The Scientist Who Made a ‘Total Turnaround’

Subhankar Banerjee
A mother polar bear and two cubs playing near their den, Brownlow Point, Canning River Delta, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska, along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, March 2002

In the long intellectual struggle over global warming—by now stretching out to something like the duration of the cold war—one of the more amusing sideshows came earlier this summer, courtesy of Berkeley physicist Richard Muller.

An engaging soul (he’s won teaching awards at Cal; no wonder, since his Wikipedia page shows him wearing a long blond wig as he touches the Van de Graaff generator to demonstrate static electricity), Muller is clearly one of those scholars who relishes attention. A particle physicist by training, he has published widely on controversial topics—theorizing, for instance, that our sun has an undetected companion star that periodically sends swarms of comets in our direction (the so-called Nemesis hypothesis) and estimating in a column for MIT’s Technology Review that polygraph machines are 80–95 percent accurate. From a distance, he seems a type familiar to anyone who spends time on college campuses—the brilliant curmudgeon who trespasses across disciplinary boundaries, often equal parts endearing and tiring.

Sometime in the last decade Muller got a bee in his bonnet about climate change, or at least the measurements used to show that the earth was warming. He worried that thermometers used to take readings around the world had been placed too near pavements; that raw data had been incorrectly “adjusted” by scientists; that cities had warmed because of the so-called “urban heat island effect” and that this affected calculations; and that there had been bias in the selection of which temperature records to use.

Other scientists had already tackled each of those possible sources of error repeatedly, and reached a strong consensus that indeed the planet was warming. But Muller decided he should reach his own conclusions, and raised money from a variety of sources, including Charles Koch, one of the two Koch brothers who made their fortune in fossil fuel and have generously funded the climate denial movement. Expectation therefore ran high among these skeptics that Muller’s Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project would confirm their view. Anthony Watts, for instance, proprietor of the most widely read skeptic blog, said, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premises wrong.”

In the event, the project’s reworking of the data found precisely what one might expect: the previous teams of talented scientists had gotten it exactly right. When you plotted the BEST line against earlier work from places like Jim Hansen’s NASA lab, they matched up almost exactly—in fact, Muller’s data showed the planet had warmed a bit more than other reckonings. “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK,” said…

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