What’s up with that?

For a while now I’ve been reading posts on Anthony Watt’s blog, Watts Up With That. This is a site that is extremely skeptical (to put it mildly) that man is having any influence on our climate and often claims that Anthropogenic Global Warming is a conspiracy put forward by climate scientists. Just in case you’re not familiar with my other posts, I am not particularly skeptical of the results of climate science. Let my also clarify why I write it that way. I’m a scientist, therefore skepticism is a good thing. As with any science area (particular ones that relate to very complex systems) I’m sure that there are aspects of climate science that will turn out to be wrong or have some kind of error and that the models will change as more data is collected and as more techniques are developed for determining past temperature histories.

Anyway, so I started making a few comments on the Watts Up With That site. I commented on a post by Nancy Green, called Marcott – 3 spikes and you’re out, which was using an analogy between astronomers detecting planets around other stars and the ability to detect warm periods of less than 300 years in the Marcott et al. (2013) data. To be fair, I initially misunderstood the analogy being used and was happy to acknowledge this when corrected by another commentator. I don’t think that an analogy really proves a scientific point and I think that the post missed that even though the resolution of the Marcott et al. (2013) data is – when smeared – about 300 years, this doesn’t mean that warm periods that are shorter (but comparable) would have no effect whatsoever.

I then made a comment on a post titled On Guemas et al. (2013) “Retrospective prediction of the global warming slowdown in the past decade”. This post referred to the abstract of a recent paper. The abstract indicated that the paper is about a new model that supports the idea that the reason that the global surface temperatures have risen more slowly than expected (or more correctly, that there hasn’t been a statistically significant increase in surface temperatures since the mid 1990s) is because energy has been going into the oceans. The abstract then uses the term “retrospective prediction”.

Many of the comments that followed seemed to mockingly dismiss the term “restrospective prediction”, suggesting that it’s easy if you already know the answer. I then commented that this was a little surprising given that retrospective prediction was just basically asking the question “what would my model have predicted had I only used data up to some point in the past” and then comparing what it predicts with what actually happened. It seemed like a pretty innocuous comment. I wasn’t commenting specifically on the paper. I wasn’t commenting on climate science as such. I was commenting on what seemed to me to be a pretty standard practice in many areas of science. I didn’t even suggest that the authors of the paper in question had done this properly or even suggest that their model had any merit or not. I ended a bit provocatively by suggesting that mocking such a process either indicated ignorance or a bias against anything with which the commentators disagreed. In a sense, I had intentionally chosen to make a comment that shouldn’t really be all that controversial. People could agree with it without having to change their views about climate science.

I had a few responses, one of which actually acknowledged that it was a fair point. However, I did get one response from someone using the name richardscourtney. I assume that this is the same Richard S Courtney mentioned in DeSmogBlog. I don’t know for certain that it is, but it seems that it may well be. I appreciate that I blog anonymously, so I aim to refrain from making any personal comments about this individual. Everything I say from now on is my opinion of something that, currently, is in the public domain.

This person’s comment was extremely forceful. It claimed that what I had said was ridiculous and an example of pseudo-scientific nonsense. I responded very briefly by saying that their comment was “Interesting” and that I would say “no more”. They then responded by saying that they knew why I wouldn’t respond and everyone else will too. I pointed out that they probably did not know. It certainly wasn’t that I couldn’t think of a suitable response; it was based on a sense that there wasn’t much point engaging if I was unlikely to learn something and if the other party seemed unwilling to consider learning anything either. I don’t think anything I had said was particularly insulting and I made sure to make it clear that what I was saying was an opinion, rather than a fact. This commentator then continues by accusing me of being an anonymous troll posting “untrue nonsense”. The next few comments then get even more vitriolic insisting that I apologies for my unscientific statements. After a few more exchanges (in which I think I maintain an element of decorum while being robust) his final statement is that I came there as a troll to “mislead”, “misinform” and “disrupt”. That he is interested in “promoting science” and that he will “expose psuedo-scientific nonsense” when used to “attack science”. Unless they get removed, you can follow the link to the post in question, read them yourself, and make up your own mind.

I found this all quite remarkable. To be accused of attacking science simply because I wouldn’t respond to what was essentially an attack on my initial comment was amazing. The irony of someone insisting that I apologise for a comment while at the same time accusing me of being anti-scientific. In some sense, I’m still not quite sure what to make of this. To a certain extent, I find it quite disappointing. I don’t agree with much of what is written on the Watts Up With That site, but that doesn’t mean that I think it shouldn’t be written. Also, although I expected some robust discussions if I did make comments on the site, I didn’t quite expect anything like this. I specifically chose to make comments that I thought would not be particularly controversial. I was reasonably robust in some of my responses to richardscourtney, but said nothing that was specifically insulting and was always open to the possibility that they might rein in their rhetoric slightly. In fact, I’ve had discussions of this kind before and normally both parties start to tone things down in the hope that some kind of agreement could be reached. This just seemed to be escalating. I have since found this post called The continuing misadventures of Richard S Courtney: (Non) Scientist. This seems to suggest, if richardscourtney is indeed Richard S Courtney, that this is his normal style of engagement. It also suggests that he may not be entirely honest about his scientific credentials – although I have no idea if this is true or not.

The person called richardscourtney wanted me to respond to their comment, which I refused to do. I will, however, comment below and they are welcome to respond if they ever encounter this post. I have never moderated a comment before and would like not to have to do so. I will allow some leeway but will moderate anything that is particular offensive or insulting. Here is my basic response.

Firstly, the response by richardscourtney had very little to do with what I had actually said in my original comment. The response refers to a difference between a model prediction and observed reality suggesting a flaw in the model. I made no mention of how well the model represented reality. I was not, specifically, referring to what had been done in the Guemas et al. paper. How could I? All we had was the abstract. My point was very simply that if you develop a model that you wish to use to predict the future evolution of something, it is entirely reasonable to consider how it would have performed in the past. Consider a hypothetical situation in which we have data for something from some initial time up until 2013. To test the model, use data only from before (for example) 1990 and then use your model to predict what would happen between 1990 and 2013. This can then be compared with what actually happened. This is not pseudo-science. It is a perfectly reasonable way to test a model.

What do I make of all this? I think what I was hoping was that someone else might step in and try to defuse the situation slightly. Surely some of the other commentators would like the site to include robust but decent debates that don’t include accusation of trolling and claims that what’s been said is pseudo-scientific nonsense. If others on that site think that this type of exchange is appropriate, then that says more about their credibility and decency than about mine. In general I think Anthony Watts’s views about climate science and global warming are generally wrong, but I always thought that he was at least willing to engage in a manner that was conducive to a reasonable debate. If he condones such behaviour on his blog, then I certainly don’t think that he can claim to be genuinely interested in finding out the “truth” about the science of climate change.