Wednesday, October 14, 2020

#2395: Anthony Watts

Willard Anthony Watts is a former radio and TV weatherman and one of the leading global warming (AGW) denialists in the US today. Watts is the owner of the blog Watts Up With That, and he has joined the denialist Heartland Institute as senior fellow for environment and climate. As is typical of media weathercasters, Watts has no academic training in the physics of climate or any related disciplines. He does, however, claim to have subscribed to AGW years ago before he turned around to became a denier; the data apparently didn’t gel with his intuitions, so he began to look for ways to deny or reinterpret them. His blog was the proud recipient of the 2008 Best Science Blog prize. The year before, that prize was given to Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit blog. The prize is, in other words, not exactly a measure of scientific credibility. 

As a matter of fact, Watts comes across as rather reasonable compared to many of the deniers you may meet the Internet, which presumably makes his denialist points all the more effective. The talking points, however, are for the most part just the tired old denialist PRATTs (a few examples are mentioned here), including using cherry-picked data to claim that “look, it’s cold somewhere”. 


Interestingly, however, Watts appears to have ultimately done more to strengthen the evidence for AGW than to disconfirm it. His Surface Stations Project was introduced to show that NOAA’s weather stations had collected unreliable data. Watts, through volunteers, collected quite a wealth of data, which were published by the Heartland Institute. Of course, Watts just assumed that the data showed that the data previously used exaggerated maximum temperatures, and didn’t bother to actually do any real statistical analysis. A later, real study that bothered to do the work (published in the Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmospheres) and analyze Watts’s data, found that they showed that the maximum temperatures had actually been underestimated. Watts’s own new “research” in 2011 came to essentially the same conclusion. Watts didn’t change his mind.


Perhaps the best illustration of the typical denialist mindset, as embodied by Anthony Watts, is his attitudes to the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study (BEST). The BEST study was an independent (of IPCC and governments) temperature record that was be constructed using over 39,000 unique stations. Watts stated that he was “prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong. I’m taking this bold step because the method has promise. So let’s not pay attention to the little yippers who want to tear it down before they even see the results.” Of course, since it was properly carried out, BEST’s results confirmed the reliability of preexisting surface temperature records. Did Watts accept the results? Of course not. By “accept whatever result they produce” Watts meant “accept whatever result they produce, as long as it confirms what I have already determined that the results should be.”


In 2018, Watts speculated that Hurricane Willa “may stop the migrant caravan as it slams into Mexico,” referring to the Honduran refugees then attempting to seek asylum in the United States. When it was pointed out that the migrants were far removed from the storm’s path, Watts clarified by claiming that the storm’s impacts on roads and bridges would impede the caravan, “even if Soros is busing them there.” He seems to have deteriorated under Trump.


There is a reasonably comprehensive biography of Watts here.


Diagnosis: Though Watts usually manages to appear reasonable and moderate, his denialism is nevertheless a good example of how denialism works: He starts out having decided on what the conclusion is going to be, and no facts or evidence – which are already overwhelming – could even in principle change Watts’ mind. Yes, it’s dogmatism, pure and simple, and as far removed from skepticism as you could come. Watts is nothing if not influential, however, and it certainly doesn’t hurt his image that the legislators, celebrities and pundits who refer to him usually come across as far more wild-eyed, loony and silly than he does.


Hat-tip: Rationalwiki, desmogblog

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