After physicist Richard Muller released a study confirming that Earth is warming, how did climate ‘skeptics’ respond? Reactions as they unfolded on social media and blogs suggest we’re still a long way from cooling the rhetoric on warming.

Richard Muller, a Berkeley physicist and sometimes critic of climate scientists, has said he wants to help cool down the often over-heated rhetoric in discussions of climate change.

“We are bringing the spirit of science back to a subject that has become too argumentative and too contentious,” Muller told The Guardian last February.

When he announced this past October that his independent group, Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature or “BEST,” had confirmed that Earth is warming, headlines wondered about an end of global warming skepticism. As The Guardian put it, “Global warming study finds no grounds for climate skeptics’ concerns.”

But far from cooling the rhetoric on global warming — and perhaps to the surprise of few — Muller’s study has provoked a vocal, and heated, response from determined climate “skeptics.” On blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, skeptics quickly marshaled dozens of arguments aimed at calling the study’s results into question. A Yale Forum analysis shows that when it comes to putting the skeptics’ concerns to rest, the Muller study has hardly made an impact: Today, prominent climate skeptics continue to question the science, one more example of the challenge of changing hard and fast opinions even with careful scientific analysis.

‘Raising Good Scientific Questions’

Muller’s study sparked controversy from its inception, from both “sides” of the climate science issue. The BEST group had money from the Charles Koch Foundation, whose funding leaves no doubt of its opposition to much of the established science. In February 2011, no-holds-barred climate blogger Joe Romm criticized the effort for “taking money from one of the biggest funders of anti-science disinformation in the world.”

In a video posted in March, Muller explained the impetus of the project: to re-assess weather-station data often criticized by skeptics. “Most of the skeptics, quite frankly, are raising good scientific questions,” he said.

Richard Muller: ‘Substantial Global Warming’

That and other signals seemed to satisfy several prominent climate skeptics. In February, skeptic Fred Singer wrote that Muller’s project “aims to do what needs to be done: That is, to develop an independent analysis of the data from land stations, which would include many more stations than had been considered by the Global Historic Climatology Network. … I applaud and support what is being done by the Project — a very difficult but important undertaking.”

Skeptic Anthony Watts, a former television meteorologist, also expressed confidence in the effort. In March, he wrote on his blog, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”

‘Welcome To the 1990s of Science’


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The BEST project released its results October 20. Co-author Judith Curry, of Georgia Tech, announced the study on Twitter and on her blog, where she wrote, “I am honored to have been invited to participate in this study, which I think was conducted very well.”

In a well-publicized column in The Wall Street Journal, Muller declared, “You should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

As media reports trickled out, the news prompted comments ranging from ho-hum, to disdain, and to glee from scientists, journalists, and others.

“As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said ‘Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn,” said Eric Steig, a geochemist at the University of Washington and a contributor to the climate blog RealClimate.


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But those long identified as determined climate skeptics quickly began to raise a number of arguments that they said called the study’s results into question. Writing on his blog, Watts — who earlier said he would accept “whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong” — argued that the study was flawed because the BEST researchers examined data from a 60-year period instead of the 30-year one that he had studied.

He also contended that the results should not have been publicized before undergoing peer review. “I consider the paper fatally flawed as it now stands,” he wrote.


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Singer, too, backed away from the study. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he said, “I disagree with this result, which perhaps makes me a little more of a skeptic than Mr. Muller.”

Over time, climate deniers advanced dozens of additional criticisms of the BEST study. Three attracted widespread attention on blogs and in social media. First, some skeptics claimed that they have not been arguing that global warming is not occurring, and so the Muller study was unremarkable. Secondly, other skeptics argued that BEST’s own results showed that no warming has occurred in the past decade. Finally, climate deniers focused criticisms on Muller himself, contending that he was never a real skeptic in the first place and did not deserve to now be portrayed as one.

Data Showing Warming Is ‘Irrelevant’

Blogger and climate contrarian-extraordinaire Marc Morano was among the first to claim that skeptics agree that the Earth has warmed.

“[T]he climate debate has not centered on whether the Earth has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age about 1850 or since the 1950s,” he wrote on his Climate Depot site. “The climate debate is about how much humans may or may not be contributing to the warming trend.”


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James M. Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, added, “Very few if any skeptics assert that the Earth is still in the Little Ice Age.”

The Canard: ‘Warming Stopped Ten Years Ago’

Then, in late October, some skeptics began taking a different tack: They claimed that the BEST data does show that Earth is no longer warming.

The argument gained steam after The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, published an article by David Rose alleging that Muller had concealed evidence that global warming had stopped.

“Our data show the pause, just as the other sets of data do. Muller is hiding the decline,” BEST team member Judith Curry said in the article. Because Curry was a co-author of the study, the story provoked a frenzy of comments across social-media sites.


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Skeptics also published charts, such as this one, purportedly demonstrating that BEST’s data shows that warming has stopped.


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But those who accept climate science quickly hit back with charts of their own. They also encouraged readers to consider rebuttals of the arguments presented in the Daily Mail article.


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Muller: Not A Skeptic, Rather a ‘Scientific Skeptic’

In the wake of the Berkeley study, climate skeptics also claimed that Muller was never really one of their own in the first place.


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Meanwhile, Muller confused the matter by offering seemingly contradictory statements. As described above, Muller had written in The Wall Street Journal that “You should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

Then, in an October 31 interview with Rob Nikolewski of Capitol Report New Mexico, which was broadcast on YouTube, Muller said, “I never said you shouldn’t be a skeptic. I never said that.” He later added, “There’s real skepticism, valid skepticism about the degree of warming that’s caused by humans.”


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But in an interview with The Huffington Post published three days later, Muller said, “It is ironic if some people treat me as a traitor, since I was never a skeptic — only a scientific skeptic.”


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In November, Muller testified to Congress about his findings. Not surprisingly, there is little evidence on social media sites that his study or testimony has won converts on Capitol Hill.


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When climate change made headlines again in late November — this time after the release of 5,000 hacked e-mails between climate scientists — prominent deniers continued to cast doubt on the science.


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On her blog, the enigmatic Judith Curry approvingly quoted Morano: “[T]his statement from Marc Morano is something that I can agree with: “The new e-mails further expose the upper echelon of the UN IPCC as being more interested in crafting a careful narrative than following the evidence.”

Writing in the aftermath of BEST, climate skeptic David Whitehouse described the Muller study as “one of the strangest episodes in climate science, a subject where the science, politics and PR often mix in an unedifying mixture.” With the way things go on the climate change issue, however, it’s likely that assessment too would have both proponents and detractors.

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