No Cooling of Hot Rhetoric

Did Muller’s ‘BEST’ Study Cool The Heated Global Warming Rhetoric?

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’


Link: t.co/KA1tQHqu  (Note: Posted 2 months ago from date of this article.)

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.


Link: t.co/y5f8Xhiy  (Note: Posted a month ago from date of this article.)

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.”


Link: t.co/tMjvFvRV  (Note: Posted a month ago from date of this article.)

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.”


Link: t.co/vCXdAEjv  (Note: Posted a month ago from date of this article.)

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.”


Link: t.co/D9TGw8hJ  (Note: Posted a month ago from date of this article.)
 


Link: t.co/x1enw4yh  (Note: Posted a month ago from date of this article.)

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.


Link: t.co/xszIb9Of  (Note: Posted 13 days ago from date of this article.)
 


Link: t.co/tvl9IlOg  (Note: Posted 10 days ago from date of this article.)

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.

Sara Peach

Sara Peach, an environmental journalist, teaches environmental journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: sara@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @sarapeach)
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6 Responses to Did Muller’s ‘BEST’ Study Cool The Heated Global Warming Rhetoric?

  1. klem says:

    So what you are saying here is that Muller was skeptical of the reliability of temperature data and took it upon himself to verify it. He was mistaken to be a climate skeptic by Koch and received money in support of the project, but he wasn’t a climate skeptic he was merely a science skeptic, as all good scientists should be. When he confirmed that temperature data was reliable and confirmed there is a warming trend, the public misinterpreted it as a conclusion that the warming trend was anthropogenic, when in fact no anthropogenic component could be determined.

    That’s it? That’s what all the fuss was about? It does not end the debate, it simply confirms the reliability of data and confirms there has been a warming trend. How does anyone conclude that the BEST study ends the climate debate? I’m not sure it had much effect on it at all.

  2. Nullius in Verba says:

    The BEST affair was largely a misunderstanding, combined with some unfortunate press articles. BEST was and is still supported by many sceptics as the way forward for climate science.

    BEST emerged from the aftermath of Climategate, and the attention this brought to the temperature reconstructions that had long been criticised by sceptics. One of the standard criticisms was that whether or not you believed in global warming, as a scientist you ought to be outraged at the shoddy, careless, statistical incompetence behind many of the major temperature reconstructions, and they way these lapses had escaped notice. Most climate scientists preferred – and still prefer – to keep quiet about that.

    Richard Muller and Judith Curry were prominent exceptions. They were – and still are – believers in the consensus. They are definitely not climate sceptics! But when they saw what had been going on behind the scenes they recognised it to be a serious problem, and said so publicly. Even if you’re right, you can’t do science that way, and it strikes at the credibility of the subject to do it so sloppily, then get caught, then continue to deny that there’s anything wrong.

    So they said that the way to fix the credibility problems was to fix the genuine problems the climate sceptics had highlighted. They would re-do the science, only they would be totally transparent about their data and methods, they would listen to criticisms, they would use the world’s best statistical experts to check the methods, they would avoid the ad hoc fudges and adjustments other methods use, and they wouldn’t do “science by press release”, where some dramatic conclusion was wheeled out to media fanfare before the data or the methods had been seen or could be scrutinised, so that when the problems surfaced a few weeks later the media had already moved on.

    The climate sceptics applauded that as exactly the right response, and what all the rest of climate science ought to be doing to fix the damage.

    The recent release by BEST I think was supposed to be the first part of that. The data and the associated papers are a work in progress – the analysis is incomplete, the data is of variable quality, with many problems and errors yet to be cleaned up, the methods in the papers are part-developed and have a number of errors and uncertainties. However, it was seen as valuable to get the data out there, so that other people could start working on it, criticising the methods, offering suggestions and improvements, writing software to start to analyse it. The data was marked with caveats that it was not to be used for further research, as its quality was questionable and poorly understood as yet. Again, this is a good approach, and if it had been presented in those terms, I’m sure sceptics would have been impressed.

    Unfortunately, the first thing sceptics knew about it was the blaring headlines in the newspapers that climate sceptics had been proved wrong, by one of their own, the world was warming, it hadn’t slowed down in the last ten years, and BEST was the last word on the subject and should finally shut them all up. The data and submitted papers came out at the same time as the press releases.

    After all that talk, they’d done it again! It’s not clear whether it was the journalists, or the press office, or Muller himself – but apparently by reflex they’d used the standard “global warming science announcement” pattern, complete with overblown statements in support of the consensus narrative. They just can’t help it! But in this case, doing so totally blew the entire purpose of the exercise out of the water.

    Instead of mollifying the sceptics and repairing some of the damage, they instead managed to offend them with a series of crowing press interviews packed with untruths and distortions, based on a set of half-done interim results. Utter disaster! Then when Judith saw what had happened, she distanced herself rapidly, leading to another round of media back-and-forth. Finally, they all talked it out in private and decided it had been a big misunderstanding, and kept quiet while the fuss blew over. Hopefully they’ll have another go later, where they’ll learn the lessons from this one.

    Sceptics do not dispute that there has been 20th century warming (although the accuracy of its measurement is uncertain). They’ll talk for ages at the drop of a hat about the medieval warm period and the little ice age and the Roman warm period and the Minoan warm period and the holocene optimum and all the other variations of our climate past. The idea that the climate might change is not controversial. The idea that the global climate had been totally flat up to the start of the 20th century, when it suddenly took off like a rocket is what is controversial. Showing a rise over the 20th century does not in any way prove sceptics wrong.

    The last ten years is an argument about terminology. When you say “global warming” do you mean the increase in temperature, or do you mean CO2′s positive contribution to temperature? When you say “global warming in the last ten years” do you mean the trend in the last ten years’ data, or do you mean the last ten years of the trend in the last forty years’ data? They’re different. As is the question of what it means.

    (The 10-year problem was made worse here by an error in one of the papers, in which the trend was calculated but an outlying point in January 2007 pulled the trend artificially high. You can see it in the figure above. Because it doesn’t fit the Normal distribution, the trend calculation method used is invalid. Muller had initially thought the data showed no slowdown in the last 10 years even as the sceptics defined it, and said so in his initial interviews, but on seeing the data plotted agreed that it had.)

    It’s a complicated story, not easily condensed into headlines and soundbites. But as a matter of public interest it would be worth the effort.

  3. John Shade says:

    Superb comment above by Nullius in Verba. The BEST project has been something of a disappointment, in particular in their failure to conduct any quality-control checks on the raw data, and to highlight the quite marked limitations of it. There was also much to criticise in the way they chose to release their report, but water under the bridge and all that – the article captures a lot of the swirl, and some of the usual intemperance of the enthusiastiac supporters of alarm over climate. The reality is that there is of course neither convincing evidence, nor convincing theory, for alarm over human impacts on climate. The reality is that we have time a-plenty to discuss this subject for hundreds of years, in a calm and reasonable manner, gathering more and better data while we do so. The case for immediate, urgent political, social and economic actions to ‘combat climate change’ is such a weak one, that it requires the intemperance and the connivings revealed in the 2 sets of climategate emails to sustain it. The BEST report is of very minor relevance to that, although it has drawn out some more of the intemperance.

  4. Erl Happ says:

    Three excellent comments.

    “But those who accept climate science quickly hit back with charts of their own.”

    Sarah, don’t confound the fact that the Earth has warmed with the notion that man has caused the warming. It’s just a notion.

    I know the Earth has warmed. Best taught me nothing new.

    When I look carefully at the manner in which the Earth has warmed, differently in each hemisphere, I know that something other than anthropogenic influences is primarily responsible.

    That confounding of ‘observation based on measurement’ with ‘notion at to cause’ is the problem. It’s at the root of the disagreement.

    Sadly, you use the term ‘climate science’ inappropriately. Climate Science is not simply the province of those who so ardently maintain that man is the prime agent of causation.

  5. Rick McIntire says:

    Too bad that the prior two commenters know not of what they speak. The simple fact is that there is more than ample evidence that man’s works are a major cause of the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Physics and chemistry alone tell us that. For those who really want to learn, eyes wide open, please go to realclimate.org, skepticalscience.com, http://climatecrocks.com/, https://tamino.wordpress.com/ and other sites operated by real climate scientists and read about the real science, not the crap on WUWT and similar sites run and funded by the Koch’s and other fossil fuel industry hacks. Read the complete emails behind the so-called climategate and climategate II “scandals” and make up your own mind when you see the quotes taken out of context put back into context. There is nothing there and never was except scientists arguing with each other, as they should. Watch this and others from that site: http://climatecrocks.com/2011/12/05/new-video-no-its-not-about-the-hockey-stick/

    • klem says:

      “fact is that there is more than ample evidence that man’s works are a major cause of the rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere..”

      True, but poor evidence that the rise has caused a change in climate. Oh and the 5000 emails is just the tip of the iceburg, there are another 200,000 which are encrytpted. Once that code is released we’ll see lots of emails between governments, the IPCC, the FCCC, climate alarmist organizations, politicians and who knows who else.

      I can’t wait.

      cheers