Addicted to Watt!

Despite my rather unpleasant encounter with another commentator on the Watts Up With That site, I find myself slightly addicted to going back and checking for new posts and comments. It’s not because I enjoy it. I think it’s because I’m still slightly shocked about the encounter I had a few days ago and just wanted to see if such encounters are common or not. I didn’t search very hard, but I did find a number of fairly aggressive exchanges between some commentators.

What I found most “interesting” is the style of the rhetoric. Quite a few posts were extremely condescending and regularly seem to contain things like “couldn’t stop myself from smiling/laughing/grinning at how silly” some climate scientist had been. On almost every single post, the first set of comments would invariably be short, snappy, snarky, sarcastic remarks about how idiotic or stupid a particular study had been. It seems like an online version of mob rule. A classic example of confirmation bias. Noone who was critical of a some piece of climate science ever seemed to say “… but this aspect of the work looks interesting.” It was almost always complete dismissal. If this really is a group of people who claim to be interested in engaging in scientific discussions to better understand the science of climate change, they’re certainly going about it in a way that I don’t think any scientist I know would recognise as suitable.

There also seem to be some commentators who dominate the discussions. The one I encountered (richardscourtney) seems to be held in quite high regard. The impression I have is that he sees himself as some grand figure who is there to clarify things for those who are uncertain about something, and to challenge those – in the interests of science – who make statements with which he disagrees. His style of rhetoric is regularly aggressive but also extremely sarcastic. Thanking people for responding to something and then launching into some attack on what’s been said. What’s ironic, is that he often claims to be challenging unsubstantiated statements by making mostly unsubstantiated statements of his own. It’s as if by saying something forcefully and definitely it makes his statement true, while another person’s statements are somehow anti-scientific nonsense. His comments also have lots of “NO!” and boldface words to, I assume, make his statements more authoritative.

One of the common themes on the Watts Up With That site is that there is something fundamentally wrong with climate scientists. They’re either lying, or incredibly stupid, or naive, or subconsciously influenced by some inherent bias in the climate science community. They simply can’t be trusted and need to be constantly mocked or verbally abused! I was interested to see a post claiming that Weather – not climate – caused the brief surface melt in Greenland last summer. This paper was quite well received. The lead author on the paper was Ralf Bennartz, a Professor at the University of Wisconsin. I then discovered another post called Old models do a bad jobs so a new models says “warming must be worse”. This was about a paper describing attempts to include – more realistically – the influence of clouds in climate models. This post seemed to have the normal level of mockery, and the comments seemed to be particularly dismissive of this work. But hold on a minute, one of the authors seems to be the same Ralf Bennartz who was lead author on what was an acceptable paper suggesting that weather, not climate, influenced ice cover in Greenland last year. I’m not suggesting that you’re not allowed to criticise one paper by a particular person while regarding a different of their papers as being quite good. What I do think, however, is that you can’t accuse climate scientists of being inherently dishonest and then regard positively a paper by a climate scientist if it happens to say something that suits your ideology.

Now, I imagine that if any credible scientists were actually to read this post, they would probably think – “did you expect it to be different?”. Well, I’ve read enough about climate change to have been aware that this was a distinct possibility. I think I had hoped that maybe it would be possible to engage with climate skeptics in a manner that was at least consistent with decent scientific discourse. I don’t think you need to change someone’s mind in order to make such an exchange worthwhile. It does seem, according to my experience at least, that this is virtually impossible on the Watts Up With That site. I should acknowledge that there may well be other sites that support the results of climate science on which it would also be difficult. That, however, doesn’t excuse the behaviour of those on the Watts Up With That site. The other thing I would say is that I don’t like the idea of being criticial of something without at least having some personal experience that justifies such a criticism. Having both read a number of posts and a large number of comments on the Watts Up With That site, and after a rather unpleasant exchange with one of their regular commentators, I certainly feel justified in being highly critical of the manner in which the site both presents and discusses climate science. It’s quite amazing that it seems to have won a “Best Science Blog” 3 times. Just as many scientists would be happy to acknowledge that the paper with the most citations isn’t necessarily the best paper, I suspect that many would also agree that winning a “Best Science Blog” award doesn’t guarantee that you’re actually the best science blog. I certainly hope that’s the case because heaven helps us if this is indeed the best science blog.


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