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Roy Spencer vs citizen scientists

Willis Eschenbach didn't deserve such a universal criticism

Citizen scientists typically – or, given some terminology, by definition – lack the official education and familiarity with the existing body of the technical literature in a scientific discipline. They're autodidacts and they haven't been "rated" by any well-established institutionalized system.

That means that the quality of their research differs. When it comes to atmospheric physics, we can find citizen scientists at many levels.

The Sky Dragon Slayers represent the bottom end of the spectrum; they're full-fledged cranks who are incapable of understanding the basic physical laws and mechanisms that make e.g. the greenhouse gas possible. On the opposite, upper end of the spectrum of citizen climate scientists, I would single out Willis Eschenbach. His analyses, often published on Anthony Watts' blog, are clever, usually free of self-evident errors, and make you think, to say the least.

His recent investigation of the CERES energy fluxes led to a battle with Roy Spencer whom Willis considers a "hero of his".

Roy Spencer was asked to react to Willis' analyses and he did so in the text

Citizen Scientist: Willis and the Cloud Radiative Effect
The relatively short text only sketches what could be wrong about Willis' analysis. More visibly, Roy argues that everything has already been analyzed and citizen scientists like Eschenbach should learn all the existing literature before they publish anything about the issues. Spencer says that it may be hard because some of the articles are behind the paywall but it's needed.

Willis reacted to Roy's comments in this reply:
Dr. Roy Spencer’s Ill Considered Comments on Citizen Science
I find myself in the middle in between these two fine skeptics but if I evaluate all the general aspects and their relative importance, I must say that I am a supporter of Willis here. In fact, it seems surprising to me that Roy has morphed into such a credible advocate of the legitimacy of the expertise of the climatological community.

First, let me say that I agree with some thoughts of Roy to some extent. It's clear that amateur scientists are often ignorant about elementary enough issues, important papers in the literature, and this may disqualify their research. Some of them may be annoying. In some fields, the gap between amateurs and professionals may be wider than in other fields, I would add. But even if an amateur is well-informed, a professional may almost always recognize the amateur quickly because "some gaps" or "some typical laymen's misconceptions" are almost always present.

But that's it. I can't really agree with anything else that Roy says and I can't really disagree with any broader points raised by Willis.

Let me say that the paywalls are not the only reason why it could be a bad idea for a citizen scientist to read through all the papers discussing similar matters. Two other reasons, entirely overlooked by Roy, are the fact that much of the literature in the recent 25 years has been manipulated by the influence of the climate alarmism (there isn't any clear separation between the papers or their sections/sentences that have been contaminated and those that have not); and the fact that the climate science hasn't made much progress in the recent decades. This was also documented in Nir Shaviv's essay that was posted yesterday. The warming produced by a doubling of CO2 has been "between 1.5 and 4.5 °C or so" for 35 years or so. The figure isn't getting more accurate because the fundamental assumption of the "theory", namely that this figure should be substantial, is almost certainly wrong. If there weren't any foul assumption like that, tens of billions of dollars would have surely reduced the relative error below 300 percent.

This is not just a fault of several hardcore fearmongers who love to say that the climate sensitivity is high. It is a fault of the whole community of people who have been "educated" by the body of papers that allowed the IPCC's claims to arise. From this viewpoint, sorry to say, Roy is a part of the rotten apple, too. The behavior of clouds – and, more generally, H2O molecules in any form – in the atmosphere is the main question that decides about the value of the climate sensitivity. Roy's results for this quantity are generally lower than those promoted by the IPCC but they still have a very large error margin. This is apparently correlated with different "personal preferences" that Roy and the IPCC have concerning the question which part of the atmospheric physics literature is trustworthy.

But the key point is that a significant part of the literature can't be trustworthy and because the literature is – somewhat unpredictably – contaminated by wrong (and, in some cases, politically ordered) results, it is a pretty good idea for people to work from scratch, and I applaud Willis for doing so even though it's inevitable that in some cases, he is bound to invent the wheel or discover America, i.e. something that had been known (and, in even less fortunate cases, invent a square wheel and discover the Atlantis continent – I mean, make mistakes).

Roy's recommendation to "read every single paper first and then start to think about your own research" is a possible strategy but it isn't inevitably wise or victorious. Given the fact that much of the literature is confusing, wrong, or leading nowhere, the strategy to start from scratch may very well be wiser.

Roy seems to defend some group interests of a "group of professionals", a group that I don't really trust much because it has become so contaminated by ideologies and because it has made so little progress. But there's another reason why I would vote for Willis in this battle: Roy's technical comments in this exchange seem much more superficial to me than Willis'. It almost sounds like Roy is saying that Willis has to be unoriginal or wrong because he is a citizen scientist. I disagree with this assumption. Moreover, if an autodidact managed to rediscover some insights done in the professional literature just 2 decades ago, he should be praised, not chastised.

After all, an important reason why I disagree is that atmospheric physics is no rocket science or string theory. It is an application of the laws of classical physics that have been known at least since the 19th century. Good enough autodidacts and citizen scientists simply can learn everything they need and they may do a better job than the average professionals, to say the least. I think it is the case of Willis. But even if Willis isn't an example of that, I think that Roy's pride about his "community" is unsubstantiated. I say so despite the fact that I think that he is a very good researcher. But I don't believe he is (or his papers are) "several categories above" Willis.

Climatology has become the best example of a discipline in which citizen scientists are competitive, to say the least.

By the way, the fact that scientists are also people with their personal and group interests became obvious during the shutdown. Matt Strassler whines that he has been taken a hostage. I wonder whether he doesn't find such claims embarrassing. He may perhaps get 10 times instead of the expected 11 times the average salary in my country for an activity that brings the society no financial profit but he finds it appropriate to scream that he is a hostage. A painful, greedy, insatiable jerk who has taken the culture of entitlement as his personal philosophy, we could say.

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reader Tom Trevor said...

I don't think that Roy meant it as personal attack, but I think Willis did take it as a personal attack. Still I amire Willis for trying to take on issues that haven't been adequately addressed, even if he makes a mistake here and there, or rediscover something already discovered.

reader yonsaon said...


You think Spencer was too hard on him? When Spencer says things like "...I applaud Willis, who is a sharp guy, for trying..." which is hardly an insult? Spencer then gives him some friendly (fatherly) advice "...don’t assume you have anything new unless you first do some searching of the literature on the subject."

What's so harsh about that? Eschenbach didn't bother to find out what the literature contained, but rather attempted to reinvent the wheel. And, while partially correct, didn't come to the correct conclusion because he missed the big picture.

From what I've read by W.E., those are both faults he is prone to. Would you rather he not correct them, if he's able? Spencer gives him good advice, which if he takes will help him, and you think that's inappropriate?!

W.E., writes well, and does seem to be at the upper end of the spectrum you mention, but if he takes offense at what I would only call good advice, I don't see how his otherwise well written material will ever become more than technically remedial, at best.

reader lucretius said...

I would like just to say that this time I completely agree with your comments on Matt Strassler. This time the issue is not politics. I have always known that I would not agree with him on politics, but I am somewhat shocked to see that a very good physicist is not intelligent enough to see how such remarks make him look ridiculously self-important and selfish. Or perhaps he just has a very low regard for his readers.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Sorry but I do not think that Spencer is Willis' father. And I don't think that reading of the whole existing literature is an obligation or a condition for valuable research in this field. These are the reasons why I consider your predictions about Willis' future texts to be unsubstantiated, nasty personal attacks.

reader Luboš Motl said...

It was an attack on citizen scientists in general and, as Spencer wrote explicitly, including Willis. So I am confident that Willis understood perfectly what Spencer meant.

reader Xemist said...

I loaded C in a balanced climate model,
And by some chance found no signal in its chart,
And there it was, Feigenbauming out the scandal,
But the advocates all were loathe to take part...
For Enviros all said, "Beware!
You've pissed on our Luddite trip."
The profs all said, "Beware!
Keep your hands off scholarship."
And a chemist will drag you under
By the zero slopes on his wicked lips.
Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down,
Sit down you're rockin' the boat.

reader yonason said...

Spencer wrote - But don’t assume you have anything new unless you first do some searching of the literature on the subject.


And, no, neither mine nor Spencer's is a "nasty personal attack."

Spencer gave him good thesis-advisor quality advice. If he takes it, he'll get better. If not, while he will probably will never degenerate to the level of the Sky Dragon cult, he will never be taken as seriously as I think he would like to be.

Maybe an analogy? If your thesis advisor never criticizes you, you almost certainly have the wrong advisor.

(I know Spencer is not W.E.'s father, but "fatherly advice" is an expression meaning like the kind of advice one might get from one's father, if he cared. Tough, yes, but meant for one's good.)

reader Luboš Motl said...

OK, we have already disagreed and presented the positions. Is that a reason why you're posting the same thing again?

Roy Spencer is not Willis' adviser and I don't think that Willis' credibility is this much lower to justify such an asymmetric relationship.

In my eyes, Roy Spencer is one of the sensible, bright members but still a member of a community that sucks at the professional level while Willis is a top amateur doing these things and as representatives of these two ends of these two groups, they are at a comparable level in my eyes.

Spencer's - and yours - insisting on reading the literature in climatology is nothing else than an invitation to a group think that is almost certainly counterproductive because the literature in that discipline largely sucks.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Thanks and exactly. Which field we consider *should* be taken into account by any sensible person who decides whether an institutionally sponsored expertise is so critical for quality research. Questions and disciplines aren't created equal; scientists who apparently seem to misunderstand this simple point rightfully appear clueless.

If someone who agrees with Roy Spencer finds my previous sentence(s) controversial, here's a reference to authority: Roy Spencer wrote the very same thing in his previous blog post:

reader yonason said...

"some" vs "all" was a new comment to expose your hyperbole. The rest was the same, but reworded in an attempt to clarify, apparently unsuccessfully.
OK, it is what it is.
Best Regards

reader lemiere said...

very balanced point of view...from mine.

reader Robert Austin said...

Beautifully stated, Lobos.

reader bwbeeman said...

Thanks for the article, Lubos. I appreciate your comments about the citizen scientist. Most of their efforts are not up to professional standards, but some of the efforts of credentialed scientists can be questioned, also.

As for Strassler, what is the problem with being laid off for a while? I have experienced this a couple of times in my career, and it may bring reality to the scientific world if their jobs were more at risk.

reader Luboš Motl said...

Most likely than not, he will actually be paid the full salary even for the extra vacations. That's how it usually worked in the past.

But even this setup is more risk than someone wants to handle. An ivory tower.

reader Pörri Orava said...

Lubos, are you aware that at least in Finland, one of your current advertisers is the WWF? As your Constant Reader, I'd like to point out that I resent the WWF and am somewhat offended by having to be exposed to their soliciations while reading your exquisitely interesting blog.

Just thought to let you know.

reader Luboš Motl said...

No, I was not aware. Note that the advertisers depend not only on the location, keywords in the blog post, but also all other information - including the user's past searches - that the server distributing the ads may be aware of.

My strict policy is not to try to engineer those things because it may easily get out of control - there are millions of possible consumers who may pay for the ads and I don't want to manually filter a third of them.

If you want to avoid them, the solution is straightforward: order ads on similar keywords and pay more money than WWF.

reader RAF III said...

Lubos - I believe that this is the first time that your expression of disapproval could be described as a gross understatement. I have never felt such anger and contempt after reading a blog post as I did yesterday after following your link to Strassler. The sheer ignorance of American civics, history, law, economics, and current events is eclipsed only by his extraordinarily stupid selfishness. The evil Koch brothers are conspiring to bring about an economic apocalypse and thus destroy science so the American people must rack up yet another trillion in debt in order that Strassler can continue to 'work' and feed his starving children.

I hope it's not to late for him to take the following advice:

I'm ranting here so as not to get involved over there.


reader m said...

Just for the record, here (Brazil) one of the advertisers is the Greenpeace. They want my help them to take out of jail one of their activists! ;) Very funny:

reader Gordon said...

I enjoy reading Willis' comments and don't take them as elaborately and exhaustively researched. I think it would have been much better if Roy had contacted Willis privately if he had issues. You don't see AGW promoters attacking each other, and it undermines the climate realist position when infighting amongst people with reasonable positions occurs. (I do agree with Lubos, of course, about the Sky Dragon folks.)

reader Gordon said...

I read Strassler's post and don't really understand your taking offense--it isn't really about his situation; rather about the damaging effect of the shutdown on a variety of research projects in various fields and on students' research that may have been going on for years. I don't take the title of the post literally--the tone of the post isn't self-referential (imo). I do think that at this point, anyway, he is exaggerating the effect, because I can't see the stalemate continuing much longer, but if it does, then I agree with his conclusions.

reader Gordon said...

:)---I often get ads pushed at me for Smolin's and Woit's books--it doesn't seem to matter if you have just said that hell would freeze over before I would read them, bots latch onto the names.

reader lucretius said...

It's very simple: there are far more important issues at stake than the fate of all these research projects or of Matt Strassler himself. And to assume that his readers can't think for themselves, don't have their own problems that are to them as important (or more) than his, and to try to use them as lobbyists is to treat them as idiots.

reader Dilaton said...

Yep, in addition to these two infamous authors, the big ads in the middle often tries to foist Unzicker books on me ... :-D

The small Amazon ads in the upper right side bar are much more reasonable, not sure if Lumo even has customized them to show nice things, such as more or less advanced ST text books etc ... (?).

reader Gordon said...

Well, yes, you have a good point. I do see science generally under attack and being undermined on many fronts, and so much money being wasted on political boondoggles, that I can understand his view also. I don't live in the U.S., so I don't have the whole picture, and I am certain that in the short term, that there are more important issues. I do think that science needs to be defended in the way RR Wilson defended Fermilab in his 1969 Congressional testimony-

In short, his view when asked what military use Fermilab would have answered
"It only has to do with the respect with which we
regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture... it has to
do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all
the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are
patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with
honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our
country except to help make it worth defending."
He did agree that feeding children was more important.

reader lucretius said...

I could not understand what you were one about until I remembered... and turned off AdBlock in my browser. Once I did that ads did appear but they were all in Polish and no Smolin or Woit's book.
By the way, I would not object to reading them (except as a waste of time) but I would not pay for them ;-)

reader Shadeburst said...

Richard Feynman made a point of NOT reading all the previous work on the new topic he was approaching. He didn't want his mind muddled up with everyone else's dead-end unproductive thinking.

reader Shadeburst said...

The whole clouds thing has already been done and ten times better at A serious citizen scientist should be keeping up to date with at least the most accessible publications in the chosen field. I'm just a citizen without scientist ambitions and even I know about scienceofdoom. In addition there's google. All the same I love the sharp exchange between these two players, one an icon and one a wannabe. Without some comic relief the subject of climate would be too depressingly tragic.

reader dalyplanet said...

Willis' hypothesis is much different than the Lorentz hypothesis in the excellent scienceofdoom link. Lorentz was thinking that possibly the earth can vary in temp absent any external forcing at all. Willis is stating that there is an apparent limit to the maximum ocean surface temperature, a temp governor of sorts.

reader andy said...

I'm happy to see you attacking Strassler. I wrote a similar reply in his blog about his whining. He didn't care when Obama was putting coal miners, doctors, nurses, other healthcare and insurance affiliated jobs, etc...out of business - he only cared when his ox was gored.

reader andy said...

I got as mad as you. Of course, I take it a little personally. I did have a very successful medical practice of 15 years standing with long time well paid employees, and then Obama put me out of business. Strassler didn't care about my rights when that was happening.

reader Rehbock said...

I might have thought that too harsh but Strassler followed his two hostage posts with greetings from CERN expressing also being exhausted from Jet lag and all ... I will offer myself up to replace him as hostage if I can be held hostage like that.

reader Luboš Motl said...

LOL, exactly, and this is no anomaly. People at university jobs like his are traveling in this useless way all the time. It's literally thousands of dollars per month in average.