Physicist Muller’s Big-Time Conversion: Was It News … or Just Slick P.R.?

‘BEST’ is the acronym physicist Richard Muller has given to his widely publicized research efforts on surface temperatures. But his and protagonist Anthony Watts’ latest campaigns seem more of the ‘best’ of public relations than of the best of science. And what about science journalism?

It was B I G  N E W S. Among the climate-centric, pretty much of the “Stop-the-Presses” variety.

Or, perhaps, it was not news at all. Just some slick public relations in the guise, and with a big boost from the op-ed page of the nation’s “newspaper of record.”

“Climate Skeptic Flips: Issue is Real.” That faux-headline pretty much sums-up the “big news” take.

News Analysis and Commentary


It all came down, of course, to Berkeley physicist Richard Muller’s announcing — drum roll, please — his conclusion that the vast body of climatologists has been, after all, right all along:  that global warming is “real and that prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct” and that “humans are almost entirely the cause” as a result of their emissions of carbon dioxide.

TA-DA!

“Told ya so!,” thousands of previously convinced climatologists might well have responded, were they not already somewhat predisposed to dismiss Muller’s continuous “coming-out” as something of an ill-thought-out prank, one aimed more at self-aggrandizement than at scientific discovery.

The carnival got under way, as one might expect in an era of 24/7 “breaking news,” with battling statements. In the one corner, we had Muller elaborating on his findings last fall that the issue is real; and in the other, the indefatigable counter-puncher Anthony Watts, with his “Wait there, not so fast” take on it all.

Times Op-Ed Page Plays Nice With Muller

Now, advance the clock a couple of days, with The New York Times playing nice with Muller and affording him much-cherished space on its op-ed page. So, for those of you not steeped in decades of U.S. journalism tradition …

It’s one thing to get your scholarly paper reviewed. It’s an altogether different thing, a whole new game, to have it reviewed in “The Times.”  The bloviating of the sort seen, for instance, in the South Yunkafunky Daily Blather op-ed page is one thing; the erudite “opining” found only in a Times op ed. a different thing by a mile: Careers long have been made, or shattered, by reviews or op eds in “the old gray lady.”

Muller ‘Welcomed’ … as Better Late than Never

Respected Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira was quoted in Climate Progress as saying, “I am glad that Muller et al have taken a look at the data and have come to essentially the same conclusion that nearly everyone else had come to more than a decade ago.” And oft-quoted (and oft-maligned) Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann agreed that Muller’s results “demonstrate what scientists have known with some degree of confidence for nearly two decades.”

A staple in the “big news” contingency’s reporting, of course, in the true follow-the-money tradition, was that Muller’s “Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature” project — cleverly and all too conveniently acronymed “BEST” — had been substantially funded by the now-famous Koch Brothers Foundation, an evil if ever there was one in the minds of liberals and climate “warmists” everywhere. That connection for sure lent a newsy twist to the story for those inclined to want to find one.

Former EPA Civil Servant/Weather-Climate Blogger Enters Fray

For those journalists and analysts inclined to want to dig a little deeper, former EPA professional staffer Jason Samenow, now an employee of The Washington Post and head of its popular Capital Weather blog (which he had founded and run out of his back pocket until the Post procured it and brought him over to keep running it), brought it all home with his July 30 posting.

Headlined “So-Called Blockbuster Climate Change Studies Prove Little,” his keen posting found red meat in the Muller and Watts self-proclaimed “game-changing” studies, the latter of which — surprise, surprise — became instant grist for Oklahoma Senator James “Hoax” Inhofe and his sycophants.

Offering ample “cause to question their legitimacy,” Samenow rightly characterized both the Muller effort and the Watts counter-punching: Both amounted to “high-profile releases [that] represent concerted efforts to influence public perception about what we know about climate science.”

Samenow quoted highly respected Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Ben Santer as saying Muller’s Times op-ed “is in the spirit of publicity, not the spirit of science.” Samenow said the Muller team’s defense against such charges “rings hollow” and “reeks of arrogance on the part of the author team.”

“Grabbing headlines in The New York Times prior to peer review represents an enormous tactical mistake,” Samenow wrote, a position that surely would have been no less legitimate had it been the Post‘s rather than the Times’ op-ed page that had succumbed.

Sensing a ‘Publicity-Motivated Intent’

Pointing to the conspicuously missing peer review as “the primary pillar of scientific legitimacy,” Samenow wrote that without that review, “a study has little to support it.” He wrote that Watts’ actions, like those of Muller, “speak more to a publicity-motivated intent.”

In his own study, clearly timed to counter Muller’s moments of fame, Watts had claimed to prove that NOAA temperature data records on warming are wildly inflated. “A game changer,” Watts announced, notwithstanding scores of peer-reviewed reports affirming NOAA’s approach and many reconstructions by countless scientists over the years. Samenow pointed to blogger and science writer David Appell’s saying the Watts paper is “exactly the kind of paper that most needs peer review.”

“We should reserve judgment on their significance,” Samenow wrote of both the Muller and the Watts non-game-changing reports.

He characterized as “disturbing and unproductive” the researchers’ “disingenuous attempt to score points on a highly polarized scientific issue,” and he urged all to “pay no attention” until each goes through rigorous peer review … if ever.

At that point, he cagily advised, “even studies that have been peer reviewed should be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism until they have been confirmed in multiple subsequent studies and stood the test of time.”

Perspectives from Two ‘Working Press’

Amidst some back-and-forth among journalists and writers on a journalism listserve, freelance writer Brian Angliss wrote that Muller’s conclusions “are so unremarkable that they aren’t news in the first place, and thus don’t deserve the attention of reporters.” The only reason things had gotten to that point? “Muller convinced someone at the NY Times who should have known better than his little PR stunt was actually newsworthy,” Angliss wrote.

To Angliss, journalists spending column inches, air time, or even cyber-seconds on the Muller report “wasted precious time and energy on something that wasn’t news in the first place …. By treating a PR stunt (and Muller’s second, at that) as news, they’ve revealed that they can be diverted from whatever it is they’re working on to chase after the latest shiny object.”

“How long before every Tom, Dick, and Harry comes out of the woodwork and starts publishing pre-submission press releases for their latest mathematically and physically unsound crackpot ideas?” Angliss asked. He left little doubt of where he personally stands on that question:

“Chasing Muller’s (and now Watts’) shiny object is bad for everyone,” Angliss vented. “Well, maybe not everyone — PR flacks and anyone interested in lying to the public will love it.”

Which in no way tracks closely, by the way, with the take of former CNN editor, and now Environmental Health News Publisher, Peter Dykstra, responding to Angliss on that same listserve.

Dykstra too found “no new science here” in Muller’s “dubious” motives and found Watts’ credentials “simply absent.” But we all err, he continued, “in deluding ourselves that decisions are made, and the world revolves around, authoritative science.”

He said absence of peer review “is indeed a deal killer for the science page,” but not necessarily in other news sections. “This is not a science story at all, but it is a story,” Dykstra countered.

“In an ideal world, we would not have spent the last two decades diddling over increasingly obvious scientific conclusions. In an ideal world, the dubious scientist wouldn’t get more ink than the more legit ones. And in an ideal world, it would be a shame that the NY Times can singlehandedly anoint a story as important.”

“Even a summer re-run from what he said last fall,” Muller’s story “is an appealing one,” Dykstra wrote: It “appeals to the vast majority of Americans who don’t give a rip about science news, or climate news. It’s the classic Man-Bites-Koch Brothers story we all learned about in J-school.

“But if we’re too close to a dense issue like climate change, we’re in danger of losing that perspective.”

Dykstra pointed to an archive of his company’s news and opinion pieces about Muller’s latest splash. “It’s clear that it caught a lot of editors’ eyes — probably many who normally yawn at climate science stories,” he wrote.

“Some of them reference the Watts story, but only Fox News (surprise!) spotlights Watts’s story. And note that I said story, not scholarly paper,” Dykstra concluded. “Because that’s what it is.”

Samenow Returns for Next-Day Take … Same ‘Stay Away’ Advice

In a next-day follow-up to his initial posting on the Muller and Watts studies, Samenow pointed to “new information” which he characterized as “reinforcing the pitfalls in accepting their conclusions and further implicating Muller and Watts in scientifically questionable publicity stunts.”

He pointed to “two problems” with Watts’ estimates that had been posted on “the blogosphere,” providing sites for them. He said also that NOAA had stood by its peer-reviewed temperature record.

Of Muller’s report, Samenow wrote that one method Muller had used to construct his dataset had been rejected in peer review by the American Geophysical Union’s Journal of Geophysical Research. That rejection on its own “does not mean it’s necessarily flawed,” Samenow wrote. But it does mean Muller and his colleagues “have work to do to get their house in order …. otherwise, the house comes crumbling down.”

He repeated his advice on both the Watts and the Muller studies: “Stay away — or wear a hard hat.”

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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6 Responses to Physicist Muller’s Big-Time Conversion: Was It News … or Just Slick P.R.?

  1. Martin Lack says:

    Dear Bud,

    Thank you so much for compiling this very insightful summary of the Muller-Watts affair. May I/we expect something similar regarding the Christy/Field/McCarthy affair or the Hansen et al./Wall Street Three affair?

    As it happens, I have been blogging about all of these things from afar (i.e. the UK) but, having read your piece, now I realise I was missing the inside track on a great deal. I will try and pay closer attention in future (especially to Jason Samenow’s Capitol Weather blog). However, for an idea of how a climate-realist in the UK sees all of this, please see any or all of the following:

    Muller knows BEST Watts wrong (1 August 2012)
    Esteemed Prof may regret citing College drop-out (3 August 2012)
    The reason we keep getting double-six (7 August 2012)
    And then there were three (16 August 2012)

    Regards,

    Martin Lack.

  2. Great essay that rings true. Even the esteemed radio journalist Diane Rehm recently bungled an interview with Richard Muller by letting him say that “Polar bears are not dying out because of global warming” Unchallenged or unexplained

    You can hear it at http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2012-08-14/new-consensus-climate-change

    Muller deserves enough air and transparency to expose magical beliefs. Otherwise, in these brief snippets and soundbytes – he skillfully delivers his deeper message of distraction from engaging fully in adaptation and mitigation.

  3. Oh no Bud, you really got me thinking – By conceding the biggest issues – warming and human caused at that – what tactical PR advantage does he gain? What was Muller trying to hide?

    Muller, no dummy, knows just what the next big science dispute is all about: The really big questions to come. About end times in the climate scenarios: How bad and how soon? Muller is trying to pretend there are another 35,000 scientists who may accept AGW – but will not consider how dire is the situation. “Great uncertainty over when and how bad”

    Only when one thinks with the most twisted and cynical of motives – only then does Mullers words make sense – his stance is consistent with maintaining a carbon fuel bubble. His PR edict is to keep the carbon fuel flowing. “Concede some points – but keep up the carbon revenue” and “Since we have doubt and uncertainty about these questions….etc”

    The simple test is to carefully hear more of what he has to say.

  4. mwhite says:

    Richard Muller

    December 17, 2003

    http://www.technologyreview.com/news/402357/medieval-global-warming/

    “Let me be clear. My own reading of the literature and study of paleoclimate suggests strongly that carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels will prove to be the greatest pollutant of human history. It is likely to have severe and detrimental effects on global climate. I would love to believe that the results of Mann et al. are correct, and that the last few years have been the warmest in a millennium”

    Page 2

  5. Davey says:

    Bud, I am curious why you felt the need to parenthetically mention that Michael Mann is “oft-maligned”? This is nothing more than a false equivalency. Mann is not “oft-maligned” by climate scientists. He is criticized by Watts, Monckton, McIntyre, etc. This is not a group of people who do climate research or have much credibility in the field. Would you also characterize an evolutionary biologist or a geologist who is spuriously criticized by creationists as “oft-maligned”?