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Global Warming Skeptic Changes His Tune
— by Doing the Science Himself

by Donald Prothero, Apr 06 2011

With the GOP takeover of the House, the political climate surrounding controversial topics in science has changed radically. The extremists who now run the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been doing their best to challenge the enormous body of evidence supporting the reality of global climate change. On March 10, 2011, they set new lows for trying to redefine “greenhouse gases” to exclude carbon dioxide, methane, and all the other greenhouse gases that science has recognized. The situation was so ludicrous that Rep. Edward Markey (Democrat from Massachusetts) mocked their anti-scientific efforts by asking if they planned to repeal the laws of gravity, relativity, quantum mechanics, and heliocentrism. In his words:

Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room. I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun. Instead, I’ll embody Newton’s third law of motion and be an equal and opposing force against this attack on science and on laws that will reduce America’s importation of foreign oil. This bill will live in the House while simultaneously being dead in the Senate. It will be a legislative Schrodinger’s cat killed by the quantum mechanics of the legislative process! Arbitrary rejection of scientific fact will not cause us to rise from our seats today. But with this bill, pollution levels will rise. Oil imports will rise. Temperatures will rise. And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. That is, unless a rejection of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is somewhere in the chair’s amendment pile.

Meanwhile, the Republican leaders of the House Science and Technology Committee were also attacking the science of global warming. The agenda for their March 31, 2011 hearing was explicitly arranged to challenge the climate science community and cast doubt on their data about global temperature change. They openly “stacked the deck” with their chosen witnesses, which included such “expert scientific witnesses” as an economist, a lawyer, and a professor of marketing—and Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at University of California Berkeley.

To geologists, Richard Muller is a well-known name, even though his expertise is primarily in nuclear physics. He has dabbled in a lot of geologic topics over the years with varied success. His efforts to explain the extinction of the dinosaurs by postulating another unseen star in our solar system (the “Nemesis hypothesis”) has been refuted, as were his explanations of a alleged 26-million-year cycle of extinctions by postulating periodic perturbations of comets in the Oort cloud. As I summarized in my 2003 paleontology textbook (Prothero, 2003, Bringing Fossils to Life, Chapter 6, the original data supporting the “periodic extinction” model has long been discredited, so the periodicity is not real. Thus, the mechanisms proposed to explain a non-existent extinction periodicity are now moot as well.

To the global warming deniers, Muller had been an important scientific figure with good credentials who had expressed doubt about the temperature data used to track the last few decades of global warming. Muller was influenced by Anthony Watts, a former TV weatherman (not a trained climate scientist) and blogger who has argued that the data set is mostly from large cities, where the “urban heat island” effect might bias the overall pool of worldwide temperature data. Climate scientists have pointed out that they have accounted for this possible effect already, but Watts and Muller were unconvinced. With $150,000 (25% of their funding) from the Koch brothers (the nation’s largest supporters of climate denial research), as well as the Getty Foundation (their wealth largely based on oil money) and other funding sources, Muller set out to reanalyze all the temperature data by setting up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project. Although only 2% of the data were analyzed by last month, the Republican climate deniers in Congress called him to testify in their March 31 hearing to attack global warming science, expecting him to give them scientific data supporting their biases.

graph

To their dismay, Muller behaved like a real scientist and not an ideologue—he followed his data and told them the truth, not what they wanted to hear. Muller pointed out that his analysis of the data set almost exactly tracked what the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Goddard Institute of Space Science (GISS), and the Hadley Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK had already published (see figure). Muller testified before the House Committee that:

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project was created to make the best possible estimate of global temperature change using as complete a record of measurements as possible and by applying novel methods for the estimation and elimination of systematic biases. We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups. The world temperature data has sufficient integrity to be used to determine global temperature trends. Despite potential biases in the data, methods of analysis can be used to reduce bias effects well enough to enable us to measure long-term Earth temperature changes. Data integrity is adequate. Based on our initial work at Berkeley Earth, I believe that some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem than I had previously thought.

The right-wing ideologues were sorely disappointed, and reacted viciously in the political sphere by attacking their own scientist, but Muller’s scientific integrity overcame any biases he might have harbored at the beginning. He “called ‘em as he saw ‘em” and told truth to power. Such scientific backbone is becoming increasingly rare in a political climate where every controversial scientific topic, from evolution to global climate change to stem-cell research, has become highly polarized and ideological. But it speaks well of the scientific process when a prominent skeptic like Muller does his job properly and admits that his original biases were wrong. As reported in the Los Angeles Times :

Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which contributed some funding to the Berkeley effort, said Muller’s statement to Congress was “honorable” in recognizing that “previous temperature reconstructions basically got it right…. Willingness to revise views in the face of empirical data is the hallmark of the good scientific process.”

This is the essence of the scientific method at its best. There may be biases in our perceptions, and we may want to find data that fits our preconceptions about the world, but if science is done properly, we get a real answer, often one we did not expect or didn’t want to hear. That’s the true test of when science is giving us a reality check: when it tells us “an inconvenient truth”, something we do not like, but is inescapable if one follows the scientific method and analyzes the data honestly.

Thomas Henry Huxley said it best over 150 years ago:

Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.

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Global Warming Skeptic Changes His Tune
— by Doing the Science Himself
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66 Responses to “Global Warming Skeptic Changes His Tune
— by Doing the Science Himself”

  1. Well, that put a slight dent in my cynicism today. Thank you. :)

  2. feralboy12 says:

    How can the globe be warming? I thought we voted against that.

  3. Somite says:

    What a great, great article. Thanks Dr. Prothero. And yes the sad current political climate in the US is that repubs are extremist liars and dems let them get away with it.

  4. MlleCheree says:

    hmmmmm . . . . Can a conclusion be definitive when 2% of the data have been analyzed?

  5. BillG says:

    Does not the real skepticism reside as what we should do about it – succinctly how much money and/or sacrifice measures to be enacted with quasi potentials?

    Real costs vs benefits.

    • Somite says:

      That’s another conversation. However, although it is certain there is warming there is uncertainty regarding its extent and severity. The logical course of course is to prepare for the worse and hope for the better.
      Having said what I am skeptical is that there is an economic downside to curbing greenhouse emissions. The players might be different but it is more likely it will benefit most consumers.

      • Shawna says:

        The extent and severity are not in question (nor whether it exists)…the questions are:

        a) whether humans are a contributing cause of global warming, and

        b) whether or not humans can reduce global warming with behavioral modification via legislation regardless of whether we are currently a cause.

    • The book “Hot” talks about amelioration/adaptation efforts around the globe. Give it a read. Five-starred by yours truly on Amazon.

    • MadScientist says:

      The quick answer to that would be that it would be irresponsible to do nothing based simply on the fact that we cannot make verifiable predictions about future global weather. There is a lot which we do know which indicates a few degrees rise will be bad news all around – especially crop failures. In the past 20 years there have already been a number of global food supply shortages due to large-scale crop failure; if warming contributes to more frequent failures as well as poorer overall yields (and it will), it is difficult to imagine how the global food supply will cope. Addressing the CO2/warming issue will also have some benefits regardless of our inability to predict the future – our fossil fuel resources are indeed limited and the sooner we switch to alternative energy sources the better.

      • Retired Prof says:

        Irresponsible to do nothing, I agree; to maintain our own self-image as individuals and our aspirations for what our species can be, we have to act.

        At the same time, it is futile to do something. Rising population with the concomitant rise in exploitation of all natural resources (not just oil, gas, and coal) coupled with the warming effects already made inevitable by current greenhouse gas levels–these things just about make a crisis inevitable. Somebody said our best efforts are like trying to avert a train wreck by running as fast as possible toward the rear of the train.

      • tmac57 says:

        It may be true that we have turned a corner that has set us on a path toward irreversible consequences,but that does not mean that we cannot limit the damage.When you find that you have dug yourself into a hole,the first step to get out is to stop digging.

  6. MarkW says:

    No one disputes that the globe has warmed.

    The source of the warming, however, is far from resolved.

  7. Gary Nolan says:

    While I don’t doubt in any way the planet is warming, I have several problems.

    We haven’t ruled out that this isn’t simply the cyclical nature of planet Earth and not due in large part to the industrial revolution. It is my understanding that the Earth has had several severe climate changes long before man, and that this may be no different.

    We also have only been tracking Earth temperatures for a fraction of a percentage of Earths existence. We don’t freak out every time the temperature changes from one day to the next. Well, in the history of Earth, a century is basically a blink of the eye. It is reasonable to expect such variances in the weather based on natural factors and the randomness of weather, and not solely because of man’s consumption of planetary resources.

    Now assuming it is a man-made issue, I also think climatologists can’t be taken seriously because they won’t talk about the one thing that would absolutely fix the problem. Population control. We are an ecosystem, and for an ecosystem to survive, there needs to be a proper balance between the plant and animal kingdom. Specifically humans in the animal kingdom since we mass produce harmful emissions more than most other animals. So until someone wants to talk about ways to start on a course of population reduction instead of population expansion as it currently is doing, the problem will NEVER be solved.

    It’s as if I have a 50 lb weight around my neck, and I complain I’m tired all the time, so I go to the doctor and he gives me drugs, suggests maybe an energy drink, proper diet and exercise, etc., but just ignores the notion to tell me to get rid of the damned 50 lb weight around my neck!

  8. BillG says:

    No “economic downside”? To a degree, any money towards a program will neglect another, in which we should be clear on the net benefit. Does a carbon tax force us into energy alternatives (wind, nuclear, solar, etc.) or should we fund research – or both? What is the potential impact, which could be nil or minimal and perhaps direct funds on other societal ills?

    • tmac57 says:

      Conventional conservative thought states that “If you want less of something,tax it,and if you want more of something, don’t tax it”. So following that logic,we should tax carbon,and not tax economic activity surrounding low carbon energy production alternatives.

  9. Jesse says:

    The inclusion of such guilt-by-association nonsense as invoking the “evil” Koch brothers really stains this entire post. Sorry, but Muller’s change of view should be celebrated without having to resort to cheap literal tricks like “extremists”, “deniers” and “OMG! OIL MONEY!!”.

    I don’t expect that kind of nonsense from this blog.

    @BillG: Rock on, and if Prothero is being honest, THAT is where most of the “anti” action is these days – the view that “okay, climate is changing, but a global anti-first world freak out carbon tax scheme is not the way to react to it”.

    @Somite says “The logical course of course is to prepare for the worse and hope for the better.” No, that’s the precautionary principle at work. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. In my view, we explicitly do NOT want to prepare for the worst, because that would entail a lot of really evil stuff (population control for starters).

  10. Chuck P. says:

    If Rep Markey really wants to do something to fight global warming, he ought to stop doing his best to obstruct our largest source of low-carbon electricity (nuclear energy).

  11. Nyar says:

    LOL, Donald, do you get paid every time you repeat a left wing talking point? Kaching! Otherwise, nice post.

  12. peter says:

    “LOL, Donald, do you get paid every time you repeat a left wing talking point? ”

    what is the actual content of this post? Null information because you can? Or don’t you have another place to drop manure like that?

  13. peter says:

    “I think it was a good article but the use of so many left wing clichés was a bit jarring”

    can you please elaborate what you consider left wing clichés?

    • Nyar says:

      It is just typical left wing framing. For example, be sure to call Republicans extremists, mention the Koch brothers, use language with negative connotations like attacking and viciously, etc to dehumanize.

      It is a good article and treats Muller fairly as a skeptic, but it would have been better without comically exaggerated partisan tone.

      • Somite says:

        Can you point out an example that is partisan but not true? I think the characterizations are accurate.

      • Nyar says:

        Half of the country votes Republican in every election, that isn’t really extremist. Also polls have shown that a majority of the world’s population either doesn’t know what global warming is or they are skeptical of it. That position may be wrong, but it’s not extreme.

      • Somite says:

        Denying reality sounds pretty extreme to me.

      • Re-read the post.

        Nowhere did it call Republicans extremists. Neither did it call anyone who is ignorant or misinformed about global warming extremest.

        “The extremists who now run the House Energy and Commerce Committee”

        The author called the persons in control of a particular House committee extremists, that’s all. You may infer from that whatever you like, I suppose.

        Mentioning the Koch brothers seems relevant as their involvement as a major funding source supports the notion that the entire process was primed to give the best possible chance to refuting climate change data.

        I’m not sure how dehumanizing the terms “extremist” and “right-wing ideologues” are, but they’re clearly intended to convey the author’s opinions of those so labeled. I suppose the author could have omitted subjective opinion from certain parts of the post and been just as effective, but this is a blog post, and not a news article, after all.

      • Nyar says:

        Mentioning the Koch brothers is completely irrelevant. They serve the same function for the left that George Soros serves for the right, a kind of boogie man.

      • Nyar, you’re a troll, IMO; there’s zero equivalence between Soros and the Koch Bros. Soros IS a bogeyman, but, from funding Tea Party front grou8ps, i.e., astroturfing on a massive scale, to funding climate change denialist groups, to leading the fight against trimming or repealing oil industry tax subsidies, the Koch Bros. are on a different planet than Soros.

      • Nyar says:

        Trololo! I can see why you would think that Gadfly. I just read the Fukushima thread and it help clear a few things up for me. You and a few others are upset that Brian and Micheal are putting Libertarianism first and skepticism second instead of putting Liberalism first and skepticism second like you would prefer. Then when you finally got your dream of a suitably Liberalism-first post here on skepticblog, I had the audacity to come along and take dump all over it. LOL. Sorry about that. To make it up to you I will be sure to let you know if I fall victim to any climate-related misfortune so you can bask in the schadenfreude.

      • Somite says:

        Nyar: you need to stop thinking in terms of ideology. Claims are either true or not. Shermer and Dunning get in trouble because they make claims that are not backed up by the appropriate reference, data or a possible mechanism; or are blatantly wrong.

        There is hope. Dunning at NECSS just said “betting on current scientific consensus is good heuristic; but don’t pick a guru, even if he is Stephen Hawking”

        Although saying the word “heuristic” earned me a shot in my philosophical drinking game. For the sake of my sobriety please don’t use “heuristic” or “epistemology”.

  14. Nyar says:

    Somite says:
    April 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm
    Denying reality sounds pretty extreme to me.

    That’s because you are a partisan.

    • Somite says:

      Are you saying reality is partisan?

      • Nyar says:

        Not really. I am saying that it looks that way to you. Let me explain a little.

        If you go to conservapedia and look up the definition of atheist it will say that an atheist is someone who denies the existence of God. The implication is that everyone knows that God exists but some people deny her existence. Now you and I know that that is b.s., the real definition of atheist is someone who lacks a belief in deities. Right?

        You are doing the same thing. You assume that everyone knows that global warming exists and are just denying its existence because they are extremist or being paid off by the Koch brothers. That is almost certainly not true.

      • Somite says:

        I’m saying that regardless how many people believe or deny global warming the evidence for it is incontrovertible. If you are a politician that sits on a panel that denies the testimony of scientists, even your own, you are an extremist.

      • Nyar says:

        With apologies to Hanlon, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

      • tmac57 says:

        Good point.AGW denialists are stupid.Is that better?

      • Nyar says:

        I think that is a little harsh, but much closer to the truth than the bogeymen brothers theory.

  15. Nyar says:

    SocraticGadfly says:
    “April 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm
    If we’re lucky, you live in a “red” state, since most of them are more likely to get hit harder.”

    You want everyone who lives in the same state that I do to suffer just because of a post I made on the internet?

    That sounds a little extreme to me.

    • Max says:

      Yeah SocraticGadfly, stop gloating over people’s misfortune ;-)

      • Nyar says:

        You know what is really funny? SocraticGadfly is gloating over his own misfortune because I am pretty sure we live in the same state.

      • Damn, Max, did I just commit a Dunning? Mea maxima culpa.

        Seriously, though, as much of the Southwest gets both hotter and drier, and, really, most the upper Plains, too, I’m waiting for what facades the denialists will erect, like dryland Canutes.

  16. Nyar, you don’t think it’s the least bit relevant if research paid for in part by the boogieman fails to support the boogieman’s position?

    RE: “You want everyone who lives in the same state that I do to suffer just because of a post I made on the internet?”

    Actually Somite’s wording was “If we’re lucky, you live in a “red” state, since most of them are more likely to get hit harder.””

    Which to me reads closer to “If there is a state that suffers, I hope you live there.” and not “I hope that your state suffers because you live in it.”, but I could be wrong.

    • Nyar says:

      The story is about a skeptic who changed his mind based on scientific data. Saying that he was influenced by someone who was funded by the boogieman is not relevant to the story. It is just an attempted ad hom, or maybe guilt by association.

      It is Gadfly, not Somite, who hopes that my state and I get “hit harder”, but either way it is a pretty nasty sentiment to wish me or my entire state ill just because I disagree with tone of the story, not the science itself.

      • tmac57 says:

        Sometimes when I am driving on the highway,and I see another driver weaving in and out of traffic,tailgating other drivers,going way too fast for the conditions,and generally menacing other drivers with their reckless behavior,I have a fleeting thought that something bad would happen to them.I don’t really wish them harm,but the thought comes to mind anyway,and if someone in the car with me were to defend that kind of recklessness,I would want to reach over and slap them.But I wouldn’t.It’s just a human response to the stress and frustration that you get when you see someone using their power to potentially cause harm to others,and listening to apologists for such thoughtless recklessness,can spark an urge to wish someone ill will that may be more of a fantasy of crude justice than it is a real sentiment.

  17. Damned Skeptic says:

    Richard Muller is a prominent global warming skeptic? Bet that was news to him. If he ever was a skeptic, it was many years ago. In a 2003 article (http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/13423/page2/) he wrote:

    “Let me be clear. My own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate. I would love to believe that the results of Mann et al. are correct, and that the last few years have been the warmest in a millennium.

    Love to believe? My own words make me shudder. They trigger my scientist’s instinct for caution. When a conclusion is attractive, I am tempted to lower my standards, to do shoddy work. But that is not the way to truth. When the conclusions are attractive, we must be extra cautious.”

    Or maybe he became a skeptic after that and now he’s not a skeptic again. What’s up with him anyway? Are you sure you want him as a climate change poster boy? He seems a little wishy-washy to me. It’s going to be a little embarrassing trying to brand him as a tool of big oil and “the nation’s largest supporters of climate denial research” if his final corrected results disagree instead of agree.

    • Beelzebud says:

      It makes me respect him even more. He took their money, and went on with doing real science. Took their money, and then contradicted the outcome they hoped they bought from him.

      In short, he proved he has integrity.

      • Damned Skeptic says:

        On second thought, this is the perfect scenario. Had Dr. Muller testified that they saw a global warming trend that is not similar to previous reports then slap a skeptic/denier sticker on him, slam him for testifying when only 2% of the data had even been analyzed and accuse him of being in the pocket of big oil.

        Of course, that’s not what he testified; instead, with perhaps a bit of a spin applied, he is the errant scientist returned to the fold. And despite the attempt of the deniers to buy him off with grant money, he remained true to the cause of real science. Should the final report not agree with previous temperature trend reports then obviously he succumbed to the lures of the evil ones. What could be better? No matter what happens, there’s no need for you to examine your own beliefs.

      • Beelzebud says:

        I just go with scientific consensus, as I’m not a climatologist. You can struggle with yourself over what you “believe”.

      • Damned Skeptic says:

        I was referring to your belief that they (I assume you mean the Koch and Getty Foundations) were hoping to buy an outcome from Dr. Muller and presumably the rest of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team. Do you have some evidence that supports your claim?

      • Beelzebud says:

        It’s now well-established that the Koch brothers have sponsored many groups and think tanks to spread doubt about glabal warming. They’re the ones who put the money up for Meuller’s study.

        http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2010/03/18/koch-industries-multibillionaire-koch-brothers-bankroll-attacks-on-climate-change-science-and-policy/

        If you don’t trust that source, just do a google search and research it for yourself. This is no secret. You seem to be the one that is putting a lot of faith in your beliefs…

      • Damned Skeptic says:

        I didn’t see anything about the Koch and Getty Foundations trying to buy a result from Muller on the pages you linked. I assume that I’m supposed to infer that because of the Koch brothers political views and the groups they support that the money from the Koch Foundation was an attempt to bribe Muller. It’s not an inference I would make, but that doesn’t matter because what you or I infer is not evidence.

        I have no idea what you meant by me putting faith in my beliefs. What beliefs are you referring to?

      • Max says:

        This is a good scenario because the Republican Global Warming deniers can’t just dismiss the findings as being part of what they think is a hoax.
        A good scenario for big oil would be if a respected climatologist like Michael Mann or Phil Jones reviews the data and finds that there is no Global Warming, because this couldn’t be dismissed as shilling for big oil.

      • Damned Skeptic says:

        Why wouldn’t global warming deniers, whether Republican or not, dismiss Dr. Muller’s testimony? Do you think Mr. Prothero was incorrect when he wrote in his post that right wing ideologues have already attacked Dr. Muller? I certainly think Mr. Prothero was wrong in calling Dr. Muller a global warming skeptic, so it seems unlikely that deniers are going to feel any special attachment to him or refrain from attacking him just because he has expressed doubts about the hockey stick and praised Anthony Watts’ work on temperature station quality.

      • Somite says:

        Doubts about the hockey stick and the fixation with weather stations are both denier canards.

    • Damned Skeptic says:

      Somite,
      So what you’re saying is that in order not to be a denier a scientist can not question the hockey stick or be concerned about the quality of the stations that record temperatures?

  18. rob says:

    what a find u were, i loved this post and the fact that you called them climate change deniers because climate change skeptics is so inaccurate.
    well done keep it up
    rob

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I really hate when people use the term ‘denier’ in regards to AGW, it tends to put legitimate skeptics in the same light as holocaust deniers. Bad Donald, bad bad bad.

      Evidence has accumulated in favor of AGW in the last few years, but prior to that the skeptics were rightfully skeptical. Many are coming around and revising their position, some slower than others.

      To call them deniers just reaks of smug vindication.

      • Somite says:

        The period where you could be a skeptic about climate change has passed. If you insist that there is no climate change in spite of evidence and consensus you are a denier. The term skeptic definitively doesn’t apply to politicians that are unwilling to accept the testimony of their own panel and scientists.

  19. drumdaddy says:

    When all of the dancing and hand-waiving is done I only care about the data, which is alarming.

  20. Nestor says:

    “The period where you could be a skeptic about climate change has passed”

    Ah wonderful science can stop now, no need to move forward at all..

    For a skeptical group there are a lot of people here trusting “projections” made by computers that when asked to “project” the past do not do it very well.

    Observation trumps projections to a true skeptic I would think. And the observations do not at this time support the Co2 hypothesis to a great degree. Radiosonde produce DATA that does not support the Co2 theory so.. ignore them Argo does not find the projected results so ignore it.

    At least pretend to be skeptical of both sides, as for me I will go with the observed data not computer models.

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