Why Must Anthony Watts Peddle Such Distortions?

By Keith Kloor | July 14, 2011 10:21 am

Over the years, I think I’ve written more articles on the research produced by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) than any other agency. I’ve been in the field with many USGS scientists, whose work has taken me deep into the Florida Everglades and across the windswept prairies of North Dakota, among other places. (See, for example, here and here.)

USGS scientists have spent countless hours on the phone with me, patiently explaining complex aspects of their research. (See, for example, here and here.) To me, they are part of an under-appreciated federal agency that often produces groundbreaking science of immense use to the public.

So it irks me to see Anthony Watts blatantly mischaracterize their mission. Watts doesn’t like this particular USGS study because it has a climate change angle. He tells USGS, “Read your mission statement when you applied to Congress for funding,” referring to this testimony:

The USGS plays a crucial role in protecting the public from natural hazards such as floods and earthquakes, assessing water quality, providing emergency responders with geospatial data to improve homeland security, analyzing the strategic and economic implications of mineral supply and demand, and providing the science needed to manage our natural resources and combat invasive species that can threaten agriculture and public health.

I bolded “such as” because it obviously indicates that the aforementioned is not a comprehensive list. Nonetheless, Watts asserts:

Not one thing about agricultural research and climate. Mission FAIL

Of course, Watts conveniently ignores this passage from the same testimony (my emphasis):

USGS research that spans the biological, geological, geographical, and hydrological sciences are essential for understanding potential impacts that could result from global climate change or from land management practices.  These studies provide critical information for resource managers as they develop adaptive management strategies for restoration and long-term use of the nation’s natural resources.

Watts also doesn’t seem to have checked the USGS website to see how it describes itself:

The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information on the health of our ecosystems and environment, the natural hazards that threaten us, the natural resources we rely on, the impacts of climate and land-use change, and the core science systems that help us provide timely, relevant, and useable information.

When it comes to reading comprehension and accurate representation, Watts FAILS.

  • NewYorkJ

    Watts does this sort of thing all the time.  It’s his attempts to muzzle those who don’t follow his cult doctrine.


    Note also how idiotically he characterizes the output GISS.

  • NewYorkJ

    Note also the irony.  The Watts crowd is always claiming many sets of eyes (amateurish blogger ideologues or not) in climate science are a good thing.  But he works to eliminate those who think global warming is a problem.

  • EdG


    I get your point but don’t really think it is such a big deal.

    And given the big axe now falling, every government agency is going to need to rethink their priorities very seriously.

    In this particular case, one wonders why research on agriculture wasn’t funded by the Dept of Agriculture or, even better, at least partially by Big Ag Inc who would presumably benefit  from the findings.

  • Jon P


    Please extend your arms over your head to catch the points people make and also stop acting exactly like your false accusations.

    You quote Watts:

    “Not one thing about agricultural research and climate. Mission FAIL.”

    Here is the complete quote:

    Not one thing about agricultural research and climate. Mission FAIL. We have other agencies for this and this is a duplication of services. While the research may have significant merit, USGS appears to be getting too big for it’s britches.”

    So Watts’s point was there are other agencies for this research that actually may have significant merit. Perhaps we should have the Department of Education work on the unemployment problem, I certainly could make a case how that is equally relevant.

    I guess you just needed an opportunity to attack Watts to keep the illusion of your “above the fray” “I point out stuff on both sides” weak BS.

    Epic Fail

  • Tom Fuller

    Anthony blew it. You are correct to call him on it.

    You are wrong to intimate that this is a frequent occurrence. It happens more than I would like to see, as I like the man and appreciate both what he is trying to do and how difficult it is to ride the tiger of an almost too-successful website. But it’s not a daily, weekly–or even a monthly kind of thing.

    I think you should continue to highlight mistakes he makes–he’s got the monster climate blog and he needs to be accountable. Were I still doing this kind of thing, I would be more gentle with him. It’s not as if he’s got the resources available to bloggers such as Gavin or Mr. Romm. Both of whom make mistakes of equivalent magnitude at about the same frequency. You do highlight problems with what they do, too–I’m not suggesting otherwise. But I might have led off with, ‘Hey Anthony–get an intern to do some legwork for you.’

  • dbleader61


    I happen to agree that researching the enhancement of rice production does seem to be a USDA rather than USGS topic. Had this study been about invasive plants and climate change, which is within their mission statement, then sure.

    I manage invasive plant programs in Canada.  I will be checking out the USGS website as we partner with the US and I had no idea they were into IPs. I kinda wonder how that came about and why the USDA/Forest Service doesn’t have that file. 

    The additional information you provided from their website on a “self description” does just about let them do about everything from soup to nuts, but I think their mandate is suffering some scope creep into duplicating the USDA which they should probably attend to. 

    This all being said, and whether it’s tied to climate change or not, the potential to reduce water consumption in rice production by 50% is a positive thing, no matter who figures it out.   

  • Gaythia Weis

    This sort of battle between short term economic expediency and long term scientific studies, planning and fact based decision making is nothing new for the USGS, as John Wesley Powell could have attested.
    John Wesley Powell resigned under pressure as head of the USGS in 1984 after numerous battles with those favoring expansion of irrigated agricultural lands in the west and rapid economic development of mining.
    In 1878 he wrote: “Report on the  Lands of the Arid Regions of Western States” ( http://books.google.com/books/about/Report_on_the_lands_of_the_arid_region_o.html?id=7MAQAAAAIAAJ)
    This is an extensive analysis of water issues and potential for agricultural and forest development in the western US. This laid out a watershed based strategy for land development.
    Concerns he raised at an irrigation conference in Los Angeles in 1883 regarding water shortages was hooted down at the time.  But, in fact,  water right today in Colorado, if subsequent to 1883 would not be very senior rights under Colorado’s appropriation system.  Or, in other words, Powell was right.
    At the USGS, he instituted science driven data collection and analysis that was advanced for it’s time.  For the west, he began  topography, catchement basin, and stream flow analysis, that was to take place before public lands were to be opened for settlement.
    This was at at time when pressure for development was high and slogans such as “plow and the rains will come” were popular in the public press.
    Does the following sound familiar?
    “In a mood for economy, Congress in 1892 slashed appropriations for scientific agencies, especially those items which seemed to have little immediate practical purpose. The Geological Survey’s appropriations for geologic surveys, paleontology, and chemistry and physics were drastically reduced, and several statutory positions were eliminated. Only the appropriation for the report on mineral resources went unscathed, although the appropriation for topographic surveys was cut only a little. The Senate then appointed a Select Committee to “investigate the operations of the United States Geological Survey, the efficiency and utility of such a survey, together with the progress made and economy observed in this work.”16 The congressional action was clearly aimed at Powell and his administration of the Geological Survey, and the reasons for it were equally clear. The principal reason was that Survey science was not serving the great economic interests of the country although the all-encompassing nature of the Survey work or resentment of Powell’s ideas of land reform and the closing of the public domain during the Irrigation Survey, to which some historians have attributed the action, may have played a part.”


  • kdk33

    The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information…

    Now this is rich.  Lookit, the USGS is a government bureaucracy whos primary mission is to grow – money & people & power.  Same as all the other government bureaucracies.

    (just a hat-top to reality)

  • Jon P


    Please stretch your arms so you may start to reach and catch points flying over your head.



  • Jeff Norris

    Watt’s does post overdramatic and some hyperventilated articles.  To the point made by Jon P.

     As required by the Federal Agency Climate Change Adaptation Planning Implementing Instructions all federal agencies must release statement that commits the Department or agency to addressing the impacts climate change may have on its operations and assets through adaptation planning.

    So essential every part of government must have a CC policy and as a result fund some sort of analysis or report.  CC is now in the mission statement of almost every federal agency.  The Dept of veteran’s affairs even has an Environmental Management Program that looks at climate change among other things.  Not a conspiracy nut but you have to admit that there is a lot of funding being thrown around and some of it may be window dressing or a way to justify some bureaucrats job title.

  • Gaythia Weis

    We’ve gone through these robber baron dominated phases before,  in the 1890’s or the 1920’s, for example.  The question is, can we wrest our government, away from corporatist control and towards the benefit of the people.  The free investigation of science is an important element in this.
    I most definitely agree that:
    The USGS is a science organization that provides impartial information
    In my experience the scientists within the agency are dedicated to proceeding with their work in an impartial way.  This can be impeded by fluctuations in the hierarchy above them.  As in John Wesley Powell’s time, there have been powerful economic interests who find scientific facts inconvenient to their short term financial interests.   It is in the best interest of the public to ensure that scientific investigations are not thwarted or buried.  The implementation of democracy depends on an informed populace.

  • Jon P

    Watt’s does post overdramatic and some hyperventilated articles.  To the point made by Jon P.

    Yes I suppose if you put on those glasses you will see a lot of that.

  • NewYorkJ


    Off-topic, but might I’d like to suggest you add SkepticalScience to your blogroll.  It’s been growing in popularity, and unlike so-called “skeptic” sites, it actually displays the traits of true skepticism – not the constant political soapbox and drool found on the Watts site.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    kdk33 (8):
    What a load of crap. Every federal and state agency has its institutional bureaucracy. Your cartoonish statement makes for a good Tea Party slogan, but it bears no reality to what actually happens in USGS field offices.
    Over the years I’ve found myself gravitating towards USGS scientists for stories not just because of the interesting and relevant work they do, but also because of their impartiality. Anyone who has interacted with them as much as I have would tell you the same thing.

  • Tom Fuller

    Anthony Watts has been really important and, I feel, hugely useful in challenging the conventional framing of how climate change needs to be confronted. His volunteer effort was important–and should have been better appreciated.

    He’s not a scientist. He gets things wrong. I disagree with his overall view of global warming.

    So what. When there was a real need for someone to stop the steamroller led by Al Gore, he stepped up. No matter how much we disagree on climate change, I respect what he did. I think more should, too.

  • kdk33


    Struck a nerve, did I?  BTW, whatever does the tea party have to do with any of this?  I think you’re losing youre perspective, and your cool; all at the same time.

    Now, to the notion that government bureaucracies are not biased towards growing themselves:  Please. 

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

    Please. Don’t flatter your anonymous self. My comment to you should be taken in the same spirit as what I wrote here about hardcore climate skeptics tarring an entire science community with a broad brush.

  • kdk33


    I’m a rabid denier, not a hardcore skeptic.  There’s a difference.

  • Matt B

    @13 NYJ,

    No need to add Skeptical Science to the Kloor blogroll, you just take the WUWT link Keith has, & Watts has a link to Skeptical Science right there….plus plenty of drool of course.

    Problem solved!

  • NewYorkJ

    Matt B,

    It’s actually fairly tedious to wade through the look-how-great-I-am wuwt banners, propaganda headlines, and the advertisements to get to the small section inaccurately categorized as “Pro-AGW views” (most science-minded individuals don’t support human activities increasingly spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere).

    But along the lines of your suggestion, wuwt can alternatively be removed from Keith’s blogroll, and replaced with:


    which routinely links to the other wuwt site.  Then you only need one link that covers 2 sites.  Problem solved!

  • EdG

    15. Tom Fuller

    I agree with your overall point but find this to be odd:

    “He’s not a scientist. He gets things wrong.”

    As though ‘scientists’ don’t get things wrong. That is part of the process and history of science. Plenty of recent examples.

  • EdG

    21. NewYorkJ

    Based on your comment, this WUWT stat (from just now) must drive you crazy:

    Blog Stats


  • Pascvaks

    We really do have to cut the Federal budget and USGS really is exposing themself to reasonable criticism.  Well, I guess we could say that of the whole damn mob inside the Beltway and about “53” State capitals or so, couldn’t we?

    PS: A simple little graph.  Telling.  Worse than CO2.  And doesn’t it say more than a LITTLE something about Damocraps AND Repocraps?  Tea anyone?

    PPS: Global Warming is as nothing compared to Global Depression.

  • Gaythia

    There’s a big difference between simply spending, and investing in the future and supporting appropriate regulations that protect long term public interest against short term greed.  There are reasons that the Great Depression followed the roaring 20’s, for example.
    But that is something that the founders of the Heritage Foundation are not interested in having you figure out.  So have another beer.

  • jeffn

    I like the progression of posts from yesterday-
    first- there’s a new study noting that most of the fluff about green jobs was a distortion of reality. Joe Romm distorts the study further.
    Second- Al Gore, widely mocked on both sides for his distortions, is promoted as a hero again (largely because of a willingness to distort on a national stage).
    Third- Holy cow! Anthony Watts makes the outrageous claim that the USGS is not a climate agency or that their work on climate is a duplication of what’s done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and just about every state university with a good grant writer. This is Distortion!!!

  • Gaythia

    “USGS research … spans the biological, geological, geographical, and hydrological sciences”
    And has since the 1880’s.
    Except when science is thwarted by powerful forces of greed.
    See #7

  • Pascvaks

    Ahhhhh yes!  Beer is bestest when it’s hot… now back to high finance and big debt… it’s time to clean out the attic and basement and throw out a bunch of toys and junk in the garage too… and we really do need to cut back on what we’ve been paying for all that over-priced fulltime union shop garden and lawn work and maybe, yo’ know, get our own hands a little dirty.  And your Mother and Brother and His Wife and 10 kids have got to clear out too!  I’m sick and tired of pay for that loafer and those damn screaming kids, and that overweight worthless wife of his that can’t lift a bloody finger to do her own family’s bleeding laundry!  Huff… huff.. the free ride is over Honey!  We’re going to clean up this house!  We’re going to fix the damn foundation and buy a new roof, and cut bact on the frills!  And while I’m at it, we’re going to cut up some of your credit cards too!  From now on it’s “Walmart, Here We Come!” (SarcOn and Off and On;-)

  • Gaythia

    I guess you missed my point, which is that one of the founders of the Heritage foundation was Joeseph Coors.

  • Pascvaks

    I have a feeling this Greatest Depression is going to hit everyone no matter what you drink, especially the Bottle Water folks.


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Collide-a-Scape is an archived Discover blog. Keep up with Keith's current work at http://www.keithkloor.com/

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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