Dumb America

An unfair headline; but I think it is a known phrase: the “Dumb America” phenomenon, wherein the public has the hubris to believe that they really have something valuable to contribute to discussions that they can hardly begin to understand (I’m assuming that if you aren’t part of DA then you’re intelligent enough to realise I’m not talking about all Americans).

Yes, I’m talking about the comments in Under the Volcano, Over the Volcano by Willis Eschenbach at Wattsup (ht: mt). Incidentally, anyone tempted to complain about my sneering or elitist tone is invited to comment somewhere else. If you want the department of politely answering stupid questions, you want Eli.

[Update: if you didn’t like the tone of this post, you might find somewhat similar ideas expressed in a more measured way by Bart (and links therein to mt).]

It would be funny – were it not sad to see so many victims of disinformation, some of whom still cannot shake themselves free of the poison that they have imbibed so freely over the years – to see so many poor people struggling to get to even the very first rung of understanding of these problems. These people are so fearful that once they give way on the first step – yes, CO2 really is rising – that it will be a terrible slippery slope: pretty soon they will be believing that the rise is caused by people and from there it would only be a small step to Being Al Gore, the horror.

That MLO is on the side of an active volcano clearly troubles many people – how can you possibly meaasure CO2 accurately in that case. Of course you can, and Willis has pulled out enough of the already publically readable documents to explain to people why (though I’m dubious about his day/night assertion: I think they use all measurements that are reliable, regardless of time of day). However what appears to be lacking in *all* the DA comments there is any appreciation that, maybe, the people siting the observatory there might just possibly have thought about where to put it. The default assumption from all the DA folk is “der, those scientists must be really dumb if they didn’t think of that”. Any kind of introspection is definitely out, as indeed is any understanding of the structure of the atmosphere. I’ve just realised that Coby Beck (no relation) did this quite some time ago.

So, enough snarking. As I said at mt’s place, I think Willis should follow up this piece with one that really would make the poor people there explode: one explaining patiently why the CO2 rise is indeed caused by humans. It will be a difficult task: over at WU, there are arguments as logically compelling as While the CO2 is going up, the cause can not be humans. Atmospheric CO2 is only a small proportion (1/5oth) of the CO2 in the system, 98% is in the oceans (sorry, did I say I was done snarking? You know me better than that). [Ha ha, I should have checked before writing: Willis has indeed written such a post – good for him. Looks OK at first glance, too. Haven’t checked the comments yet, so I wonder if my predictions will come true? If you read the “light the blue touchpaper” intro you can see that Willis is nervous. Uupdate: I’m wrong! Hurrah! They have all rolled over. Willis is kind enough to provide them with a convenient space to roll into – yes the CO2 increase is anthro but no it won’t do anything – and I can sense that they aren’t really convinced – there are far too many recurring refs to beck and ZJ – but still: progress. Unfortunately, given Willis’s opinions, that is probably the limit of the progress that can be achieved via him.].

There are plenty of sources for such a post: for example, RC – obviously Watts’ commentators will never read anything from RC, but they might if one of their own like Willis revamped it.

As to the comments there: dismissing the genuinely useless, and the few brave souls who have ventured in to try to explain the truth, there are a few interesting points to note:

* at no point does Watts jump in to correct any of the many egregious errors his commentors make. He does jump in once to stomp on someone who points out that the WMO makes all the data available. Watts isn’t stupid and he isn’t ignorant: he knows perfectly well that CO2 is well mixed, for example, and that the rise in CO2 is anthro. But he chooses to stay silent, presumably not wishing to frighten the horses.
* Willis is careful to be polite about Beck. He goes so far as to say that Beck’s stuff is irrelevant, but is nonetheless kind to it. That is probably good strategy on his part: actually telling them the real truth would be too much of a shock and would cause Rejection.
* And speak of the Devil, but Beck himself turns up in the comments! He too disowns his earlier stuff, and links to his new thing http://www.biomind.de/realCO2/ which shows he has learnt something – he now knows that the wild swings implied by his earlier measurements were utterly implausible, so he has smoothed them out.
* Richard S Courtney is there in the comments too – but he has learnt nothing.
* Inevitably, Zbigniew Jaworowski gets mentioned. Which is great, because it gives me a chance to link to The Golden Horseshoe Award: Jaworowski and the vast CO2 conspiracy. Nuff said.

[ps: anyone tempted to complain, especially New Bugs, about the amazing intelligence of Americans, is invited to read the comment policy first, so as to avoid tedious whinges about censorship afterwards.]

[Update: I forgot to snark about Willis’s uncertainty about the seasonal variation in CO2: in answer to “However, the Mauna Loa data shows seasonal CO2 variation. Why would that be so?” he responds The reasons for the variation is unknown at this point. There are basically three camps, one of which says “plants”, one says “sea temperatures” and the other says “sea ice melt and freeze”. I always “knew” this was because of the differential vegation between the two hemispheres, and it always seemed quite plausible to me. I’ve not seen the refs though. But I’m assured the photosynthesis rates are 100 Gton C per year. So Willis is wrong; there are no three camps. Oh, and he has the CO2 lifetime wrong too, but never mind, we’ll never convince him of that.]

[Update: as an experiment, I decided to tweak Watts: we’ll see if it survives moderation:

What I find astonishing about all of the above discussion of the volcano is: no-one has paused to think: did Keeling *know* about this? Did he perhaps have a very good scientific reason for choosing this site? Did he perhaps… think about it?

More: http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2010/06/dumb_america.php]

Comments

  1. #1 Carl C
    2010/06/24

    ok, I guess like your “Obama Sucks” post re: BP you’re just trying to wind us up to get hits on your blog! ;-) I’ve run into Willis on skeptic sites (CA as mt notes) and I assumed he was just a dick. But at least (in this recent case) he’s trying to teach the unteachable something on the blogs that think Fred Singer is a hero etc. Come to think of it the likes of Willis & Singer et al are krauts anyway aren’t they? ;-)

    But in defense of “Dumb America” — I don’t really see how the dumbest responses against Willis’ CO2 blog posts are all or a majority of dumb Americans. And it’s not really that these septics & their defenders are dumb — just that they are either bought & paid for or really do believe the Libertarian corporatist hype, and are very clever at spreading their misinformation whether it’s via their right-wing “think tanks” or nightly talking points on Faux/Sky News.

  2. #2 Steve Bloom
    2010/06/24

    Just to prove that your admonition shouldn’t be taken literally, I hereby complain about the amazing intelligence of Americans. And let me tell you, it’s a far more deeply felt complaint than any Brit could make. :)

  3. #3 Anonymous
    2010/06/24

    “the hubris to believe that they really have something valuable to contribute to discussions that they can hardly begin to understand”

    While I thing the above point is correct in the case of evaluating a complex theory as a whole, I would argue that having more eyes on the data is for the best.

    For example, some of blogs I have read about climate change and sea ice (done by people who admit to having no specialized knowledge) have put together animations from satellite data and come up with ways to look at patterns in ice loss data that have not been done by the scientists involved (probably because they are spending there time on things more likely to be significant).

    It is entirely possible, though, that some of this analysis will prove to be useful simply because it hits on a significant variable that no one has yet seen (and in the field of climate science I think all reasonable people will agree that there are many unknown variables waiting to be found).

    Since this kind of work has no downside, and may turn out to be useful, I would say that amateurs can make a valuable contribution to the discussion.

  4. #4 Carl C
    2010/06/24

    >>ways to look at patterns in ice loss data

    has this led to any real live references (peer-reviewed papers) or academic work? If not then I don’t really see the point since the blogs are 99.9% snark & flames, so the noise far greater than the “signal.”

    In a way I would expand stoat’s post beyond the blogosphere — I found the whole climate or AGW arena a bit tedious since EVERYONE claimed to be an expert. You have economists & lawyers & social scientists, in fact everything except climate scientists, coming out of the woodwork to weigh in why global warming was a hoax etc. I mean you’d see Myron Ebell of the “American Enterprise Institute” propped up nightly as a spokesperson on Fox News (as if he’s some kind of scientist).

    So to me that’s the real error or proof of “dumb America” — hacks like that are always touted over actual scientists from good universities. I mean just compare the list of scientists & citations of the “pro AGW” vs “septics” — with a few exceptions a lot of it looks like real academics from good schools versus mail-order degrees from the University of Creationist Jesus in Slidell, Lousiana.

  5. #5 Steve Bloom
    2010/06/24

    Carl, I don’t think it’s dumbness as such that propels all of this. While there certainly does exist a small population of the truly dumb, their presence being felt more in venues like WTF, even there the majority tendency is more a kind of obdurate reactionariness (it’s a word now if it wasn’t before), a bit like the diehard French fans who were OK with the bad hand-ball call in the qualifier against the Irish since it gave them the outcome they wanted.

    But I think that most of them, however conscious they may be that they’re relying on porkies to hold up their view of reality, share the problem John Sterman identified (home page; most pertinent paper) — an inability to grok stocks and flows, which in turn makes it impossible for them to understand the climate problem on a gut level.

    As Sterman found, this syndrome remarkably seems to be independent of intelligence and education, which helps explain the ones like Willis who are smart enough to run the numbers. (A parallel tendency that’s probably also operating to some degree is a lack of care about what happens to the world beyond their own lifetimes, but I haven’t seen studies on that.)

  6. #6 Travis (anonymous from above)
    2010/06/24

    “has this led to any real live references (peer-reviewed papers) or academic work? If not then I don’t really see the point since the blogs are 99.9% snark & flames, so the noise far greater than the “signal.””

    I don’t know on the references, but determinately not all “snark & flames”.
    Take this page for example:
    http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/2010/06/century-breaks.html#more

    I think it’s an interesting data series. Maybe it could turn out that the number of days of very large sea ice melt early in the season has predictive power. It’s probably not a major factor (I’m no expert, I don’t know), but how would anybody be worse off for the existence of the data set?

  7. Your comment has indeed survived moderation, I just approved it. It went into the spam bucket temporarily most likely because of the inclusion of an HTML link.

    [Excellent, thank you. I have the same problem with comments here -W]

  8. #8 Nicolas Nierenberg
    2010/06/24

    I was concerned when I originally saw that post, but as you say that one, and the one about whether it is human caused were both correct AFAIK.

    I think it is a good thing for those type of sites to put up clear information about this type of stuff. Maybe for most of the people reading it gets them on the right track. As you point out RC is not a trusted source for them.

  9. #9 pointer
    2010/06/24

    Somebody needs to update the Dunning-Kruger experiment to reflect the existence of people who not only are too stupid to know they’re stupid, but also are too stupid to know that the experts aren’t.

  10. #10 dhogaza
    2010/06/24

    What I find astonishing about all of the above discussion of the volcano is: no-one has paused to think: did Keeling *know* about this? Did he perhaps have a very good scientific reason for choosing this site? Did he perhaps… think about it?

    Probably not, after all he was a dumb american, no? :)

    (just teasing)

  11. #11 carrot eater
    2010/06/24

    Reading that was truly an adventure into somebody’s mind.

    “at no point does Watts jump in to correct any of the many egregious errors his commentors make.”

    He pretty much never does. When he wades into comments, it can be for housekeeping, it can be to chastise critics for being anonymous, but you don’t generally see him engage in any substantive way.

    “Watts isn’t stupid and he isn’t ignorant: he knows perfectly well that CO2 is well mixed, for example, and that the rise in CO2 is anthro. ”

    This is hard to tell. Watts leaves himself plausible deniability; he rarely gives any real comment on the things he posts on his blog (as very little of the content is written by him). But he’s hinted that the CO2 rise is coming out of the oceans; I can try to dig up a link. (then again, didn’t Spencer?) And he thought the Knorr paper from last year was a “bombshell” – the one about trends in airborne fraction, or the lack thereof. The fact that he labeled it a bombshell tells me that he most likely did not understand what the paper was about. But since he doesn’t usually give any substantive comment, but just a title, a picture and maybe a one-liner, we can’t know what he actually thinks about something.

  12. #12 Steve Bloom
    2010/06/24

    ce, Watts has stated in the fairly distant past (this may have been on his old blog) that he’s convinced it’s the sun. I suspect he’s felt it wise to shut up about that ever since Leif Svalgaard began his patrol several years ago, and I’ve noticed a distinct tapering off of the wacky solar posts by others (maybe because of Lief, but probably also because the supply of such things is becoming more limited due to the ongoing marginalization of the proponents and the lack of fresh ideas).

  13. #13 Eli Rabett
    2010/06/24

    Ferdinand Engelbeen is not bad on CO2, and a reasonable skeptic. He has the best collection of information on CO2 IEHO.

    Steve Ryan took the entire volcano nonsense and buried it in 2001 but amazingly no one but Eli ever points to that paper. It’s enough to make a reasonable bunny go Romm.

    And since when did Richard (bag of hammers) Courtney become an American? FWIW, the whole volcano thing was handled in detail by Steve Ryan

    [Oh yes Courtney is all our fault – I didn’t mean to imply otherwise -W]

  14. #14 Eli Rabett
    2010/06/24

    Oh yeah, in his latest, Beck is discovering about 50 years after Keeling did the job, that measuring CO2 most places depends on from where the wind blows. FE explains in his discussion of the good, the bad and the ugly stations. Schauinsland in the Black Forest, can measure the background level if they carefully monitor the wind speed and direction
    .
    http://www.ferdinand-engelbeen.be/klimaat/co2_measurements.html

  15. #15 carrot eater
    2010/06/24

    Steve Bloom,
    If that is still the case, it’s impossible to discern.

    Taking a consistent hypothesis would ruin the parade of publishing anything and everything that sounds scepticky, regardless of whether it’s mutually exclusive from the previous thing.

    Lack of fresh ideas never stopped anything over there.

  16. #16 Neven
    2010/06/24

    I was directed here when seeing in my blog stats there was a link to the blog. When I read this:

    wherein the public has the hubris to believe that they really have something valuable to contribute to discussions that they can hardly begin to understand

    I thought you would hold me up as an example! Not such a bad one, I have to say, except for the hubris part. But it was the #6 comment by Travis that linked to my blog.

    ps Travis, FYI, I made two big mistakes in the ‘data series’ of that blog post, which were pointed out by Nick Barnes. It was a bit of an honour to be clearclimatecoded, of course.

    [I hope my comment isn’t going to be misunderstood, though I’m also sure it will be. It isn’t impossible for the public to contribute, but it is very hard and people shouldn’t underestimate that. It is hard enough if you’re a scientist in a research institute with kit, datasets, training, access to knowledgable colleagues and all the literature. What really winds me up is the arrogant ignorance displayed by the Watts commentators -W]

  17. #17 Steve Bloom
    2010/06/25

    ce, I didn’t mean to imply that Watts holding that view would amount to any sort of filter of the subject matter he allows — obviously not! I do think Leif’s presence has tended to tamp down at least the redundant solar posts.

  18. #18 Dunc
    2010/06/25

    I’ve noticed a distinct tapering off of the wacky solar posts by others (maybe because of Lief, but probably also because the supply of such things is becoming more limited due to the ongoing marginalization of the proponents and the lack of fresh ideas).

    It seems to me that the wacky solar stuff fell out of fashion around the start of the new solar cycle – it’s no longer plausible to claim that we’re in a new Maunder minimum and facing a resultant Ice Age (not that that was ever particularly plausible in the first place, but “OMG no sunspots!” loses it’s appeal when there are, in fact, sunspots). Of course, you still get the occasional idiot who hasn’t updated his talking points…

  19. #19 Eamon
    2010/06/25

    at no point does Watts jump in to correct any of the many egregious errors his commentors make.

    He even goes further than that, on last year’s hyped story about a discussion piece in the Japan’s Society of Energy and Resources’s Journal he refused to amend the blog post title to reflect the fact that the participants weren’t members of the JSER, and did not reflect their views. His response to John Phillips’ post is quite telling.

  20. #20 Mike G
    2010/06/25

    “Tony” does an excellent job of illustrating your point.

    Be surprised by information that’s readily available if you had actually looked for it (sampling methods at MLO)- Check.

    Ask questions that can be answered by simply looking at the references cited (What sort of stats are being used?)- Check.

    Ask questions that have already been answered by the brief discussion of the methods (How do we know the instruments are really reading CO2 and not other gases?)- Check. Bonus points for suggesting that scientists are too stupid or incompetent to calibrate instruments.

    Illustrate lack of understanding of data processing and data quality (Why not process Beck’s data in the exact same way as MLO?)- Check.

    Insinuate that there are siting/urbanization issues for an area you’re obviously unfamiliar with- Check.

    Suggest that scientists are too dumb to have taken key siting factors into consideration (Do we know which way the wind blows at the site?)- Check.

  21. #21 darwinsdog
    2010/06/25

    the “Dumb America” phenomenon, wherein the public has the hubris to believe that they really have something valuable to contribute to discussions that they can hardly begin to understand

    The consequences of fecundity & IQ being rather strongly negatively correlated were enumerated & discussed by Fisher in 1930. The idiocracy is here.

  22. #22 Eli Rabett
    2010/06/25

    Eli is quite fond of PT Barnum’s maxim: No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

  23. #23 Chris S.
    2010/06/25

    In other news it seems the WUWT crowd are unaware that, just because some members of a bird family live in the Antarctic, those that live in Africa may suffer from cold weather. Sheesh.

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/06/21/headline-of-the-week-cold-kills-500-penguins/

  24. #24 Tony Sidaway
    2010/06/25

    I see that Neven’s blog was mentioned and Neven himself has posted here. I think I went there yesterday after reading a self-publicising link (possibly on this blog, and if so almost certainly on the most recent Arctic ice thread). I’ve read only a small amount of Neven’s blog, but so far I’ve found a lot of links to other material on ice. Possibly that’s where I got the Coby Beck link I posted here recently, and today I spent some time reading some articles by Patrick Lockerby that were cited by Neven. This seems to be pretty good stuff, and I definitely wouldn’t class that alongside the nonsense that some blogs are coming out with.

    Of course I love stoat because it’s by a mad scientist who as well as being good on climate science also does interesting stuff like rowing and beekeeping.

    But when you see me here I’m wearing my water wings because so many contributors seem to know stuff I don’t, witness William’s habit of lapsing into initialisms that I cannot easily interpret.

    So thanks, Neven.

  25. #25 Paul Kelly
    2010/06/26

    Went to Bart’s on your recommendation. The posts were good but the comments degenerated into flame wars imported from other blogs. Bart linked to Kieth Kloor, which was good for a couple of days, especially the comments by Jonathan Gilligan.

  26. #26 wildlifer
    2010/06/26

    In the race to stupidity, one “Lawd” Monckton trumps two Eschenbachs … just sayin’ :-)

  27. #27 J
    2010/06/28

    This post displays a shocking unfamiliarity with the ways that stupidity conforms to the principles of thermodynamics. Since William seems unaware of this, I will explain:

    (1) Since the Earth is effectively a closed system vis-a-vis stupidity[*], the total amount of stupidity remains constant. William may like to scoff at the locally concentrated dumbness evident in some parts of the Earth system (e.g., America) but would he really prefer a flatter stupidity gradient if the corollary of a less-stupid America was more stupidity in the rest of the world? Cf. First Law of Thermodynamics.

    (2) Insofar as stupidity levels in different parts of the Earth system are out of equilibrium, stupidity will naturally tend to flow from areas of higher concentration (America) to areas of lower concentration (the rest of the world). Maintaining a steep stupidity gradient takes work. This is, in fact, one reason that the pro-stupidity contingent in US politics and culture (the GOP) has also been associated with isolationism for most of the past century — keeping the US intellectually disconnected from the rest of the world reduces the conductance of stupidity and thus means that less work is required to maintain the disequilibrium. Cf. Second Law of Thermodynamics.

    (3) As stupidity levels approach absolute zero within a component of the Earth system, the entropy of that component of the system approaches some minimum. Given the 2LOT above, this condition becomes increasingly expensive to maintain without completely detaching the low-stupidity zone from the rest of the Earth system. By dint of great effort William could round up all the stupid people in Cambridge and send them over here, but stupidity would seep back in unless he found some way to build a completely impenetrable shell around his fair city. Cf. Third Law of Thermodynamics.

    In other words, once again William has failed to work through all the implications of his various assumptions. Rather than sneering at Dumb America, William ought to be thankful for the persistence of the stupidity disequilibrium, which allows him to go through his daily life mostly in an artificially low-stupidity environment. Show some respect for those of us over here who have to deal with the high-stupidity conditions face-to-face on a daily basis, rather than just online!

    [*] At least until we figure out some way of exporting stupidity out of the Earth system, presumably in some kind of immense “B” Ark.

  28. #28 dan satterfield
    2010/07/02

    I was lucky enough to have dinner with a former student of Keeling last year at a seminar in Portland. Heard some great stories too.
    As if there was any doubt, he most certainly was smart enough to think about the location he chose for measuring CO2.

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