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BEST as Bad: The Irrelevance of Richard Muller’s Vaunted Proclamation (warming vs. catastrophe in a political atmosphere)

[Ed. note: This post complements that of Ken Green earlier this week, Five Climate Questions for Richard Muller (Temperature findings begin, not end, the real debate)]

The recent announcement of the results of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) Project by project chairman Richard Muller has caused quite a stir. True believers in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW) have greeted it as the final nail in the coffin of dissent. Why? Because it concludes—take a deep breath, now—that “Global warming is real.”

Jumping to Conclusions

At the Washington Post, for example, opinion writer Eugene Robinson states:

For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there.

The latest icy blast of reality comes from an eminent scientist whom the climate-change skeptics once lauded as one of their own. Richard Muller, a respected physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, used to dismiss alarmist climate research as being “polluted by political and activist frenzy.” Frustrated at what he considered shoddy science, Muller launched his own comprehensive study to set the record straight. Instead, the record set him straight….

[B]lowhards such as Perry, Cain and Bachmann, who, out of ignorance or perceived self-interest, are willing to play politics with the Earth’s future. (emphasis added)

The only thing more stunning and frightening than the idiocy of equating “global warming” with “CAGW” is the failure of so much not only of the public, and not only of the media, but especially of the scientific community—well, okay, the already committed, true-believer “scientific community”—to recognize (admit? expose?) the rhetorical sleight of hand.

I will put the point bluntly, if a little technically: BEST is a classic case of ignoratio elenchi, the logical fallacy of arguing for a point other than the one contended, and pretending that by arguing for the one one has answered the other. Other ways of putting ignoratio elenchiare “irrelevant conclusion” and “irrelevant thesis.”

The Real Debate

Here’s the situation. Thousands of brilliant scientists—physicists and chemists (atmospheric, solar, cosmic, and more specialists), geologists, meteorologists, climatologists, statisticians, economists, and more have been debating for about a quarter of a century whether the warming all agreed had occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age (roughly the mid-nineteenth century) was largely natural or largely manmade.

  • They’ve been debating how much of that warming should be attributed to rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • They’ve been debating “climate sensitivity”—how much global average temperature will rise, after feedbacks, in response to a doubling of atmospheric CO2 concentration, and whether that amount of warming will be, on balance, beneficial or harmful to humanity and the rest of life on Earth.
  • They’ve been debating the rate at which the world’s economy would grow in the future, and how much of the energy used to spur that growth would come from CO2-emitting sources, and how much warming would come from that growth.
  • They’ve been debating whether more money and lives would be saved than lost by trying to reduce that warming by shifting from carbon-based to non-carbon-based energy sources.
  • They’ve even been debating the nature of scientific inquiry itself—the role of modeling versus that of empirical observation, and the growth (lauded by some, condemned by others) of post-normal science.

And then, voila! In the midst of all that debate, over all those different questions that, together, constitute the debate over CAGW, the vaunted University of California, Berkeley, Professor Richard A. Muller stands up and says, “Global warming is real. End of debate.”

And people—I’ll list them again: the public, the press, and the true-believer scientific community—take him seriously!

Nothing heretofore in the CAGW debate has been more discouraging to advocates of reason than this. Forget about all the flaws inherent in BEST’s methodology, flaws pointed out by a large number of CAGW skeptics. Forget about the fact that Muller announced BEST’s results before the papers issuing from it went through peer review—a strategy environmental journalists by now should recognize for the stunt it is.

Forget about those things. The most stunning and disheartening thing is the demonstration this gives of the widespread incapacity to recognize when someone has conveniently changed the subject and then proclaimed victory.

Conclusion

Ignoratio elenchi. Okay, so it’s a Latin term. Get over it. Comprehend it, make it a normal part of your vocabulary, and be on guard for it.

And if, despite knowing that BEST is simply irrelevant to the CAGW debate, you’re still interested in its detailed errors (warming is a hard thing to quantify), see critiques by–among others–Roger Pielke Sr., Anthony Watts (here and here), William Briggs (here and here), Douglas Keenan, Luboš Motl, and Richard Lindzen and David Douglass.

——

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D. is the founder and national spokesman for the Cornwall Alliance.

16 comments

1 Orson { 10.27.11 at 7:08 am }

While most AGW-skeptics are willing to accept that the temp has The While virtually all AGW-skeptics agree that the earth has warmed since the 19th century, not everyone is willing to concede warming since the 1930s. Neither US state record all-tine high temps confirm record recent decadal warming high, nor do that commonly used temp proxy, tree rings. Recently, Danish amateur scientist Frank Lansner compiled his own set of Raw Unadjusted Temperatures
(http://hidethedecline.eu/pages/posts/ruti-global-land-temperatures-1880-2010-part-1-244.php)
and separately, Michael Palmer, a chemist at the University of Waterloo, looking at continuous data from GISS – have found differently. (http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/10/24/unadjusted-data-of-long-period-stations-in-giss-show-a-virtually-flat-century-scale-trend/)

Surely, such systematic looks at the data could well count against the facial validity of BEST findings.

The more serious omission by the BEST group concerns overestimating confidence intervals, a despite hope and promise, not really wrestling with the problem of UHI/LUC in gauging ground data sets.

The satellite microwave data has been derided, debated and sorted out, and now both signal processing groups closely agree. Why can’t ground data be similarly be sussed out and agreement reached on scientific grounds?

Such was BESTs promise one year ago – it star is fading. Has the opportunity to do so been lost?

2 David Appell { 10.27.11 at 11:31 am }

In the interest of full disclosure, can Dr. Beisner please augment his post with a list of who funds the Cornwall Alliance, and the amounts they have contributed?

3 rbradley { 10.27.11 at 2:54 pm }

David:

The author can answer for himself, but I would hope that the contributions are private (from individuals, foundations, and business) and not from government.

Second, I would argue that ‘socially responsible’ business will support free market causes and try to refrain from practicing rent-seeking (political capitalism).

Third, the basic thing about free marketeers is that we have arrived at what we feel is the intellectually correct, moral, utilitarian position–and then we seek funding. We do not just sit back and decide to go with the highest bidder.

Fourth, it is a LOT easier to get government and pro-statism money than it is to get free market money–I have been trying to raise money for 20 years and know!

Fifth, for persons like yourself that have a different worldview, I am less interested in ‘where do you get your money’ as what teachers did you have in school, and what self-education have you done to know ‘the science of liberty’ at an expert level to compare and contrast with the ‘Malthusian’ view of energy and climate. Restated, have you studied Julian Simon as much as you have Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, etc. I know I have studied my opponents thoroughly and have the publication footnotes to prove it.

4 Richard Belzer { 10.27.11 at 3:54 pm }

Speaking of Latin, focusing attention on funding is often a way of practicing argument by innuendo. Rob is right that there is a serious simultaneity bias. One cannot easily tell if funding influenced the research or research influenced the funding. One’s first priority should be addressing the merits. If and only if an argument fails on the merits should one delve into whether funding might explain why.

The reason is that all funders have agendas, including (and often especially) the government. There are many competitive government-funded research programs for which compatibility with the agency’s agenda is a transparent criterion for funding eligibility. For some reason, those who object to “industry” funding seem not to object to this. I find this especially ironic given that the prevailing view among free-market types is that “industry” is intensely non-ideological because profit is neither Blue nor Red. Because profit is as easily located in productive activity as in rentseeking, it is a rare policy issue in which “industry” cannot be found on both (all?) sides.

5 E. Calvin Beisner { 10.27.11 at 4:13 pm }

David: I could hardly have put the answer any better myself than Robert did except to add that (a) we receive no corporate or government donations, and (b) dismissing someone’s views because he stands to benefit from holding them is the logical fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem circumstantial.” It’s better to argue about the truth of premises and the validity of inferences than to attack persons.

6 Roy Cordato { 10.28.11 at 10:04 am }

Calvin: You are way too kind. Questions like Dave’s are offensive. His demand implies that your character is such that your positions on issues are for sale. We should be responding with righteous indignation not reasonable discourse. To Dave I say how Dare you, with no evidence or apparent knowledge of his personal character, impugn Calvin’s integrity like that.

7 William Tucker { 10.29.11 at 8:42 am }

Dear Master Resource,

Just found this site. (I’m an editor at RealClearEnergy.org and we just posted it.) I feel like I’ve come home. I’ve read at least half the books on your roll here to the left and have been using Scarcity and Growth as a bible for years. I also knew Julian Simon personally.
So here’s my question. How about including my recent book, Terrestrial Energy, on your list here? It makes a free market case for nuclear energy.

Yours truly,

William Tucker

8 E. Calvin Beisner { 10.30.11 at 8:08 pm }

Excellent book, William. I read it a couple of years ago.

I, too, knew Julian well. I was the main managing editor of THE STATE OF HUMANITY (1995). He was a wonderful man.

9 E. Calvin Beisner { 10.30.11 at 8:27 pm }

By the way, Judith Curry has now said that Muller misrepresented the data in his study and covered up the fact that it shows no warming in the past 10 years. See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2055191/Scientists-said-climate-change-sceptics-proved-wrong-accused-hiding-truth-colleague.html and http://thegwpf.org/the-observatory/4230-best-confirms-global-temperature-standstill.html.

10 David Appell { 11.10.11 at 1:02 am }

E. Calvin Beisner wrote:
David: I could hardly have put the answer any better myself than Robert did except to add that (a) we receive no corporate or government donations

This isn’t a disclosure — it’s a negative statement, not a positive one. Why won’t you simply list who gives you money, and how much?

As you surely know, ThinkProgress revealed some suspicious connections between Cornwall Alliance and other people and groups with suspicious relationships to oil companies (6/19/10). These days such relationships can be tangled, hidden, and deceptive, and open disclosure would remove questions and doubts.

(And, yes, I’m aware that ThinkProgress is of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, who refuses to disclose their funders, and yes, I think that taints their work too.)

(b) dismissing someone’s views because he stands to benefit from holding them is the logical fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem circumstantial.” It’s better to argue about the truth of premises and the validity of inferences than to attack persons.

I didn’t say I dismissed any arguments — I simply asked for an open disclosure of who funds your work. Let’s not pretend that such things can not matter, and haven’t been factors in past attempts of industries to deny scientific conclusions about smoking, ozone loss, acid rain, and more. They become especially suspicious when organizations like yours deny essentially everything the overwhelming majority of scientists have found about climate change in the last several decades.

And you yourself have claimed that financial relationships matter, as in your 11/15/06 address to the 58 Annual Meeting
of the Evangelical Theological Society where your paper says (PDF, p. 6) ” The result is often the public perception of “certainty” or “consensus” among scientists–what Essex and McKitrick call “official science”–when there really isn’t any. When politicians and their staffers responsible for allocating public funds to research come to believe in the “official science,” funding for research that furthers it balloons, while funding for research that challenges it shrinks.”

11 David Appell { 11.10.11 at 1:46 am }

Roy Cordato wrote:
To Dave I say how Dare you, with no evidence or apparent knowledge of his personal character, impugn Calvin’s integrity like that.

I didn’t impugn anything — I simply asked a question. Some contrarians routinely make such insinuations when they say that consensus scientists are in it for research grants.

12 David Appell { 11.10.11 at 1:47 am }

rbradley wrote:
Fifth, for persons like yourself that have a different worldview, I am less interested in ‘where do you get your money’ as what teachers did you have in school, and what self-education have you done to know ‘the science of liberty’ at an expert level to compare and contrast with the ‘Malthusian’ view of energy and climate.

I’m reading this blog, aren’t I, and commenting? I haven’t seen you doing the same at my blog.

13 David Appell { 11.10.11 at 2:13 am }

rbradley wrote:
The author can answer for himself, but I would hope that the contributions are private (from individuals, foundations, and business) and not from government.

That doesn’t change the need for disclosure.

Second, I would argue that ‘socially responsible’ business will support free market causes and try to refrain from practicing rent-seeking (political capitalism).

And fossil fuel industries don’t rely on any “back-room politicking?” Come on.

Speaking of which, we never did see the meeting minutes from the Cheney Energy Task Force, did we?

Third, the basic thing about free marketeers is that we have arrived at what we feel is the intellectually correct, moral, utilitarian position–and then we seek funding. We do not just sit back and decide to go with the highest bidder.

So you say. (Others can make their own decisions about that.) At the same time you frequently imply that scientists and others have not themselves sought funding after (or in order to) arrive at intellectually correct, moral, utilitarian position.

(I also dispute your frequent use of the word “free-marketers.” From what I’ve seen here and, frequently, elsewhere, ‘free-marketers” believe that profit-making should be free, but damages and wastes should be socialized. A truly “free market” would be one where those who produce waste in the course of making a product pay for its clean-up and damages.

Fourth, it is a LOT easier to get government and pro-statism money than it is to get free market money–I have been trying to raise money for 20 years and know!

Again, so you say. It looks to me that there are a lot more right-wing “think tanks” in the US than left-wing “think tanks.” I suspect that as a writer I could make more money if I were to contest or deny the scientific case for AGW than I can by covering it as objectively as I can.

Restated, have you studied Julian Simon as much as you have Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, etc. I know I have studied my opponents thoroughly and have the publication footnotes to prove it.

Counting footnotes proves nothing — all sources are not created equal. Accurately covering a scientific issue does not mean treating all viewpoints as equally valid, but rather assessing their merits, to the best of one’s ability.

And for the record, I am hardly a disciple of Paul Ehrlich.

14 Ronald G. Havelock { 11.10.11 at 6:33 pm }

I have been challenged by a prominent member of the World Future Society on my deep skepticism regarding AGW. His most recent riposte was regarding Muller and the presumption that he was a former prominent skeptic. I wonder how this could be true, considering his absurd surrender to the AGW true believers in the WSJ. So I am asking, who is this guy and why did he do this poorly designed and statistically inept study? BTW I am a huge fan of Simon whose Ultimate Resource-2 was a big help in composing some chapters of my latest book, Acceleration: The Forces Driving Human Progress (Prometheus Books, 2011). You might want to take a look at it and consider adding to your shelf.

15 Carl Tabor { 11.27.11 at 1:11 am }

Dr. Beisner is correct in stating that BEST is irrelevant to the CAGW debate. But, of course, the BEST team has never asserted otherwise. So … why the vitriol?

Eugene Robinson has spun BEST into something it is not. The Wall Street Journal, without telling Dr. Muller, deleted the fairly subdued title/subtitle that Dr. Muller had provided for his Op-Ed, and replaced it with the controversial and misleading title seen in print. It would make sense to go after the press for providing disinformation. But, rather than attack the writers and others who are twisting BEST beyond recognition, the Right seems determined to attack Dr. Muller himself. This I do not understand. Dr. Muller has not defected, or even changed his mind about global warming. He has simply acknowledged that one specific conclusion of mainstream climate scientists appears to have been a correct, albeit for the wrong reasons.

The BEST report reaches just one conclusion. In rough terms, BEST determined that the conclusions of NOAA, NASA, Hadley (UK) and others, regarding LAND temperatures since around 1880 (the period for which we have recorded data), are scientifically valid. But, the BEST report says nothing about cause (human or otherwise), nothing about ocean or overall global temperatures, nothing about climate modeling, nothing about the future.

Dr. Judith Curry and Dr. Richard Muller, both of the study team, made statements in the press that some saw as contradictory. Subsequently, the two made a joint statement to clarify their positions. They both agree that land temperatures have increased over the last 70 years. They also agree that data for the last 13 years may suggest that warming has slowed or may even stop. At the same time, they agree that there was just as much evidence of a slowing during a period about 30 years ago. And that’s part of the reason they both agree that no conclusion can be drawn just from a period of 15 years or less, and also that – at least so far – BEST provides no prediction regarding the future.

Dr. Beisner refers to “warming all agreed had occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age.” But, in fact, it remains the case that many are NOT convinced that either short-term or long-term global warming has occurred. BEST is working toward answering that question, but they have not yet done so.

16 E. Calvin Beisnser { 11.27.11 at 1:30 pm }

Mr. Tabor asserts that Muller and the BEST team never asserted that the BEST study was relevant to the CAGW debate and points out that WSJ substituted a more inflammatory title and subtitle for what Muller had written. He concludes “that many are NOT convinced that either short-term or long-term global warming has occurred.”

But it’s not just about WSJ’s titling and Robinson’s misrepresentation. It’s about what Muller himself wrote in the initial WSJ article:

“Are you a global warming skeptic? There are plenty of good reasons why you might be. …

“Without good answers to all these complaints, global-warming skepticism seems sensible. But now let me explain why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer. …

“When we began our study, we felt that skeptics had raised legitimate issues, and we didn’t know what we’d find. Our results turned out to be close to those published by prior groups. We think that means that those groups had truly been very careful in their work, despite their inability to convince some skeptics of that. They managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

“Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.”

Note his references to “global-warming skeptics” and “global-warming skepticism.” The meaning of those terms is either determined by widespread usage or not. Contrary to Mr. Tabor’s assertion, there are NOT “many [who] are NOT convinced that either short-term or long-term global warming has occurred”–at least not among the many prominent scientists who are routinely called “global warming skeptics.” The skeptics have consistently focused not on whether global warming has occurred, at least since the end of the LIA (though there have been some arguments about some short periods within the last century and a half), but on the cause(s) of that warming, on “climate sensitivity,” and on whether warming to be induced by enhanced CO2 should realistically be expected to be dangerous–perhaps catastrophic–or not, and on what should be our responses (mitigation, adaptation, or some combination of the two).

Muller’s article didn’t appear in the absence of larger dialogue. He cannot have been unaware that “global warming skeptic” and “global warming skepticism,” as they are commonly used in both grey and refereed literature, has a pretty specific meaning–and that meaning is not simply skepticism as to whether Earth’s average land surface temperature has warmed since the end of the LIA.

I’ll concede this much: Muller did conclude his WSJ article thus: “How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.” That being the case, however, he should, in recognition of the actual usage of “global warming skeptic” and “global warming skepticism” for the last fifteen years or so, not have stated that BEST’s findings showed ” why you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

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