Blog Archive

Monday, October 31, 2011

Andrew Gelman: Skepticism about skepticism of global warming skepticism skepticism [re: Richard Muller and the Berkeley results confirming global warming]

Skepticism about skepticism of global warming skepticism skepticism

A group of University of California professors headed by physicist Richard Muller recently released a report confirming global warming. Then geophysicist Judith Curry, a coauthor on the papers produced by the Muller group, turned around and said that their data actually show that global warming has stopped. (Also see clarification here.)

Curry is described in the news article as the second author on the papers, but the authors are listed alphabetically so it’s probably more accurate to describe her as one of the ten authors. Muller’s one, Curry’s another, . . . now I want to know what 7 of the other 8 authors think! (One of the authors is Richard Muller’s daughter Elizabeth, so maybe we shouldn’t count her as an independent view.)

Some enterprising reporter should really interview the other 7 authors of that report. Just a quick question like, “Is there scientific basis for saying that warming hasn’t stopped?”

To add some fuel to the fire, let me repost what my physicist friend Phil Price wrote after seeing Richard Muller speak at Berkeley:
On Friday, I [Phil] saw a seminar by UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller. He is famously smart; he wrote the excellent book “Physics for Future Presidents”; and he and has been in the news recently for testifying to Congress that Yes, the earth really is warming, based on initial analysis of a bunch of temperature data (for some reason many people were surprised that he would say that).
Here’s the abstract of his talk: “Because of its huge economic and political implications, Climate Change is rarely presented without spin. This will be an attempt to do that. I’ll discuss the physics of the greenhouse effect, and the data that indicate global warming. Among key topics are: Copenhagen — why did we fail to get a major treaty? Climategate — what really happened? IPCC standards — and why they are undergoing major revisions. What are the top prospects among the many choices for alternative energy? What kind of example can the U.S. set that could be followed by the rest of the world? I’ll also report on new results of our “Berkeley Earth” project — a detailed re-analysis of the evidence for global warming; see"
I was not the only one to roll my eyes at the first lines of the abstract: does he really think nobody gives talks about climate change without “spin”? I’ve seen quite a few talks about the science. But maybe Muller hasn’t. Whatever.
But then…the talk was absolutely terrible. The abstract was presumably a mistake, since Muller made no effort at all to do any of the things he said he would do. (He did not discuss the physics of the greenhouse effect, did not discuss Copenhagen, did not discuss Climategate, did not discuss IPCC standards). He made one good point about the difference between predicting something before the fact and explaining it after the fact (and how easy it is to fool yourself that you are doing the following). And he did present a very cursory sketch of some of the data about global warming, including a list of difficulties in interpreting/analyzing land-surface data. But that’s it. Almost a content-free talk.
Almost the whole rest of the time, he took a page out of Charlie Sheen’s book: he bragged about how fair-minded and smart he is compared to everyone else, complained about a variety of behaviors by other people (some of which were indeed bad, but many of which weren’t), and just generally held himself up as an exemplar of all that is right and fair and true, while oozing ill will about everyone else. Lots of pontificating; no technical content. And through it all, he dropped the name of Louis Alvarez — a Nobel Laureate physicist with whom he worked decades ago — about every five or ten minutes.
It was really an astonishing talk, and left most of the audience in stunned silence. It did have a certain train-wreck fascination, though, and I (and many others) stayed for part of the Q&A, in part to see if anyone would take him on about his attitude. (Nope.)

Some colleagues and I spent a while discussing the talk: how does something like this happen? I mentioned the old saw that the flaws that are most irritating on others are the ones that one has oneself, and that I saw some application here. I have sometimes started talks by pointing out ethical transgressions by others, or by showing plots and results from the literature and discussing the ways in which they’re wrong. And I’ve sometimes intentionally implied or stated that people were distorting scientific results, or the ways in which those results are presented (i.e., “spun”). . . .
(Phil’s report came in the midst of a heated discussion of Charlie Sheen.)

Muller being an obnoxious speaker doesn’t invalidate global warming (any more than the silliness of Daily Mail article is evidence in favor of it). For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere on this blog, I go with the scientific consensus on climate change, and I’m speaking as someone who’s worked (a bit) with climate models and knows about their weaknesses.

In any case, this is an ideal Halloween post: climate change is scary!

No comments: