Saturday, October 20, 2012

Watts Wrong Doc

A couple of weeks ago, Willard Watts (you may call him Tony) appeared on a US Public Broadcasting System nightly news, in a segment, hosted by Spencer Michels.  There was a massive reaction.  Eli, being, as usual late to the party, is going to ignore both the interview and the reaction to it but rather point to the response to the ensuing storm by PBS Ombudsman, Michael Getler.

Getler says at the beginning of his long piece, the longest he says he has ever written:
It was not the PBS NewsHour's finest 10 minutes. In my view, and that of hundreds, even thousands of others, the program stumbled badly. On the other hand, it was not the end of the world, so to speak.
and he explains where he is coming from
But first, I want to lay out my views. In the interests of full disclosure, I'm a layman with no particular expertise in science or climate matters. My views and observations are formed mostly from the dreaded mainstream media and my own reading and observations. So I am engaged with the news and issues of our time but pretty much as an average citizen and viewer.

I think of myself as open-minded and believe strongly in hearing opposing views. But I do believe in the assessment by the vast majority of climate scientists and U.S. and international scientific organizations that the threat to our planet and future generations from global warming and the human contribution to it is real and needs to be addressed.
The hook for the report was the announcement by Richard Muller, who the news media took as someone who did not believe that humans are causing climate change, that, indeed, we are.  This is news, but the selection of Watts as the yang to Muller's yin put the lie to the proposition that no one cares about climate change
But almost from the moment it ended, email began pouring into my mailbox, hundreds of them. A representative sampling is posted below. Some are quite long. At the same time, several analytical and opinion pieces attacking or supporting the segment were posted online — almost certainly driving more email traffic — by liberal and conservative commentators, and man-made climate change supporters and critics here, here and here.
Later in the week, a petition arrived listing 15,000 names associated with "Forecast The Facts," a group demanding an investigation into "how and why PBS NewsHour promoted falsehoods about climate change and slander against climate scientists." They focused on the broadcast segment and an accompanying blog post by Michels involving a more extended interview with another guest on the program, Anthony Watts, who the "Facts" group described as a "climate change denier and conspiracy theorist." I will come back to him as well.
 What really got the Ombudsman was that Watts was chosen as the respondent rather than a scientist (this of course raises the issue of whom the could have gotten, perhaps, the inimitable David Deming).
Although global warming strikes me as one of those issues where there is no real balance and it is wrong to create an artificial or false equivalence, there is no harm and some possibility of benefit in inviting skeptics about the human contribution and other factors to speak, but in a setting in which the context of the vast majority of scientific evidence and speakers is also made clear.
What was stunning to me as I watched this program is that the NewsHour and Michels had picked Watts — who is a meteorologist and commentator — rather than a university-accredited scientist to provide "balance." I had never heard of Watts before this program and I'm sure most viewers don't, as part of their routines, read global warming blogs on either side of the issue.
I'm not being judgmental about Watts or anything he said. He undoubtedly is an effective spokesperson. But it seems to me that if you decide you are going to give airtime to the other side of this crucial and hot-button issue, you need to have a scientist.
So where did Spencer Michaels get his lead to Willard Watts, why through the Heartland Institute.  Unfortunately, the Ombudsman did not appear to ask why Michels had gone there for a lead, rather, than say to the National Research Council.

Michels (Spencer) also engaged in some questionable framing
Throughout the interview, Michels referred to scientists who warn against global warming and its man-made component as "climate change believers," a description that offends many and frames the issue, as one viewer wrote, as though this were "faith-based rather than fact-based."
and a minor drive by
Judith Curry, professor of earth sciences at Georgia Tech, who suspects natural variability accounts for climate change — not human-produced CO2 — said Muller's analysis is 'way oversimplistic and not at all convincing . . .' Curry wrote to us earlier today to say that she believes we didn't characterize her position fully and said she was 'appalled' with what we said.

"Here's what Curry told us: 'It is correct that I found Muller's analysis 'way oversimplistic and not at all convincing', but the statement implies that that I don't think human-produced CO2 accounts for any of the climate change we have been seeing. This is absolutely incorrect.  . . . .I estimated that about half the decline could be attributed to human induced CO2, which is in line with the latest analyses from the CMIP5 climate models.'
This was big news, Watts' appearance generated a statement from NOAA to the NewsHour
"The American public can be confident in NOAA's long-standing surface temperature record, one of the world's most comprehensive, accurate and trusted data sets. This record has been constructed through many innovative methods to test the robustness of the climate data record developed and made openly available for all to inspect by NOAA's National Climatic Data Center. Numerous peer-reviewed studies conclusively show that U.S. temperatures have risen and continue to rise with recent widespread record-setting temperatures in the USA. There is no doubt that NOAA's temperature record is scientifically sound and reliable. To ensure accuracy of the record, scientists use peer-reviewed methods to account for all potential inaccuracies in the temperature readings such as changes in station location, instrumentation and replacement and urban heat effects.
"Specifically, NOAA's National Climatic Data Center published a scientific peer-reviewed paper (Menne, et al., 2010) that compared trends from stations that were considered well-sited and stations that received lower ratings on siting conditions, which found that the U.S. average temperature trend is not inflated by poor station siting. A subsequent research study led by university and private sector scientists reached the same conclusion (Fall et al. 2011). Additionally, the Department of Commerce Inspector General reviewed the US Historical Climatology Network dataset in July 2010 and concluded that 'the respondents to our inquiries about the use of and adjustments to the USHCN data generally expressed confidence in the [USHCN] Version 2 dataset."
which is being spun by the spinners as, if the were not guilty they would have said nothing. 

Eli's take away is bitch early and often when the churnalists start the spin cycle.  Working the refs is important.


Steve Bloom said...

1) Michels is pretty much an idiot and prone to think that the safe and proper way to cover an unfamiliar subject is as if it were a political controversy. Otherwise too much homework might be required. Usually this honored (at the Newshour) approach does not poke a nest of hornets.

2) Watts would look to Michels as a way to draw new eyeballs to the Newshour. Probably correct on that one.

3) Budget, in that Muller and Watts were both local for Michels, and a more credible alternative to Watts would not have been.

John Mashey said...

And everyone watch Climate of doubt, a 60-minute PBS/Frontline show (i.e., serious) Tuesday evening.

Anonymous said...

Given that the WattsBuster(tm) software is a bit of a pain in the butt for most folks who wash their hair regularly to set up, I decided to create an animated GIF file that shows how WattsBuster(tm) works.

Check out

Click on that link and you will be able to view an animated GIF file that shows WattsBuster(tm) in action.

The GIF file was created by capturing a sequence of snapshots of WattsBuster(tm) output, starting with a single randomly-selected rural station, and then adding randomly-selected rural stations one at a time, up to 40 stations.

Rural stations were subjected to only one requirement -- station data had to go back to 1885 or earlier, or up until 2010 or later.

This ensured that only stations with long-enough data histories to compute decent results for the entire time-span 1885 to the present were selected.

Aside from that, there was no station selection requirement (rural stations meeting the above requirements were selected from the WattsBuster(tm)/QGIS front-end display completely at random).

In the animated GIF image, you will see two plots.

The upper plot shows raw data results (red) and "homogenized" data results (green) plotted against the official NASA/GISS results (dark blue).

The lower plot shows the number of selected stations that reported data for any given year. (Raw data station count in red, adjusted data station count in green). You can also see the total station count in the legend in the upper-right corner of the lower plot (starting at 1, going to 40).

Each new frame in the animation shows the results updated with each new random station in the order that it was selected. (The update rate is 1 frame per second). As you watch the animation, you will see a nice visual demonstration of how few stations it takes -- with either "homogenized/adjusted" *or* raw data -- to replicate the warming seen in the NASA/GISS results (which were computed from *thousands* of stations).

Sorry Willard (Watts) -- you've been pwned.

--caerbannog the anonybunny

Spiny Norman said...

Spiny actually knew Michaels a score of years back and at the time he was a pretty bright and diligent reporter. It makes Spiny sad to see this item because it offers evidence of a good man's decline.

Magnus Westerstrand said...

Just trying to grasp how far behind the US media is on this... is frighting.

J Bowers said...

John Mashey -- "And everyone watch Climate of doubt, a 60-minute PBS/Frontline show (i.e., serious) Tuesday evening."

Damn. PBS in the UK seems to be something like a month behind, except for election-based episodes of Frontline, the news and the debates.

Russell said...

It grieves me to report that Caerbannog's worthy deconstruction reains incomprehensible to the casual viewer-

John or Eli should thump it into the vernacular, so it can be unleashed on the long suffering citizens of Wattsupistan.

Hank Roberts said... may help

Aaron said...

Is there a good, full time "science reporter" currently working in the US main stream media (& PBS)?

Authors of good journalism and history are never "late".

John Mashey said...

Good, full-time science reporter:
Dan Vergano @ USA Today.

Anonymous said...

The effort to outfox Fox in the "(un)Fair and (un)Balanced" department has also been NPR's undoing.

Some may recall that just a couple years ago, NPR thought it necessary to give a megaphone to another renowned climate "expert": high school global warming denier Kristen "Ponder the Maunder, Global warming is a Hoax" Byrnes.

Byrnes' site (which undoubtedly got a huge traffic boost after the NPR interview) was comprised of all the usual "skeptic" gibberish and libels of Jim Hansen and Al Gore.


Bob K. said...

"Eli's take away is bitch early and often when the churnalists start the spin cycle. Working the refs is important."
Sounds like a game plan, Eli. Eliminate the points of view of those with whom you disagree. Then, present your point of view as an "objective" monoculture of thought from which there is no disagreement. And then the public will adopt that point of view as fact. Seems to me that this is just the kind of strategic thinking that backfired on the public perception of climate science in the first place.

Steve Bloom said...

Byrnes makes for an interesting case study. It turned out to be a mainly a money-making scam, albeit (apparently) to pay for her college education (in architecture, IIRC, despite Aunt Judy's having encouraged her to apply to GTech to study climate).

Steve Bloom said...

Sure Bob K, just like McCarthyism was the fault of pinks in the Army.

John Mashey said...

Look to Kristen's step-father, Michael Carson.

But from NPR story, who David Kestenbaum.

John Mashey said...

Sorry, slip of fingers.
I meant that we should remember Kestenbaum for doing this story.

a_ray_in_dilbert_space said...

Bob K.,
Allow me to explain how this science thing works. First, you produce evidence. Then you adopt a point of view supported by the evidence. Then you get to claim your point of view is correct. You don't get to play until you produce evidence. Understand now, or should I translate to monosyllabic grunts?

Anonymous said...

OT, but interesting:

Spain had a subsidence earthquake. It was 5 mag, but near surface so 9 people died.

-- Snow Bunny

willard said...

> You may call him Tony.

Will do.

Anonymous said...

Science isn't about point of view, Bob K, it's about evidence. Got any, or were you just passing wind?

Hank Roberts said...

"It goes without saying that there was no viewpoint or bias to the story; I was reporting what I had found and what I thought was relevant to the national debate on climate change" says the PBS guy.

Well, no. He reported what he was led to believe -- without realizing he'd been led. Misled. He reported what he was led to think relevant. Misled. He was led to believe there is a national debate -- misled.

-- three percent of scientists -- ten percent of readers
-- "most read" blog counting what?

Betcha: clicks accumulated on counters assumed to represent meat people but probably including, as does most everything on the Internet, fake clicks spoofing counters to sell ads that nobody has any motivation to look deeply into.

Attention is the most important force shaping online comments.

When you can fake that illusion of attention, people will say more of what you mislead them to think people have paid attention to, and advertisers will pay you to do more of the same.

Sturgeon's law, monetized.

NPR, owned, and their ombudsman doesn't and can't afford to know it.

Hank Roberts said...

Phil Clarke said...

I hope the Rabbett will not mind me using his burrow as a wayback machine, but I just posted this at WUWT and thought it should be archived somewhere....

"Did you know that

- Blog policy here is that Internet phantoms who have cryptic handles, no name, and no real email address get no respect here. If you think your opinion or idea is important, elevate your status by being open and honest. People that use their real name get more respect than phantoms with handles. I encourage open discussion.


- Virulent and outspoken poster 'Smokey' and moderator db stealey, both uncharacteristically silent over recent weeks, share the same Gravatar

and thus Watts the sockpuppetmaster is perhaps the biggest hypocrite currently publishing on the internet?

Post this or censor it - your choice...... "

EliRabett said...

who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of bunnies, the Rabett knows:)

J Bowers said...

Frontline has a good interview with Andy Dessler. A keeper:

"Over that time, you get three or four skeptical papers a year. Over that same time, you probably get 10,000 papers that aren’t skeptical, that either explicitly or implicitly endorse the mainstream view of climate science."