Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
Today, as the result of a series of wrong turns and bad choices, I ended up at the Wikipedia entry for Watts Up With That. It says:
Watts Up With That? (WUWT) is a blog promoting climate change denial that was created by Anthony Watts in 2006.
The blog predominantly discusses climate issues with a focus on anthropogenic climate change, generally accommodating beliefs that are in opposition to the scientific consensus on climate change.
Appalled by the misrepresentations in that, I thought I might comment on them.
First, the blog doesn’t “promote climate change denial”. I always laugh when I read about “denial” because none of the authors of such nonsense ever get around to telling us exactly what we’re supposed to be “denying”. Me, I deny nothing. I disagree with some of the revealed wisdom of those who believe in “consensus science” but that’s a very different thing. And for those who would like a full explanation of why “consensus” has nothing to do with science, let me recommend a wonderful paper entitled Aliens Cause Global Warming.
The real misunderstanding, however, is that WUWT doesn’t “promote” anything. Instead, it serves a very different purpose. Let me explain what WUWT really is, which will require a bit of a digression. But then if you know me, you’ll know that I’m susceptible to being sidetractored …
Many, perhaps most people don’t understand what science is. Some say they rely on “the science”, as if such a thing existed. Others think that science is a subject. Some believe that a scientific “consensus” establishes truth.
In fact, science is a process, not a subject. And it is a most curious process, one that has brought infinite good to the world. The process works as follows:
- Someone comes up up with an idea about how the world works.
- They publish their results in some public forum, along with all of the facts, logic, references, mathematics, and/or computer code that they think will support their idea.
- Then other people try to poke holes in their facts, logic, references, etc.
- If they are successful in that process, then the idea goes down in flames.
- If nobody can find any errors in what they’ve done, then their idea is provisionally accepted as being valid.
- The reason the acceptance is “provisional” is that at some time in the future, someone may find something wrong with the idea.
Now, there are several import things to note about this process we call “science”
- It doesn’t matter who came up with the idea. Either it is valid or it is demonstrably incorrect.
- The education level of the person who came up with the idea is also immaterial. The only valid question is whether they are right or wrong.
- Similarly, it doesn’t matter who poked holes in the idea.
- The education level of the person who poked holes in the idea is also immaterial. The only valid question is whether they can show the exact problem(s) with the idea.
- It doesn’t matter where it is published. E=MC2 is not untrue just because you find it written on a bathroom wall.
- The system only works when there is transparency and access to the facts, logic, etc. If other people can’t see what the person has done, how can they possibly determine if it’s valid?
- The system is totally adversarial. If I can show that the central idea in someone’s entire lifetime of work is incorrect, they will not be happy with me … my saying about this is, “Science is a blood sport”. So we should not be surprised if passions run high.
- The more people who try to poke holes in the claims, and the better they understand the subject, the better the system works.
Now, historically there were no “scientific journals”. New scientific ideas were circulated hand-to-hand or mailed between people who knew each other. But the process described above was how they judged the ideas. If someone could show the idea was wrong, it would be discarded.
Then along came the scientific journals. Historically, they started earlier, but they only became prevalent in the 20th century. Same idea. But they use “peer reviewers” to secretly judge the validity of the ideas.
And as you might imagine … this system is highly slanted towards whatever is currently believed. People whose continued employment depends on some idea being correct will only very rarely be honest enough to say that a new idea is worth publishing if that new idea will cost them their job …
Finally, in modern times, in some cases, we’ve gone back to the original, pre-peer-review method. And THAT is what WUWT is. It’s not a place that only publishes things that are 100% validated. There’s little point in that.
Instead, it is a place to expose new scientific ideas to the harsh glare of widespread publicity in the crowded public marketplace of new ideas.
People say “But WUWT publishes some things that are obviously false”, as though that were a bad thing.
That’s true, and it’s not a bad thing. It is a good and necessary thing. The more that incorrect ideas get exposed to critical review, the sooner they will be shown to be incorrect.
And inter alia, this is why I love writing for WUWT. If my work contains errors, they rarely last more than a couple of hours before someone points them out. This is infinitely valuable to me, as it keeps me from wasting months haring down a blind alley.
It is also a place where I can publicly defend my ideas against people trying to poke holes in them. As mentioned above, science is adversarial, and to make that work, the person who came up with the idea needs to be able to defend it, rather than have it censored by what I call “pal review”. There’s a description of one of my interactions with the peer-review system in my post called “Michael Mann, Smooth Operator“.
Next, compared with WUWT, the peer-review process is infinitely slow. On WUWT I can think of a new idea in the morning and see it published by the afternoon, and then totally demolished the next day, not six months later. And this is good because I’m not interested in being famous or garnering citations. I’m interested in having an effect on the ongoing discussion of climate science, and for that my ideas need to be current.
Next, unlike my ideas being shot down by a few peer-reviewers with a large investment in defending the consensus ideas, there are literally thousands of people out there who would like very much to prove me wrong. Heck, there are whole websites that do little else but tell people what a jerk I am. Having this many adversaries provides a far more rigorous, skeptical, public, and fair peer-review than having say three people with fixed ideas on the subject censor my ideas in secret.
(In passing, I am happy that there are websites that spend much of their time dissing my ideas, or me personally. They’ve obviously never heard the old Hollywood axiom that “All publicity is good publicity.” In my case, what looks like bad publicity is actually good because when people read that my ideas are wrong, wrong, wrong … well, a certain percentage of them will wonder why the folks on that site are so opposed to me, and they’ll come here and read what I actually wrote. So they’re just driving traffic to WUWT in general and to my work in particular. What’s not to like?)
To summarize, WUWT is not a blog for “promoting” anything, as Wiki falsely claims. And it is assuredly not a blog that only publishes just what is “correct” or just what skeptics say.
Instead, it is a place where scientific ideas of all kinds can be most critically examined and publicly peer-reviewed in a modern, efficient manner. And curiously, it is one of the few places in the world where this is true.
Finally, in that regard let me say that without Anthony Watts, Charles The Moderator, and the various moderators around the world, none of this would be possible. My thanks to the whole crew—WUWT is a huge contribution to the testing of new scientific ideas.
And now? … now I’m going for a walk in the sunshine with my gorgeous ex-fiancee, my delightful wife of forty years.
My best to everyone, and wishes for the finest of new years.