It’s Not About Me

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

One response to Christopher Booker graciously mentioning my work in the Telegraph is the predictable increase in the usual personal attacks on me, as opposed to attacking my ideas and claims. People are rehashing Tim Lambert calling me a liar because he disagreed with my methods, as though that meant something about me rather than simply revealing something about Tim. They point out that I am an amateur scientist (as though that were other than a badge of honor). I’m told that I’m out of my depth. I am constantly assured that I am not qualified to offer a scientific opinion on climate, because of my lack of academic qualifications (BA in Psychology), and because of the shortness of my scientific publications list. The supply of reasons given to try to convince people to ignore my work is seemingly endless. To hear people tell it, I’m not fit to kiss the boots of a true scientist.

My point is that none of that matters. Either my scientific claims are correct, or they are not. It’s not about me. Period. End of story.

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When I was younger, for decades I was a Zen Buddhist. There is an important saying that Zen is not the moon, it is just the finger pointing at the moon. Complaints, arguments, and discussions about the finger miss the point – the subject of importance, the subject worthy of discussion, is the moon.

That’s the ultimate egalitarianism of science. Doesn’t matter if the person who made a scientific claim is a world-renowned expert or a semi-literate ditch digger. They are just the finger pointing at the moon. All that matters is, can the claim be falsified? What are the facts that support the claim? What are the facts that falsify the claim? Is the logic correct? Is the mathematics solidly based? Does it agree with other understandings?

Whether I lie (I don’t), or whether I have peer-reviewed publications (yes, three with a fourth currently in peer-review) is immaterial. All that matters is, are my ideas right or wrong? That’s why I put my ideas up here in the public square, so someone can falsify them. That’s the game called science. I make scientific claims, and you try to poke holes in my claims. Or you make scientific claims, and I try to poke holes in your claims. I play the game from both sides, falsifying the claims of others as well as publishing original and falsifiable claims of my own for people to attack.

So, attack is the very nature and essence of the science game. But it is supposed to be an attack on my SCIENTIFIC IDEAS. Not an attack on me, not an attack on my qualifications, not an attack on my occasionally rough cowboy nature, not an attack on my honesty, not an attack on what I have chosen to study. Truly, it’s not about me.

Having endured this kind of abuse for some years now, I’m taking another look at my expectations. In line with that, let me make some requests to the people who comment here:

1.  Talk about the science. Not about my qualifications. Not about what you imagine my motives might be. Not about my fancied truthiness content. Talk about the science. I am going to start pruning personal attacks out of my threads, so don’t be surprised if unpleasant accusations get red-lined. I will clearly mark when I do so and why. I despise invisible censorship as is practiced at RealClimate and the aptly Newspeak named “Open Mind”. There, ideas vanish without ever being seen, no one’s mind is open, and I’m an Unperson for my impertinent scientific questions and ideas.

2.  If you disagree with something I have said, QUOTE EXACTLY WHAT I SAID in your reply. I’m tired of defending myself against someone’s vague misunderstanding of my position. I’m going to stop guessing what people mean. If you want to have a discussion, quote my words, otherwise I may just skip over it. So many comments, so little time …

3.  Have the courage to sign your full true name to your ideas. Take ownership of your claims, stand behind your opinions. Anonymity encourages bad behavior. If I wasn’t so reluctant to “fix what ain’t broke” I’d be tempted to make using your real name a requirement on my threads, except for people with valid reasons (e.g. they’d lose promotion points where they work). I’d miss tallbloke and some others if they didn’t come forth, but I suspect that the signal-to-noise ratio would improve greatly. Whether it would still be as interesting to read is a separate question … in any case, no requirements, just an urgent plea for people to come out of the closet.

Additionally, as John Whitman said on another thread,

One of my several lines of reasoning criticizing anonymity revolves around ownership of ideas. If someone does not give their identity, it raises consequences in attributing ownership of their ideas and reckoning with plagiarism, misquoting, etc.

Another line of reasoning about why anonymity is controversial is dual personas. It leads to no restriction on one person representing themselves as many people, often with inconsistent views, personal specifics and professions. That is not intellectually honest.

So those are my three requests. Now, having said that this is not about me, enough people have questioned my fitness to comment on climate science that I would like to give an answer as to why I am qualified to do so. However, as with many things in my life, it’s kinda complicated, and involves a number of misunderstandings and coincidences. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, it’s a sea-dog’s tale of military madness.

The main strength that I bring to the analysis of the climate, curiously, is that I am a generalist. In a field like climate science, which is far broader than it is deep and encompasses a host of scientific disciplines, this is a huge advantage. How does one get to be a generalist? In my case, it was a combination of being a freak of nature, of growing up on a very remote and isolated cattle ranch surrounded by virgin forest, and of my curious interaction with the US Army.

I went to a two-room country grade school. There were 21 kids in eight grades, and seven of them were me and my three brothers and my three cousins. For the last four years of grade school, I was the only kid in my grade. I loved math and word play and puzzles of any kind, I sopped up knowledge and read everything I could lay hands on. In grade school, my folks hauled me off to Stanford University, where a guy who actually wore a white scientist coat gave me some kind of Sanford-Binet IQ test. They said my IQ was over 180. Freak of nature.

The grade school teacher said I could skip two grades. My mom said no, so the school let me go at my own speed. I finished eighth grade spelling in sixth grade. In seventh grade, I studied Spanish on my own. In eighth grade, the entire school district introduced Spanish education by TV. All the teachers in the county went to Spanish class one night a week so they could teach the kids and support the TV lessons with in-class training. My teacher couldn’t make it to the weekly teacher’s training, so they sent me instead. As a result, when I was in eighth grade, I was already teaching Spanish … I also completed a year of high school algebra while in grade school, which let me take college calculus in high school.

My mother was a single mom who raised four sons and ran a 280 acre cattle ranch. She was both a wise and a well-educated woman with a binge drinking problem, working for months without a drop and then going on a one-week bender. We never had much money. After some years of seeing other kids who always had better clothes and newer toys, one day I screwed up my courage and asked my mom if we were poor. “No,” she said angrily, “we’re not poor, and we’ll never be poor. Poor is a state of mind.” She sighed and relaxed, rubbed her work-hardened hands, looked wistfully at the summer sky, and added “I admit we’ve been broke for a while now, but we’re not poor …”

Growing up broke on a remote cattle ranch surrounded by wild forest means that if something has to get fixed, you have to fix it. If something has to get made, you have to make it. If you have to learn something to do that, you learn it. Growing up like that is a huge advantage to a future generalist. I came away with Leonardo da Vinci and Jim Bridger as my heroes, with the ability to do most practical things with my hands, and with the blind, wildly incorrect, but fervently-held belief that whatever needed to be done, somehow, someway, I could do it even if I had nothing but baling wire and a balky Crescent wrench.

In high school, I was the kid who carried a circular slide rule in his pocket and knew how to use all of the scales on both sides. Not a nerd, I was class president, but eccentric, obsessed by math and music and science. I ascribe my nose for bad numbers to the use of the slide rule. A slide rule doesn’t have a decimal point. So if you are say multiplying 3.14 times 118, you have to mentally estimate the size of the answer to decide where the decimal point goes. To this day, this sense of the right size for a number still serves me well. I often see a numerical value describing some natural phenomenon and correctly say “No way, that answer’s out of scale, something’s wrong”, even though I’m not familiar with the subject.

I started working as soon as I was old enough to legally work, the summer after my freshman year in high school.  That summer was spent was bucking hay, six ten-hour days a week, 35 cents an hour. I was fourteen. I was a Boy Scout. I got my Merit Badge for Weather, I found it fascinating. The next summer I worked as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. The summer after that (1963) I went to a National Science Foundation special summer school for mathematicians in Oregon. We learned how to program computers. I was in heaven. I had read about computers, and I had heard about them, but to see one taking up an entire room, with its relays clicking and vacuum tubes humming, was my science fiction dream come true. And they let us write programs and run them! I was hooked, hooked bad, but of course there were no desktop computers or work in computing for me then. My last year of high school I worked a 20 hour week, running the photo-lathe and the Fairchild machine at the local newspaper past midnight into the small hours of the morning.

By this time, we had moved into town. My senior year of high school, mom ran away from home. I woke up one morning to find a thousand bucks and a note saying she wasn’t coming back, and could I take care of my two younger brothers. I ran the house, made sure they had food and did their studies, and with some invaluable help from my cousin kept the home together for the rest of the school year. At the end of the school year I graduated as the class valedictorian, my brothers went to live with my dad, and when the money ran out I took a job as a cowboy on a cattle ranch up by the Oregon Border.

In the fall of 1964 I started college at the University of California at Berkeley, but I hated it. I lasted one year, and then I went to Alaska to seek my fortune. Instead, mostly I starved. I worked as a short order cook. I worked on a floating crab cannery. I worked emptying boats of rotten stinking crab. I worked longshoreman horsing 400 pound bales of pulp around a ship’s hold. And mostly I made my living singing folk songs and playing my guitar in saloons and coffeehouses. When it got cold I fled down the Alcan highway to Greenwich Village, New York in November, still singing. There, through the usual coincidences and misunderstandings, I lost everything I owned but my guitar and my clothes. I hooked a ride to Coconut Grove in Florida because it was warm and I was freezing. I played music.

Then the Army sent me a draft notice. 1966, something about a little conflict in Southeast Asia, they wanted cannon fodder. But if I enlisted, I could choose my specialty. I enlisted and chose, ironically, weather observer. But I barely made it through Basic Training. Halfway through, I’d had enough. I didn’t go postal, I just quit taking orders. I calmly told the Sergeant that I couldn’t blindly take orders from someone I didn’t know, because they might order me to do something I didn’t believe in … his eyes bugged out and he took me to the Captain. I told him the same story. The Captain scratched his head, stuck me in front of a typewriter and gave me a stack of papers to deal with. I graduated with my company, but I never marched or trained with them again. They’d roll out at five-thirty AM for reveille. I got up at seven, walked over to the Company HQ, did company paperwork all day, filled out the forms the Captain hated to do, then went to the mess-hall and had dinner with the guys. I desperately wanted the Army to let me out. Instead, they just went around me. Go figure.

After Basic, they sent me to Weather Observer’s school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, near New York City. I learned how the Army categorizes clouds and what an “octa” is, how to use a wet bulb thermometer, weather theory, what a cold front looks like on a weather map and what it means, the usual stuff, and mostly, how to fill out US Army weather reporting forms. And I was going slowly nuts. They wouldn’t let us off base at all. So I stole a Class A pass from the Company safe. Every weekend I snuck out with my guitar and went into Greenwich Village, and played music in the clubs and hung out with the beatniks and the people I knew from the year before and slept in Central Park. For a couple Sundays, I was playing in a club on one side of the street, and the Loving Spoonful was playing on the other side. But at eight on Monday morning they were sleeping in, and I had to be back in my fatigues waiting for the other soldiers to catch up to the instructor’s slowly explained ideas about the weather. That split lifestyle went on for three months or so, half beatnik, half GI. I hated the Army. I constantly risked arrest for being AWOL or for my stolen pass. I developed an uncontrollable tic in my eye, it twitched like a demon, I couldn’t stop it. I was losing the plot, my dreams were of endless wandering in  strange landscapes, I found myself lashing out in random anger at strangers, or brooding in my room for hours.

Finally, one weekend I had gone up to Boston, and through the usual misunderstandings and coincidences I couldn’t make it back to the base in New Jersey on time. That meant I was headed for real trouble when I returned because I was AWOL, my Class A Pass was stolen. I was mondo depressed. I decided I had to get out. I ate a double fist-full of sleeping pills, and told my friend to call the ambulance when I passed out. I woke up with the docs pumping the bad drugs out of my stomach in some emergency room and the cops questioning me about what happened. Then they shot me full of good drugs. I woke up firmly lashed to a bed in the Terminal Heart and Cancer Patient Ward of the Bethesda Naval Hospital.

I stayed tied to the bed for several days. They fed me through a tube in my arm. I watched people die around me every day. They wouldn’t move the corpses during the day to avoid upsetting the others. So I’d wake up at two am, sleeping on my back because each arm is tied to the bedrail, and watch them carry out yet another body.

One day, a man with kind eyes walked through the ward. He told the orderly to untie me and bring me to his office. He looked at me and said “Son, you don’t belong in the military.”

I could have cried. I could have told him I knew that, but I stayed silent. He said “This is a Navy hospital, I don’t even know why you’re here. The Army wants me to send you right back to your unit. I’m not comfortable with that. I’m putting you in the Bethesda Navy Mental Hospital.” I can’t remember if I offered to kiss his feet. After what I’d been through I wasn’t tracking all that well.

In 1966, the US Navy’s idea of what constituted a nuthouse might misleadingly be described as nautical and quaint. It was a quonset hut divided in half from floor to ceiling by a chain link fence. Half was for violent contestants, half for non-violent. Plus in the violent half was the rubber room, where they’d put you so you could bounce off the walls as much as you wanted. They stuck all us new contestants into the violent half, packed us full of thorazine (a very heavy tranquilizer that they said was good drugs) and watched us nod out. Most of us were too sleepy to be attentive, much less violent, so we were let out into the other half of the nuthouse in a few days. There was no therapy. There was no radio, no books, just announcements from some Nurse Rached wannabe over the intercom. They gave us pajamas and a robe. There was nothing to do but watch crazy folks do their thing. And drool. Thorazine is great for drooling, I became an expert. I had been unfettered all my life, on the road, singing my songs, free as a bird. Now I was locked up in a distinctly un-gilded cage. My brain was regularly pumped full of happy juice. I was unhappy and depressed. I drooled and stared at the wall. A day on thorazine with nothing to do lasts about a week.

After a month there moving in slow motion on good drugs, the Navy and the Army decided to ship me to Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco. Nurse Rached read the orders and the names out over the intercom and had the orderlies bring out a bunch of stretchers. Instead of pills, they strapped us each to a stretcher and shot us each up with a mega-dose of thorazine. Can’t have too much good drugs, I guess. Things got fuzzy. They stacked us like cordwood in a DC3, sliding the stretchers into special racks on the walls. I wanted to remember how close I was to the man on the stretcher above me. I found I could slide my hand on my chest in between us, but I couldn’t make a fist … and then the cotton wool closed in on my brain again. The trip took three days, with a different stop every night. They’d unstrap us, and we’d all stagger out like extras in a zombie movie. That first night after they unstrapped me, I staggered into the bathroom and sat down. I was bursting from the day on the plane. When I finished, I realized that although I’d remembered to drop my pajama bottoms, I hadn’t flipped up the back of my hospital robe. I’d sat on the flap instead and filled it with human waste. I looked down, shrugged, took my arms out of my robe, and walked out and left it right there. I was loopy, half crazed and half dazed, tranked to the max and locked up 24/7 with men as far off the rails as I was, what did I care? I just went to bed and said nothing to anyone, being crazy means never having to say you’re sorry. The next day they shot us up again, and again we flew all day. I remembered this time about the toilet and the robe. Finally, on the third day we staggered into the a base somewhere near Sacramento. They propped us all up in a bus, where we all flopped around like gumbies on the way to the Letterman nuthouse.

The Letterman Army nuthouse on the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco was in a building previously used as a holding prison for Federal criminals headed to Alcatraz. They took us into this prison and shot us up with a bunch of other good drugs. They propped us up against the wall to wait for dinner, and things got weird. First I started feeling stiff. Then my neck started to pull back, I couldn’t lower my chin. My shoulder started to arch back. Then my legs gave out and I fell on the floor. My back arched further and further back in an insane contortion. I was sure my back was going to snap, my muscles were seizing and bowing me backward. I was screaming and begging for help. Orderlies came and shot me full of yet more good drugs. I woke up groggy and tied to a bed in the violent ward, this was getting to be a theme. They explained slowly that I had spazzed out because they had given me bad drugs, but it was all OK because now they were giving me good drugs. Welcome to the Letterman nuthouse, where if you weren’t before, you will be.

I spent almost six months there, while the “Summer of Love” was going on outside the prison doors. After while, they gave us day passes. Me and my crazy friend Mel from the nuthouse would go to the Haight Ashbury. His girlfriend had a house there. His girlfriend also had a girlfriend, who became my girlfriend. After while, the Army gave us weekend passes out of prison. So every weekend, we’d take off our Army robe and pajamas that we wore all week, nutters don’t wear regular clothes. We’d put on freak clothes, paisley shirts and bell-bottom pants, we were unbearably cool. We’d go with the ladies to the Haight, play music, get weird. We went to the First Human Be-In. But every week we had to be back on the crazy ward by eight o’clock Monday morning. So we’d take LSD every Sunday night like clockwork, then turn ourselves back into the nuthouse with our eyes spinning like pinwheels on Monday morning, put on our robe and pajamas and watch the colors crawl up the wall and people’s faces change and melt … but it was worth it because it was more than a man could do to voluntarily return to that hole of lost humanity in a sane and sober state. You had to be crazy to go back there.

That split life went on for months. More schizophrenia on the half shell. The Army wasn’t much help. At the time they were mostly doing a lot of shock therapy. But they never did any followup. Me and Mel started doing what we could to help the people after shock therapy. I remember a guy who used to say “Well, they’re going to plug me into the wall today.” Then in the afternoon they’d take him out, and bring him back with his memories scrubbed whiter than white, dump him on his bunk to stare at the wall, and walk away. Mel and I and some of the other walking wounded would pull out his wallet and show him the pictures. We’d tell him his name, and say he’d been in an accident. We’d tell him that the young woman in the picture was his wife and the boy was his son. We’d tell he lived in Texas, and had been a soldier in a faraway war. That always seemed to surprise him, even without his memories he didn’t think of himself as a soldier, and I understood that perfectly.

After while we’d tell him that he’d been in a terrible situation in a distant country called Vietnam. We’d slowly work up to the fact that he was in a hospital. After while we’d let slip that it was not just any hospital, it was a nuthouse, because we’d learned by experience that he couldn’t cope with that information when he was straight out of the juice box. And so bit by bit he’d start remembering stuff, and for a while the balance was OK … but then after a week or so he’d start remembering too much stuff, remembering seeing and doing and enduring things no man should ever have to even witness, much less bear the shame and guilt of having seen and done and endured, and he’d start to shut down a bit at a time, until one day they’d take him off and plug him in again.

And they’d bring back a memory-free rag doll, and we’d start the process over again. Don’t get me wrong. The shock therapy helped him. We knew him from the day he came in from Vietnam. Before the first shock therapy, he was catatonic and never spoke one word. So I’m not opposed to the use of electroconvulsive therapy, it can work when nothing else does … but dang, the Army could’ve done better than leave his recovery to me and Mel …

Finally, after an eternity, four months in the nuthouse, they said I could go, and Mel could go too. We were going to escape without getting plugged into the wall, get discharged! The doctor signed our discharge papers. The Lieutenant and the Captain signed them. Everyone signed them right up to the Commanding General of the Presidio.

He said Mel would be discharged, and I was to be sent to Ford Ord to be trained as a company clerk.

Go figure. I saluted the guy who gave me the orders, walked out the door, and went AWOL. I spent a couple of weeks snorting speed, in this case methadrine, and spending hours talking really, really fast to people about whatIshoulddo, shouldIgotoCanada, ormaybeturnmyselfin, noIshouldjuststayAWOLandhopeforthebest, I made up my mind dozens of times and unmade it again just as fast as my tongue could move.

Finally, after hours of listening to a record of Bob Dylan singing “Here I sit so patiently / Trying to find out what price / I have to pay to get out of / Going through all these things twice”, I took a massive dose of LSD and turned myself back in to Letterman Hospital to go through all these things twice. At the time I was dressed in Letterman hospital pajama bottoms and a tie-dyed shirt. The doctors just shook their heads and shot me full of happy juice, once again it appeared I was off bad drugs and on good drugs. I woke up lashed down on a bunk in the locked ward, this was getting to be a habit, no weekend passes for the bad boy this time. In a couple weeks they decided I needed work therapy.

So I was put to work in a small room with three black guys wearing pajamas and robes like me but all styled out with colorful do-rags around their heads. All day long they listened to the blackest of Oakland radio stations, “KDIA Lucky Thirteen”. They were great, they welcomed me as only fellow lunatics can. We ironed iron-on patches onto teeny holes in hospital sheets all day long, all of us buzzed on thorazine, all of us gently rocking and singing along with James Brown and the Shirelles and Etta James and Motown and all things black … great music education for your average white boy, plus I learned to iron patches on sheets, what’s not to like?

Finally, seven months after taking a double handful of sleeping pills in Boston and not really caring if I lived or died, having slipped between the Scylla of being plugged into the wall and the Charybdis of being sent back to the Army, and in a state both less crazy and more crazy than when I went entered the nuthouse, they let me go. I had outlasted them. I was given an Honorable Discharge as being “Unfit for Military Service” … like I say, I could have saved them a lot of work, I knew that from the start.

So I was free, finally free, out of prison free, no walls free, living in San Francisco in 1967 free. No more unbreakable steel bars dividing the sky into a demented solitaire tic-tac-toe game. No more grilles and locks on the door. No ironing tiny patches on sheets for eight hours a day, only to return to a locked ward full of fellow sufferers after work. No more waking up once again lashed to the damn bed. I moved in with my girlfriend. She was dancing in a topless bar on Broadway. I was twenty years old, I couldn’t even go into the bar to watch her dance … but I was free, and I swore a very big swear to unknown deities that I would remain that way.

And finally, to return to the theme, somewhere in first months after I got out from behind bars, I made some rules of thumb for myself that eventually turned me into a generalist. One was that my motto would be “retire early … and often”. Another was that given a choice between something I had done and something I had not done, I would always do the new thing. Another was that if I was offered security or adventure, I’d choose adventure. Finally, I swore that I wouldn’t take any more jobs unless they had a fixed ending date. I was done with serving indeterminate sentences. The end of the season, the completion of the house, the end of the harvest, I swore not to be bound by unending work as I had been bound in the nuthouse, with no known end date in sight. Some prisoners in WWII German concentration camps said the worst thing was the uncertainty of whether they’d ever get out, worse than the cold and the hunger and the beatings. I can see why. I had faced that uncertainty in a cold concrete building with bars on the windows for half a year, seeing men rotting away in a thorazine daze in the Letterman nuthouse, sometimes for years, watching some get shipped off to a more permanent lifelong nuthouse, not knowing if I would get out or if I’d get plugged into the wall. Yes, I’d take a job, but this time I’d know when my sentence would be up, and I’d be waiting for that day so I could retire again.

I have mostly followed those guidelines for the rest of my life. Since then I have worked at dozens of different jobs and trades around the world. I make as much money as I can as fast as I can until the bell rings, then I retire. I stay retired until I get called out of retirement by a great job offer. Or by an empty stomach. I have worked on all the continents but Antarctica. I lived on South Pacific islands for seventeen years. I have made money by making and selling jewelry, as a commercial fisherman from LA to Alaska, as a psychotherapist, a refrigeration technician, a well driller, an auto mechanic, a computer programmer, a graphic artist, a construction manager on multi-million dollar projects, a sailboat deliveryman, a maker of stained-glass art, a project and program designer for USAID and the Peace Corps, a shipyard manager on a hundred acre remote island, an international renewable-energy trainer, a maker of fine custom cabinets, a multi-country health program manager, the Chief Financial Officer of a company with $40 million in annual sales, the Service Manager for an Apple Macintosh dealer, a high-end home builder, a sport salmon fishing guide on the Kenai River in Alaska, and a bunch more. I’m a surfer, a sailor, and a diver, with Open Water II and Rescue Diver tickets and an inshore Coast Guard Skipper’s License. I have my Ham Radio license, Hotel 44 Whiskey Echo.

All of this has given me all of the tools needed to work in climate science. I understand tropical weather intimately because I’ve spent years observing it. I know the vertical temperature structure of the ocean because I’ve experienced it down under the surface. I understand climate as a heat engine because I’ve dealt with heat engines and refrigerators and their mathematical analysis and concepts for years. I’ve watched underwater damage to coral reefs from bleaching as it happened, and I’ve watched them recover. I understand the computer models because I never stopped programming after 1963. I have spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing all kinds of programs, including models of physical and business systems. I speak a half-dozen computer languages fluently, and can read and write slowly in another half-dozen. I have also seen what the lack of inexpensive energy does to the desperately poor, I’ve shared their tables and listened to their stories. I know the vagaries of Arctic weather, not from books, but because I fished commercially in the Bering Sea and froze my guitar in Anchorage. I am not an expert in chemistry, or physics, or atmospheric dynamics, or oceanography, or computer models, or biology, or mathematics, or arctic ecosystems, I am self-taught in all of them. But I have good solid practical working knowledge of every one of them, I have deep understanding of various aspects of a number of them, and I have the ability to use the lessons from one field in another.

I became interested in climate science in the 1990s. My nose for numbers said that Hansen’s claims were way out of line. Here was my first and admittedly simple climate calculation. I figured half a kilowatt per square metre average global downwelling radiation (long- plus short-wave). People said doubling CO2 might be 4 watts per square metre. That’s less than 1%, and in a huge, ponderous, chaotic, constantly changing climate, my bad number detector said no way that a 1% variation in forcing would knock the Earth’s climate off the rails. I reckoned if it were that delicately balanced, it would have done the Humpty Dumpty long ago.

So I started reading the various climate science studies, but idly, as they came by, just to keep in touch with the field. The real change came in 1995, when we (me + wife + four year old daughter) moved off our houseboat in Fiji and back to the US, where I could connect to the internet … and opening the internet to a mathematically minded fact junkie like me was a heady drug. Suddenly, I could actually read the papers and go get the data and see what was going on. I wasn’t chained to other peoples’ opinions of the science, I could run the numbers myself.

Of course, all of this required an immense amount of study. But I’m real good at doing my homework. I once took a job to assemble, install, charge, and test a blast freezer on a sailboat in Fiji. I was hired along with my buddy who was a welder, he did the tricky soldering work, and taught me to do it. At the time, I couldn’t have told you how a refrigerator worked, but I knew the job wouldn’t start for two months. So I bought a college refrigeration textbook and ate, breathed, and slept with that sucker. At the end of two months, I figured I could build a refrigerator from scratch … which was fortunate, since what was supposed to be a full blast freezer kit with all the parts turned out to be a half kit, and Fiji is short on refrigeration parts. In the event, we got it built like we built things on the ranch, simply because I had to, so I figured out how to. The blast freezer worked perfectly, the wind came off it at minus 50 degrees F, about minus 46°C. It turned out to be an alchemical freezer, because when it was completed it magically transmuted a half-dozen one-litre bottles of vodka chilled to -40° (C or F, your choice) into a two-day Fijian freezer boat party that led to a couple of divorces, one marriage, headaches all around, and a wallet or two that went swimming. I was so drunk I went to sleep on a nice soft pile of rope, and woke up in pain to realize I was sleeping on the anchor chain … but I digress.

That is the kind of intensity I brought to my investigation of climate science in the nineties as once again I began yet another field of study. I don’t know how many this makes for me, I’ve done it for most new jobs, but this has been an obsession. I have spent literally thousands of hours learning about how the GCMs work and don’t work, about how the statistics of non-normal datasets differ from those of normal datasets, why polar albedo is less important than tropical albedo, how many populations of polar bears there are and what their populations are really doing (mostly increasing), how to program in R, the list never ends. The beauty of climate science is that it is a new science, there is still so much to learn, the opportunity to find out new things beckons because so much is unknown, I never get bored, and so I continue to study.

That’s why I think I am qualified to comment on climate science. I am one of a dying breed with a long and proud history and tradition, a self-educated amateur scientist. As the root of the word “amateur” suggests, an amateur scientist is someone who investigates things scientifically for love (Latin amare) rather than for money … which is fortunate, considering my profits on the venture to date.

I am also one of the few amateur scientists who has published anything peer-reviewed in Nature Magazine in many years. Yes, it is a humble “Brief Communications Arising”. But it was assuredly peer-reviewed, and strictly reviewed.

I also have published three pieces in Energy & Environment, the journal AGW supporters love to hate and slander because it dares to publish peer-reviewed non-AGW supporting science, a disgraceful flouting of wanton public heresy. Two of those three pieces were peer-reviewed, and one was an opinion piece. And yes, E&E has published some peer-reviewed stuff that has turned out to be junk … quite unlike say Science or Nature Magazine …

However, at the end of the day all of that is nothing but stories to tell around a campfire. None of it means anything about whether a claim of mine is true or false. I bring immense practical experience and thousands of hours of study and a very quick mind to the problem, and despite that I can be not just wrong, but stupidly wrong, embarrassingly wrong, make me say very bad words wrong. Because my hours of study mean nothing. My experience means nothing. It truly is not about me, the only thing that counts is whether my ideas can stand the test of time or not.

Anyhow, that’s my story of how I became a generalist, or at least a small and not real pretty part of it, it got more interesting after that. I tell it to encourage everyone to please cut me (and everyone who dares to post their ideas for public attack) some slack regarding the personal attacks. As my story shows, some of us have studied extensively and thought long and hard about the subjects in question even if we may not have credentials and diplomas and official positions. As my story also shows, you may not have a clue what a man knows and what he has done in his life and what he can do and what drives him to do it. Leave all of that speculation at home.

So those are my requests. Talk about the science, quote my words if you disagree with them, sign your work, and keep fighting the good scientific fight.

My regards to everyone, and to misquote Willy Nelson, “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be generalists” …

w.

[UPDATE] I’d like to thank Claude for raising an issue that I actually thought would have come up long before.

Claude Harvey says:

March 1, 2011 at 12:03 am

Willis,

Now that we’ve been treated to a litany of idolatrous responses to your personal story, let us hope that your clear analysis and “ideas” are, indeed, not confused with “who you are”. Your romanticized account of your stint in the military’s “Med-2″ program is the classic account of a fellow who “couldn’t (or, according to your account, wouldn’t) do the time for which he’d contracted”.

I too joined the military at a tender age and I too was appalled at having to “tuck it in” and take orders from lesser (in my opinion) mortals than myself. The difference between us is that I did what I had agreed to do and you did not. Twist and turn it any way you like, that is not a very admirable bottom line and it reflects an “elitist” attitude (you were ever so too smart for such mundane endeavors) that I find very unattractive.

I continue to admire your work, but I do not admire certain aspects of your history.

Claude, thanks for your comments. Here’s the problem. Lets try looking at it from the other side.

I see what I did as escaping, in any way I could, from a lethally misdirected war. I see what you did as knuckling under to the tyrants who wanted to use you for cannon fodder in that unjust war.

Consider it in your own words:

“Twist and turn it any way you like”, knuckling under to thugs and going thousands of miles to kill people who just wanted you out of their country, merely so Claude’s precious ‘word’ can be true, “is not a very admirable bottom line”.

You see the problem? It’s far from a simple question. Honoring your word is important to you, just as it is to me. We agree. You think that you should honor the word you gave when you joined the military, that you keeping your word on that is more important than the life of some yellow-skinned guy halfway around the world fighting for his homeland. Me, not so much … we disagree.

Now, obviously, this is something on which reasonable men can and do disagree. It is not a simple question, there’s no right answer. I wrestled with it myself, as did you.

But for you to come in and try to bust me because I didn’t make the choice you made, and then to claim that you have the moral high ground here?

Sorry … in that war, there was no moral high ground. There was no honorable path, no middle road. A friend of mine was a Captain in the Army who was going to be a lifer. He was stationed in Korea. He took leave to go to see what was happening in Vietnam because he was slated to be sent there. Having seen it, he resigned his commission, an option I did not have, so he would not have to participate in what he saw (and still sees) as the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time against the wrong people … you gonna tell us that he should have kept his word and not resigned and happily gone to “kill gooks” because LBJ said so? Because I’d advise against you telling him that, since he actually is a pretty noble and ethical warrior, and won’t be impressed …

I have friends that made the decision you made. But they don’t put on your airs. They’re not like you, insulting people by claiming that it was some moral crusade and that they made the right decision. They don’t blame me for the path I took, nor do I blame them (or you) for taking the path you took. They know what I know. Nobody came out of the Vietnam War unwounded, there were no right decisions. Nobody made the “moral choice” about Vietnam, Claude. Not you, not JFK, and certainly not me … the most moral act I’ve seen in the context of Vietnam was my friend resigning his commission.

w.

…  from Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …

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Backscatter

Just an awesome description of your life and an instructive backdrop of your perspectives. Thank you for taking the time to share this….

Steeptown

In the UK, amateur scientists have always been well regarded. Patrick Moore (the astronomer) for one. Well done Willis for keeping up the tradition.

Theo Goodwin

Willis,
It is truly wonderful to have all this information about you. I value you even more highly than I did.
However, you will never satisfy those who criticize you personally. They criticize you because they cannot criticize your work. Ignore them.
The strength of your will is truly astounding. Someday you will be compared to Abraham Lincoln. Not necessarily for the greatness of your accomplishments but for your ability to keep going on internal motivation alone and in the face of great hardship. Of course, your contributions to science are great.
You are providing great leadership. Keep up the good work.
Best Regards,
Theo

stan

Hell yeah!

Willis. There’s too much of this “You can’t do this because….” In many walks of life because you haven’t got the right piece of paper from the ‘right’ institution.
Sounds like you came up the hard way and you’re not one of these arrogant academicians who know little of the outside world. Some of the stuff you write goes over the top of this poor laymans head, but much of it makes perfect sense. Sir, you are worthy of any accolades that come your way. Ignore the brickbats, your detractors and their hangers on are just ticked off that you’ve rumbled the gaps in their work. Keep it up.

Dave L

Very interesting Willis. You are a remarkable individual. Thank you for sharing.

professor bob ryan

Willis: I totally agree with your comments on anonymity. I can understand why some practicing scientists might wish to maintain it for the sake of their own careers. However, for many it is a shield they hide behind as they launch their bile into the blogosphere. My point in commenting however is that science, like art or literature is an intellectual activity. Christopher Booker, Anthony Watts, Stephen McIntyre and indeed your good self are intellectuals. Intellectuals are not recognized by the letters after (or indeed) before their name, nor indeed by the number of academic publications or books written. Intellectuals are like good footballers – they learn to play the ball not the man.

etudiant

Excellent!
An interesting life and a sound recommendation.

Its a shame you didn’t crack a book on Thermodynamics. But nobody’s perfect…

Well… You can now add that you also write for an award winning science blog…
All the best
Barry

David C

Wow. Thanks for sharing this Willis.

Jessie

‘As my story also shows, you may not have a clue what a man knows and what he has done in his life and what he can do and what drives him to do it. Leave all of that speculation at home.
So those are my requests. Talk about the science, quote my words if you disagree with them, sign your work, and keep fighting the good scientific fight.’
Hey babe,
That is some story and why you ARE to many of US, A hero. As others are.
Hope you continue to share us with you and your good family and hope to hear more. We’ll be poorer otherwise babe.
And hey Willis, will always take you to task if I think your science has gone askew.
If only for your good knowledge, opinion and skills.
And always look forward to the retort.
cheers
Jessie

Brian D Finch

As an ‘APOLOGIA PRO VITA SUA’, this reads better than Newman.
Thank you Willis.
Years ago I was once told that, as a bus driver, I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about when I was discussing Newtonian physics in a Glasgow bar.
I pointed out to my antagonist that being a stonemason did not necessarily constitute proof that Socrates was stupid.

My point is that none of that matters. Either my scientific claims are correct, or they are not. It’s not about me. Period. End of story.
That’s what I love about science. It is just so egalitarian. In real science the facts either speak for themselves or they don’t.

Fred from Canuckistan

When they won’t fight you on your science and attack you instead, it usually means your science is right and they are desperate to dislocate the messenger.
Keep on message.

Vince Causey

A pleasure to read, Willis. And your cv is not ‘a laugh’ – it should be an inspiration to everyone who may, for whatever reason, have lost faith in what they can achieve, or have come to doubt that they have anything left to offer to the world.

SunSword

I agree with all your main points except this:

Have the courage to sign your full true name to your ideas. Take ownership of your claims, stand behind your opinions. Anonymity encourages bad behavior.

I comment on multiple sites, many (most) are political, some are infested with loons and subject to government monitoring (like AboveTopSecret), some are gaming sites. I learned long, long ago in the Usenet days of the Internet to conceal my identity. You never know when some lunatic stalker is going to get obsessed with something you said and follow you all over the Internet, and there have been actual cases of some of these people actually tracking down posters and stalking them in real life. Therefore I have always employed a “defense in depth” method to my identity on the Internet and I am not about to change now. I do use a real email address and can by contacted by site administrators, and I do provide my real name to site administrators upon request via return email.

Buffy Minton

There a book in that story. Or a film. Wonderful.
There isn’t a member of the Team (or any of their attack trolls) worthy to lick your sand covered boots.

Roger Knights

“I’m told that I’m out of my depth. I am constantly assured that I am not qualified to offer a scientific opinion on climate, because of my lack of academic qualifications (BA in Psychology), and because of the shortness of my scientific publications list. … To hear people tell it, I’m not fit to kiss the boots of a true scientist.”

After the dust settles on this issue, no one will dare to play the “you’re-not-a-credentialed-peer-reviewed-scientist” card for a thousand years.

wsbriggs

Loved the essay. And I’m delighted that you didn’t find your way to the wall plug. Our world would be a lot poorer. I too have been able to re-invent myself, abet not in as spectacular fashion, nor in as many areas.
Simply well written as usual. Thanks for sharing.

Douglas Foss

In my view, generalists often tend to be the best at forensic examination of complex problems. Sometimes the specialists are limited by their more rigid construct/training, and sometimes they are bound into a pre-existing structure of people surrounding them. Your qualifications seem better suited than most to investigation of climate and forcings than most. And you are exactly right; the issue is the merit of the theory and whether we can falsify it.

Tony Armstrong

OMG – I feel privileged and humbled to have read your story and glad that I now know the human being behind the name. I do hope that you achieve your aim – as someone once said to me “A good idea is not proud of its author”. However, I fear that you will be vilified afresh. Those on the ‘other side’ of this debate have a very great deal of money and position at stake.
I’m also not a scientist but a generalist and I say my thanks every day for people like you and Anthony and the WUWT community for allowing me to understand more on the truth of what is happening with our climate.
Good luck to you

Bloke down the pub

It only goes to show…

mkelly

Loved it. But I missed where you got the BA from. Only mention I noted was you left UC Berkley after a year.

Domenic

Willis,
Great adventure. I really enjoyed it.
Intelligence has nothing to do with ‘degrees’ or ‘credentials’. Those who try to hide behind degrees or credentials, are often the least intelligent of people, disconnected with reality.
And intelligent people always recognize other intelligent people.
What I value most is original direct observation, primary reality, by intelligent people. What I value least are those who live almost completely in a secondary reality that is just a rehash, or speculation, of something that is written in a book or article. (a tip of my hat to your Zen reference, and Buddha’s last words of advice to ‘reason truth out for yourself’)
Your writing has a big thumbs up from me.

Fascinating story Willis, keep up the good work of bringing good science to the masses! Hope to see you in heaven.

Willis, I agree whole heartedly. Either you are correct or you are not. Its up to them to prove you incorrect based on what you say, no question your credentials.
There are many people who have an interest in one science or another who study it deeply in their own time. Just because they don’t choose it as their career doesn’t mean their knowledge if any less worthy.
Keep up the good work, I for one value it highly.

Ken Hall

Besides which, since when was Al Gore a scientist? The warmists still idolise him, no matter how many times he has been proven flat-out-wrong!
The temperature in the centre of the earth is millions of degrees??? Not even close. Not even in Kelvin. No way! He is only millions of degrees, (give or take a couple of thousand) out on that one!
He claims the seas will rise 20 METRES! Yet buys sea-front property.
He has a personal carbon footprint 20 times the size of GW Bush’s.
Yet warmists still spout his nonsense. Since when did real science EVER mean anything to them?

J.

Willis
And you concerned that Tim Lambert (UNSW) is critical of you? Take a look at his academic page.
It’s a long time between drinks since he’s published anything other than attacks against people he doesn’t like on his blog.
http://www.cse.unsw.edu.au/db/staff/staff_details.php?ID=lambert

Joshua

Interesting story. Also rather ironic given that it’s titled “It’s not about me.”

Richard111

Pleased to make your aquaintance Willis. I finished nine years in the UK army at Singapore in 1966.
If you ever make it to Milford Haven in Wales, UK, I would love to buy you a round. Bring the family, I have room.
Richard David Henderson

Mycroft

When they can’t find fault with the science,try to find fault with the man.
because they know they are losing the argument.
Don’t stop what you’re doing Willis, it’s clearly got some rattled.More power to your elbow..
Another thing to think about, is if these scientists are so sure of there standing/reputation then why when sceptics find fault/fraud in the methodology why don’t they ever libel some one??
heres very recent one but its not one of the “TEAM”
http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/02/climate-scientist-sues-skeptic-heated-exchange/

Coldish

Nice one, Willis. Re anonymity: I’m still using a pseudonym (it’s the name of a place where I used to live), but when I have some solid contribution to make to the climate debate I’ll go public. At the moment I’m just learning and asking questions, so my name’s not important and, as I mentioned on Judy Curry’s blog, I have ‘scientific’ associates, professionals and students, who just wouldn’t understand what I’m on about. ‘It’s all settled, anybody who disagrees is a denier’ is one theme. Other common themes are arguments from ignorance, and variations on the precautionary principle. When one asks a question they can get angry. You know all that. What’s the point of trying to converse with such people? As I was once told by a shared taxi driver when I lived in Libya, ‘There’s no communication here’. I know what he meant. It’s like a minefield. I know when to keep my mouth shut. But thanks, Willis, for raising the standard!

John Whitman

Willis,
I think many would want the title of your post to be ‘It’s Not About Us’ instead of ‘It’s Not About Me’. There are many who identify with you in a lot of ways. You hang in there.
On a humorous note, another song that is also kinda relevant is Hank Williams Jr’s great ‘All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down’. : )
I am of small ‘mom & pop’ dairy farm upbringing, so having lots of experience with cows . . . that gives me somewhat of a cowboy mentality.
Well, it is about 10:30 pm here in Taipei, good night.
John

Peter Whale

Willis I am amazed at your story. I have a cousin with a degree in botany and theology. He mirrors your story without the spell inside. He by design has done a different job every six months for the whole of his life and is now seventy. If I want to know anything I ask him, I always get a straight answer.
Keep the posts coming the truth will out. I will read them with appreciation.

robinedwards36

Well, Willis, that was some read. I hope that it will have an impact on Mr Lambert and his followers.
Has the said TL ever done any climate analysis himself I wonder? As a compulsive climate data analyser myself (I’d like to tell you about it some time), using software that I wrote and used to sell, I sometimes feel that many of those who comment on this sort of thing seem to have little or no personal experience of data analysis or even on data appreciation. Really liked your remarks about data “sense” – the feel for something being suspicious even without doing the sums accurately. Looking at the efforts of many journalists in the MSM writing simple stuff on science or engineering it is clear that they often have not the slightest idea of what underlies their subject matter. This turns me off really thoroughly. Let comments and opinions be taken notice of only when written by someone with at least some real understanding of their subject matter.
Anyway, BRAVO! for your effort.

Bloody hell, Willis. Talk about laying it all out on the line. Quite a lot of your story strikes a chord with me. I always knew you were some sort of wunderkind, but 180!! Even the Mensa test can only accurately measure to 167.
I’ve always liked your articles. You have a unique ability to explain complex concepts to the common man (you’ve obviously been reading your Feynman). That along with your politeness to posters marks you out as what I’d call an enabler of people.
Contrast that with most of the warmists that I’ve come across, who are disablers. And that is my one fear about what you have done in writing this post, that they will use it to try and slice you down. I just hope you will see it for what it is, a mix of jealousy, begrudgery, and a hatred for anybody who tries to pull themselves up by their socks and rise above the parapet. Kudos to you.

Doc Tor

Willis,
Fascinating tale.
I have a MSc and a PhD in my line of engineering. The latter is supposed to mean that I am well versed in scientific methods and principles.
Thus I will claim that your are absolutely correct in your assertions. Keep up the good work!

bwanajohn

Willis,
This explains a lot to me. I have always enjoyed reading your posts but seeing this helps me understand why. I have many parallels to your story but the most important is growing up in a small town, small school with no “disposible income”. Like you, I am mostly self taught out of necessity. There was no one to do something for me and no money to pay anyone. As a result you develop a “I can do anything” attitude because you mostly had to. Even though I am reasonably comfortable now, I still fix my own cars, build my own cabinets, tile my own floors …. Out of “been there, done that” you learn to recognize when someone is trying to pull a fast one. Thus the same issue I have PNS and modern climate science, my BS indicator is off the charts.
So BRAVO to you (and thanks to Anthony for giving you the space) and keep stirring the pot. My dad always told me you know when your doing good when people start attacking you. If there is no conflict, your not doing anything.
John

PaulH

As an aside, I still have my circular slide rule (Atlas), although I never really mastered it as the pocket calculator pushed the slide rule into the museum. 😉
I also skipped a grade, from 3 to grade 5. To parents considering this option for any of their children, I would recommend against such a move. (I agree with Willis’ wise mom here.) I struggled nightly in grade 5 (different school, different friends, different teachers, etc). My handwriting never recovered, as I missed grade 4 penmanship altogether. Of course, computers pushed handwriting into the museum as well. 😉

pyromancer76

Thanks, Willis. Experience, grit, passion, and a nose for “truth” in a scientist. What a combination. So glad Anth0ny recognized a treasure — “It’s about the science”.

Alexander K

Willis, while it may not be ‘about you’, you bring unique and huge experience, expertise and your own forms of genius (anyone with an IQ over 180 belongs in that realm) to a field that has been mostly the province of the polite boys and girls who went from school to college, learned all the right things to say and do and earned unremarkable Phuds for doing production-line, cookie-cutter science. Most of them would go on to become useful citizens who pay their taxes, marry ‘suitable’ partners and raise their kids in the approved manner of respectable folk. And under all of that protective colouring some of them are as dumb as a box of hammers and have the ethics of Wile E. Coyote. But they belong to the Club and will use any vilification to fight off those rare people who can sniff out wrong numbers and who take the time and trouble to learn and understand stuff that is kept hidden as the province of the academically-validated ‘expert’ who knows how to fight and survive in the publish-or-perish jungle.
These people vilify you, Willis, because they see you as a huge threat, an intellectual Crocodile Dundee in their jungle. Go for it, mate.

Ian W

I think that people who resort to qualification comparison ought to remember the story of the Emperors New Clothes:
“The Emperor’s New Clothes” (Danish: Kejserens nye Klæder) is a short tale by Hans Christian Andersen about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that are invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor's_New_Clothes
Hans Christian Andersen didn’t unintentionally choose a child as the only person to see the fault. People need to learn all the messages in the story.

Physics Major

Willis,
I recall another amateur scientist who had a few good ideas. He was an obscure examiner in the Swiss patent office who had some ideas about relativity.
Not to say that you’re another Einstein, but just to point out that history is full scientific discoveries made by “amateurs”.

Dave Springer

I got your moon right here.

John Campbell

Well, Willis, I had thought that my life story might seem mildly interesting to a few people, but I’ve now resolved to keep utterly schtum. Your autobiography was not only very entertaining, but also damned interesting – and impressive. Many thanks – I thoroughly enjoyed the read. But enough (as you say) about you (or me); I agree 100% that it’s all about the science. And I’m still on the lookout for real hard evidence in support of the AGW hypothesis.

So you are in good company: Accompanied by the greatest researchers and discoverers in the history of the world: All laymen. From Milankovic to Tomas Alva Edison. Is it a coincidence or just a “raison d´etre”?: The more information, the more self indulgement, the more self conceit, the less space left for real knowledge.

Venter

Willis, you are a remarkable human being. It’s an honour to have known you through these boards.

Alexander K

Willis, sorry, forgot your point about anonymity – Coldish (above) has elucidated my position beter than I am able to. I do use my one-and-only email so webmasters know I am genuine, but that’s as much as I’m willing to reveal.

phlogiston

Willis’s comments on scientific elitism are spot on. The scientific community is an island of aristocratic snobbery, a kind of cult which possesses a mindset about 400 years less developed than that of normal society within which it lives in a somewhat parasitic manner. The 21st century is seeing more and more of the world embracing egalitarianism, individual freedoms and rights, and justice, while professional scientists by instinctive religious-like insular reaction, cling every more desperately to feudal heirarchy and their Dante-esque view of a pyramid of human souls with different levels of value.
It is deeply pathetic. Its about time what is happening on the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and Bahrain, happened in the scientific community.