Belmont Club

Whitewash versus Paint

The northern summer months mean winter in the Antipodes so we drove to Anthony Watts‘ presentation in the dark even though it was only 6 pm.  He was the principal author of Watts Up With That?, a climate change skeptic’s blogsite that gets about 3 million hits per month.  And now he was in Australia on a speaking tour. The site has a large following in Australia probably due to two things. The first is his symbiotic relationship with the Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt, who is Australia’s blogger/mainstream journalist — a combination you don’t often see — who appears to combine the strongest features of both and who quotes Watts continuously and extensively so that climate skepticism has become as it were, the new occult knowledge. Second, Watts’ focus on the weather taps into a major preoccupation in Australia: crops.

As a consequence there is, one may be surprised to learn, a Climate Skeptics Party in Australia and a huge appetite for knowing Watts Up With That. Climate change is a much bigger political issue in Australia than in the USA. The audience filed into the auditorium with a near-religious reverence for Watts. He was preceded by two speakers, one an economist and the other an expert on the effect of solar cycles on climate. The first argued that CO2 was undervalued and the second explained the effects of sunspots on cloud formation.  But it was Watts presentation that stole the show. Why?

Not for any superiority in presentation. What distinguished it from theirs was that Watts talk wasn’t really about a logical argument. It was about how to create a logical argument of sufficient authority to challenge the establishment. He was describing an open source research project, though perhaps much of the audience failed to realize it. Watts reeled them in as good speakers do, by telling them a story. He described how he had originally been a Global Warmist who had experienced a Pauline conversion on the most innocent of grounds. He had fascinated by measuring instruments and gadgetry and always had been.  After retiring from a career as a TV weatherman he began to wonder whether a change in the specification of the paint used to coat temperature measuring stations might have anything to do with the rise in recorded readings.  It was a simple enough idea. When temperatures were first collected the temp stations consisted of a whitewashed birdhouse like structure with a mercury thermometer in it.  As recently as the 60s the whitewash was still used to maintain a consistency in experimental apparatus. And then the weather service changed the spec to paint. So he asked: Watts Up With That?

Watts bought a bunch of standard measuring stations and coated one with whitewash and the other with the newly specified paint and found the painted stations gave higher readings than the stations finished in the older calcium carbonate.  This disturbed him but as way led on to way it brought him face to face with another discovery.  Most of the temperature stations had been sited, for ease of reading, right next to buildings else urban sprawl had overtaken them so that stations formerly standing in a field were now in the middle of parking lots, sewage plants, airports and heat sinks of a similar nature.  Watts was now confronted with the possibility that his whole belief structure was wrong because the data on which it was established was erroneous. Somewhere along the line a light bulb went on his brain and the fun began.

My guess is that the former weatherman understood something that neither of two pure academicians who preceded him fully grasped. If he was going to challenge the established storyline he was going to need power. Where did it come from?  Power comes from owning information; second power comes from being able to gather info that nobody else can. So he began an open source project to study as many temperature recording sites as he could. Watts’ biggest asset was not his scientific background but an organizational/businessman’s ability and the media practicioner’s understanding of how to use publicity. In this instance he decided to use his blog to solicit volunteer data gathering. The result was SurfaceStations.Org.

In 2007 Watts launched the “” project, whose mission is to create a publicly available database of photographs of weather stations, along with their metadata, in response to what he described as “a massive failure of bureaucracy to perform something so simple as taking some photographs and making some measurements and notes of a few to a few dozen weather stations in each state”. The project relies on volunteers to gather the data.[8] The method used is to attract volunteers of varying levels of expertise who undertake to estimate the siting, usage and other conditions of weather stations in NOAA’s Historical Climatology Network (USHCN) and grade them for their compliance with the standards published in the organization’s Climate Reference Network Site Handbook.[9]

Soon after launching the project, when 40 or so of the 1221 USHCN climatological surface temperature monitoring stations had been surveyed, Watts stated that his preliminary findings raised doubts about NOAA’s temperature reporting. “I believe,” he said, “we will be able to demonstrate that some of the global warming increase is not from CO2 but from localized changes in the temperature-measurement environment.”[10] By 2009, the project had documented over 860 stations using over 650 volunteers.[11] In a report entitled Is the U.S. Surface Temperature Record Reliable?, published by the Heartland Institute,[11] Watts concludes that “the errors in the [U.S. temperature] record exceed by a wide margin the purported rise in temperature…during the twentieth century.

Watts’ presentation at the hall consisted of seemingly unending stream of slides from his volunteers showing not just US, but foreign weather stations sited in the most laughable of ways:  in the path of jet exhaust, air conditioning heat dumps, fermenting sewage plants, concrete heat sinks, in close proximity to machinery, motors, engines, incinerators and even atop tombstones. He then proceeded to flash a series of infrared images of the same sites showing the surrounds of the temperature stations all lit up. Then he piled Google Earth image upon Google Earth image of the temperature collection sites in winter showing the snow stretching far and away but for the little islands of heat in which the gauges were located.

It was a tour de force. He understood the power of irrefutable reptition. Following the old rule of “tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them and tell them what you told them”, Watts pitched his message to the denominator everyone could grasp. He had a weatherman’s instinct for making a complex subject concrete and in your face. But he could do this only because he had mobilized a legion of part time snoops, guys who would drive out to airports near them, walk around universities to snap photos of temperature stations, go down some dirt road to find an obscure little measuring device or spends hours on Google Earth zooming in on a known coordinate.  He could do this because he had a dataset — a dataset not even the weather service had. His open source project gave him more information about the condition of their terrestrial network than the weather service had. He had power and they knew it. What happened next was extraordinary but entirely predictable. The bureaucracy fought back. The weather service pre-emptively used his data, over his objections they were incomplete, to refute him.

On July 6, 2009 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a preliminary report that charted data from 70 stations that identified as ‘good’ or ‘best’ against the rest of the dataset surveyed at that time, and concluded, “clearly there is no indication from this analysis that poor station exposure has imparted a bias in the U.S. temperature trends.”[14] Watts issued a rebuttal in which he asserted that the preliminary analysis excluded new data on quality of surface stations, and criticized the use of homogenized data from the stations, which in his view accounts for the creation of two nearly identical graphs.[15][16] Since then NOAA has released a detailed peer reviewed study confirming both reliability of the surface stations reviewed. The results show that poor stations produce a slight cooling bias, in stark contrast to Watts claim, but also that after corrections both poor and highly rated stations align very well.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery it was an extraordinary compliment to Anthony Watts. But they took it too soon or maybe he objected to their use of his incomplete data because he understood the more he objected the more precipitately they would insert their heads into the noose. The data gathered by his volunteers was only just ramping up and now he has much more data — most of which will not only undermine the NOAA study based on his partial data set — but put the case for data corruption more strongly. The problem Anthony Watts now faces is getting a journal to publish his stuff. But even here the savvy weatherman may know that legitimacy can be acquired in two way. The first is if a prestigious journal publishes his study and the second is if they refuse to publish his study. Although Watts’ scientific claims are interesting on their own, it was the way in which he used the Internet, employed the media, created an open source project that really fascinated me. This was a Harvard Business/Kennedy School case study if ever there was one.

I shook his hand after the lecture and then we popped out into a winter night that was colder than usual, as Australian winters go. It was past dinnertime and since there was nothing near that art deco lecture hall that seemed worthwhile entering we went off to Harry’s Cafe De Wheels, about the only place certain that stayed open at all hours. Our determination flagged at points and we looked through restaurant windows in which waiters were stacking chairs or ready to and decided to head for the famous diner, which served pies and surprisingly good hotdogs. Harry’s Cafe de Wheels is near the Garden Island naval base and King’s Cross by the harbor. For blocks in every direction everyone either seemed drunk or watched by a hard-eyed bouncer. But the crowd around the diner was sober and hungry. There was pier jutting mysteriously out to sea that had once served troopships headed for the Great War in the days of Empire. Now it was trendy real estate.  In the windows you could see people squinched up in their split level living rooms watching big screen TV. A little later, a bunch of guys zoomed up in what looked like a couple of clowncars, probably for pie.

It was all innocent in its way; at least it was human and understandable. Looking out into the dark harbor, I thought about the struggle for information that formed the background of the lives of normal people and which determined their destinies as much as any bouncer’s boot. Information and the narratives that they formed created the shape of their world.  It created the bubble in which they were taxed or herded around. The old pier thrusting out into the night sent ships to sea no more. Maybe the computer terminal waiting for me at home was the new pier; that glowing, pulsing portal was where we now send our vehicles onto the sea which ultimately linked back to those people watching TV in their apartments. The Internet as the dispatch point to the new Great War. There was a thought. The Climate Skeptics Party and people like that were going to have learn a whole new of set of skills to go up against the well organized global warming lobby. Maybe they could pick something up from Anthony Watts. But I finished the hotdog and we weaved past the innocent drunks back to the car.

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