Muller’s media circus

Did the press fall for a climate-change publicity stunt?

UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller was all over the media last week talking about his “total turnaround” from global-warming skeptic to adherent of the longstanding scientific consensus that the planet is heating up.

The question is: Did he deserve the attention?

The frenzy started with an op-ed published in The New York Times, in which Muller explained why he now believes that “humans are almost entirely the cause” of rising temperatures. At the same, his team at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which he founded three years ago, published five papers on its website laying out the research that caused his conversion. According to the analysis, average world land temperature has climbed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years, and about 0.9 degrees in the past 50 years.

The problem with BEST’s work was twofold, however. First, its bottom line didn’t amount to much more than what other scientists had been saying for years. Second, the research wasn’t peer-reviewed.

Meteorologist Jason Samenow, who blogs for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, counseled readers, many of whom are reporters, to give the research a pass. He also advised them to disregard meteorologist-blogger Anthony Watts, who was in the process of pulling a similar stunt, having released an un-reviewed paper at the same time BEST did (Watts’s paper said that warming in the US since 1979 is about half of what federal government says it is):

Both studies staged high-profile releases and represent concerted efforts to influence public perception about what we know about climate science. But neither has been published in a peer-reviewed publication and there is cause to question their legitimacy…

My advice? Ignore these publicity stunts and pay no attention to these studies until they have passed peer review. And 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.

In a follow-up post the next day, Samenow flagged a number of potential problems with Muller and Watts’s research methods, but the science was a second-order concern to the media. The story was about Muller’s conversion and the ironic fact that conservative billionaire Charles G. Koch, who made a fortune in petrochemicals, funds a big chunk of his research (Watts got much less attention overall).

One of the mostly widely run articles, by Neela Banerjee in the Tribune Company’s Washington bureau, was fairly transparent about the reason for its coverage. Banerjee explains up high that the scientific community has agreed on the basics of global warming for years, “but the difference now is the source….” She then quotes Muller discussing his epiphany, a spokeswoman for the Koch Foundation saying that its support came with no strings attached, and finally, in the bottom half, a couple of leading climatologists who express concern about Muller’s work.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow punted entirely. Casting herself as a “non-scientist,” she cut straight to the Koch money, asking Muller, “Do you see why people might put that sort of political shine on what it is that you`ve done?” Continuing to apply the polish herself, she sought Muller’s advice on the political and economic aspects of responding to climate change.

Like Banerjee, most reporters, from NPR to the BBC, were careful to at least mention the lack of peer review and other scientists’ consternation with the attention being paid to Muller. But that didn’t stop outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle from playing up the cheesy, global-warming-just-got-hotter angle, reflecting the ongoing success of what The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin called Muller’s “P.T. Barnum showmanship.”

This is, after all, the second media circus that Muller has orchestrated in less than a year. In fact, he first swore off skepticism last October in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, saying that he’d finally accepted others scientists’ conclusion that the planet is warming up. In his op-ed for the Times, he was only going “a step further” by saying that “humans are almost entirely the cause.”

The incremental transformation is a smart media strategy, prolonging the effectiveness of Muller’s self-styled conversion narrative. But the press needs to stop treating him like St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Despite that fact that many stories called his research into question, reporters should wait for the larger scientific community to weigh in before they give Muller any more attention.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,