Responding To Criticism

I’ve always liked getting comments with feedback, criticism, or that give interesting commentary. It has helped me learn new things, hone my position, and helps me correct statements. It also acts as a great source for inspiration for new blog posts.

As long as you abide by some simple rules everyone is welcome to engage me on YouTube and my blog. It’s the reason why my comment sections are filled with critical comments and my responses and/or corrections to those comments. I especially appreciate feedback that points out a statement that isn’t correct, because they help me weed out incorrect positions and prevents me from inadvertently spreading incorrect information.

Which brings me to the criticism I received from Brandon Shollenberger (archived here) on my blog post ‘The 97% Climate Science Consensus Reality‘. Like I said I don’t mind criticism, but I can have an issue with how you give criticism. I already had an issue with how he engaged me because of how he started the blog post with his criticism (bolding mine):

A few hours ago, I submitted a comment to Collin Maessen’s blog regarding this post. It hasn’t appeared yet. I don’t know if it ever will. Rather than wait, I’m posting it here. I’m doing so primarily because I made the comment at the behest of Andy Skuce (who I had been having an exchange with on Twitter). I’d like him to be able to read it even if Collin Maessen’s blog is unwilling to have simple criticisms posted.

When someone comments on my blog for the first time their comment is held for moderation. I do this to stop any spam that might slip through my spam filter and to check if a new commenter is playing within the rules that I have. Sometimes it can take a while before a comment is approved because of something as simple as me sleeping. Unfortunately this time something went wrong and his comment was never received by my blog. I did however receive the ping back from his blog post and I approved it (I did offer him the opportunity to resubmit his comment).

The issue I have with what Schollenberg said is that it insinuates that I might not publish criticism on my blog. But I already mentioned that there are plenty of examples of me allowing civil and constructive criticism on my blog and YouTube Channel. However, there are better and more civil ways of saying that you’re also publishing critical comment on your blog than saying “I’d like him [Andy Skuce] to be able to read it even if Collin Maessen’s blog is unwilling to have simple criticisms posted.”

Of course I will object to phrasing it in such a way when there’s more than enough evidence showing that I do allow criticism. Schollenberg did acknowledge that how he wrote it would sound like my blog engages in censorship. But to me he come across as quite dismissive about me not liking his phrasing. This already didn’t set a nice tone for the exchange between us.

There’s also a second exchange that didn’t help the tone of our discussion. It was me misunderstanding what Schollenberg meant when he put the word lied between double quotes. I thought he was accusing me of lying (I’ll get to what this is about in a moment). When I complained about it he told me that’s not what he meant as he put it in quotes to denote a non-standard usage. As I was taught that you use single quotes for this I responded with “normally you use single quotes for non-standard usage of words, double quotes has a very different meaning. But if you meant a non-standard usage then I’ll withdraw my objection.”

Perfectly reasonable and polite response, I had completely forgotten that using a double quote is also a valid usage for this. Simply pointing this out would have made me correct this statement. Yet this is how Schollenberg responded:

This is blatantly untrue. Quotation marks used to signify non-standard usage, commonly termed scare quotes, are not normally indicated via single quotes. Even the simplest of Google searches shows this. For example, Wikipedia makes it abundantly clear double quotation marks are commonly used for scare quotes.

It is undeniable I was using quotation marks to indicate a non-standard usage. There is simply no other possible interpretation that could fit. The only way to deny it is to make things up[.]

This is what I consider engaging someone in bad faith, it assumes that I didn’t make an honest mistake. I correct my stance immediately when I realize that something I said is incorrect. Politely pointing this out to me is more than enough to make me do this and would have received a “d’oh!” response from me. Accusing me of “making things up” isn’t necessary.

Which brings me to the criticism made by Schollenberg:

Dear Collin, given you accuse Anthony Watts of lying, it is reasonable to expect your post to be a paragon of integrity. Instead, it provides an incredibly unfair characterization. Watts says:

As has been previously pointed out on WUWT, when you look at the methodology used to reach that number, the veracity of the result falls apart, badly.

You respond to by flagrantly misrepresenting it. You claim:

No, it doesn’t fall apart. What Watts is referring to is a letter he published on his blog written by Richard Tol. I already have a response to this letter on my website called ‘Cook’s 97% Climate Consensus Paper Doesn’t Crumble Upon Examination‘.

This is untrue. The link Watts provides does not claim Richard Tol showed the Cook et al paper falls apart. Bjørn Lomborg (who the piece is by) specifically discussed problems with Cook et al’s paper. He then quoted Tol as an additional point of discussion. You have taken what was a separate point and falsely claimed it was the only point.

The sentence I wrote indeed didn’t accurately describe the blog post Anthony Watts wrote, which also meant it didn’t accurately describe my response to Watts’ post. In my blog post ‘Cook’s 97% Climate Consensus Paper Doesn’t Crumble Upon Examination‘ I do mention what Lomborg said.

My response was to immediately acknowledge this when I saw the criticism, changed the sentence to include Lomborg, attached an update to my blog post describing the changes, included an apology towards Watts for the inaccuracy, and published an update notification on twitter.

I also expanded the part that I was quoting from my blog post ‘Cook’s 97% Climate Consensus Paper Doesn’t Crumble Upon Examination‘ to include the text that deals with claims made by Lomborg. Which added a link that directly addresses the claims about the Cook et al. paper that abstracts were falsely classified, and that the found consensus includes other positions than only “*dangerous* global warming” (which is in reference to current projections).

The link points to the article ‘97% global warming consensus meets resistance from scientific denialism‘ written by Dana Nuccitelli (lifted as is from his article):

For example, the author of one blog post contacted a handful of scientists whose papers were included in our survey and claimed that we had ‘falsely classified’ their papers. Climate economist Richard Tol echoed the criticism of our paper in this blog post. This particular criticism manages to check off three of the five characteristics of scientific denialism.

Specifically contacting these few scientists is a classic example of cherry picking. Our survey received responses from 1,200 climate researchers; the author of this post carefully selected a few of them who all just happen to be well-known climate ‘skeptics’. It’s also a variant of the fake expert characteristic, as John Cook explained in his textbook with G. Thomas Farmer, Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.

“A variation of the Fake Expert strategy is to take the handful of remaining dissenting climate scientists and magnify their voices to give the impression of more significant disagreement then there actually is.”

The handful scientists contacted for this blog post are among the less than 3% of climate researchers who dispute human-caused global warming. As a result, the voices of this small minority of ‘skeptics’ are magnified.

Third, this blog post argument is a misrepresentation of our study. The Skeptical Science team categorized the papers based solely on their abstracts, whereas the scientists were asked about the contents of their full papers. We invited the scientific authors to categorize their own papers, so if they responded, their ‘correct’ classifications of the full papers are included in our database. As illustrated in the graphic below, we found the same 97% consensus in both the abstracts-only and author self-rating methods.

Another characteristic of movements that deny a consensus involves impossible expectations. The tobacco industry perfected this approach in the 1970s, demanding ever-more stringent levels of proof that smoking caused cancer in order to delay government regulation of their products. This technique of impossible expectations was illustrated in another blog post claiming that only papers which quantify the human contribution to global warming count as endorsing the consensus. Most climate-related research doesn’t quantify how much global warming humans are causing, especially in the abstract; there’s simply no reason to.

We didn’t expect scientists to go into nitty gritty detail about settled science in the valuable real estate of the abstract (the short summary at the start of the paper). However, we did expect to see it more often in the full paper, and that’s exactly what we observed. When scientists were asked to rate the level of endorsement of their own papers, in the 237 papers that actually specified the proportion of human-caused global warming, over 96% agreed that humans have caused more than half of the recent global warming.


The growth of the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed literature from 1991 to 2011, from Cook et al. (2013)

The growth of the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed literature from 1991 to 2011, from Cook et al. (2013)

This is my standard response and procedure when I receive valid criticism. If I remember it correctly it was about half an hour after I woke up that all this was done. Considering the changes I made and how fast I did this the following response from Schollenberg confounds me:

Dear Collin Maessen, I’ve read the update to your post, and I don’t see how it addresses anything I said in any meaningful sense. As far as I can see, the change to your post does nothing to address the fact your “rebuttal” is a total non-sequitur to what Watts said. Nothing in your changes addresses the fact Watts relies on the claim Cook et al’s analysis fails because it conflates support for the notion humans cause some amount of global warming with the notion humans have caused most (and perhaps dangerous) global warming.

Right or wrong, Watts’s argument is incredibly simple. There is no reason it should not be addressed in a straightforward manner.

I really don’t know how to respond to this. That very point is mentioned in the Cook et al. paper (in the methodology section) and Nuccitelli explained it further in his article. Both I linked to in my blog post ‘The 97% Climate Science Consensus Reality‘.

The tone after this really went down hill with Schollenberg repeatedly saying I’m “making things up” and saying that “it says something about you if you’d claim people are wrong based upon a total fabrication.” He even went as far as saying that my incorrect description meant I had ‘lied’ as much as Watts with his incorrect claim that “the ‘97% consensus’ was a survey of the SkS raters’ beliefs and interpretations, rather than a survey of the authors opinions of their own science abstracts.” But the authors were asked to rate their own papers, a detail that is already mentioned in the abstract of Cook et al. (please read ‘The 97% Climate Science Consensus Reality‘ for the full context).

But saying that Watts made a mistake assumes that he doesn’t read what he cites, doesn’t read the blog posts published on his website, doesn’t read the comments, doesn’t read the criticism towards him about the Cook et al. paper, and that nobody has ever mentioned this to him. Watts never apologized for it or withdrew this incorrect statement. These assumptions also paint Watts as being incompetent, which I find hard to believe as he isn’t an idiot or stupid. That’s why I said that I thought that he had lied.

My incorrect description of a post published on WUWT and the measures I took to correct this description doesn’t even come close to what Watts did. How Schollenberger responded to my correction and how he further engaged me led to me eventually becoming testy with him. Something I shouldn’t have done, but even I have my limits (which I reached earlier thanks to me being tired and not feeling well).

When you give criticism how you approach someone and the words you use and don’t use truly matter. It’s why I focus on the arguments, not the person. Normally I don’t say someone is lying like I did with Watts. But the false accusation Watts made was so wrong that I interpret it as him lying. If Watts makes a public statement that shows my interpretation isn’t correct, I’ll change it.

How I was approached by Schollenberg wasn’t pleasant and not a correct way of handling the situation. I’ve now experienced these more vitriolic responses more often. It’s because of those responses that I’m getting a better appreciation why people respond like they do towards the so-called sceptics and climate science deniers.

I think that next time I receive criticism with the same tone that I’ll just take in the valid criticism and go through my usual procedures, but that I don’t engage. I don’t want this to change my behaviour to a more unpleasant stance, as that isn’t fair to those that do interact with me in a pleasant way.

Update 2014-02-01 @ 6:53:
Minor textual edits to improve flow of the text.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.