BEST and Not Even Second Best on Global Warming

Crossposted at the National Association of Scholars.

Last year, Berkeley physicist Richard Muller quietly assembled a team of researchers for the purpose of creating a new and independent assessment of the evidence for global warming.  The group, which eventually called itself Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST), came to public notice in February 2011 in an article by Ian Sample in The Guardian.  My colleague at the National Association of Scholars, Ashley Thorne, interviewed Professor Muller in April.  Since then the world has been waiting.

Last week we got the results–or at least a preliminary version of them. BEST released four scientific papers, all of them currently under review for publication. Richard Muller summarized the results of all four in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism.” The researchers found that:

about one-third of the world’s temperature stations have recorded cooling temperatures, and about two-thirds have recorded warming. The two-to-one ratio reflects global warming. The changes at the locations that showed warming were typically between 1-2ºC, much greater than the IPCC’s average of 0.64ºC.

But Muller is careful to add:

How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.

In a separate summary the researchers wrote that the “average world land temperature” has increased “approximately 1º Celsius since the mid-1950s.”

So the result of the study is a robust affirmation of the status quo. The earth has warmed a little in the last fifty years. The serious question has always been why. A natural cycle? The result of greenhouse gases introduced by human activity? It may well be the much larger data set that BEST has assembled—“more than 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations around the world,” which is five times more data than previous attempts—will eventually help researchers determine the causes of the increase. But we’re not there yet.

The pre-review public release of scientific papers is unorthodox, though not unheard of.  In this case, the authors said they expected their results would be leaked before publication anyway and that they thought they had chance of getting their story out accurately by staging their own pre-publication announcements.  They also said they released the findings in order to invite further critique from the public. 

The results are welcome; not so welcome is the haste with which they are being overlaid with unwarranted interpretation.  The Economist for instance declares the takeaway: “That means the world is warming fast.”  No, it means the average world land temperature has increased about 1º Celsius since the mid-1950s.  Whether it will continue to warm at that pace or a faster pace, or turn around and cool off, we don’t know.

The four BEST papers have done little to quiet the turmoil among advocates and skeptics of the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory.  Their barrages of criticism of each other and of the BEST group continue unabated.  Those claiming vindication of AGW theory are being particularly disingenuous.  Nonetheless it is heartening to see some actual scientific advance on this fraught subject.  Academic science can enjoy a proud moment.

In an odd coincidence, a few days before the BEST announcement of its findings, the Sunday New York Times Review section headlined a “news analysis” by Elizabeth Rosenthal, “Where Did Global Warming Go?”  Rosenthal pondered the fact that while “nearly every other nation accepts climate change as a pressing problem, America has turned agnostic on the issue.”  She assesses the evidence that in the U.S. “belief in man-made global warming, and passion about doing something to arrest climate change, is not what it was five years ago.”  Polls show belief in warming (Regardless of cause?  It’s unclear) “has dropped to 59 percent last year from 79 percent in 2006.”  How to explain this?  Rosenthal mentions five factors: the “challenge” climate change poses “to our culture and beliefs;” America’s “powerful fossil fuel industry;” the cold winter of 2010; the recession; and the “right wing of the Republican Party [that] has managed to turn skepticism about global warming into a requirement for electability.”

Nowhere in her article does Rosenthal so much as mention Climategate or the numerous scientific studies calling into question the validity of strong pronouncements of the AGW theorists.  She is silent as well on the widely publicized misstatements and errors of fact in the reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  And she takes no notice of the thuggish tactics often employed by proponents of AGW theory to silence or marginalize skeptics.  All of these have direct bearing on what Americans actually think about global warming, and it is puzzling that a “new analysis” of the decline of American “belief in man-made global warming” would just bypass the reasons most skeptics give for their skepticism.

The BEST report and the belated and rather befuddled recognition by the Times that Americans have retreated from enthusiasm for this theory are two responses to the same doubt.  Professor Muller and his colleagues, faced with mounting evidence that many climate scientists were skirting the rules of scientific inquiry, launched their own.  Ms. Rosenthal, faced with mounting evidence that Americans are turning their backs on a theory that is immensely popular with global elites, wrote a column declaring that we are unable or unwilling to face facts.

The BEST report is a triumph of disinterested inquiry.  The Rosenthal “news analysis”—not so much.  It is what we get when we try not to explain but to explain away.  Journalism of this sort may comfort the remaining enthusiasts but it just deepens the skepticism of everyone else.  That's the effect of treating intellectual doubts as a combination of bad-faith, naïveté, and ignorant responses to cold weather.  There is larger lesson here.  If we are to get to the bottom of global warming, we need more of what Richard Muller and his colleagues have brought to the discussion and a lot less of dressed-up ad hominem attacks by people like Rosenthal.

Unfortunately, higher education has many more in the explain-away-the-skeptics-as-idiots camp than the let's-find-out-the facts-camp.  It's time to turn that around.


  • Peter Wood

    Peter Wood is president of the National Association of Scholars and author of “1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.”

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