Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Richard Muller

What's Your Take?  Rate this Brave Thinker:
1 star = Not taking much risk | 5 stars = Risking it all

Physicist, University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, California

A scientist, suspicious of manipulated climate-change data, bucks expectations and presents the evidence for man-made global warming.

Before he leaned into a congressional microphone in March of this year, Richard Muller was drawing fire from one side of the climate-change debate. Afterward, he was drawing fire from the other.

Muller has won a MacArthur Fellowship, the Alan T. Waterman Award of the National Science Foundation, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the California Academy of Sciences. He is a very bright man. His reputation, before he made his splash in climate science, was based on his work in particle physics and astrophysics. Temperamentally, he seems to be chippier than average when he runs into sloppy science. He began his research on paleoclimates in the 1980s to counter “a lot of B.S.” in that field. He has taught a popular undergraduate course at Berkeley, “Physics for Future Presidents,” that skewers the misuse of data in climate science, and written a book by the same name.

Brave Thinkers 2011Muller is not a climate-change denier. He concedes that the world is warming and that human enterprise is playing a role. He insists, however, that it’s unclear just how much temperature trends correlate with greenhouse-gas emissions. And when hacked e‑mails from climate scientists caused global-warming skeptics to cry foul and accuse the experts of manipulating data, Muller chimed in to suggest that his comrades in science might not be so trustworthy. The skeptics, he said, had legitimate concerns. He saw risks of bias everywhere in the existing climate research.

And so, in 2010, he gathered a team of physicists and statisticians—the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project (BEST)—and set out to evaluate findings on global temperature trends from NASA,NOAA, and a research group in the U.K. He would use the same data those agencies did. Muller’s project is funded in part by the foundation of one of the oil-billionaire Koch brothers, and his invitation to testify this spring before the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology was orchestrated by Republicans. To plenty of spectators, that was really all we needed to know. The conservative Koch brothers have a right to the scientific answers they pay for.

Then came Muller’s testimony. Confounding expectations, he reported “a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.” In his testimony, he cited data indicating that the Earth had warmed 0.7 degree Celsius since 1957, with man-caused warming contributing 0.6 degree C. He summarized: “I believe that some of the most worrisome biases are less of a problem than I had previously thought.”

Illustration: Anje Jager

Presented by

Kenneth Brower is a writer on science and the natural world

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In