The Curious Case of Richard Muller

About fifteen years ago I had lunch with Richard Muller, a Berkeley professor of physics, at the Berkeley Faculty Club. He told me his theory that the “miracles” that the Bible says Jesus performed, such as changing water into wine, were magic tricks. He was writing a novel about it, he said. He also said he had submitted to Science a new theory of climate change based on Milankovitch cycles (cycles of changes in the Earth’s distance and tilt relative to the sun). The editor liked it; the problem was getting it past the reviewers. This press release shows the editor succeeded. So Muller was nice enough or curious enough to have lunch with a stranger (me) who could not possibly help him and was/is creative about big questions. He is now retired. He’s had great career success, including a MacArthur Fellowship (in 1982). He’s won a teaching award. A talented and decent person. (Steve McIntyre, whose comment I read after I wrote this, also says good things about Muller: “one of the few people in this field I regard as a friend.”)

Two years ago he started the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project, devoted to improving the climate record. Fine. In March I liked a talk he gave about climate change. Fine.  Now he has done something astonishing. In a recent Wall Street Journal article titled “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism” he took “skepticism about global warming” to be skepticism that the Earth has warmed recently. In it, he describes several problems with surface temperature measurements. Then he says:

Without good answers to all these complaints, global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.

The vast majority of skeptics, including me, believe the Earth has warmed substantially since the Little Ice Age. That’s not the issue. Here’s the issue: We are skeptical that we understand why it has warmed and in particular skeptical that humans have caused recent warming.  A big difference. Muller has ignored  the obvious: what skeptics actually think.

Muller’s view of “global warming skepticism” is so strange let me state what might be obvious. For me, and many others, there are three issues: 1. Can we trust climate models? I say no: They have never been shown to be good predictors of what they are being used to predict. The physics of clouds isn’t simple or well-understood. 2. Is it unusually hot now? I say no: The Medieval Warm Period was roughly as hot or hotter. 3. Has recent warming been unusually fast? (Which is what Michael Mann’s discredited Hockey Stick seemed to show.) I say no. Over the past 200 years, the temperature has increased as fast or faster at least twice. Muller’s new data doesn’t address any of these concerns. Whether surface temperatures are higher now than in 1950 (which is what Muller’s new data shows more conclusively than before) is not a big issue.

Why did Muller misrepresent so badly what skeptics say? I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to make his results seem more important than they are. Maybe he has never met a skeptic. I truly don’t know.  Lots of famous scientists (e.g., James Watson) have said what I consider wacky things about unverifiable stuff. But there is nothing vague or unverifiable about this. It is as if Muller had said Shanghai is the capital of China.

James Fallows, whose work I like, has taken Muller seriously. Paul Krugman has taken Muller seriously. Marc Morano, who runs Climate Depot, has responded at length and created a special Muller page.  In March, Morano points out, he (Morano) complained about exactly the same thing from Muller: “Who denies that warming has taken place?” Yes. Morano links to many scientists who are displeased by what Muller has done. One says, “It is not true that the Berkeley group has found relevant evidence for the core questions in the AGW debate.” Yes. “Doubts about the validity of the surface temperature record constitute something like 1% of the issues that climate skeptics as a community have ever raised.” Yes.

Muller’s error interests me because I can’t explain it. Perhaps  it illustrates how unwittingly we shape reality, as shown in a famous split-brain anecdote:

The split-brain patient had to point with his two hands at pictures of two objects corresponding to two images that he had seen on the divided screen (one with each of his two separated hemispheres). The patient’s left hand [pointed] at the card with a picture of a snow shovel, because the right hemisphere, which controls this hand, [had] seen the projected image of a winter scene. [The left hemisphere had seen a picture of a chicken. When asked why he chose a shovel, the patient said (via the left hemisphere, which controls speech):] you use a shovel to clean out the chicken house.

Split-brain patients do not have more mental tricks than the rest of us. Surely we all do this. My question is: When?

Thanks to Tim Beneke.

26 Responses to “The Curious Case of Richard Muller”

  1. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    Why not invite Muller to another lunch meeting, where you can ask him these questions in person?

  2. Lemniscate Says:

    It’s partially the protean meaning of “global warming”. Does it mean simply an increase in the global mean temperature? Does it mean anthropogenic (and perhaps catastrophic) global warming? People tend to use whichever meaning serves their propaganda and publicity purposes best, even if it is deeply misleading.

  3. Scott P. Says:

    What you have described is exactly what has frustrated me regarding this issue for nearly a decade.

  4. JohnG Says:

    Thanks for continuing to bring lucid reasoning to this debate!

  5. john Says:

    What is the wacky James Watson stuff?

  6. Seth Roberts Says:

    Wacky James Watson stuff: fat people are happier than thin people. http://www.rense.com/general2/fathappy.htm.

  7. Tom Fid Says:

    Your historic perspective may be a little thin on the question of whether any skeptics deny that any increase in temperature is occurring. I’ve seen a great many such claims. Here’s one high profile version:

    August 27, 2010 (D’Aleo & Watts): SUMMARY FOR POLICY MAKERS
    1. Instrumental temperature data for the pre-satellite era (1850-1980) have been so widely, systematically, and uni-directionally tampered with that it cannot be credibly asserted there has been any significant “global warming” in the 20th century.
    http://scienceandpublicpolicy.org/originals/policy_driven_deception.html

    As Lemniscale points out, the term “global warming” is ambiguous here too, but a read of the paper leaves no doubt that the authors were claiming exaggeration of the long term instrumental temperature trend.

  8. Seth Roberts Says:

    Yes a small part of the overall skeptic “movement” is about the temperature record. I think it is obvious there has been plenty of warming since the Little Ice Age so I consider that a minor point.

  9. Drewski Says:

    What Muller has conclusively shown is that climate scientists ARE rigorous in their work and that there is no “fudging”. He has put to bed — once and for all — the ridiculous notion of a world-wide conspiracy amongst climate scientists. That is one very important hurdle now crossed.

  10. Seth Roberts Says:

    Drewski, I am not saying Muller’s work is unimportant. I am saying: why does he so badly misrepresent the position of skeptics?

    As for “world-wide conspiracy” I believe a substantial number of climate scientists (all over the world) have vastly overstated how certain we can be that humans have caused significant global warming. In this sense they have not been rigorous. I would not use the word conspiracy here but whatever word is used, Muller’s new data does not change my opinion about that.

  11. Drewski Says:

    Seth, you know and I know that there is a sizable percentage of skeptics who believe that the whole climate change issue is a scam encouraged and even manipulated by climate scientists out for money or control or both. It has been a distracting influence on the entire debate. Now, hopefully, that nonsense can be put in the dustbin and we can move on to more germane and important matters. Agreed?

  12. Jonathan Says:

    In your list of issues, I’m surprised you left out “4. Would global warming be bad for us?” This strikes me as the least-discussed but most vulnerable of the four issues. Have there been arguments against the evidence that life flourished, and food was more plentiful, during previous warming periods?

  13. Thomas Says:

    Seth Roberts said “I think it is obvious there has been plenty of warming since the Little Ice Age so I consider that a minor point.”

    Just because you think it’s obvious, doesn’t mean everyone does. Just turn on Fox-News on a day of cold weather, and they will scream “where is the global warming those scientists invented”.
    I’ve seen full books on the issue that deny the ice-record – or claim that weather stations are merely too close to volcanoes.

    Dresky said: “Now, hopefully, that nonsense can be put in the dustbin and we can move on…”

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the world would work that way.

  14. Christopher Meyer Says:

    Request: Can you write about your position on ocean acidification (or attach a link in the comments if you’ve already done so and I missed it)?

    I respect your opinion quite a lot, so I’ve been paying attention to what you write about Global Warming, and am trying to keep an open-mind on it. However, even if you were entirely correct that carbon pollution has not led to an increase in temperature, that would not affect my opinion that we need to take drastic measures to reduce our carbon pollution. I feel that ocean acidification is the knock-down argument that carbon pollution is having devastating effects. Carbonic acid dissolves calcium carbonate, which is the substance of which shell-life and corals are comprised. Carbonic acid levels are steadily rising, and if they continue to do so shells will grow weak and brittle, which in turn will create an ecological catastrophe.

    Perhaps the reason we’re not seeing as much of a temperature increase as expected is because the carbon is being removed from the atmosphere and absorbed into the ocean. But that doesn’t make carbon pollution any less of a problem.

  15. Ashish Says:

    The top hit for a Google search for: Fox News “global warming”

    includes this quote: “The planet isn’t heating up, in other words.”

    Based on my reading of the newspapers, I’d say that most (US Republican-voting) skeptics of global warming do deny the existence of global warming or any climate change. And yes, they also deny that we have anything to do with it. Because when “1000 year weather catastrophes” roll around year after year, they can just blame gay people.

  16. dearieme Says:

    I find it entirely plausible that there’s been global warming – like many people, I expect, I compare my experiences with my parents’ in my part of the world: the notion of warming is consistent with that comparison. But ever since I first looked into Global Warming I’ve been baffled by the incompetence and, in my view, dishonesty displayed in even so apparently simple a task at trying to calculate a graph of mean land surface temperature versus time, with a decent stab at representing the degree of uncertainty involved. I can’t say whether Muller has achieved this either – for a start, I suspect him of having used surface “measurements” that are not measurements at all, having been pre-fudged. Anyway, I’ll have to wait for his stuff to be published and then, if I can summon the effort, have a look at it. I have already seen a couple of criticisms that argue that he hasn’t remotely achieved what I referred to as “a decent stab at representing the degree of uncertainty involved”.

  17. Drewski Says:

    dearieme says that Muller’s measurements may have been “pre-fudged” — and the beat goes on.

  18. dearieme Says:

    As I understand it (and I’m open to correction) Muller used the usual land surface data, which is undoubtedly pre-fudged, or as the climate scientists like to put it, “adjusted”. (Surely no-one denies that it’s been “adjusted” – the adjusters boast of their efforts.) So I am still left in the preposterous situation that I find it entirely plausible that the world has warmed since, for example, my parents’ childhoods in the 1920s, but I cannot gauge how much it has warmed because no-one has managed to publish a graph that uses un-fudged data, and includes a decent estimate of the uncertainties in the results. This is, I have to say, scandalous. Millions upon millions have been spent, and still there’s nothing competent and trustworthy. Why the climate scientists behave like such berks I don’t know – do they believe that the warming is so small and uncertain that they need to lie about it? Is doing a decent statistical analysis beyond their intellectual level?

  19. Drewski Says:

    derieme, the whole point of the BEST study was to revisit the RAW data with complete openness and to make this data available to any and everyone who wishes to crunch the numbers themselves. BEST used new methodology, a world-class team of climate scientists and statisticians (including the famed skeptic Judith Curry) and looked specifically into areas (such as UHI) that other skeptics deemed to be ignored by NASA, NOAA and HadCRU. BEST also increased the sampling by 5 fold (39,000+ stations) and compiled 1.2 billion (with a ‘B’) data points.

    Statistically speaking, getting 4 independent temperature reconstructions (5, if you want to count Anthony Watts’ Surface station study) to be so closely aligned based on false data would be like flipping a coin and getting “heads” five hundred times in a row. Your use of the terms “pre-fudged” and “un-fudged” is nothing more than gobbledygook.

  20. dearieme Says:

    And the representation of uncertainty?

  21. dearieme Says:

    Here’s Matt Briggs on the uncertainty.

    “BEST’s estimates of uncertainty are too narrow. That is, BEST is too sure of themselves. By how much they are uncertain, there is disagreement. There is strong evidence that their certainty is off by at least a factor of two.
    That is, BEST should at least double its uncertainty, which means we should have even less confidence in what happened in the past. Which means we are still unsure—we may always be unsure—exactly what the temperature was prior to about 1940. We may be sure what it was at a few individual land stations, but we will probably remain unsure what the temperature was averaged over all land surfaces. This is likely a case of scientific tough luck. If only our ancestors had thought to measure temperature most assiduously, we wouldn’t be in this boat.”

    For Doug Keenan’s view, there’s this http://www.informath.org/apprise/a5700.htm

    As for our other differences, I suppose I’ll just have to wait until the papers are published and read them and the criticisms that will presumably appear. I’ll be particularly interested in Steve McIntyre’s, who obviously has no animus towards Muller but is properly sceptical of any data analysis put before him.

  22. Drewski Says:

    Before I comment on the uncertainties or error bars, lets agree that climate scientists involved in temperature reconstructions are above reproach and that they are both honourable and scrupulous in their work. Agreed?

  23. dearieme Says:

    Don’t be daft.

  24. Drewski Says:

    Don’t be disingenuous and pretend you want a proper discussion. You have just been presented with a 5th temperature reconstruction that so closely matches the other 4 that it would be next to impossible for any of them to have been “fudged”, “pre-fudged” or “un-fudged” — statistically speaking of course. Therefore, you must either trust the data and how it was collected or you don’t trust statistics. Which is it?

    You have not even a hint of a shred of a whiff of impropriety by any scientist involved with temperature stations and yet you choose to continue the charade.

    You, my dearieme, have an agenda and honesty doesn’t enter in to it.

  25. dearieme Says:

    Of course I have an effing “agenda”. I think the climate scientists are largely a bunch of duds who made silly, hubristic claims in the early days and since then that many of them have been dishonest as a way of defending their positions. But that’s not the point here. This is the one bit of the whole field that the Global Warming hysterics and the sceptics needn’t disagree on, namely that it has (probably) got warmer. My complaint is specific: they still haven’t been able to produce a convincing curve of mean surface temperature accompanied by a decent stab at its uncertainty. What the hell’s the point speculating about the cause of the warming, or predicting its future course, if you can’t even provide a trustworthy account of its history? It’s an extraordinary failure.

  26. Drewski Says:

    Moving the goal posts I see. The conversation is not about the ramifications of global warming but about about temperature reconstructions from recording stations of which there have now been 4 (5 with the American focused Surface Station study by Watts). Because they all closely align means that there is an almost statistical impossibility that any one of them could have been fudged, pre-fudged or double fudged. This logically implies that the data from NOAA, NASA, HadCRU and BEST was collected in a professional and rigorous manner.

    If you can’t you admit that then we have nothing to talk about.