Climate change: statistics, spin and self-importance at Wattsupwiththat
A funny thing happened to me on the way to my blog…
I was writing up an article on the State of the Climate 2009 report and thought I’d take a look at the reaction to it on the notorious denialist site WattsUpWithThat. I found nothing on the report – it’s early days so Anthony Watts may yet discuss the findings – but another item caught my attention. It’s a piece by Mike Lorrey, a WUWT moderator, called ‘Step Changes in Science Blog Climate’, describing changes in website traffic patterns of various environmental sites over the last year.
The way Lorrey went about it is instructive. He used a tool available on alexa.com with which you can compare the web stats for several sites. For his comparison, Lorrey chose to compare the performance of WUWT with realclimate.org, climateprogress.org and climateaudit.org. These choices beg the obvious question: who are these sites and are the comparisons valid, or is this a case of mixed apples and oranges?
Wattsupwiththat.com is arguably the principle climate change denialist blog on the web. Run by ex-TV weatherman Anthony Watts, the blog features many prominent sceptics but is often accused of presenting poor science, thinly-disguised ideological arguments or personal attacks (an accusation that, in fairness, is levelled equally at the other sites used in this comparison). In 2008, his blog won the internet voting-based “Best Science Blog” Weblog Award.
Realclimate.org is the unofficial home of many prominent climate scientists, including Gavin Schmidt, Michael Mann, Caspar Ammann, Ray Bradley, Stefan Rahmstorf and Eric Steig. James Hansen and other leading figures in the climate change debate contribute regularly.
Climateprogress.org is a blog run by physicist and climate expert Dr. Joe Romm, considered one of the best, and most influential, commentators on climate change, the science and its relationship to (mainly) US politics. In 2009, Time magazine called him “The Web’s most influential climate-change blogger”.
Climateaudit.org is a blog run by Steve McIntyre, the statistician who seems determined largely to prove Michael Mann wrong. Along the way, he has become a staunch critic of all things climate change. His site is often arcane, technical and highly detailed. It is not for the faint-hearted and its inclusion seems odd.
The Bell Rings: Round 1
The spin starts early, and we must draw our own conclusions as to why it is necessary to ‘colour’ material in this way. Referring to the lower traffic going to Realclimate, the author states confidently that “realclimate.org was always the least popular, indicating the general public got that this was an astroturfing site by climate alarmists who tolerated no dissent”. If that seems like a reasonable analysis instead of bilious back-stabbing, stop reading now – you’re in the wrong place.
Here is the graph that WUWT presents in Mike Lorrey’s story:
(I generated this graph myself – you can never be too careful – so the 7 day rank change has altered compared to the one posted on WUWT, but that is the only difference).
2009 was evidently a good year for WUWT in terms of traffic. We can see them getting more popular over time. It is odd however that they claim the additional attention and extra traffic generated from it “…resulted in our weblog award for 2008 as the number one science blog…”. Is it me, or does the graph for 2008 show virtually no increase except right at the end of the year? (Note: you can only see half of 2008 – the limit is the historical extent of the Alexa data – so the peak in the WUWT blue trace is December only).
When it comes to the big spike in November 2009, the reason all the traffic goes up is straightforward: the unauthorised publication of the UEA emails, the wrong date for Himalayan glacier disappearance in the last IPCC report, and the fiasco that was the Copenhagen Climate Change conference. WUWT feel the need to spin the material, claiming “The alexa stats clearly demonstrate who won the narrative with the public with a dramatic step change in the popularity of WUWT along with a crash of CP and RC after brief spurts”.
This claim is a matter of interpretation, not intent. There are different ways to analyse information, some more flattering than others. Let me just suggest another interpretation, without claiming it to be true or false: nobody ‘won’ the public narrative, nor was there a step change between pro- and anti- sites. All the traces go up proportionally – strikingly so, I think – but where the sceptics want to chew endlessly on the emails and other ‘scandals’, those who follow the science with a less determined objective in mind realised that the whole thing was a vast illusion, which of course every study, investigation and report has subsequently confirmed. So another way of putting it, based on the graph above, is that some people got the point faster than others, the laggards congregating at WUWT while everyone else saw through the illusion and went back to work. We’ll see something else a bit later that might illuminate this point a little more.
I used web stats in my corporate life, so I’m used to picking out the value rather than being impressed by big numbers. For example, the number of people who go to a site may not be as important as how many pages they look at or how long they spend at the site. Here’s an interesting comparison:
This shows how many pages each site’s users access while they are there. Joe Romm’s Climateprogress.org does substantially better than everyone else – make of that what you will. And what do you make of the fact that Romm’s visitors also spend a lot longer at Climate Progress than any of the other sites, including WUWT?
Let’s put this information in context. WUWT has a high traffic ranking. But if another site has half the number of visitors, they look at twice as many pages and stay three times as long, who would you say has “won the narrative with the public”?
Coming back to the apples and oranges, I was struck by how impressive the blue trace looks, up there on its own. Gosh! How successful WUWT has become, eh?
Well, a bit later in the article on WUWT, the author exclaims “As of this writing, WUWT is ranked #6 by Alexa in the world for Environmental websites, not just climate blog sites”. I couldn’t help but note that none of the top ten sites were used in the comparison – and this might be making one site look rather more impressive than it really is. Being a helpful chap, I thought the least I could do was re-analyse the traffic patterns using some of WUWT’s companions in the ranking.
Looks like climate change has a long way to go before it becomes as interesting to the public as general environmental issues – it would appear the trends for Greenpeace and Treehugger (the number 1 environmental site) were barely disturbed by the email blather, the IPCC fuss or – of more concern – the Copenhagen conference. Deniers often tell us there are other things we should be worrying about – as if we were ignoring those issues – but apparently the environmental concerns of the general public are far less fickle that the hard-core climate change wonks would care to admit.
Something unexpected also came out of my own comparison, but it does show why Joe Romm is considered so influential. Have a look at these two graphs:
One thing for sure – Romm’s Climateprogress.org holds reader’s attention like no other comparable site, a sure sign of quality. I cannot help but suspect that Watts and his moderator were more interested in quantity.
I’d like to end this bout with a decision, but it’s more of a technical knockout really. While I was drifting through some of the other Alexa.com analysis and services, I came across a table called Audience Demographics:
The centre line of each graph is the mean. Red bars indicate under-representation, green bars are over-representation. This is what Alexa says about the 65+ result for Age: “Relative to the general internet population, people over 65 years old are greatly over-represented at wattsupwiththat.com”.
Can I say now I’m not even slightly surprised. On the basis of my own experience, and that reported by the media and others, climate change denial has two common demographics. It is a phenomena dominated by the political right and its allies in big business, and it is argued most vehemently by retired men. Other surveys have attested to this demographic, but it had not occurred to me there would be such a clear bias in web traffic.
What does this tell us? Again, this can be spun any way you like. If you don’t think old people get cranky, feel neglected, have vast amounts of time on their hands, review the past with invented affection and the present as a constant threat, you’ll not agree with my view that reactionary right-wing curmudgeons are behind a great deal of climate change denial. It is cynical to suggest they don’t care because they’ll be dead before the worst of it hits us. Perhaps it is more that climate change is just the most willing horse to flog, the quickest way to find ‘lefties’ to duke it out with, trembling behind their pseudonyms as they post insults and slanders so venomous they have to be strapped to their keyboards for fear of falling off.
And then again, they might be American:
All these stats, the interpretations – it’s all bollocks really, and apart from the entertainment, my point is really this: the ice is melting even as I type this or you read it, so be careful which sites you visit, because some of them will tell you the exact opposite i.e. there’s nothing to worry about.
They are wrong: the seas are rising, silent and inexorable. We are running out of oil. We do have lots of nuclear weapons and an additional billion people to use them on every couple of decades. This is a time when we should be responsible in our use of media. I do not think Wattsupwiththat meet the common criteria of responsibility when it comes to the way they supply so much ideological and distorted information to the public. All across the internet, lies and misdirections are propagated with astonishing speed. These myths, deceits and zombie arguments about bad science all come from just a few sources. WUWT is one of them and to draw attention to how many people are being taken in is not a claim to success, but an admission of guilt.