Victor, the subtle difference is in the word "truth". In science there is likely always going to be a description which includes more and more of the observations. Note here the second important word: description. It is how 'we' view something. Is the way we view something a scientific "truth"? Let's hope not, because then all those pseudoskeptics are also holders of "the truth".


    3. Yes, there is no such thing as truth in science. Or at least we will never know whether we found it.

  2. I don't think Willard went to Peter Guest's blog to read the original post. It's here: https://medium.com/surviving-the-future/46243f9e6b02

  3. Anthony Watts seems to know he was wrong in the back of his mind. He is in a bad, bad mood. Two people are no longer welcome.

    And what’s with this BS of changing screen names “crito” “Gorgias” ??? Permanent spam bin for you. – Anthony

    REPLY: “And I could care less what your herds of insect-fart true believers have to say about most of my comments.”

    Thanks for saying that. By your position then, there’s certainly no reason for you to leave any further comments here. Now you can just watch. Enjoy.
    – Anthony


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