Skip to main content

Trusting your fellow scientist

Anna Goldstein, former grad student, chemistry | March 6, 2012

In my last post, I told you that Berkeley Physics professor Richard Muller is the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic* climate change. Maybe that strikes you as odd. Why would I look to a physicist for information about our atmosphere? Shouldn’t we be talking with UC Berkeley’s Atmospheric Sciences program instead?

Of course, Muller and his team at Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature don’t claim to be the first people to measure the change in global temperature over time. When they began that project in 2010, there was an active field of climate scientists claiming that the Earth is warming, and there was also an extremely vocal group of skeptics disagreeing with their results. Muller entered the conversation with the mindset of an impartial third party, someone who could analyze the data without any political or financial incentives often attributed to the climate scientists.

Last fall, Berkeley Earth began to release their preliminary results online. Their analysis shows that the Earth is indeed warming; in fact, their plot of average annual temperature since 1900 is a nearly perfect match of the previously existing plots. The Berkeley Earth study hasn’t converted everyone to a believer yet — prominent skeptics like Anthony Watts continue to question the transparency and validity of the study’s methods — but it has gotten significant attention from Congress and the national media, and the discussion will certainly continue when the results are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Much of the media attention has focused on whether or not the skeptics will change their minds. But what about the people who championed climate change all along? How have they responded? Are they high-fiving Muller, or are they shrugging, saying “We told you so”?

Geologist and author James Lawrence Powell, in a video for the Big Think series, describes his feelings this way: ”He should have trusted the other scientists and the peer review process which had produced the data that he was questioning.  Two years ago, you had 98% of the climate scientists in the world saying they accepted human-caused global warming. There was no reason to question that data, and it was a little offensive of Muller to simply say, ‘Well I don’t believe this until I do it myself.’”

In an interview with Science magazine, Muller explains why he thought there was in fact a reason to question the data. Yes, many climate change skeptics sound more like conspiracy theorists than scientific critics, but there was also some practical criticism of the existing methods of data collection and analysis, such as measuring temperature in overheated urban areas or combining disparate data sets (see the hockey stick debate, for example). Berkeley Earth, on the other hand, posts all their raw data online, along with detailed explanations of their methodology. Muller was hoping to improve on what had been done before, not just repeat it for the sake of seeing it with his own eyes.

Whether or not you were offended by Muller’s attempt to calm the climate change debate, I’d like to focus instead on Powell’s deeper message. He claims that scientists have a responsibility to trust each other. As he says in the video, “If every scientist said, ‘I’m not going to believe what anybody else did until I do it myself,’ scientists would be at least a century behind where we are right now. That is, if something is done by a reliable lab, passes peer review, you should at least tentatively accept it until somebody shows you some reason why it’s wrong.”

This is a bold statement, and it made me think. As scientists, skepticism is one of our main responsibilities, maybe even our first priority, because we have implicitly agreed to collect knowledge from the physical world rather than myth or superstition. We must be skeptical of claims, unless they are supported by empirical evidence. So how did we end up with a “scientists vs. skeptics” debate, where scientists are compelled to say “don’t worry, just trust me”?

From what I can tell, Powell is not actually calling for a new age of non-skeptical scientists; his argument boils down to efficiency. With the immense volume of data being collected reported on a daily basis, it is in everyone’s interest to give scientists the benefit of the doubt, to assume that they are performing their work competently. And this is exactly what happens, in almost every sub-field of science. We allow the members of each community to check each other’s work, and then we trust their consensus. Something that is considered established fact by geologists is then accepted by chemists, astronomers, geneticists, and everyone else, including politicians.

It is only in certain special cases (climate change, evolution, vaccines, etc.) where cultural opinion butts up against scientific fact, that we have skeptics questioning skeptics, and everyone is scrambling to prove that the truth is on their side. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, the policies made by today’s governments may be a matter of life and death, for humans and most other species on our planet (cockroaches and extremophiles not included).

So in the end, I think Powell should go easy on Muller and his team. They saw a messy debate (replete with scandals, basically a P.R. nightmare for science), and they decided to enter the fray, but their contribution has been based on calm, rational discourse. They certainly deserve a high-five for that.

*Muller’s claims are actually limited to measuring global warming, rather than identifying its cause. He says that there is still uncertainty regarding how much warming is from human activity. Thanks to commenter Rachel for the correction.

Further reading
NYTimes: Climate Study Does Not Placate Skeptics
Science: Q&A with Richard Muller

Cross-posted from the Berkeley Science Review, a graduate-student magazine on research occurring at UC Berkeley.

Comments to “Trusting your fellow scientist

  1. CO2 cannot hold heat radiation so it is impossible for it to affect temperature. The magnetic field around the earth,our orbit,orbital shape,gravity, Earths angle and the energy of the sun is what decides our temperature average. The gasses in the atmosphere regulate the temperature by keeping some of the photons from hitting the surface of the earth . The Photons hit water molecules in the air turning to heat energy in the water vapor which is radiated as heat. This is why a desert is so hot in the day and so cold at night — its dry. If it had water in the air the daytime highs would be lower and nighttime temps higher. It would be boiling hot and deadly cold without an atmosphere, because of water vapor not co2.

    Pressurize a container with 1 % CO2 and another with air. Put a temp gauge in both and put a heat source on them… I bet they stay exactly the same temp or the one with CO2 might be a little cooler.

  2. Here’s a short summary that is worth reading:

    People have strong feelings about the issues involved in climate-change research, and that’s changing the focus of the original post, which is using this research area to illuminate a broader epistemological point about necessary shortcuts for determining whether knowledge is reliable.

    Intellectually temperamented people often feel like they were burned by authority figures when they were young, and this leads them to overdo the dismissal of authority as a source of knowledge. Finding a balance takes a lifetime. Unfortunately for our children, anthropogenic climate change effects will take a heavy toll whether we get over our disenchantment with authority or whether we don’t.

  3. Anna, I looked at your last blog, but didn’t see anything on “Richard Muller [a]s the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic climate change” other than your comment that one should try arguing with him. The article you link to with his name is well known, but he does not say that climate change is anthropogenic. What he does say on that subject is “How much of the warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.” So I think Professor Muller would not agree with your description of him being “the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic climate change.” I have read his books and watched his lectures: he never claims that global warming is anthropogenic.

    • You’re right, Rachel. Anyone can watch this recent interview with Professor Muller to see that he does not promote anthropogenic warming, nor does he say that one should not be a skeptic. Everyone reading or contributing to this blog should view this short interview.

  4. “Calm, rational discourse” puts on the table the problem of what challenges our futures hold, allowing everyone to collaborate on finding a way to move on what we conjecture is coming our way. Whatever does happen will affect both skeptics and converts, so looking outward at the problem together seems the mature, intelligent, and humane choice.

  5. Here is a novel idea.

    Test before you guess.

    We have lots of computer models that presumably predict global warming events based on future events.

    How about taking some of these computer models and use a start date of 1960 and make a prediction for 2010.

    Also, take a model and run it backwards into the past. Take the 2010 model and run it backwards for 50 years and see what the weather was in 1960.

      • @YSPH_Student: I think you linked to the wrong file here. This PDF doesn’t discuss “taking some of these computer models and use a start date of 1960 and make a prediction for 2010,” as hoapres suggests. You mention that this technique “has actually been done by quite a few research groups to confirm and validate these predictive models.” I can’t find any examples on the Internet, though. Can you please point me to some? Maybe they’re in paper journals?

  6. Human caused CO2 constitutes less than .004% of the atmosphere. Natural CO2 consists of .036% of the atmosphere. Measuring it in tons or 400PPM makes it sound like a lot but it is not.

    • The so called “small percentages” often are what make a huge difference. Simply look at the graph of CO2 level between pre-industrial age and current age. There are numerous studies that concluded the effect of man-made climate change, but if so called “skeptics” don’t bother to go read those journals and come up with legitimate questions, then there’s nothing more I can say. Simply saying “I don’t believe this and the scientists” is just humiliating.

  7. AJ- You’re right, that is the point of view of some skeptics, but I strongly disagree that the skeptic community is monolithic in its acceptance of climate change. Many people would have you believe that the increasing temperature is entirely fictional, dreamed up by the climate scientists hoping to cause fear/panic. (The supposed motivation of the “alarmists” is unclear to me.. perhaps as John’s comment suggests, the scientists are just raising money to throw wild parties).

  8. The Bible says in the past the oceans got higher by 150 meters ( converted from anient metrological figures. Genisis, Hebrew Bible), and there were no cars or farting cattle that caused it. So normal humans question the scientists who need lots of money to have wild parties, on the backs of the world’s tax payers.

    And yes, scientists did confirm ocean levels rose about 150 meters in the past, but have no idea what caused it.

    There are people killing themselves because of the Washington stranglhold on the economy, and they are no worried about funding science games and professor’s party-favor bank accounts.

    • Whatever the Bible says have no relevant. Please do not bring that book to this discussion table. It is embarrassing.

      • People that hate the bible are the ones that cannot read. Al Gore won the nobel prize for claiming all the world’s ice will melt by 2010 — you know the Nobel comittee and the left ( academia) are an ’embarrasment to the human kind ‘. All they do is lie, lie, and lie more to acrue more tax payer funds for thier lavious parties.

        There is more Ice at the poles today then in 1999 or even 1979, the last peak of global ice.

  9. the reason the study does not placate the skeptics is that you are not listening to what is being said. The skeptics are saying that CO2 is not the reason for the changes we see in the climate. Most of us agree that the climate is changing. that is not the point.

    Human caused CO2 constitutes less than .004% of the atmosphere. Natural CO2 consists of .036% of the atmosphere. Measuring it in tons or 400PPM makes it sound like a lot but it is not.

    Also, we only have a couple of hundred years of temperature data, the rest is a guess based on tree rings and core samples. How you can figure out the average temperature during the summer or winter is more like black magic than science.

    The only thing that this study does is confirm what deniers and skeptics already knew, the climate is changing.

    • Yeah, and “0.004%” and “0.036%” sound like a little, but they’re not. Unless you have some deep expertise about the physical system in question, your “intuition” for what is large and what is small is irrelevant.

    • No, it is not black magic. Measuring tree rings and core samples allowed us to make great predictions that fit with numerous other methods. Please point to me which renowned scientists dispute those techniques.

      • Dear Anna, KL, an Vincenzo: Read The Hockey Stick Illusion, and further your education, please. I think you’ll be shocked. In fact, I’d be more than happy send each of you a copy. You will see, step by step and in pain-staking detail, the fraud that has been committed in the name of pier-reviewed science. I’m sure you will begin to appreciate the distrust that currently vexes you as you learn more about the science, and the IPCC. Just take a look at the reviews on Amazon, and you’ll see that there’s a tremendous consensus that this is an outstanding and important book on the subject of your current blog.

        Please don’t misunderstand me, Global Warming is real and has been real for 12,000 years. The Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period were also real, though key climate scientists (e.g. Mann) tried to make these inconvenient truths disappear. The next Ice Age will also be real. The onus is on AGW proponents to show that the temperature increase since the Industrial Revolution is caused by the increase in CO2, not the results of normal fluctuation in climate. They have not done so.

        In fact, Muller does not say that the warming is caused by human activity, he simply verifies that the warming is there. You are making a mistake if you assume that Muller agrees with AGW proponents who claim the current warming is due to human-caused CO2, without consideration of natural climate changes. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been many times higher than today and in fact, despite the current 12,000-year warming (Holocene), we are still in a cold period on the temperature timeline of the Earth

        If you read the IPCC reports, you’ll find that the models they used have all predicted more warming than subsequently observed. Despite the increase in CO2 over the past decade, the lack of warming predicted by the models is glaring. NASA satellite data over the last decade shows specific predictions of the models to be incorrect. So, irrespective of the research and publication practices of current climate scientists, there is empirical evidence that the climate models are lacking the accuracy needed to elevate their predictions to the level of an empirical experiment. In fact, climate models that have predicted the lack of warming over the past decade exist, but do not receive much attention, as they do not place the same importance on CO2 as a driver of climate as the AWG/IPCC crowd does.

        There are plenty of other points that I think will fascinate you if you read this book, such as the fact that tree rings over the past half century have not been increasing in width, corresponding to the temperature increase over the same period – this is called the “Divergence Problem.”

        In fact, Anna, I challenge you to read The Hockey Stick Illusion in its entirety and write a blog on it. It’s nearly 500 pages, so I’m sure it will have to wait until after finals! If I send a copy with your name on it to the Graduate School of Chemistry, will it get to you?



        • Michael,

          The problem is you get people who aren’t scientists, or at least a scientist in a particular field, publish a book on an area about which they have little expertise. Then people who want to believe that point of view jump on it as if it were the definitive proof. You get this kind of non-sense with the “Intelligent” design advocates who tied and downplay evolution.

          Please stop citing current climatology data as if it disproves global warming models. As always models evolve with more data. If you read the link from YSPH_Student above, you will see you that your blanket dismissal of warming models is inaccurate.

          Perhaps you should try this link.

          As far as you hockey stick book written by someone who is clearly not a climatologist, read the following.

          • Vincenzo, I’ll reply to your post here, in its entirety:

            “The problem is you get people who aren’t scientists, or at least a scientist in a particular field, publish a book on an area about which they have little expertise. Then people who want to believe that point of view jump on it as if it were the definitive proof. You get this kind of non-sense with the “Intelligent” design advocates who tied and downplay evolution.”

            To Equate The Hockey Stick Illusion (Montford, 2010) with “nonsense” and “Intelligent Design,” when you haven’t read the book is outrageously obnoxious and shows a lack of serious thought or effort on your part to consider this publication as it relates to the main point of Anna’s blog post here. The book is not a “point of view;” it is a well-written piece of journalism over 450 pages long. To ridicule the book without reading it, and simply referring to a blog written by a politicized non-climate scientist who didn’t read it either is not a credible reply to me, a person who has read the book, holds a bachelors degree in physics, a masters degree in physics education (UC Berkeley, 2007), a former GSI for Professor Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents class, a serious student of climate for nearly 15 years, and a teacher of science for 25 years. To claim that there is any relation between The Hockey Stick Illusion (Montford, 2010) and “advocates who tied and downplay evolution” is an extraordinarily ludicrous assertion and divorced from reality.

            I never criticized or challenged anything you posted on this blog. I just suggested you read a book (one of many dozens of books on climate that I have seriously read) that pertains to the central point of this (Anna’s) blog. I even offered to send you a copy. Yet you reply with unfounded disdain, and make false connections between my statements, the book to which I refer, Intelligent design, and denial of evolution. I don’t know where you get any of that, but it’s made up, as it has nothing to do with the substance of my post to which you are replying.

            “Please stop citing current climatology data as if it disproves global warming models. As always models evolve with more data.”

            I never said “disproves,” Vinceno. Please stop making things up. I said, “there is empirical evidence that the climate models are lacking the accuracy needed to elevate their predictions to the level of an empirical experiment.” The fact is, the climate models predicted warming that did not happen. Anyone who seriously studies climate knows that. Models “evolve” as scientists notice that a model makes incorrect predictions, identify the components that are the cause of the incorrect predictions, and then revise them and re-test for validity. (I recommend reading some Thomas Kuhn.) The models touted in the IPCC reports are not accurate, and therefore should not be used to dictate immediate and drastically scaled policy.

            There are climate scientists who focus on ice ages. They also have climate models that predict when the next ice age will occur and how bad it will be. Let me ask you this, Vinceno: Since the next ice age will truly mean the end of Civilization as we know it, shouldn’t their work be considered in the IPCC reports? After all, the first climate alarms by climate scientists were about global cooling in the mid 1970’s.

            “If you read the link from YSPH_Student above, you will see you that your blanket dismissal of warming models is inaccurate.”

            I DID READ IT, DID YOU?! In fact, YSPH_Student posted it as an example of a case where climate models were run at a starting point in the past to see if they can be validated by predicting current climate. YET THE ARTICLE NEVER MENTIONS ANYTHING ABOUT THAT AT ALL! Moreover, the article is not pier reviewed, and is not written by climate scientists. You complain about this regarding the author The Hockey Stick Illusion (Montford, 2010), yet you slam the book without actually reading it. I, on the other hand, read the entire article that you are referring to and could have (but didn’t) reply to YSPH_Student with a variety of problems with the content of the article, in addition to the fact that YSPH_Student purports it to be an example of a type of climate model validation technique (YSPH_Student says it’s one of many studies) when there’s no mention of such validation in the article at all! In fact, the article provides support to my point, as the graphs leave out any measured climate data from 2000 on, the inflection point at which the models diverge significantly for reality. How does this article show that my criticism of the divergence between the models published in any of the IPCC reports and the measured data to date is “inaccurate?” Please cite the text in the article that shows my “dismissal of warming models is inaccurate.”

            “ Perhaps you should try this link”

            These links show temperatures and CO2 levels have naturally been much higher in the past before humans even existed. Yes, that’s what I said: CO2 and temperature have been much higher in the past, and with no relation to humans. So what is your point here? That since CO2 levels today are going to result in the temps as 15 MYA? That was Al Gore’s implication – not a climate scientist, by the way – in his movie. Paloecilimate studies show that temperature drives CO2, not the other way around. That’s why the problem of the lack of warming since around 2000, despite the increase in CO2 is so aggravating to people (scientists or not) who don’t have an open mind (aka love science).

            But do I think we should be careful about increasing CO2 levels further? Yes, of course I do! You never asked! You just immediately threw me into the category of people who deny evolution. Just because I can see that some scientists (at the core of the IPCC reports) and media elites and politicians such as Al Gore have committed fraud for political purposes does not mean that I’m a proponent of dirty air, dirty water, a Hell on Earth, and what else…

            “As far as you hockey stick book written by someone who is clearly not a climatologist, read the following.”

            The blog you point to here only criticizes passages in the first chapter of the book, and in a way that clearly shows he didn’t read the rest of the book. It is written by a non-climate scientist, which is your main complaint about the book (that you never read) which was the point of my original comment to this blog in the first place, about the question of trusting (fellow) scientists. I don’t mind that the author of this link is not a climate scientist, and I read it word for word, completely unimpressed.

            Thanks for your reply, Vincenzo, but I’ve given you all the time I have for now. My offer still stands: if you want to actgually read the book I suggested in response to the main point of this blog, I will send it to you. If you honestly read it and want to seriously discuss it, rather than link to other blogs you found that support your preconceived conclusions, I’m more than willing to do so.

    • One can see that AJ completely dismisses how temperature records are gathered with his or her tree ring comment as black magic, or makes the assumption that there is only one way to gauge past temperatures. That speaks to his or her own biases and preconceived notions rather than any intelligent assessment of the accuracy of past temperature measurements.

      KH is right on target. It doesn’t matter whether or not one thinks 400PPM is a small number. What matters is the level at which CO2 has an impact. It is very clear that the industrial age has dramatically increased the level of CO2. It is also known that CO2 has properties which make it able to trap heat. Some think we should bury our heads in the sand and act as if mankind pouring CO2 into the atmosphere at a rate that increased CO2 levels by some 50% in only one hundred years cannot possibly have any effect on the climate. They also don’t consider that the rate if emissions is accelerating. The only move that makes sense is to plan to alter how we use and generate energy in every way possible. A nice side effect will be that we will be on the road to reducing or hopefully eliminating our dependence on foreign oil.

Comments are closed.