Sunday 5 May 2013

The age of Climategate is almost over

It seems as if the age of Climategate is over (soon). Below you can see the number of Alexa (social bookmarking) users that visited What Up With That? At the end of 2009 you see a jump upwards. That is where Anthony Watts made his claim to fame by violating the privacy of climate scientist Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) and some of his colleagues.

Criminals broke into the CRU backup servers and stole and published their email correspondence. What was Phil Jones' crime? The reason why manners and constitutional rights are not important? The reason to damage his professional network? He is a climate scientist!

According to Watts and co the emails showed deliberate deception. However, there have been several investigations into Climategate, none of which found evidence of fraud or scientific misconduct. It would thus be appropriate to rename the Climategate to Scepticgate. And it is a good sign that this post-normal age is (almost) over and the number of visitors to WUWT is going back to the level before Climategate.

Since the beginning of 2012, the number of readers of WUWT is in a steady decline. It is interesting coincidence that I started commenting once in a while since February 2012. Unfortunately for the narcissistic part of my personality: correlation is not causation.

The peak in mid 2012 is Anthony Watts first failed attempt in writing a scientific study.

According to WUWT Year in review (Wordpress statistics), WUWT was viewed about 31,000,000 times in 2011 and 36,000,000 times in 2012. However, a large part of the visitors of my blog are robots and that problem is worse here as for my little read German language blog. Alexa more likely only counts real visitors.

Anthony Watts is not the only one feeding on the criminals that broken in the the email servers. As you can see below, also Climate Audit, the blog of Steve McIntyre gained a lot of attention after the theft. Attention that had fortunately disappeared almost completely. No wonder his motivation is dwindling.

One can see that McIntyre really needed the fabricated scandal this March on the Marcott et al. (2013) paper with a multi-proxy global temperature reconstruction for the entire Holocene. Marcott et al. had written in their paper that the results for the 20th century were not robust. Thus McIntryre made a "scandal" out of a tick in the 20th century caused by edge effects and proxy dropout (less data for recent times). (For those interested, the answer of the authors can be found at RealClimate.)

Native sceptics

The data from Alexa tells us something about the readers. What about the native sceptics? The ones writing thank-yous to Watts for posting about another "nail in the coffin of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change". (With all that metal, you probably need a forklift for the burial by now.)

As far as I remember, I have never seen a climate "sceptic" that admitted having made an error or that a WUWT post was wrong. When I am commenting on WUWT I have to remind myself that it is not futile. That while you will never convince the regulars no matter how clearly the post misinforms (such as clear cases of misquotations). My comments are aimed at new and casual readers, the ones Alexa shows are leaving.

Below you can find a graph with the number of comments. To my surprise, even the number of comments is decreasing. Over the period of interest by about 100 comments a day. Thus apparently, while they will not admit being wrong in a discussion, it is actually possible to convince these people that WUWT lacks credibility.

I have the feeling that the tone on WUWT is getting more and more grim and I am not the only one. Maybe the moderates are leaving. Are there automatic text analysis tools with which you could study this change of atmosphere?

Climate discussions

Scientist, normal citizen and real climate sceptics, the ones without the scare quotes, should welcome the disappearance of WUWT. With all the nonsense and misinformation published there, it is hard to find the valid points of criticism. I have said more often that if someone will find a problem in climate science, it will be a scientist and not this hopeless bunch. Without WUWT and co, it would become more likely that the blogosphere will contribute.

For example, in all the commotion around the game-changing manuscript of Anthony Watts, the second game-changing study of the month was not discussed as much as would have been warranted. This smart study by McNider and colleagues suggested that the observed trend in the minimum temperature at night could also partially be due to a change in the temperature profile of the nocturnal stable boundary layer. I would love to see more research in this direction. The paper is based on boundary layer theory. My master supervisor was fond of saying that this theory can only be tested accurately in three places in the world as it is only valid for flat and uniform terrain. Thus it would be great to see some empirical studies into this matter, to see whether the idea also holds for more realistic measuring conditions.

Another question where we can have a productive scientific debate is around climatic changes in weather variability. It is often claimed that the weather variability is increasing and that consequently what used to be extreme weather will become common. In as far as extreme weather is influence by the mean temperature, I expect very hot weather to become more common. However, I am not yet convinced that we can state this because the variability around the mean is becoming larger and that we can thus also attribute cold extremes to global warming. In my opinion, the quality of daily data has not been sufficiently studied for robust statements.

A considerable part of the budget for climate research goes to climate change impact studies, because governments need advice to protect the population. For many impacts you need spatially (and temporally) highly resolved data and I personally only trust global climate models with respect to global mean and maybe continental mean properties. To increase the spatial and temporal resolution of the data, various so-called downscaling techniques are used. Scientists use statistical downscaling methods by comparing global model runs with observed data or drive higher resolution local climate models by the global models. This makes the data more useful, but if the large-scale circulation in the global climate model is wrong, for example because the ice cover of the Arctic is not modelled right, you cannot solve this by adding more detail.

While I have no doubt the people working on this are doing their best, I worry that many impact studies have larger (structural) uncertainties as expected by the users of the information. On the other hand, I understand the need of the governments for some guidance for adaptation policies and these studies are likely more predictive as throwing a dice and in this sense valuable. Thus not working on climate impacts is also no option.

Many I should add for the "sceptics", the ones which need the scare quotes: uncertainty does not mean that there will be no impacts, uncertainties goes both ways. Furthermore, more uncertainty means that adaptation is more difficult and more costly (you have to prepare for more possibilities) and large uncertainty is thus an argument for not messing with the climate in the first place (mitigation).

Above I was only discussing the natural science part of climate impact studies. However, the changing climate only adds an additional stressor to a system. Whether this leads to a catastrophe, will depend on interactions with other stressors, how well we prepared for the problem and how we respond. Maybe it is my bias as a natural scientist, but I feel that the latter human part of the predicting the impacts is nearly impossible to solve.

And those were just three topics that jumped to mind. There are many, many more problems we could hold civilized discussions about. The demise of WUWT and co would make these discussions more intelligent and fruitful. Some time ago, I was discussing homogenization (as always) with the people at The Blackboard. A totally different atmosphere, while some of the regulars of WUWT were also there, many people at The Blackboard were interested in understanding the problems. If you are a real sceptic and you are looking for a new home, why not have a look. I love real sceptics and hope that soon that word regains its original meaning again.

UPDATE, 20th May 2013: Isn't is ironic? Or maybe convenient? WUWT now has a toolbar with a little help from Alexa. Let's see if that increases the counts. Anthony Watts writes:
The other value to this toolbar is that it helps Alexa get accurate data on WUWT traffic and reach, so you’d be helping WUWT by installing it and using it.

Further reading

My next post, Decline of the climate "sceptical" community, reactions and new evidence, discusses some of the reactions to this post and provides several new lines of evidence that more and more people are fed up with Anthony Watts lying circus.

My previous posts about misinformation on WUWT are:

With 5 posts a day, it is impossible to discover the errors in every post, not even Anthony Watts can. Still if you doubt about some aspect of a WUWT post, here are some resources where you get inspiration for finding the problem. Currently, Hotwhopper is very active. Other sites specialising on WUWT are: Wott's Up With That? and What's Up With That Watts? General climate sites that are regularly have to correct WUWT madness are: Open Mind, RealClimate and SkepticalScience.


  1. Great research! Thanks. How did you notice that?

    1. Well research? I do not think it is sufficient for a publication, not even in E&E. But thanks. :-)

      I got an anonymous tip about another blog, which showed that Alexa is an interesting independent way to track traffic.

  2. And now there is also Wotts up with that blog:
    The cool and composed complete and utter destruction of the nonsense on WUWT.


  3. Thanks for the plug, Marco. I hope that this post is correct. What's being posted on WUWT (both in the posts themselves and in the comments) seems to be getting more and more extreme. It's what motivated me to start writing my blog. I hope it can help, but sometimes I think that those who "value" what is said on WUWT are beyond help.

    It kind of reminds me of a time when, as a student, I was discussing in a philosophy class why quantum mechanics meant that we couldn't predict/know the precise future of the universe. The response I got was "well I don't believe in quantum mechanics". I guess, I just don't really know how to engage with those who seem willing to completely dismiss some fairly fundamental bits of physics. How do you explain where someone's gone wrong if they don't even understand the concept of energy conservation - as seems to be the case for some on WUWT.

    1. Once you know it, Wotts Up With That Blog and Wott's Up With That? are very different. Somehow I had not noticed the difference before. :-)

    2. I did, retrospectively, feel slightly worried about having a similar name to one that already exists, but I couldn't think of a better name and it was all a bit spur of the moment. I hope Ben doesn't object too much. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and all that :-)

  4. This site is not even on the charts...does that mean we have reached maximum entropy, as there is no variability?

    1. Science education in Canada is not what it used to be. Minimum entropy fits better to no variability.

      Fortunately changes are most salient to humans. It is easy to cope with having an unimportant blog, but becoming less relevant is tough.

    2. Victor: The universe is tending to maximum entropy; ie, just above absolute zero, with no radiation.

      Maxiimum entropy occurs in a closed system, with fixed internal energy. ie, the universe.

      The maximum entropy principle: For a closed system with fixed internal energy (i.e. an isolated system), the entropy is maximized at equilibrium.

      You are confusing the Principle of Minimum Energy, which says a closed, non-isolated system may exchange energy with another system.

      Where were you educated?

    3. Interesting. Did you even read your reference? 1st paragraph:

      Entropy in statistical mechanics is a measure of the number of specific ways in which a system may be arranged, often taken to be a measure of "disorder"; the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. The entropy of an isolated system never decreases, because isolated systems spontaneously evolve towards thermodynamic equilibrium – the state of maximum entropy.

      My emphasis.

    4. Now I understand you funny remark, but no I am not dead yet, nor is my blog at its end.

      Your quote explains my thinking: the higher the entropy, the higher the disorder.

      Thus for me "no variability" is low disorder, low entropy.

    5. In other words, you do not understand entropy. Maximum entropy is thermodynamic equilibrium (everything the same temp)

  5. Hi Victor

    Glad you remind your readers to the "game changing" paper of McNider. It was mentioned as such at WUWT at the time, referring to a blog post of Pielke:


    1. Marcel, maybe I was not clear, what I had wanted to write is that it is difficult for a normal person to find the few valuable points in that enormous heap of ...

      Who has the time to invest a few hours per post to investigate whether it is nonsense, again, or whether this one time the information is valuable. Based on my experience for topics where I am knowledgeable, the latter chance is very small.

      Furthermore, it is also dangerous for your brain. After some time you often do not know any more where you get a piece of information from. Thus after some time, not knowing any more where it came from, you may assume that a "fact" from WUWT is a true fact. Until you notice the error, you may have wasted a lot of precious life time.

  6. I abhor these aites as much as anyone, but how do you know it is not a general dimunition of interest in climate change?

    How are sites like Skeptical Science and Real Climate doing? Last one I checked was Climate Progress and it was doing spectacularly well.

    1. Good question. That is possible, hard to exclude without having data for all sites on climate.

      SkepticalScience and RealClimate seem to be stable.

      ThinkProgress is increasing, but that is not only about climate.

    2. I have a hunch that Skeptical Science is going to have a big jump in traffic in the near future.

    3. You are negotiating a merger with WUWT?

  7. Takeover, not merger:) Hostile at that Eli hears.

  8. It seems as if Climate Progress is still growing strongly and especially has a strong social media following.

  9. an R square of...0.04?
    so your regression explains...4% of observed variance?
    gee what a triumph.

  10. Dear anonymous, welcome. Yes, the declining trend of about 100 daily comments per year only explains 4% of the variance.

    Had I had data with a resolution of minutes, the explained variance would have been even less. Had I averaged the data to monthly values, the explained variance would have been higher.


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