Recently, I’ve become aware that the prominent climate science skeptic blogger Anthony Watts has been challenging a number of my posts. Maybe it’s because in my most recent book Unscientific America, I made a big deal about a site that attacks climate science, like his, winning a “Best Science Blog” award.
Anyways, Watts has gotten me back. Based upon my photo, he has taken to calling me a “kid blogger” (see here and here). And it’s true: I’m 33, obviously too young to be fooling around on the Internet.
The attention is flattering—but I’ve also grown intrigued by what happens on Watts’ blog when he criticizes something or someone and his many commenters then follow suit. Because it does indeed show what a dangerous place the Internet is for kids like me.
Watts commenters are an interesting bunch—in many ways, I’m very impressed with them. They are certainly highly energized to debunk climate science, and they bring a lot of intellectual abilities to the task.
At the same time, however, the debunking they conduct is overwhelmingly one-directional. By and large, these commenters are practicing “motivated skepticism” and showing a “disconfirmation bias” (see the image above, from this cool post) rather than conducting an open-ended informational search that could potentially end with their prior views and assumptions either being confirmed or disconfirmed.
Watts suggests, in his post, that the researchers have done something unethical in their study. His headline is, “Researchers set up fake global warming websites to study response,” and in it he makes this charge:
Watts is thus accusing the researchers of something pretty serious…and soon his commenters come in and proceed to bash the astroturfing study. They post and critique the abstract and various passages, they check up on the authors and their funding sources and their universities—and they reiterate Watts’ critique, sometimes in far harsher terms:
Eventually, someone posts a link to an online version of the full study. Then, at 6:49 pm, one commenter who seems to have actually read it realizes that the whole thrust of the critique is wrong. But even he only notes this in passing, by way of launching yet another critique:
Observing all of this, I contacted one of the authors of the study in question, Martin Martens of Vancouver Island University. Here was his (highly predictable) response to the charges above:
The study was also approved by an ethics committee (of course) and when it was over, Martens explained, the participants were debriefed about it and “provided information to remove any mistaken beliefs that might have developed as a result of reading the web sites, and an explanation as to why the procedures were necessary for the experiment.”
In short, this is very similar to many, many social science studies, including some true classics–like this paper on biased reasoning:
Yup, “purported studies.” They weren’t real. They were created for the experiment–a classic experiment that revealed how people who start out from different ideological positions will read the same “evidence” vastly differently, rating a study that seems to agree with them as convincing and a study that doesn’t seem to agree with them as unconvincing—even when both studies are made up and have the same strengths and weaknesses!
I didn’t choose this study by accident, of course–I chose it because it helps to cast some 100 watt light on what Watts and his commenters are up to.
Some particular piece of evidence—in this case, the astroturfing study—was flagged as disagreeing with them. So like good motivated skeptics, they went on the attack and started criticizing. Along the way, a few caught on to the fact that the original criticism wasn’t even right…and kinda noticed…but they quickly moved on to new criticisms.
Given all this, any predictions about what they will say about this post?
But hey, go easy on me…I’m just a kid, after all.