WSJ Marginalizes Muller

Climate-change op-ed didn’t run in the paper’s US edition

Media Matters, a group dedicated to bird-dogging conservative spin in the press, made a good catch last week when it pointed out that The Wall Street Journal didn’t publish a wave-making op-ed that disavowed global-warming skepticism in its US edition.

In late October, Dr. Richard A. Muller, a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley who is well known for his skepticism of the science behind climate change, made headlines when he released the results of a two-year global land temperature study, partly funded by the conservative Charles G. Koch Foundation. To Muller’s surprise, the study found that the Earth’s temperature has risen roughly 1 degree Celsius in the last fifty years, a result that is in accord with previous research. The day after the results of the study went public, the Journal published an op-ed by Muller headlined, “The Case Against Global-Warming Skepticism.”

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project quickly became big news, and many outlets mentioned Muller’s column. But there seems to have been some confusion about where it appeared. In a roundup of coverage, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker suggested it was “best to read Muller’s sly way of explaining the thing himself today on the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal.” The only problem was, it didn’t run on the Journal’s op-ed page, at least not in the US. The op-ed only ran in the European and online editions.

Given the Journal’s massive online following, it would be unfair to say that the paper buried Muller’s op-ed, but given that it didn’t appear in the Journal’s flagship edition, it is fair to say that it marginalized the piece. This appears all the more true in light of the paper’s decision to publish an editorial four days after the release of the BEST analysis, which pooh-poohed efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the headline, “The Post-Global Warming World.”

Then, on November 5, the US edition carried a “Numbers Guy” column by Carl Bialik that focused on the “uncertain nature of tracking global temperature,” and carried the headline, “Global Temperatures: All Over the Map.” The piece was essentially a feeble attempt to rebut Muller’s confidence in the temperature record.

Media Matters ably dismantled Bialik’s piece. Part of Bialik’s case hinges on the argument, popular among skeptics, that satellite measurements “show about half the amount of warming as that of land-based readings in the past three decades.” As NASA’s Gavin Schmidt explained to Media Matters, this is simply not true.

Historically, there have been problematic discrepancies between surface-station and satellite temperature records (the latter of which measures temps in the lower atmosphere—an important detail that Bialik failed to mention), but they have been largely reconciled. According to a 2006 report from the US Climate Change Science Program:

Previously reported discrepancies between the amount of warming near the surface and higher in the atmosphere have been used to challenge the reliability of climate models and the reality of human induced global warming. Specifically, surface data showed substantial global-average warming, while early versions of satellite and radiosonde data showed little or no warming above the surface. This significant discrepancy no longer exists because errors in the satellite and radiosonde data have been identified and corrected.

It remains uncertain whether or not, in the last three decades, lower atmospheric warming has exceeded warming at the surface, as models predicted it should, and scientists need to figure out why they have been unable to make that determination. Nonetheless, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there has been very good agreement between the warming trends seen in most surface-station and satellite data.

The second part of Bialik’s case hinges on the fact that temperature research teams use different techniques to arrive at their conclusions:

Calculating a global average temperature requires extrapolating from these readings to the whole globe, adjusting for data lapses and suspect stations. And no two groups do this identically… Any statistical model produces results with some level of uncertainty. The Berkeley Earth project is no different.

Bialik argues that this leads to a “messy hashing-out of the global climate record,” but it’s the same process that applies to many fields of research. Science is a “messy” business, but that doesn’t prevent scientists from coming to general agreement.

Scientists have worked hard to square technical and methodological inconsistencies, however. In fact, there’s so much agreement where global temperature is concerned, it is fair to ask whether the BEST project even merited coverage. As University of Washington climatologist Eric Steig observed at

As far as the basic science goes, the results could not have been less surprising if the press release had said “Man Finds Sun Rises At Dawn.” This must have been something of a disappointment for anyone hoping for something else.

… The basic fact of warming is supported by a huge array of complementary data (ocean warming, ice melting, phenology etc) … If the Berkeley results are newsworthy, it is only because Muller had been perceived as an outsider (driven in part by trash-talking about other scientists), and has taken money from the infamous Koch brothers. People acting against expectation (“Man bites dog”) is always better news than the converse, something that Muller’s PR effort has exploited to the max.

That may be true, but as the BBC’s Richard Black sagely pointed out, “in the febrile atmosphere of ‘the climate debate’, [the BEST analysis’s] significance lies not only in its conclusions, but in who’s done it and what they’ve found.”

The fact that Muller, an avowed skeptic, was publicly declaring his move to the other side and encouraging others to follow him is newsworthy—or far more newsworthy, at least, than Bialik’s poorly informed and unhelpful work, which got pride of place in the Journal’s US edition. Asked why the paper published the work of a self-styled “numbers guy” rather than that of a renowned physicist, Journal spokesperson Ashley Huston wrote in an e-mail:

Carl Bialik is part of the news department, which is completely separate from the editorial page. So his Numbers Guy columns and op-eds (and decisions surrounding either) are unrelated.

Pressed to explain the news and editorial departments’ respective decisions, Huston declined to comment. Readers are thus left with little choice but to believe that the decision to marginalize Muller’s column was nothing more than a reflection of the well-established bias against climate science on the Journal’s op-ed page.

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