When Muller’s ‘BEST’ Just Isn’t Good Enough; Op-Ed Responses to the Berkeley Surface Temp Reports

Richard Muller’s ‘BEST’ reports trigger a flood of dueling op-ed pieces, some of which actually make no mention of the studies. What are the lessons for a would-be planetary ‘safety net’?

If anyone needed further proof of the growing partisan divide on global warming, five op-ed pieces published in the wake of the preliminary reports from the “Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature” (BEST) Project can provide it.

The reports were released on Friday, October 21; on the same day, Richard Muller, director of the project, published an op-ed piece in the European edition of The Wall Street Journal.

On Monday, October 24, The Washington Post published two responses, a Capital Weather Gang post by Andrew Freedman and an op-ed column by Eugene Robinson. Freedman doubted the BEST study would satisfy skeptics. Robinson described the BEST results as “the scientific finding that settles the climate change debate.”


How did conservatives respond to BEST? Bloggers posted reactions at the usual sites, but op-ed columnists largely ignored it. By a strange coincidence, however, within a week of the reports’ release, three different columnists celebrated the demise of global warming as a public concern.

On October 22, senior political analyst and AEI resident fellow Michael Barone published an op-ed piece in The Washington Examiner. Soon after, ┬áthe conservative magazine and web aggregator Townhall.com reposted “Public Cools to Global Warming Alarmism” under a more provocative title: “Cult of Global Warming Is Losing Influence.” “BEST” is not mentioned in the piece.

On Wednesday, October 26, editors at The Wall Street Journal described “The Post-Global Warming World” and celebrated finally “moving on from climate virtue.” The editors predicted that nothing would be achieved at the November climate conference in Durban because, for economic reasons, even Europeans were backing away from the Kyoto framework. Not a word about the BEST study.

The next day, Thursday, October 27, Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, penned an obituary for global warming that ran in National Review Online and at Townhall.com. In “Global Warming — RIP?,” Hanson argued that “Climategate,” crony capitalism (i.e., Solyndra), Al Gore’s hypocrisies, and economic hard times had led Americans to question efforts “to classify clean-burning heat [sic] as a pollutant.” Hanson did not discuss “BEST”; however, he did write that “the planet had not heated up at all during the last 10 years.”

Odd, isn’t it, that with no other prompt three conservative columns dismissive of climate change should appear almost simultaneously, none mentioning that a Koch-backed study had just confirmed a core claim of climate science? Perhaps the authors are aware of studies suggesting that rebutting a claim can actually reinforce it?

A closer look at Barone’s piece sheds additional light on the political challenges posed by climate change.

Although the “cult” in the title of the Townhall version suggests a fringe group, the “global warming as religion” stance adopted by Barone in most of his piece sounds like that of a Protestant dissenting from the corrupted beliefs and practices of a too-well established church, like the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s time or the Church of England protested by the Pilgrims and Puritans.

And working from the core Protestant belief that no priest should stand between a believer and his God, Barone seems to take the view that no scientist should stand between a citizen and her sense of reality. Whether the issue is evolution or climate change, the model of science for most skeptics is actually engineering: something works or it doesn’t. Everything else, especially anything that merely explains, is just “theory,” and every free individual is entitled to his or her own. On this basis, Barone can airily dismiss the “media, university, and corporate elites” who “still profess belief in global warming alarmism.”

These BEST examples raise doubts about the ability of framing or dialogue to bridge any and all divides. Individuals or parties who seek to dismantle social safety nets — because they see them as ensnaring rather than as breaking one’s fall — will never support efforts to create a planetary safety net.

Thus, when an issue becomes as politicized as these op-ed pieces indicate (yet again), persuasion cannot be the only or even primary goal. Some opponents can only be defeated. That’s why these conservative skeptics wrote to win.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to When Muller’s ‘BEST’ Just Isn’t Good Enough; Op-Ed Responses to the Berkeley Surface Temp Reports

  1. Bob Jacobson says:

    As the “conservative movement” has been well demonstrated to be a tool for propertied interests, and “climate skeptics” in the direct or institutional employ of corporations who profit by public ignorance and thwarted policies — at the world’s expense, not to mention Americans’ — why does anyone except their sub-sycophants pay them any attention? I just don’t get it. We can argue about the rate of climate change and the outcomes, dispute this solution or that one as the best way to defeat rising sea levels, honestly debate whether we should deploy scarce resources to protect water supplies or the opium trade in Afghanistan — why are we even considering the duplicitous, specious, disingenuous bleats of mendacious traitors to human existence on the earth? Empty blather. Thank you for calling them as they are, sociopaths of a highly refined sort. That’s the way monarchs have always preferred their courtiers and courtesans.

  2. Jon Flatley says:

    The fallout of the BEST study and how it affected Muller and his colleagues was more an experiment in human psychology than cutting edge science (i.e., re-testing and re-proving something that has accepted by scientists all over the world for years).

    The interesting thing to observe – from a human psychological standpoint – is what happens when a scientist wants one result badly, yet the scientific method provides another one. Which wins for that person? What the person ultimately decides tells you more about the individual than anything else.

  3. Jeffrey Levine says:

    I disagree with Mr. Flatley in one respect. The BEST study was a successful exercise in scientific method. In reaching the conclusions that they did, the BEST team proved themselves to be bona fide skeptics rather than denialists. This type of “re-testing” of scientific conclusions will always be an essential element of scientific method. The results tend to be a lot more interesting when the prevailing conclusions are disproved, rather than validated. In contrast, the AGW Denialist position that “AGW is wrong” is effectively irrefutable, as it is treated as a premise, rather than as a testable hypothesis.

    This article is effectively about “cherry picking”, although it doesn’t explicitly use this term. Cherry picking, simply put, is a biased, non-representative sampling of evidence, which entails not only selecting the “cherries” that support a particular conclusion, but excluding the cherries that would tend to refute it. In the present circumstances, given the preponderance of evidence supporting AGW, the latter is bound to be more prevalent than the former.

    The author provides three flagrant examples of cherry picking in recent Op/Ed pieces related to climate change. It’s disappointing when a community that superficially recognizes that being “Fair and Balanced” is good, lacks the ethical integrity to put this into practice, even if the evidence happens to undermines their preferred outcome.

    I do agree with Mr. Flatley, however, that understanding AGW Denialism is an excercise in epistemology and human psychology, having very little to do with climate science.