William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Richard Muller’s Political Move—BEST is Best? Sophisticated Statistics!

Our Berkeley Earth approach used sophisticated statistical methods developed largely by our lead scientist, Robert Rohde, which allowed us to determine earth land temperature much further back in time.

Ah, yes. Statistical methods. And sophisticated ones at that1. Case closed, right? After all, you can’t go wrong with proof by statistics.

Last October, I advanced a number of (sophisticated!) criticisms of BEST’s “sophisticated” methods (here and here). At least some of the study authors know of these criticisms: I emailed Muller, Charlotte Wickham, and Judy Curry, but only received a reply from Curry (on her blog).

As far as I can tell, none of the criticisms I made, nor any of the criticisms advanced by D.J. Keenan, have been answered satisfactorily; indeed, they have not been answered at all. I must admit that in politics, it is sometimes best not to acknowledge your critics. In this sense, Muller may be wise.

Muller has two op eds out today, a double whammy meant to influence politics. Well, this blog is meant to influence politics, so there’s noting in the world wrong with that. But just you count how many people, in support of Muller’s position, will call his pieces “science” and not polemic; whereas the opposite labels will be applied to Muller’s critics.

There is nothing new scientifically in Muller’s press releases, except announcements the BEST papers that were long available are still available.

Muller says, as people in his position have long been saying, that he himself, a one-time skeptic, a veritable prodigal son, has settled “the scientific debate.” The fallacy he makes is to say to himself, “I do not know of any flaws in my work, therefore there are none.” Common enough in academia.

I imagine the New York Times won’t be publishing a rebuttal; news that is unwelcome is not newsworthy there. So the interesting test will be how much “traction” Muller’s ploy evinces on the left. The perpetually offended will raise a stink—blog posts with lots of exclamation points, arguments that if one skeptic converts all should, pieces filled with angry glee, that sort of thing. But what effect on the citizen? Nothing more than brief interest on a slow news day, and all forgotten next week? Or a resurgence in fear that, if we don’t start taxing and regulating people now, the end is nigh? Tax dollars, see, absorb carbon dioxide.

Muller has a bit of luck on his side (it’s hot and dry in a few places in the USA this summer; but, for instance, England is cold and wet). Some man will say to himself, “Maybe this guy is right. I had to sweat yesterday.” But then that man will soon be distracted by Romeny’s and Obama’s attack ads, by worries the economy is again suffering, by the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, and so forth.

I’m guessing that the global warming movement is losing steam. The state of anxiety that was once present among the electorate has ratcheted down. This is why Muller is “striking” now. The professionally outraged will remain outraged that “nothing” is being done (besides the billions already being spent, of course). The EPA will reason that it has more reason to swell in size. But the man-in-the-street won’t be able to sustain his worry—even to the point of some saying, “Yeah, this guy Muller is probably right. But so what? I can live with a little heat. Winter’s are too damn cold anyway.” The majority would just as soon forget about it.


1In a leaked, uncorrected draft of Muller’s piece, the word sophistical was originally in place of sophisticated. The leaked draft also showed Muller has an antipathy toward apostrophes.


  1. I emailed Charlotte Wickham, and she graciously replied with answers to each of my statistics questions and suggestions. I used neither my work email account nor my title in the message. No speculations on their characters and intentions, and of course, no political talking points, either. Only legitimate statistics questions.

  2. Mikey Mann had this to say

    …Its great that he’s reaffirmed what we already knew. But for him to pretend that we couldn’t trust this entire scientific field until Richard Muller put his personal stamp of approval on their conclusions is, in my view, a very dangerously misguided philosophical take on how science works. It seems, in the end–quite sadly–that this is all really about Richard Muller’s self-aggrandizement :(

    Interesting pot-kettle in the last phrase. If Muller was looking for a seat on the next Assessment Report, it may have backfired.


  3. Quoth noted climate change skeptic, Richard Muller, as reported by ‘Pokerguy’ on Dr. Curry’s blog:

    “pokerguy | July 29, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
    Yay. Countdown to Anthony. First thing I thought of when I woke up this morning. I need therapy.

    As to Muller’s NYT’s “Amazing Grace” piece (I once was blind but now I see), here’s a comment by poptech on Bishop Hill:

    The Truth about Richard Muller


    “I was never a skeptic” – Richard Muller, 2011

    “If Al Gore reaches more people and convinces the world that global warming is real, even if he does it through exaggeration and distortion – which he does, but he’s very effective at it – then let him fly any plane he wants.” – Richard Muller, 2008

    “There is a consensus that global warming is real. …it’s going to get much, much worse.” – Richard Muller, 2006

    “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.” – Richard Muller, 2003″

  4. When you have a chance to look at Watts’ latest, I am curious to know what you think.

  5. Bob Ludwick: Thank you for sharing that.

  6. @commiebob: “When you have a chance to look at Watts’ latest, I am curious to know what you think.”

    I’m not sure if you were asking Dr. Briggs or me, but I did read Watts’ latest and I think several things.

    First, be advised that I am not scientist, mathematician, or statistician.

    Apparently most or all ground station temperature data is routinely ‘adjusted’, using adjustment factors that are largely subjective. I think that if you have a data collection system whose output must be subjectively adjusted, you do not have a data collection system.

    I think that we have a ‘climate change mafia’ that routinely quotes an ‘annual temperature of the earth’ with a resolution of 1/100 degree (1/1000 degree according to at least one NASA press release) based on an instrumentation system barely adequate to determine whether you should wear a jacket or not. And that is BEFORE the actual thermometer readings have been ‘adjusted’, based on principles that would make entrail reading seem downright scientific.

    I think that the ‘climate science community’, collectively, would be hard pressed to deploy a temperature measurement system of their design in my county in VA, collect data for a year, process it as they see fit, publish the annual temperature of my county, plus or minus 1/100 degree (C OR F), and convince me-or you-that it was accurate. I doubt that the existing world temperature measurement system can do better for the earth at large.

    I think that the constant citing of satellite data as the ‘gold standard’ for the ‘temperature of the earth’, by both sides of the debate, should be questioned. After all, satellites do not measure surface temperatures directly. Their sensors collect data that can be converted to surface temperature with some fairly sophisticated post processing. A critical part of the process requires that the data be calibrated by comparing it with ground temperature data. After the ‘ground truth’ has been adjusted by climate scientists, of course. A classic self-licking ice cream cone.

    I think it unlikely that climate scientists could provide an exhaustive list of all factors that influence climate or cause it to change, let alone write a simulation program that includes all of them with the correct magnitude and sign of their influence and can predict climate a century out. In fact, from reading the vehement ‘discussion’ on climate blogs it is not at all apparent that climate experts on either side of the controversy can point out any particular aspect of CURRENT ‘weather’ and conclusively attribute it to ‘climate change’, never mind apportion the amount of change between natural and anthropogenic causes.

    And what is this obsession with ‘climate change’ anyway? Has anyone ever made the case that climate is stationary absent anthropogenic influence?

    Since the focus of the ‘C’ in CAGW is on the (debatable, empirically) rising ‘temperature of the earth’, what is the ideal temperature of the earth, who or what collection of ‘whos’ determined the ideal temperature, and what factors did they consider in making their determination?

  7. In his op-ed Muller writes:

    “Science is that narrow realm of knowledge that, in principle, is universally accepted.”

    Eh? To my understanding (I’m an Engineer), the process of science is one of continuously trying to determine where/how one’s ideas of how the universe works are wrong, through observations of the physical world. Our mental models of how the universe works are at best approximations. Nature doesn’t follow our mental models.

  8. Dr. Mueller teaches an elementary physics class at Berkley. Many of the lectures are available on the web.
    A few year back the “skeptical” professor during the lecture on global warming held up the Summary for policy makers from the 2001 IPCC report(the infamous Hockey stick report)and declared that the report contained the finest science on the subject.
    So much for skepticism!

  9. OT but @Bob Ludwick
    “A critical part of the process requires that the data be calibrated by comparing it with ground temperature data.”

    This is not true. While this is commonly stated as ‘fact’, it is not the way the process works. What they calibrate against are a precision thermometer onboard the satellite and the background temperature of open space. There is no calibration against ground temperatures. What there WAS was a comparison with balloon data to check the accuracy of the calculations, but that wasn’t a calibration.

  10. @ Graeme W

    Thanks; I stand corrected.

  11. @Graeme W on the reliability of the satellite record as a ‘gold standard’:

    Quite by accident today I was following a link that ran from Dr. Curry’s blog to a piece by Steve McIntyre on ‘Climateaudit’ about the status of the ground site temperature monitoring stations. One of the people (Ivan) commenting on Steve’s piece provided this about satellite data, which matches my preconceived notions, but does not provide enough technical detail to enable me to ‘correct your correction of my comment’.

    Just FYI:

    “Posted Jul 31, 2012 at 2:13 PM | Permalink | Reply

    “The satellite data seems quite convincing to me over the past 30 years and bounds the potential impact of contamination of surface stations”

    Why are you so sure? Have you studied the satellite data and methodology with the same level of auditing scrutiny as you did with the paleo-reconstructions to claim so confidently, or it is just simply convenient to say so, in order to dismiss potentially “toxic” conclusion that the surface data might be “cooked”. Correct me if I am wrong, but the procedures of collecting and processing the satellite data to create a temperature record are extremely complicated, much more so than in the case of the surface record, and both satellite records underwent more than one revision already, all of those revisions increasing substantially the trend. What is the specific basis for you belief that satellite data has more integrity than the surface record?”

    As far as I know, neither Steve nor any follow on commentary addressed Ivan’s question.

Comments are closed.

© 2014 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑