PBS NewsHour Falls Into “Balance” Trap, Provides Megaphone For Anthony Watts

Read time: 6 mins

PBS – the network that conservatives have regularly attacked for “liberal bias” for more than 40 years – finally put that myth to rest tonight by airing a one-sided interview with climate change denier Anthony Watts. The former weatherman-turned business owner and blogger Watts, was given close to ten minutes of uncontested airtime to spout his disinformation about climate change, without any retorts from actual climate scientists.

Update: Forecast The Facts launched a petition calling for PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler to investigate whether the segment met PBS' standards.

Watts freely admitted in the interview that he is not a climate scientist, but said that he has a problem with climate scientists because, as Watts says, they are using “faulty data.”

Watts should know a thing or two about faulty data, as he was recommended to PBS reporter Spencer Michels for an interview by the disinformation specialists at the Heartland Institute.

Here is a brief snip from the PBS Newshour interview:

SPENCER MICHELS: What's the thing that bothers you the most about people who say there's lots of global warming?

ANTHONY WATTS: They want to change policy. They want to apply taxes and these kinds of things may not be the actual solution for making a change to our society.

SPENCER MICHELS: What are you saying? That they're biased essentially or motivated by something else? What?

ANTHONY WATTS: There's a term that was used to describe this. It's called noble cause corruption. And actually I was a victim of that at one time, where you're so fervent you're in your belief that you have to do something. You're saving the planet, you're making a difference, you're making things better that you're so focused on this goal of fixing it or changing it that you kind of forget to look along the path to make sure that you haven't missed some things.

I started looking into the idea that weather stations have been slowly encroached upon by urbanization and sighting issues over the last century. Meaning that our urbanization affected the temperature. And this was something that was very clear if you looked at the temperature records. But what wasn't clear is how it affected the trend of temperatures. And so that's been something that I've been investigating. Anyone who's ever stood next to a building in the summertime at night, a brick building that's been out in the summer sun, you stand next to it at night, you can feel the heat radiating off of it. That's a heat sink effect. And over the last 100 years our country, in fact the world, has changed. We've gone from having mostly a rural agrarian society to one that is more urban and city based and as a result the infrastructure has increased. We've got more freeways, you know more airports, we've got more buildings. Got more streets, all these things. Those are all heat sinks. During the day, solar insulation hits these objects and these surfaces and it stores heat in these objects. At night it releases that heat. Now if you are measuring temperature in a city that went from having uh maybe 10% of um, non-permeable surface to you know maybe 90% over 100 years, that's a heat sync effect and that should show up in the record. The problem is, is that it's been such a slow subtle change over the last 100 years. It's not easy to detect and that's been the challenge and that's what I've been working on.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well in a way you're saying that the records aren't accurate, the data isn't accurate.

ANTHONY WATTS: I'm saying that the data might be biased by these influences to a percentage. Yes, we have some global warming, it's clear the temperature has gone up in the last 100 years. But what percentage of that is from carbon dioxide? And what percentage of that is from changes in the local and measurement environment?

There’s really only one way to take Watts’ statements, and that is to infer that he believes climate scientists are fools. For him to be allowed to go on the air and make an unchallenged statement that climate scientists are wrong because they didn’t factor in that buildings and asphalt surfaces retain heat is both infuriating and demeaning.

The concept of heat absorption by different surfaces, colors, and objects is a subject that some school systems teach to children as young as 6 years old – and yet Watts believes that climate scientists with years and years of education and real-world experience forgot about this elementary school lesson.

The urban heat island theory has been debunked repeatedly, including by the Koch-funded BEST analysis. Despite his March 2011 statement that, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong,” Watts continues to peddle the urban heat island theory to this day, and continues his attacks on the Koch-funded study in the interview.

But that isn’t the only jab that Watts took at climate scientists:

SPENCER MICHELS: Has this issue, I know you think it's been oversold and scare tactics have been used. Do you think it's become too politicized?

ANTHONY WATTS: Oh, it's definitely become too politicized. In fact, some of the scientists who are the leaders in the issue have become for lack of a better word, political tools on the issue.

Again, it is ironic that a man recommended by the Heartland Institute would have the audacity to refer to anyone as a “political tool.”

Ultimately however, the blame for this shoddy piece of “journalism” lies with PBS. They fell into the trap that says that there are two sides to every story. But that is not always the case, and it certainly isn’t the case with climate change.

Bill Nye put it best recently when he told CNN: “I appreciate that we want to show two sides of the stories — there’s a tradition in journalism that goes back quite a ways, I guess — but the two sides aren’t equal here. You have tens of thousands of scientists who are very concerned and you have a few people who are in business of equating or drawing attention to the idea that uncertainty is the same as doubt. When you have a plus or minus percentage, that’s not the same thing as not believing the whole thing at all… We in the science education community chip away at this problem all the time. We have an enormous population of people in the United States that don’t believe in evolution, the fundamental idea in all of life science. It would be like saying, I don’t believe in earthquakes or something. The analogies are disturbing.”

Nye is absolutely right with his analysis of media coverage, and PBS has now fallen into the same disgraceful journalistic tactics purveyed on Fox News and, as Nye pointed out, on CNN.

See further reactions to this disturbing development at ClimateProgress, Get Energy Smart Now, and Media Matters.

Update: Watch the Newshour segment below:

Watch Skeptic No Longer Doubts Human Role in Global Warming on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Watch PBS Newshour's Spencer Michels interviewing Watts below:

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Thanks,  it is a painful revelation that PBS can be so narrow and deluded.   Downright bad journalism.

We know Watts is a denier - and if Michels and PBS wanted to do a better story they could easily.   The shock here is that their goal was pure propaganda.  The old, tired tome of broken thermometers explaining global warming - well that was debunked years ago.

We should be thankful - this event revealed them for what they are.   I am so disappointed. 


You can definitely spell “epistemology”.  We believe you.  Now try “computational statistics”.  You're going to need a bit more than big words from 19th-century philosophies of science to convince anyone that you have a valid argument.


The thing is, Watts actually comes across as being very reasonable and is not making any over-the-top claims. Compare that with your average catastrophic warmist, such as Hansen or Romm, and people will be very tempted to believe Watts.

The CAGW crowd keeps upping the volume at the same time as the public is losing interest. It's not working at all, the message is just not getting out there.

For the better part of a decade, Watts has been making unfounded claims about the global temperature data.  His claims can easily be debunked in a few *days* (at most) by a reasonably-competent programmer/analyst.

Coding up a basic gridding/averaging program that crunches raw data and reproduces the NASA/NOAA/CRU results very closely is not very difficult.  I could teach 2nd-semester computer programming students how to do it.

And once you have a simple program like that up and running, it is very easy to “tweak” it to prove that all of Watts' major claims (UHI, data-homogenization, dropped-stations, etc.) are completely wrong.  This can all be done in a matter of days by a reasonably competent programmer.   Keep that in mind when you consider how many *years* Watts has been going on and on about those supposed problems with the global temperature data.

And to prove that I'm not kidding, I'll even provide this link to a one page**** computer program that replicates the NASA results from raw data: https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B0pXYsr8qYS6SXkzMW1nY2Zodlk

(**** excluding comments and diagnostic print statements)

The program was written by “Kevin C” and posted to skepticalscienc.com some time ago.  I tweaked it a bit, added a bunch of comments to help newbies understand what it does, and uploaded it to the above link.

So my challenge to you, Hank, is:  Download the program, install python on your PC, run the program per the instructions provided in the comments, plot up the results, and post a link to an image of your plotted results here (you can upload your plot to imageshack.com).  Think you are up to it?

While I don't agree with Hank's definition of Hansen and Romm as catastrophists, I do get what he's saying.  Watts and his ilk don't need to convince the relative minority who are able to write and run a gridding program, read the original papers if they want to investigate a particular point, the people who can follow the science (and in some cases actually do the science).

He just needs to convince the partially educated, the ones who think that if they've followed the bizarre arithmetic on his blog and managed to reproduce it in Excel, that they've somehow outwitted the scientists and proved them wrong.  They get a huge ego stroke from being in this little bubble where they're told they're cleverer and more knowledgeable than people with decades of education and research behind them.  (Just watch the vast hordes of blog commenters who make some pompous remark along the lines of “climate has been changing for millions of years” without having a clue what absolute tits they're making of themselves.)

So if he sounds like a cool head, they'll also get stroked by believing that they are the few who aren't being driven into a needless panic.

The problem is that the crowded theatre really is on fire this time.  The big news should be that the worst-case scenarios are what seem to be happening.

We know that Watts is a buffoon.  I was just shocked to see the PBS news show buying in to him so completely.   It reveals incompetence.  Or their bias, or their role as PR flacks for the oil industry. 

It is like discovering your brother or sister really is dumb and not just pretending.  Disappointing.

PBS could have covered their ass by doing basic journalism.    Failing to do the simple work makes them appear to be promoting denialism.   And that makes them a waste of time. 

Too bad.