Richard Muller on BEST, skeptics, the Urban Heat Island and future plans - transcript
- 03 Aug 2012, 15:30
- Ros Donald
We're sure some of you will be interested in reading a
transcript of the interview we did with Professor Richard Muller on
Wednesday. BEST published
their new results at the start of the week, accompanied by
op-ed in the New York Times from Professor Richard Muller,
the founder of the project, and effectively the
The interview went on for about half an hour, and there was too
much to put into our (already quite long) write up, which is
here. The interview was done over Skype, and there are a few
places where the sound cuts out or words were hard to hear. Feel
free to repost - please include a link to this post and a
credit to Carbon Brief.
Our questions are in italics.
Interview with Richard Muller
What was it about previous temperature data work that moved
you to start the BEST project?
(First few seconds of recording are missing. Muller says:
Three years ago I felt major issues were raised about previous
studies. I was not convinced they came to scientifically solid
They had used only a fraction of the data. We did a study in
which we used essentially all of the data.
There were issues about station quality - Anthony Watts had
shown that many of the stations had poor quality. We had studied
that in great detail. Fortunately, we discovered that station
quality did not affect the results. Even poor stations reflect
temperature changes accurately.
There were issues of data changes. Some of the prior groups
had adjusted the data and lost all record of how they had adjusted
it. So we went back to the raw data and used only that - and that
Two more things. The urban heat island effect. That was
something we studied I think in a clever and original way. [As
opposed to] using all the stations, we could derive the temperature
rise based only on rural stations. We got the same
Finally, the existing conclusions were based on extremely
complex global climate models. And these, you could never track
down how many adjustable parameters they had, you could never track
down how many hidden assumptions there were. In our approach, we
used a very simple approach.
We've been criticised for being simple but there's a
principle in science called Occam's razor , it says that things
that can be derived simply are much more likely to reflect the
truth than things that are hidden under huge complexity. We had
very few adjustments to make and we find a really good match
between the carbon dioxide and the temperature rise, and a very
poor match between solar variability and temperature rise. So based
on that we reached our conclusions.
I suppose those were the five key things that concerned me
back then and it took us two and a half years of very hard effort
to address all of them. Most of the work, I have to say, was done
by a young scientist called Robert Rohde. I just give him
enormous credit for having come up with the best [BEST?]
statistical approach - which, we believe, is the one that leads to
the smallest uncertainties in determining the record, and that was
absolutely key for us to reach our conclusions.
I'm just picking you up on the charge of being
They have it backwards. There are people who say that, for
example, some people say you need something that has 30 parameters
in it, and then we can make it fit and conclude that's right. Well,
30 parameters - you can fit anything.
When you can make it fit with virtually no adjustable
parameters, in that simplicity lies the truth. There's been a lot
of knee-jerk reaction to this because we've done something in what
I consider a more elegant way. I've been in physics a long time.
I've made major discoveries. I've worked on everything from
particle physics to astrophysics. I've worked on two projects that
won Nobel prizes for the people I hired to continue them. And in
all these cases, it was the simple analysis that led to the great
discoveries. When things are true, Feynmann said, the wonderful
thing is there's a simple way to understand it. So the simplicity
is not a weakness. I think many people - many of whom I notice have
never discovered anything in their life - believe that in
complexity lies the truth. But the glory of physics is that things,
sometimes hit you in the face. And that's the case
One of the people who'd suggested the study was too simplistic
was Judith Curry, who'd declined to be a co-author on the paper. Do
you feel like the study lacked a climatologist? Do you wish there
had been one on the team?
Am I not a climatologist?
Well, you're a particle physicist...
How about the papers that I've written on climatology that
were published in Science, in Nature, in the Journal of Geophysical
Research? How about a technical book I wrote on the history of
climate? That doesn't count? I am more famous for other things I've
done, but I've spent 10 years in climatology. I think my
credentials are as good as anyone else's in that
No, Judith Curry told us she didn't want to be in the paper
because she felt she hadn't contributed to it. And then she also
disagreed with our findings, I think in part because her approach -
she has an alternative theory. Her alternative theory is that
climate is random. And I've said to her that the unfortunate aspect
of her theory is that it's untestable. Now a theory that's
untestable is not something I consider to be a theory. She can take
the point of view that it's an accident - that the climate just
happened to match the carbon dioxide.
I mean there are many things it doesn't match: we tried many
things, we tried an exponential increase, we tried a population
increase and it didn't match any of those. Her response is: "Your
match is accidental". Her theory is no matter what you see, she can
match it with a random variation. That's an untestable
theory. We say in physics it's undeniable - you cannot prove it
wrong. That's not really, in my mind, a valid
If she came up with something that's testable I would love
to test my hypothesis against hers. But she doesn't have
You were, in a sense, responding to skeptic critiques of
surface temperature data...
I was listening to the skeptics, and appreciating that what
they were saying had validity.
Do you think ocean warming has been obscured in this
There were many things that have not been included, we
didn't include the ocean, we didn't include the upper atmosphere,
we didn't include the middle atmosphere. All of these
(Muller takes a phone call.)
What we chose to study is the part of the temperature that
is most critical to humans - the land surface. That's also more
sensitive to greenhouse gases than are the oceans, because the
oceans absorb a lot of heat. So we began our study by picking the
most critical part and the part that should have the biggest
effect, which I think was a wise choice.
Some people study the oceans, too. Other people adopt the
ocean models of other people when they include it in. Some people
include the upper atmosphere and don't - some people do the oceans,
don't do the upper atmosphere. You have to pick what you're going
to do. You can't do everything. We don't have good data on the
middle atmosphere, which is obviously important, but we felt that
the land data was the optimum thing to choose for this kind of
After you came out with the data you were making broader
statements about the globe warming when you were looking at part of
the data, which is obviously extremely important,
No-one can look at all the data though. (Bad skype line for
a few seconds.) When people say global warming they're not
including the middle atmosphere. (Bad line.) ...which comes from
around the world. If we included the oceans, which we can do by
simply taking the ocean results of others. This is something that
other groups have done - Jim Hansen at NASA, for example, takes the
ocean data from NOAA - we can include that in, it doesn't add
information or change any conclusions. It doesn't' go back as far
as the land record goes and so that's unfortunate. We don't have
ocean measurements that go back to the 1750s because nobody did
them back then. So the land data is really the best choice for the
kind of issues that are of importance to the world.
I was wondering... your Op-ed in the New York times, and
previous media coverage, talks about you being a 'sceptic' who
converted. And yet in your book, Physics for Future Presidents,
even though you're counselling against overstating the findings of
climate science, you don't question the fundamentals of climate
science, or indeed that humans are contributing to the greenhouse
I'm glad you noticed that. I have considered myself only to
be a properly sceptical scientist. Some people have called me a
denier - no, that's completely wrong. If anything, I was
But I also just don't hear you protesting very much against
the media storyline that seems to have emerged that you were
somehow a 'sceptic' beforehand, a sceptic in the way
Come on, you know you can't really counter the media. That
would be a full-time job if I were to simply try to respond to
everything, you know, write letters to the editor... I just hope
that some people like you will read my books and read my papers,
and read what I say - and not what people say I say.
My new book, my Energy for Future Presidents book, I think,
lays it out also again. That still 90 per cent of what's said about
climate change is nonsense. That when people attribute Hurricane
Katrina, or dying Polar bears, to climate change, that's not based
on any science whatsoever. In fact in many cases, it's wrong. The
number of hurricanes has not been going up, it's been going down
slightly. The number of tornadoes has not been going up, it's been
going down slightly. 90 per cent of the information given in the
movie Vice President Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth is
misleading, exaggerated or just plain wrong. So there's plenty of
room for skepticism. What we have addressed is the critical issue
of temperature change, and we've come up with answers that
illustrate I think what happens when science is done in a
straightforward and transparent way.
We reached conclusions that three years ago I would not have
guessed that we'd reach.
You mentioned in an interview before you released the first
study that you were hoping to bring some peace to the climate
I'm still hoping.
...Has the BEST work so far been received so far in the way
that you'd hoped?
Yes, I mean, I don't expect, of course, the media, forgive
me for that phrase, but the media contacts everyone and says what's
your reaction to these five papers that you haven't read based on
the op-ed. And of course they have a quick reaction, well I don't
think... it's too simplistic.
I don't think anybody who has responded in the media so far
has actually studied our work. We don't expect immediate agreement
on such things. What we expect is that by being transparent, open
and clear - by having the data online and the computer programmes
so people can see precisely what we did, that - over the coming
weeks and maybe months - that gradually the debate will be cooled
and people will recognise what it is we really did. And that we
will forge a scientific consensus - that we will help with
I think that many of the skeptics are, indeed, open-minded.
But until they really look at what we did they properly should
remain skeptics, and not be convinced by an op-ed piece. They're
not going to say: "Oh, if Muller changed his mind, then I will
too." That's not the way scientists work and it's not the way any
intelligent humans work.
More specifically, I notice you've been in touch with Anthony
Watts a fair amount and listened to his concerns. Had you expected
him to be more accepting of the results so far? Do you think that
his recent paper is a response to your work?
Oh no, he didn't even know about our work. His paper has
nothing to do with our announcement. His new paper was written over
the past few months, and it was written based on our analysis of
the temperature quality, or the station quality. In fact our
station quality paper doesn't disagree with his previous paper. Now
he's putting a new spin on it, saying that if I make up a new
version of station quality, I can show that with this new version
there is a difference between the uncorrected stations and the
That's great. I don't know whether that reflects his method
of choosing the stations or whether it's truly an unbiased
approach. We don't know yet because he hasn't released the stations
- we don't know how he did it. Well, we do know how he did it - he
listed his criterion, but we don't know how he came up with
those criterion. We have to study his results, but that has no
bearing on our just-released results. He didn't know about them.
Our papers were not released until the same day or right after he
released his new paper. He hadn't seen those results - he's not
really addressing our results.
Had you hoped he'd be more accepting of your original... of
the work that you released last year?
Well, look, our work on station quality agreed with what he
published. Now he's saying: "If I use a different criterion I find
that the uncorrected data can yield a bias". Well, that sounds
reasonable - if a station moves and you don't take that into
account, yeah, you're likely to get a bias. I don't see any really
strong objection to that. And so what he has done was interesting
and it continues to be interesting, but it doesn't affect our new
Do you feel the Urban Heat Island effect still poses problems
for estimating global temperatures, or do you think you have
settled that issue?
Oh, I think that has been settled. There are some people who
continue to raise objections - but the trouble with referee
comments is that they're not refereed themselves, and there have
been some very silly things said by referees. I think that the
urban heat island has been addressed by the three major groups, and
now it's been addressed by us. The fact is urban heating is seen,
but the fraction of the globe that's urban is so small that it's
very hard to imagine that there would be a major urban heat island
I noticed on Wattsupwith that Ross
McKitrick asked for major reviews to be made to the original
Yes, we got Ross's reviews, and the ones that were really
valuable were that he gave us references that we needed, and so on.
But in fact we wrote back to him for many of the things he said
were mistaken and based on a misinterpretation of what we had done.
So we wrote back to him and gave him our comments on his reviews
and why we thought that many of them were wrong. This is what's
called the peer review process, where we engage in
I was wondering how that tallies with Elizabeth Muller
(Professor Muller's daughter and BEST co-founder)'s assertion that
none of the paper's reviewers pointed out mistakes?
There were no mistakes in that paper. McKitrick had comments
and things he thought were mistakes, but we wrote back to him and
told him why he was wrong. I'm surprised that he still thinks they
were mistakes. We did write back to him and he did have useful
things to say. But there was really no change of substance. And I
think the conclusion that urban heat islands contribute essentially
zero to the warming we see is on very solid ground. He may nitpick
over some little things, but nothing important.
You were talking about how three years ago things that you had
seen cast doubt on your confidence in some of the warming data. I
was wondering how of that was due to Climategate and how you
view the episode now. Has your view of what happened - and the way
that the scientists involved behaved - evolved?
I think Climategate was inexcusable. I think what they did
amounts to scientific misconduct - malpractice, if you will.
Scientists, we have to be completely open with our data. We try to
do that - we may not be perfect, but we certainly try to put our
data online, to give everybody everything.
The UK group purposefully hid the discordant data, and they
did it in order to make sure that people drew the same conclusions
that they drew, and to me, that's misconduct. If they had science
licences, the licences would be taken away. The people who engaged
in that had very bad behaviour, unbecoming of a scientist and I
believe they really deserve to be ashamed for that.
They were exonerated, they did nothing illegal. But
there's a lot more beyond what's legal. When you hide data
from other scientists. And it wasn't using tricks - that was bad -
it was hiding the data that I thought was malpractice.
Are you talking about them hiding data from, for example,
From everybody! They mentioned that they had taken away data
but they wouldn't release it. And Steve McKintyre, I think rightly,
observed that this should is something that scientists should be
allowed to see. And from their emails we learned that the reason
they hid it was they were afraid other people would draw a
different conclusion from what they had.
So it was really very bad behaviour. By the way,
most people in this business believe those emails were not hacked.
They were leaked.
I wanted to ask about your future plans for BEST.
Could you envisage broadening the range to areas such as
There are a lot of things. We do want to add in the
oceans. We have this enormous database, which is worth exploring.
We're deeply interested in the role of ocean currents - we have one
paper that has been accepted and it's just waiting for publication
- and how they affect decadal and subdecadal variation, the El
Ninos and the Atlantic Gulf Stream. We're looking at that, and
there's some effects that come from those.
We're thinking about starting a new section of our study to
look at policy, and what can be done about it. So the Berkeley
Earth may actually have a separate section now that looks deeply
again, in what I like to think is an objective scientific manner,
on what could be done. That's something that Elizabeth [Muller] is
particularly interested in. She has a background in that kind of
policy issue. So lots of things to do - way too much to do. If you
know anyone who wants to give us some money to support this, please
put them in contact.
How do you see your position in all of this in the future? Do
you want to be the spokesman for BEST on future projects? How do
you see your role?
I think I've been chosen by the media as the spokesman -
you're welcome to call everybody else on the team. They tend to
call me because I was asked to testify before Congress and so on.
Elizabeth and I created this project - she had an op-ed in the San
Francisco Chronicle on Monday - yesterday - too. I have no care
about... Our goal is to focus and concentrate on the science, to do
it in an objective way, and hope that by doing this we will set an
example for future work in this field. An example not only in being
objective, but also in being open and transparent, and putting all
the work online in such a way that people will be able to duplicate
it and if, in fact, they feel we made a mistake, they can point to
what it is.
Some people will say the result is too simplistic. That's a
valid argument from a scientist. My whole experience in science is
just the opposite - that discoveries that are made through a simple
argument are the ones that turn out to be right in the long run and
are the ones that are actually most compelling - they're the
hardest ones to prove wrong. But some scientists disagree. They say
no, no - the only thing that really works is if you have large,
complex computer programmes. I disagree with that. But that's a
valid scientific objection. In the end it's our objectivity and
transparency that allows such criticisms to be made. We tell
everybody what we did and how we did it, and I think that's the
scientific process. What we're really hoping for is to return this
type of transparent science, to strengthen it, in climate science.
Let the politicians argue over what can be done about it. I think
that science is that small realm of knowledge in which universal
agreement can be achieved. Let's do that with climate science, and
then lets leave to the politics and the diplomacy what can be done
You're welcome to repost parts of this piece with a link
to this post and a credit to Carbon Brief.