by Judith Curry
The story surrounding Richard Muller is providing some interesting insights into the psycho-dynamics of climate change science.
I find the story surrounding Richard Muller interesting for several reasons, at the end of the post I will provide my own analysis. Here are some recent articles that I have found to be interesting or insightful.
Climate change denial is a blog that explores the topic of climate change denial. The article The irresistable story of Richard Muller provides the title for this post. Some excerpts:
We are far more inspired by narratives that speak to our social values than data that mumbles to our intellectual reasoning. This is why the most powerful storylines have, since the earliest recorded tales, been those with identifiable protagonists clearly representing opposing sides, with sequential events leading to a denouement that confirms social rules.
Here at last we have the narrative ingredients we needed all along: an individual protagonist and the human drama of one man’s personal struggle that leads him to cross sides in the interests of the truth.
Changing sides is potent content for stories: just think of the movies on this theme? There are countless whistleblower films such as The Informer, Silkwood,, The Firm, Serpico in which the hero discovers information that compels them to turn against powerful bureaucracies (big tobacco, the nuclear industry, a lawfirm, the NYPD respectively).
But in many ways a more interesting analogue for Professor Muller is with the stories about people who have an internal change brought on by moral conflict. For example Schindlers List or – one of my favourites- Angels with Dirty Faces. In the world of documentary this theme is captured in Marjoe or The Fog of War.
He also directly plays to the iconic image of the scientist searching for truth. He writes” It’s a scientist’s duty to be properly sceptical. Science is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted. I embarked on this analysis to answer questions that, to my mind, had not been answered”.
What is interesting in Muller’s opinion piece in yesterday’s New York Times is that the way he tells the story is shaped so knowingly by these narrative expectations. In his very first line: “Call me a converted skeptic” he infers a Damascene conversion. Later on he adds a dramatic flourish when he refers to “my total turnaround, in such a short time”.
Although the general public has a conception of the ‘Ur-Scientist’ as a polymath egghead at home among the bubbling retorts in any lab, professional scientists are usually very respectful of disciplinary boundaries and don’t assume that they have the authority to challenge the expertise of scientists in other areas. However Muller freely assumes that authority despite his lack of any expertise in climatology or atmospheric physics.
In an excellent study on the psychology of prominent climate change sceptics Dr. Myanna Lahsen of the University of Colorado observes that many of them have, like Muller, a background in theoretical physics.
Lahsen draws on anthropological studies to argue that physics, especially theoretical physics, has an internal culture that encourages “self confidant style of self-presentation and an inclination to discount techno-scientific risks and to approach even highly complex scientific problems with confidence”.
In her study Lahsen interviews three physicists who were among the highest profile climate skeptics : Frederick Seitz, William Happer and William Neirenberg.
Not only does Muller share the same discipline, but they have all sat at various times on the JASON Defense Advisory Group a small and highly confidential panel of scientific experts that reports directly to the Pentagon. [The JASONs have] a shared sense of its right to challenge people in other disciplines and has a strong propensity to challenge climate science.
This network also has its own narratives and storylines. Lahsen suggests, drawing on her interviews, that their position on climate change has been formed, in part, by their sense of diminishing personal influence in government and resentment that their authority has been undermined by the rise of oppositional progressive movements. Although they argue that their challenge to climate science is grounded in legitimate scientific scepticism, Lahsen puts a coherent and persuasive argument that it is more informed by their own cultural narrative about power and progress.
The power of the ‘I changed my mind’ narrative is highlighted in this article by Tom Chivers: Climate change and confirmation bias – what would it take to change your mind? Its a good article, I recommend reading it, but not too much that is directly relevant to Muller.
Nature blogs on Muller etc.
Nature blogs has a (surprisingly) even handed and insightful article entitled Amidst criticism, Berkeley Earth extends record, upholds findings. I find this interesting in the sense that this is the most honestly reflective I’ve seen Nature in one of its op-eds on climate change, giving serious consideration to points made by skeptics. Has Muller’s self-identification as a skeptic elevated the credibility of other skeptics? Excerpts:
The basic notion that greenhouse gases causes global warming is hardly newsworthy, and the study has been by and large treated as such within the climate community. But some are once again questioning the way Muller and his team have gone about their work as well as the conclusions they are drawing. University of Georgia climatologist Judith Curry, who was a co-author on the prior studies but declined to sign her name to the latest, offered a lengthy criticism on her blog. Although the temperature record itself is useful, she asks this question: If determining attribution is as simple as comparing a couple of curves, why is everybody else wasting their time with sophisticated modelling and analyses?
Many scientists have questioned his tendency to seek publicity before going through the peer-review process, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climatologist Benjamin Santer, quoted today in the Los Angeles Times:
“I think you can do great harm to the broader debate. Imagine this scenario: that he makes these great claims and the papers aren’t published? This (op-ed) is in the spirit of publicity, not the spirit of science.”
And as it happens, there are already questions floating around about exactly this possibility.
Responding to an inquiry from Nature, Elizabeth Muller confirmed that McKitrick reviewed the urban heat island paper and that the paper was technically rejected the first time around. Muller declined to release information about the timing of the peer review process.
It’s hard to know what to make of all this. In the end we’ll have to wait for the peer review process to run its course. But climate skeptics have already seized on the news, and it is unlikely they will let go.
The Progressive Radio Network interviewed Muller: I would have to say that it doesn’t look like Muller will become a ‘darling’ of the progressives anytime soon. From a post on the Brad blog, subitled:
Skeptical believer: The unapologetic physicist takes shots at colleague Michael Mann and Al Gore; offers unsupported assertions about the debunked ‘Climategate’; calls for conservation and ‘clean fracking’; stands by charge that most global warming concerns are ‘exaggerated’. . .
Read Brad’s article, its entertaining and interesting (I didn’t listen to the entire interview).
The Carbon Brief has an extensive interview with Muller, which provides some insights. Excerpts:
Professor Muller’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since his op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend, where he stated that BEST’s new research has answered his own doubts about whether humans are causing global warming. His self-described conversion to the mainstream scientific view linking human activity to climate change has captured the imagination of a media often wary of reporting on climate change.
Yet the story in the press – describing a ‘skeptic’s’ Damascene conversion – doesn’t seem to make sense. In fact, in his 2009 book Physics for Future Presidents, Muller doesn’t question the fundamentals of climate science, or indeed that humans are contributing to the greenhouse effect.
Asked if it’s really accurate to say he was ever a skeptic, Muller replies: “I have considered myself only to be a properly skeptical scientist. Some people have called me a denier – no, that’s completely wrong. If anything, I was agnostic.
But discovering his findings agreed with the scientists at the heart of the so-called Climategate leak hasn’t led Muller to soften his view of what he calls the “scientific misconduct” uncovered. He says: “As scientists, we have to be completely open with our data. The UK group purposefully hid the discordant data, and they did it in order to make sure that people drew the same conclusions that they drew. To me, that’s misconduct.”
Such a volume of criticism from sceptics and the mainstream alike may not be what Muller had in mind when he said in 2011 that he hoped the BEST project would help ” cool the debate” between the two sides.
But Muller believes BEST will win through in the end. “I don’t think anybody who has responded in the media so far has actually studied our work. We don’t expect immediate agreement on such things,” he says.
He adds: “What we expect is that by being transparent, open and clear. By having the data online and the computer programmes so people can see precisely what we did, that – over the coming weeks and maybe months – that gradually the debate will be cooled and people will recognise what it is we really did. And that we will forge a scientific consensus – that we will help with that.”
Muller says: “I think that many of the skeptics are, indeed, open-minded. But until they really look at what we did they properly should remain skeptics, and not be convinced by an op-ed piece.”
Although he’s clearly not banking on change coming overnight, Muller might still be accused of over-confidence in the scope for agreement in the polarised climate debate. But he’s not waiting around. In the meantime, he has big plans – to develop BEST’s remit to include measurements of ocean temperature and a study of ocean currents. One BEST paper on ocean currents has already been accepted and is awaiting publication, he says.
Meanwhile Elizabeth Muller, Professor Muller’s daughter and the co-founder of the BEST project, is interested in “starting a new section to look at policy,” Professor Muller says, to examine “in an objective scientific manner what can be done”. She says the idea is to focus on policy that could have an impact on future greenhouse gas emissions. These policies, she says, must be “low cost, cost-neutral or, ideally, profitable.” Two examples she lays out in an op-ed article in the San Francisco Chronicle are clean fracking – making extracting unconventional natural gas greener – and energy efficiency.
This new direction – no matter how transparent the work – raises the possibility of a conflict between scientific objectivity and advocacy. Instead of cooling the debate, it’s likely to raise new questions about science’s place in society. But whether you like that or not, it appears BEST is here to stay.
The Guardian reprints this article with the title: ‘There’s plenty of room for scepticism’ – climate study author Richard Muller.
Muller on Curry
This text appeared in the Carbon Brief interview:
One of the strongest voices criticising the study comes from the BEST team itself. Dr Judith Curry, head of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, declined to be a co-author on the latest BEST study, and says on her blog she does not “see any justification in [BEST’s] argument for” the group’s statement that its warming data fits with manmade carbon dioxide. Curry’s not alone: former climate scientist William Connolley claims BEST has done “none of the attribution work you’d expect”.
Muller says Curry distanced herself from the paper because she disagrees with the findings, and that she has an alternative theory – that the climate is random, so any correlation between increases in carbon dioxide and warming is an accident. His response: “‘I’ve said to her that the unfortunate aspect of her theory is that it’s untestable. Now a theory that’s untestable is not something I consider to be a theory.”
No one who frequents this blog has ever seen me refer to climate as ‘random’. I have an email discussion with Muller, who said he used the word ‘random’ in the interview since it is more easily understood by the public. He has read my post Trends, Changepoints, and Hypotheses. Re the climate shifts hypothesis, he is concerned that it is not testable. I argued that it is just as testable as the other two hypotheses, and observations are not currently sufficient to distinguish between these three hypotheses.
In the context of getting away from the consensus to power approach for decision making (see my draft consensus paper) and concerns about groupthink, we need more individual voices assessing the science in ways that are relevant to the science policy interface. Yes, there is already a cacophony of voices especially on the internet. But Muller is establishing a unique position in the climate ‘pundit ecosystem.’
A key aspect of uniqueness lies in the status of Muller and his team as elite physicists (team member Saul Perlmutter received this year’s Nobel Prize in physics) Lahsen’s article (referred to in the climatedenial piece) provides some insights into the historical role of elite physicists at the science-policy interface, particularly in context of the JASONs. The JASONs evaluate a broad range of science and technical topics that are policy relevant (particularly. In the 1990’s I twice made presentations to the JASONs in context of the DOE ARM program’s proposed activities in the Arctic. Lahsen describes a characteristic overconfidence of the JASONs, which is something that often gets Muller into trouble in his statements about climate research.
Muller has tied his contribution to an extensive research project that is pushing the standards of open/transparent research in the climate field. This openness/transparency is critical in a postnormal situation and is especially appreciated by the public.
Based upon my interactions with Muller, I am convinced that wants to bring the highest scientific standards to climate science. He isn’t bothered by my disagreements with their papers or his statements, he regards that as part of the needed dynamic. Maybe he should listen a bit more closely to me :) but his independence is his trademark. If he is wrong, I think he will admit he is wrong, rather than protect something that is wrong (this remains to be seen in terms of the reactions to his papers once they are published). The team is listening to input and critiques from a broad range of people, from scientists both inside and outside the climate field, as well as skeptics and auditors who have become known in the climate blogosphere.
A key difference between Muller and others that are trying to establish themselves as pundits at the climate science-policy interface is Muller’s substantial success at raising funds. In discussing this with one of the other team members at the AGU meeting last fall, apparently Muller has always been successful at raising funds for basic research.
He’s a colorful personality and he speaks his mind. He is rather brilliant at marketing his team and at communicating to the public. Muller is some sort of litmus test for extremists on both sides of the debate: people on both sides are concerned that he is playing into the hands of the other ‘side’. And some scientists seem resentful of Muller’s emerging high profile in the climate science debate.
So, is Muller’s primary interest in the science, or in establishing himself in a position of power at the climate science/policy interface? The press releases and op-eds suggest the latter. Muller and his team have made an important contribution by establishing the data set and in the transparency and openness of the data; it remains to be seen whether the team will make a fundamental scientific contribution to our understanding of climate change. The jury is still out on this, but since the project has been underway for only a little more than two years, I would say that they have accomplished a lot (whereby ‘accomplishment’ is broadly defined).
Apart from the personalities, I like the idea of ‘elite physicists’ taking a look at climate science. I also like the openness and transparency. And I like the independence associated with funding from a broad range of sources. Muller has a power narrative, and he knows how to tell his story to great effect. Here is a quote from Galileo that I am using in the consensus paper: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”
And finally, some advice to Muller from a dedicated student of the dynamics of the climate science/policy interface (moi): Don’t overplay your hand. This means not being overconfident of your own findings, and making sure you are thoroughly versed in the existing climate science literature so that you can provide context for your own findings, avoid traps, and not reinvent old wheels.
As summarized in the Carbon Brief: “But whether you like that or not, it appears BEST is here to stay.“