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.