Skeptics “BESTed”?

by Tony Thomas

November 8, 2011

The press of late is full of stories that a new scientific study called the “BEST” project has verified that the planet is warming strongly; that the skeptic case is defunct; and that skeptics now have no place to hide.

The story has bonus elements. The study, comprising four papers, was led by Richard Muller, a long-time skeptic; and the study was part-funded by the Koch brothers (skeptic oil billionaires).

Professor Muller is a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. He took his findings, ahead of peer review, to the Wall Street Journal in an op-ed piece on October 20.

BEST stands for Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project. In brief, the BEST team re-visited and re-analyzed land temperature-station data which it acknowledged was of poor, ‘largely awful’, quality, yet was the basis for the IPCC’s estimation of a 0.64degC global temperature rise in the past 50 years. Even in the US, which has good station coverage, 70% of the temperature read-out boxes have error margins of 2 to 5+ degrees C.

There is also the issue of the ‘heat island effect’, where urbanization rather than CO2 is inflating temperatures.

BEST re-crunched and corrected data from 39,000 global land temperature boxes. The results were that a third of the boxes recorded cooling and two-thirds, warming. The “warming” stations showed warming of 1-2degC, much greater than even the IPCC finding of 0.64degC.

BEST also found that the urban heat island effect was not significant to the warming debate.

Muller’s conclusion was: “Global warming is real…How much of this warming is due to humans and what will be the likely effects? We made no independent assessment of that.”

The most uncomfortable aspect of BEST for the skeptics is that the skeptic’s doyen, meteorologist/blogger Anthony Watts, gave the BEST methodology a big tick last March, saying, “I’m prepared to accept whatever result they produce, even if it proves my premise wrong.”

He did note that skeptic Muller’s chief scientist is Robert Rohde, who literally drew the notorious Hockey Stick graph which got the global warming scare under way. (The data was from others).

Manifestly, the BEST outcome was a public relations disaster to the skeptics and a windfall to the somewhat beleaguered warmist camp.

Few press readers twigged that Muller’s piece involved the straw-man argument: “Global warming is real.” Of course. But is it man-made? Is it serious? Is CO2 the villain? Are climate models useful? These are the skeptics’ queries.

So far, the affair is a media circus, not science. Muller’s own headline on his Wall Street Journal piece was “Let’s cool the warming debate.” The newspaper changed it to “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism” with a sub-headline of “There were good reasons for doubt, until now”.

That treatment shocked Muller, who said he probably wouldn’t have submitted the piece if he’d known that the headings would misrepresent the contents. As a journalist, I might have put the same “top” on the story, given that in the middle of the piece, Muller had written, “You should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer…”

In any event, the pro-warming world media now has its line, and is running with it. The Age (October 28), for example, re-ran a vitriolic piece by Wall Street Journal columnist Eugene Robinson: “For the clueless or cynical diehards who deny global warming, it’s getting awfully cold out there…”

Headlines were ingenious, such as “Hot Dog Bites Skeptical Man” and “The BEST kind of skepticism”.

The skeptics have now counter-attacked Muller and BEST, in a controversy that could swell to Hockey-Stick dimensions.

On October 30, the UK’s Daily Mail interviewed Judith Curry, Muller’s second-named co-author of the four Berkeley study papers. Professor Curry chairs the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

She said that Muller’s claim that he had proved warming skeptics wrong was a ‘huge mistake’ with no scientific basis. She said the Berkeley data showed that there has been no increase in world temperatures since the end of the Nineties. “This is nowhere near what the climate models were predicting,” she said. In fact the standstill in warming was making many non-skeptic scientists take the skeptic arguments more seriously, she said.

Curry was not consulted by Muller before Muller published his results to the media. “I think they have made errors and I distance myself from what they did,” she said.

She said two of the four papers were not publication-ready and a graph given to the press by Muller involved a ‘hide the decline’ subterfuge. It was also misleading of Muller to claim that the urban heat island issue had been settled.

Next question, always worth a check: did the Daily Mail misquote Curry? But Curry has only denied a line in the article that she had compared BEST with Climategate.

Why did Muller go to the media in such a hurry before peer review? The explanation on the BEST website (to give scholars a chance for quick feedback) doesn’t stack up.

However, there will be an IPCC expert review very shortly (December 2011-February 2012) of what’s called the First Order Draft. This Draft doesn’t require papers to have been peer reviewed and hence would be attractive to someone in Muller’s half-way position.

Both Anthony Watts and Ross McKittrick, the skeptics’ top team, are meanwhile crying ‘foul’ over alleged breaches of confidence by Muller. McKittrick:

The fact is that many of the people who are in a position to provide informed criticism of this work are currently bound by confidentiality agreements.

‘For the Berkeley team to have chosen this particular moment to launch a major international publicity blitz is a highly unethical sabotage of the peer review process.’

High-profile anti-BEST scientist, Fred Singer, is an atmospheric and space physicist. He was, among other things, founding director of the US Weather Satellite Service. He wrote in the Wall Street Journal (November 3) that the BEST study merely re-works the same contaminated temperature data used by the Climategate team, covering less than 30% of the earth’s surface. Even so, a third of the BEST data series show cooling, while the absence of warming in the marine atmosphere suggest solar variability, not CO2, is the main climate driver.

Singer says global warming theory and modeling predict atmospheric warming but weather satellites and weather balloon radiosondes (two independent measures), show no atmospheric warming over the 1987-97 period. He concludes:

The Berkeley team’s research paper comments: ‘The human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated.’ I commend Mr. Muller and his team for their honesty and skepticism.

Tony Thomas is a retired economic and business journalist and author of Stolen Generations: The Pocket Windschuttle.

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