Watts Up With That?

I recently discussed the ridiculous claims from Anthony Watts in a post at his WUWT blog, based on comments from Ryan Maue. Nonetheless, a reader seems to think he had a point. Specifically, he says this:

robertok06 | March 17, 2016 at 11:33 am | Reply

You may object, and I concur with you, that Mr Watts sometimes exaggerates and has an agenda, but there is one thing he discusses in his blog that you seem to forget… i.e. the almost perfect overlapping of the temperature trend at the tropics (where the El Nino is located) and global temperature, since Oct 2015.

Anything to say/comment on that pretty bizarre coincidence?


He further elaborates in a later comment:

Sorry, I didn’t “run” any correlation test, I simply judged the visual correlation of the two curves, global temp and tropical one, which seem to be out of sinch for a while last year and all of a sudden get in synch with one another… peak with peak, valley with valley, more or less.

The belief in “almost perfect overlapping” is based on this graph:


First: the “almost perfect overlapping” isn’t. There are times when peaks and valleys seem to be in sync, but there are also plenty of times when they’re not. The synchronicity isn’t any more than we would expect from randomness, because there’s another factor at work.

As another reader pointed out, the tropics as defined (latitudes 20S to 20N) cover 34% of the globe. That means that the data making up the red line (tropics) is 34% of the data making up the black line (globe). When one data set takes 34% of its value directly from the other, you expect them to be correlated.

Consider, for instance, these two curves — a simulated “global” curve in black, a simulated “tropical” in red, covering a 500 day period (about the same length as the original):


Notice how strongly they give the visual impression of correlation? Notice how peaks line up with peaks, valleys with valleys, even better than the Maue graph shown by Watts?

The red line is random noise (constructed with the same autocorrelation structure as daily temperature). The black line is the average of three such random noise sets, one of which is the red line. We end up with two random curves, with 33% of the “global” being the “tropical.” That overlap, combined with the quite nontrivial autocorrelation of these series, sure does make ’em look like they’re correlated.

By touting the apparent correlation of day-to-day fluctuations as meaningful, Watts & Co. are misleading readers, probably because they just don’t get it. It’s fine for Anthony Watts to be clueless about what’s going on. It’s not fine for him to pontificate from a position of ignorance.

But there’s something else to consider, something even more important.

Nobody disputes that el Niño influences global temperature. It has been established time and again in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, by lots of people, including me.

But Anthony Watts doesn’t just say that “El Niño is the driver of record high temperatures,” he also says “not carbon dioxide.” The implication is clear, Watts’ belief that CO2 (more generally, global warming) isn’t why we’ve seen temperature records get smashed, so it isn’t anything we should worry about.

We’ve had el Niño events before, lots of times. They bring extra high temperature, higher than the background level. But to get to the levels we’ve seen recently, it’s not enough to rise above the background level as much as el Niño makes happen. You have to raise the background level itself, by a lot — enough to beat the pants off all those other el Niño events. But el Niño doesn’t raise the background level.

Global warming does.

Imagine a basketball game of one-on-one between me and Michael Jordan. If MJ had a great breakfast, was in training, in top form, had practiced a lot recently, and was in the best possible spirits, it would improve his game. Not only would he beat me, he’d cream me by more than he had before.

If I then whined about how MJ beat me because he had a great breakfast, was in training, in top form, had practiced a lot recently, and was in the best possible spirits, but not because he was just plain better at basketball than I am, I’d be misleading you. If I actually believed it, I’d be misleading myself.

If you like what you see, feel free to donate at Peaseblossom’s Closet.

18 responses to “Watts Up With That?

  1. “It’s not fine for him to pontificate from a position of ignorance.”
    But pontificating from a position of ignorance is the only option many of us have!

    • +1 internets to NS Alito. I resemble that remark!

    • NS Alito,
      But while “many of us” are not well clued up on AGW, there are very few who wilfully brandish their “position of ignorance so assertively as His Highness Willard Watts. And what a “position of ignorance Watts manages continually to find!! We could blame Watts for the eye-bulging stupidity he exhibits. Or we could blame the internet that manages to convert village idiots into, if you are one of the less discerning, Captain Sensible.
      Watts continues his nonsense, asserting that the record US winter temperatures are due solely to El Nino and now he claims NOAA says is the strongest El Nino ever, his latest piece being titled ‘NOAA declares current El Niño stronger than 1997-98 event, then says record warm temperatures have little to do with it’. (The NOAA “stronger than 1997-98” appears to exist only in Watts’ imagination. His claim rests only on those part-ENSO-induced US winter temperatures being a record-breaker, so stupid to the power two, and the NOAA claim of strength rests solely on it being an NOAA graphic showing the US winter is a record breaker, so stupid cubed.)

      [Response: Can you spot where, in that post, he again makes a basic baseline mistake?]

      • Indeed so. His Highness is telling us that in ” the graph above from Dr. Ryan Maue, we have the “pause” clearly visible until about April of 2015, when global temperature was about 0.1 to 0.3 °C above normal during that period.” This graph is the one that shows temperatures August 2014 to date which means there is a whole 9 months of “the “pause” clearly visible.”

        His Highness goes on to say “In 1997, according to this plot from NASA GISS in 2007 … the global temperatures preceding that super El Niño were similar, if not a little higher at almost 0.4°C:” Note that Willard’s 2007 graph actually plots up to 2005 leaving 9 years of “pause” ungraphed.

        Of course, your point is that it is difficult to have an anomaly base 1981-2010 if you are graphing in 2007. Indeed, even today Gistemp still uses a 1951-80 anomaly base. And the “pause” that means so much is entirely absent at +0.4C or any other value His Highness cares to name, as anyone with a modicum of sense can tell from NASA’s graph that actually covers the period of the “fake pause”.

        But do bear in mind – it takes a very exceptional amount of stupidity to achieve the levels of gobshite achieved by AW Watts.

      • he claims NOAA says is the strongest El Nino ever

        Yes, that’s the headline of the blog article. Based on imagination, not anything NOAA have said.

        NOAA have commented on relative strength of current el Nino here

        Summary: Current el Nino is one of the strongest. Different ENSO indices give different results. Too uncertain to rank definitively.

        Good science communication; describes uncertainties, doesn’t take a strong position when unwarranted.

        I’d add that the current el Nino isn’t quite over yet, so making a call just now would be a bit premature.

    • He compares Maue’s and GISS anomalies directly without accounting for the fact that Maue’s baseline is 1981-2010, while GISS baseline is 1951-1980?

      [Response: We have a winner.]

      • Had a go at matching baselines. Simply averaged GISS years 1981-2010 and subtracted that value (0.41) from the one touted by Athony. Thus GISS “0.4C” became. -0.01C, baseline 1981-2010. The corrected value negated Anthony’s comment.

        Is it as simple as that or did I goof?

        [Response: It’s as simple as that.]

      • barry,
        You can actually rebase GISTEMP using their mapping tool (or if you want map the full-years 1981-2010 period with a 1951-1980 base) which yields an adjustment value just a tiny bit bigger at -0.43ºC.

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pattern_recognition_(psychology)

    “The human tendency to see patterns that do not actually exist is called apophenia.”

  3. As I recall, even MJ said “It’s not the shoes.”

  4. It’s like tracking the average temperature of a whole refrigerator . Saying that the whole trend kinda sorta lines up with when the bottom door opens is so obvious only a Wattsian would say it.

  5. The grand pontificator is Richard Lindzen, who claimed that his theory of QBO winds was modeled without forcing by the periodic lunisolar tidal potential. Yet the evidence for this is overwhelming, based on matching tidal periods:

    The problem is that Lindzen declared victory with his model in 1968, having less than 15 years of QBO data. But now we have another almost 50 years, and the alignment is arguably as striking as ocean tidal models pattern matched to tidal gauge data.

    Apophenia? For Lindzen, its the opposite of apophenia. Lindzen will actively not want to see the pattern. Why would it be in his interest?

  6. For Watts and his ilk, it is not about whether an argument leads to understanding, it is about whether it confirms their preconceptions and whether they can get it out with a straight face. Even so, I suspect that some of these guys have to practice in front of a mirror before they can spout their BS without giggling.

    We shouldn’t try to debunk Watts. We should merely point and laugh or look away in sadness.

  7. I’m not saying it is applicable here, because I do not know, but it is also possible that if series for X and Y look alike, it may be because they are both strong functions of a third series, Z. However, it is true that the only real reason the El Nino/La Nina phenomena happen at all is because the equatorial Pacific is the only large enough stretch of ocean where Coriolis forces are minimal. On the Atlantic side, there isn’t enough of a run.

  8. It is not worth engaging them in the science, they have none – and in fact it isn’t about the science

    Like creationist – simple ridicule is the only response these days