Sunday, February 28, 2010

Our blogfather, the idiot-in-chief: Anthony Watts

Global warming is the most serious challenge global civilization has ever faced. Without radical reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, our planet will be irreversibly altered in ways that will have tragic consequences for humanity.

Despite this, there are those who refuse to look beyond the dog-whistle politics of the issue -- who insist on viewing this real-world problem purely as an ideological football. Because there is no way to address global warming without collective international action, because only governments can take the necessary action, because global warming is a problem which unites us as a species in the firing line, admitting of only very imperfect prospects of shielding ourselves with wealth and technology, people on the right have identified global warming as a threat to their political viewpoint and, by extension, themselves.

Along the way, the usual themes of elitism and "socialist" leanings have cropped up. And in the middle of it all sits Anthony Watts, whose denialist blog is sitting on two million hits a month -- the kind of internet numbers usually reserved for fluffy kittens or hardcore pornography.

Watts uses this ample stage to promote anything and everything that calls into question (or can be made to seem to call into question) the theory of anthropogenic global warming. He may, at the outset, have had some glimmer of intellectual honesty in how he went about his work, but those days are long gone.

To understand Watts today, look at Watts in the very beginning, 2006:

" Chances are, we’ll see another dramatic dip in sunspots by 2015 through 2022 and global cooling will set in again as it did in the 1970’s." ( He later elaborated: "Now if I’m wrong, and I see compelling and undisputable evidence (not models or projections) that man made CO2 is the culprit and nothing else, I’ll be happy to stand up in the middle of city plaza and announce "I was wrong".I expect I’ll know the answer by about January to March 2018, when its expected that solar cycle 24 will be over, and temperatures on earth are postulated to drop."

That seems pretty straightforward: Mr Watts thinks "it's the sun." When sunspots (a proxy for solar radiation) dip dramatically, Mr. Watts posultulated the earth would cool. If it didn't, he would " stand up in the middle of city plaza and announce "I was wrong." (

Mr. Watts made that rash promise in one of his first posts. He is much more cautious today. He is right to be. Because we did see that dramatic drop in sunspot activity: but in 2007, 2008, and 2009, not in 2015 or later. In 2009 there were 260 days with no sunspots at all. That's unprecedented in living memory. Did we see "global cooling" as predicted?

No. Not even close. 2009 was the second-warmest year on record. Mr. Watts has never, so far as I know, alluded to his promise which, while perhaps being naïve about solar physics, was truly scientific in its formulation: "My hypothesis is that the warming observed is caused by the sun. If the sun becomes quiet, but the world does not cool, I am wrong, and I will say so."

He has moved on since then to other, increasingly far-fetched theories, his favorite right now being that the measurements of temperature are all corrupted and the recording warming is all an illusion. We can consider that idiocy in a future post. For now, take a look at a time when Watts didn't doubt the world was warming, but only why. It's a reminder to non-idiots that what separates a scientists from a charlatan is not that one is right and the other is wrong: it's how they react to being proven wrong.

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