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.
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.