Brave Thinkers 2011 November 2011

Richard Muller

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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

Kenneth Brower is a writer on science and the natural world
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