Sunday, December 15, 2013

More Denier Weirdness @wattsupwiththat: Anthony Watts, the SuperHero at #AGU13

Sou | 11:22 AM Go to the first of 21 comments. Add a comment

Anthony Watts has an article (archived here) telling his readers just how brave he was to venture into a scientific meeting.  He actually, (can you believe it?) had the balls to attend a conference along with 20,000 other people.  None of those people were brave.  They were "the enemy". Those other 20,000 people were there to talk about, read about, find out about science and network - to explore opportunities to collaborate, to find out what peers and colleagues were doing in research.

Anthony Watts went along to show his readers how brave he is, and to tell his readers what is wrong with science today.

Scientists should not try to "make a difference" sez Anthony Watts

What he found out was that scientists through their research hope to, horror of horrors, make a difference. Anthony is appalled.  He wrote:
Science findings really shouldn’t be thought of as “making a difference”, that is a social pursuit. According to the definition that pops up on Google when you query “what is science?”  it is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”.
None of the definitions I looked at had “making a difference” as part of the structure. In my opinion, such advertisements can become the seeds of “noble cause corruption”, or as Dr. Judith Curry recently put it,  Pathological altruism:
Pathological altruism can be conceived as behavior in which attempts to promote the welfare of another, or others, results instead in harm that an external observer would conclude was reasonably foreseeable.

I ask you. Why would earth system scientists hope to "make a difference"? Imagine if, say, medical researchers hoped to "make a difference".  What sort of world would that lead to?  Imagine if meteorologists hoped to "make a difference" by, for example, coming up with early detection of storms?  Or if seismologists were able to detect early warnings of earthquakes.  Or what if agricultural scientists were able to breed plants that made a difference to the world's food supply?

Don't spend money on science

Anthony is also horrified by the cost of doing science.  He thinks that $415 for five days is over the top. I don't know what world he lives in but $415 for half a day would be considered cheap for any other conference (but don't tell AGU I said so).  With discount travel, provided housing or discount hotel accommodation, the cost for the five days would be minimal.  Anthony said he only spent $2,000 all up.  He thought that was a lot of money.  It's not.  It's cheap as cheap and huge value for money in anyone's country. And even then, going by the listed hotel prices, he didn't skimp on his meals and accommodation.

Don't duplicate scientific research

Scientists do like to be different, but often researchers will be tackling the same subject matter - maybe from different perspectives.  It's how scientific knowledge accumulates.  Anthony seems to think that only one team at a time should be addressing any single subject.  That would make for very slow progress.  He wrote:
There was a lot of science on display there, but as I wandered through the poster sessions each day, I saw a lot of science that seemed to be replicated. I’d see 3 or four posters covering the same topic from different universities or agencies, sometimes on the same day in the same aisle. This duplication of effort is something the US government is quite famous for. For example, USGS now has a climate change division, duplicating some of the work NOAA does. When Eisenhower warned that science was becoming institutionalized, he was only touching the surface of what I observed on display at AGU.

The sound of smirks...

Much of Anthony's article was about who did or did not acknowledge him.  He really is a very insecure chap.  He complained that he wasn't acknowledged by some people and boasted that he chatted to others for some minutes.  I reckon he felt very lonely and isolated.  As well as being completely out of his depth with science, he felt under seige.   He could even hear people smirking! (Now that must be a first.)
My first two days at AGU were personally difficult. I felt the stares, I heard some smirks. 
He praised Scott Mandia for talking to him for 15 minutes.  He thinks it was very big of Scott - which it was after the way that Anthony treats him (calling it "satirical ribbing").  I doubt Anthony's good will will last long, going by how he repaid Bill McKibben for being gracious to him.  (However I've noticed Anthony hasn't been bagging individuals as much lately.  Whether it's coincidence or whether scientists' suing for defamation is having an effect is hard to tell.  Maybe even his blog spawn have helped make a small difference.)

On that note, Anthony Watts dismisses lawsuits against scientists and threats of same as a tempest in a teapot.  I'm guessing Anthony has never been sued.

After complaining loud and long about David Appell pointing out that Anthony was wrong about a "grunt" (don't ask.  It was another instance of Anthony wishing to be noticed) - Anthony ended up saying his experience was a positive one.  That's nice.  We're yet to hear any reporting of the science from him.  He's made a few promises but so far hasn't come through.  Or not with anything more than press releases, which he could have got from home, his "live blogging" snapshots of slides minus any comment and a snapshot of three attendees with a lick and a promise of a video interview.

From the WUWT comments

There are more "lions' den" and other equally fatuous comments from the fake sceptics at WUWT.  They are easily pleased and some of them are truly deluded.  So far no-one has asked him for his take on the science at AGU.  Here is a small sample. (Archived here.)

righttimewrongplace says:
December 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm
Thank you so much for walking into the Roman Coliseum and living to tell about it.

Julian in Wales says:
December 14, 2013 at 1:24 pm
I think you were very brave to go into the lion’s den like that, it takes a lot of guts and also displays your confidence and self-esteem.

Ivor Ward (aka Disko Troop) says:
December 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm
The joys of walking into the lions den and discovering that they are really scared little pussycats.

Scott Mc says:
December 14, 2013 at 2:12 pm
Anthony, you are an amazing man and I have enormous respect for you.

James Strom gives a mild rebuke to Anthony and says maybe it was all in his head:
December 14, 2013 at 2:27 pm
I’ve got to respect your pursuit of your press activities despite hearing difficulties, but they do put you in a situation where you may miss subtleties. You may for example, misconstrue sounds of disapproval, particularly inarticulate ones. Heck, I often do so myself, without need of a hearing problem.

TimiBoy says:
December 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm
Mate, if you were a Pom (or an Aussie) you’d be SIR Anthony Watts. Thankyou for your work.


  1. That post is full of gems. A Martian visits Earth and does not understand what he sees.

    I saw a lot of science that seemed to be replicated. I’d see 3 or four posters covering the same topic from different universities or agencies, sometimes on the same day in the same aisle.

    That is actually on purpose, that those posters are on the same day and in the same aisle. That helps people working on the same topic to find each other. You will likely have to know a little about the topic to see the differences between the posters. If anything, there is too little replication in science.

    Maybe at the next AGU someone should spend some time with him to explain him how science works, what is the role of conferences, projects, peer review and collaboration, how the climate system works, why the climate is changing, what we know with confidence and what is (still) uncertain. It is a pity that the time at conferences is so precious because there is so much to learn and so many people you need to talk to.

    1. Victor, I get the impression that people have tried to explain all of this to AW. The problem seems to be that the harder they try to do so, the more likely it is that they'll get banned from his site.

    2. I agree and especially on "his main theme", the quality one would expect that he would be much more knowledgeable after all these years of blogging.

      Still a personal conversation is very different from a public written "debate".

    3. That should have read:
      I agree and especially on his "main theme", the quality of climate stations, one would expect that he would be much more knowledgeable after all these years of blogging.

      Still a personal conversation is very different from a public written "debate".

    4. wait, replication is a bad thing now? or does it only count when it's done by blog-scientists?

  2. Two issues emerge from his financial calculation:
    1. He neglects to mention that 30% of attendees are students, so aren't employees of anyone. Of course they also pay a reduced fee ($205) so his calculation of the cost of the meeting is way out.
    2. His costs are interesting. As a member of the media he had access to the press room, which provides free breakfast and lunch. I wonder how he managed to run up such high expenses - maybe those who paid for his trip should ask?

    My experience is that most scientists attend the meeting on a shoestring. They travel low cost airlines, take public transport to the city centre, stay in cheaper hotels (often sharing rooms) and eat in low cost places. For my graduate students we rent an apartment to keep costs down. So, his estimates of the likely costs are very overblown. Even then, funding comes from a variety of sources, imcluding commercial contracts (my attendance was funded by an industrial research grant), personal funds, etc.

    His unwillingness to comment in a meaningful way so far about the science that he saw and heard is revealing about both him and his blog.

  3. Yeah, even with the $415 he could have easily managed for about $1k. Call that guy anything you want, just don't call him late for an expensive lunch someone else is paying for. :)

    In the linked thread, that use of violent as a modifier is understood exactly the same here (I'm also in northern CA) as in Oz. Tony Willard's intentional misinterpretation of the words of others is something to behold.

    Of course he avoided talking about any of the actual science going on at AGU because of what generally happens whenever he does that.

    1. In fairness to Anthony, $2000 is not at all an outrageous amount for a conference like this. Figure $415 for registration, $1000 for five nights hotel (the mid-range of the conference hotels were around $200 per night when taxes are included), $400 airfare and you're at $1815 even before adding anything for meals, local transport etc. My expenses came to nearly $2000 even when trying to economize by eating meals in my hotel room and the like.

  4. Braved the lion's den? Many scientists are grownup nerds who got beat up by young Illiterati with even less impulse control than the older ones. Those of us who don't do field work tend to be sedentary enough that being compared to a lion is... implausibly flattering. For instance, I live on a diet of Coors Light and chicken sliders, and vaguely remember doing a pushup a few months ago.

    Seriously, the biggest risk of braving the AGU "lion's den" is being late for beer o'clock.

    I don't know who was staring and smirking at Anthony Watts; for the record, I don't approve. It might be helpful to keep in mind that many scientists are introverts, myself included. But Scott Mandia isn't, which might be why he was the only one to approach Watts. I don't approach people I don't know even at AGU (which is like my natural habitat) unless I need to ask them a specific question about their poster or talk.

    I tweeted about my AGU poster before and during the conference. Viewing GRACE data using the methodology of Hughes and Williams 2010 reveals the first "full color" maps of Earth's surface mass variations. In my opinion they're entrancing, but they're my babies so your mileage may vary.

    I applied the same methodology to a water storage model because scientists compare models to observational data such as GRACE. Because this methodology involves a Fourier transform, I hid the decline by detrending the timeseries and also removed an acceleration term. This primarily reveals natural, cyclical variations, because scientists study natural, cyclical variations.

    I tweeted the time and location of my poster before AGU, but after Anthony Watts quoted one of my tweets at the bottom. It seemed like WUWT was interested in observations of natural, cyclical variations, so it's disappointing that I wasn't able to give Anthony Watts the same elevator talk I gave everyone else. This concludes my shameless self-advertisement. ;)

    1. For a Dumb Scientist, you are very smart :)

      Those are wonderful. They aren't just science, they are works of art.

      Thanks. This climate science dilettante just loves them. Now you've given me more reading to catch up on.

    2. I'm grateful for the help my co-authors are providing, and got a chance to thank Dr. Hughes for the paper he wrote with Dr. Williams. Anyone who liked those GRACE maps won't want to miss Hughes and Williams 2010 (PDF), which has sealevel maps even more beautiful than anything I've been able to make (so far).

      Just to be contrarian, I chose my pseudonym because students praised as smart do worse in school and lie more than students praised as "hard worker" and even worse than students who aren't praised at all. I'm starting to suspect that this common (and well intentioned) compliment might be connected to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but a real psychologist should study this notion.

  5. Watts seems to think no scientist should have a view to the social side of their work, which is clearly wishful thinking. I didn't go into science without an eye on whether anything I might do could be useful or important. The problems arise when you leave the policy up to those politicians who know nothing about science. I'm sure we could name some.

    1. One of the complaints you hear in Australia is that most funding bodies these days insist on project proposals that explain directly how the science will benefit society. That's from people who want to do 'blue sky' research. There are some limited funding options for pure research, but not a lot. If you're in a fully funded position, less reliant on grants or trust funds, you are better placed.

      Many if not most funding bodies go further than that. They decide research priorities and then call for applications.

  6. "This duplication of effort is something the US government is quite famous for."

    Not to mention the private sector. Do we really need more than one car manufacturer? Wouldn't it be sufficient to have one company producing all jeans? Why should there be many sausage manufacturers?

    As I wander through a super market each day, I see a lot of products that seem to be replicated. I’d see 3 or four versions of the same product from different manufacturers, sometimes on the same day in the same aisle.

    1. Speaking of supermarkets - what about all those different wines - hundreds, thousands, and they do one each year. Surely we only need one wine!!

  7. Anthony's comments sound foolish and naive for any field of science. In particle physics, you might have an entire section (on the very same day!) just for potential dark matter particles. There might even be a few talks that appear to be the same to the uninformed observer, but the scientist in the field is most interested in the detailed differences between those few talks.

    My friends and I had the "10 minute rule" to describe how a physicist from one field would usually last ~10 minutes in the talk of a physicist from a different field before the terms, equations and other required knowledge would lose him/her. This rule wasn't for general symposium talks, but for those presented to fellow experts in a specific field.

    Reading this "diary" of Anthony's is just surreal. He can't understand the most basic of scientific literature, what was supposed to happen here? For him, the rule is probably 1 minute, if I'm generous. The rest of the childlike whining about not being noticed is just the cherry topping. I really think this is the worst conference reporting I've ever seen, and the word reporting in this context is an overstatement. The quick acceptance of his commentary, and even praise, says a lot about his readership.

  8. This poor graduate student managed the entire trip on a sub-$1000 budget, including five nights hotel (split with roommates), cross-country airfare, abstract fee, and student registration costs. And a healthy social / night fun budget.

  9. The gall of the man is staggering, a legend in his lunchtime.
    WTH did he expect? To be welcomed with palm fronds and a red carpet?

    There we are, trying to have a good conference, network, share and discuss knowledge and AW shows up, someone who makes a living from and dedicated to belittling, demonizing and slandering scientists and their professions for public consumption - preferentially those that might have an effect on fossil fuel taxes.

    He deserves to be drowned in a hail of shoes for his gnosticidal crusade on our efforts to fix our suicidal energy system.

    1. Yes. I don't understand why Anthony Watts seems to have expected any sort of welcome or acknowledgement, especially not from the people he attacks personally and those whose lifes' work he makes futile attempts to belittle. Delusions of grandeur, with the emphasis on delusions!

      The fact that he was ignored by most of those same people is probably what galled the most. He would have welcomed a hail of shoes because then he could have boasted about the dreadful behaviour of scientists.

      Being ignored was a worse insult. It showed he is less than inconsequential in the world of science.

      He is hailed as a hero only in the tiny and weird world of the scientific illiterati and mad conspiracy theorists.

  10. AGU is a very good deal.
    I was there all week, but didn't see him, although I'm told he had a case labeled "W U W T" in big letters just to make sure. people knew who he was. Scott rode with me over to Berkeley SkS party, but I think he said he talked to Watts for ~3-5 minutes.

    What's this about airfare? Chico is about 3 hours' drive from San Francisco.
    A flight takes a little more than an hour, but by the time you add checkin time, airport delays, and time to get from SFO to anywhere near Moscone, it's about 3 hours.

    There are 2 ways people get ignored.
    a) Anthony Watts? Who's that?
    b) Anthony Watts: no, don't think I'll talk to him. I'd rather talk to {Bill Ruddiman, Mike Mann, Kevin Trenberth, Eric Steig, Simon Donner, Andrew Dessler, Ben Santer, Naomi Oreskes, Myles Allen, Lord Stern, Jane Lubchenko, Jim Hoggan, Stephan Lewandowky, Ed Maibach, Bud Ward, Peter Gleick, Mark Boslough, Jason Box, Eli Rabett, Peter Sinclair, the SkS gang, etc, etc to name a sample, and the eager grad students/postdocs staffing the poster sessions, i.e. the ones leading cushy lives on the gravy train of easy fieldwork.

    Of the 20,000+ people there, I'd guess there were far more a) than b) after all, climate scientists are just a small fraction of AGU attendees and only a fraction of them have heard of Watts.

    1. It's not surprising that Anthony exaggerated the time he spent chatting with Scott Mandia. It probably seemed like a lifetime to him and maybe the longest time he's ever spent in conversation with a scientist other than Leif Svalgaard.

      With regard to the travel, I think Anthony said he'd be driving "to save air fares". I often drive further than that for work reasons a couple of times a week. There and back to Melbourne is a 700 km plus round trip that I'll commonly do in a day.

      (Sadly we have very limited public transport available from where I live. Train is the cheapest option, but has a very limited schedule that doesn't usually suit. Air travel is at face value the most expensive, especially if you don't factor in car wear and tear. The train and plane are at least an hour's drive away. Petrol here costs more than 1.5 times that in California.)

      If I lived that close to an AGU meet, I'd be taking advantage of it too. You never know. One of these days I might be able to go to a Fall Meeting. Meantime the videos are fantastic.


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