Scientists Often Pigeonholed By Political Debates

During a Congressional hearing on climate science, physicist Richard Muller was expected to testify on the side of climate change skeptics. Instead, Muller announced his team found a warming trend. Muller says scientists are often challenged to insulate findings from political pressures.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

After they won the majority in the House of Representatives last November, Republicans promised new questions on climate change. Last month, the Committee on Science, Space and Technology called a panel of three scientists, a lawyer and an economist to testify, essentially to answer this question posed by ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat from Texas.

Representative EDDIE BERNICE JOHNSON (Democrat, Texas): There seems to be some attitudes that there is an elaborate hoax orchestrated by the scientific community on global change. Based on your work, the three of you, do you agree that the global temperatures are rising and will continue to rise, and that greenhouse gas concentrations are at least partly to blame?

CONAN: Those at the witness table that day included Richard Muller, a professor of physics at Berkeley, considered by some as a climate skeptic. When he responded in the affirmative to both those questions, he found himself in the middle of a debate where emotion and politics intersect with science.

So we'd like to hear from scientists today. Do politics and emotion sometimes interfere with the facts? Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Richard Muller is the author of "Physics for Future Presidents," and he joins us today from a studio on the campus at Berkeley, where he's a professor of physics. And nice to have you on the program with us.

Professor RICHARD MULLER (Physics, University of California, Berkeley): Glad to be here, Neal.

CONAN: And is it accurate to describe you as a climate change skeptic?

Prof. MULLER: I don't think so. I'm just a scientist. People want to pigeonhole everybody in this field just to simplify the argument. They want you to be either a warmist or a skeptic or something like that. And that tends to make the argument sound like it's a case of law in which you have lawyers arguing both sides. In fact, scientists need to be properly skeptical, and the debate is never closed. A scientific issue should always address questions that are raised and some of the skeptics raised very good questions, and I wanted to answer them.

CONAN: And, indeed, one of the things you were asked to talk about was a so-called bias, the suggestion that some of your colleagues, who might be described as warmists, were cherry-picking their data to make a very strong case for global warming.

Prof. MULLER: Well, the public issue has been very much cherry-picked. I talked about that in my "Physics for Future Presidents" book. Many of the things - the solid science is actually fairly solid, although we believe we can improve on it and refine it, and that's important.

But the public discussion tends to be not on the key science, but on the spectacular things that the exaggerators tend to say or the deniers deny, things like are the Himalayas going to melt? Or what's happening with hurricanes? Are they increasing? These things are - the conclusions of the scientists on those things are actually quite mild and quite soft and equivocal.

The issues that there is strong agreement on is that we have seen global warming over the past 100 years. An issue, though, that isn't really settled yet is how much of that is due to humans? And that's a subject that really can use more investigation.

CONAN: How much of that is attributable to humans? But do you agree that at least - does the data show that at least some part of it is attributable to humans?

Prof. MULLER: Yes, yes. It's us. People call me a skeptic, because I drew attention to many of the exaggerations that in - is in former Vice President Al Gore's movie. But I think a scientist has to recognize when there are exaggerations and settle down on what is solidly known. Temperature has been rising over the last 100 years. That's pretty clear. How much is due to varying solar activity and how much due to humans is a scientific issue that we're trying to address.

CONAN: And when this testimony came out, did you come to the impression that you had been expected to say something else?

Prof. MULLER: No, I didn't. I have created a new project here in Berkeley - we call it Berkeley Earth - that is doing a reexamination of the global warming issue. We are addressing all of the issues that have been raised - all the legitimate issues that have been raised by the people called the skeptics. And there are some legitimate issues there. Because we listen to the skeptics, we got misclassified as a skeptical group. We're no more skeptical than any other scientist should be skeptical.

CONAN: So in that sense you were mis-categorized and put into a box in which you did not belong and therefore - well, were there repercussions then when -what was the reaction to your testimony?

Prof. MULLER: I thought I got a very good reaction to the testimony. I was impressed with the Congress. I felt that the people there were listening sincerely. Some of them may have been surprised at what I said, but I felt that our Berkeley Earth group is the group, I think, that is doing a fresh new look at this.

We're planning on doing it in a transparent way. Everybody can see what we're doing. We've gathered the world's data together. We are addressing issues like the urban heat island effect, the bad station siting, all of these things. We're addressing them in a new and fresh way. And we hope by doing this to achieve a better accuracy than people had in the past.

CONAN: When you say bad station siting, what do you mean by that?

Prof. MULLER: Well, there have been complaints that - and valid complaints -many of them raised by an amateur scientist, he's a weather man named Anthony Watts, who has gone around and created a team that has photographed weather stations in the United States and found that many of them are very poorly sited.

You have a thermometer that's recording the temperature during the day, and it happens to be next to a building that is - has a heat source. How reliable is that? So he raised some very valid issues that just have to be addressed. There are issues like urban heat island, in which in some cities we know the temperature has gone up way more than it has in the surrounding countryside. Is that biasing the data?

CONAN: You mentioned Anthony Watts. He runs a website for climate deniers, said he was prepared to accept whatever result your group produced, even if it proves my premise wrong. After your testimony, he said the hearing was post-normal science political theater.

Prof. MULLER: Well, I think Anthony can be forgiven for his ups and downs. I think he has done a great job, a real contribution, and I think his work has proved really essential. Because you look at the photographs of these sites, and you say I wouldn't trust the thermometer there. But by doing it systematically, by going to over 1,000 stations in the United States and documenting them, we now have the data that we need to evaluate how much of an effect these bad sitings have.

And our tentative conclusion, which is what I reported to Congress, is even though these sites can lead to different temperatures, that for the trends, for the thing we called warming, that there does not seem to be a significant effect.

So for example, if you're near a building, it may be warmer, but the rise in temperature from year to year does not appear to be any more than it is for sites that are out on the countryside. That's very important. And it couldn't have been done if Anthony Watts had not gathered that data. I regard him as a hero in this business.

CONAN: Do you find that, though, there is a lot of ideology in this business?

Prof. MULLER: Well, I think what's happened is that many scientists have gotten so concerned about global warming, correctly concerned I mean they look at it and they draw a conclusion, and then they're worried that the public has not been concerned, and so they become advocates. And at that point, it's unfortunate, I feel that they're not trusting the public. They're not presenting the science to the public. They're presenting only that aspect to the science that will convince the public. That's not the way science works. And because they don't trust the public, in the end the public doesn't trust them. And the saddest thing from this, I think, is a loss of credibility of scientists because so many of them have become advocates.

CONAN: And that's, you would say, would be at the heart of the so-called Climategate story, where emails from some scientists seemed to be working to prevent the work of other scientists from appearing in peer-reviewed journals.

Prof. MULLER: That really shook me up when I learned about that. I think that Climategate is a very unfortunate thing that happened, that the scientists who were involved in that, from what I've read, didn't trust the public, didn't even trust the scientific public. They were not showing the discordant data. That's something that - as a scientist I was trained you always have to show the negative data, the data that disagrees with you, and then make the case that your case is stronger. And they were hiding the data, and a whole discussion of suppressing publications, I thought, was really unfortunate. It was not at a high point for science

And I really get even more upset when some other people say, oh, science is just a human activity. This is the way it happens. You have to recognize, these are people. No, no, no, no. These are not scientific standards. You don't hide the data. You don't play with the peer review system. We don't do that at Berkeley.

CONAN: We're talking with Richard Muller, who's a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Physics for Future Presidents." 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'd like to hear from scientists today about that intersection between politics, emotion and science.

And let's see if we can begin with - this is Paul, and Paul is with us from Fosston, Minnesota. Is that right?

PAUL (Caller): That's right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PAUL: Yes. I'm a retired biologist. I represented the state of Minnesota interests in government in a big water project in North Dakota that would involve water transfer across the continental divide. And I went to meetings in Bismarck, and the federal biologist and the sister agencies would tell me they had been silenced by the politicians - North Dakota politicians talking to their bosses in Washington and telling them to be quiet.

CONAN: Silenced...

PAUL: So I had to represent their interests.

CONAN: And to say basically that - to say basically what?

PAUL: Well, there was a - there's a biota found in the Missouri River Basin that are not found in the Red or Hudson Bay, drainage of Minnesota and Canada. That was the issue.

CONAN: I see, and it was just a simple matter of science, either was it or wasn't.

PAUL: Well, you needed to do the studies to determine the impacts and look at the effects.

CONAN: And what was the political issue at play?

PAUL: North Dakota wanted the - very much by state law even wanted to transfer water from the Missouri River into eastern North Dakota.

CONAN: I see. And so the upshot of it was - what happened?

PAUL: Well, the study actually dragged on for years and it was - went into a legal limbo in Washington.

CONAN: And so nothing ever got done?

PAUL: Right.

CONAN: And...

PAUL: It was the 10 years that I was involved in the project.

CONAN: Than can be pretty discouraging.

PAUL: It was.

CONAN: And do you expect that this is - did the water transfer happen?

PAUL: No, it's still in limbo.

CONAN: It's still in limbo. Okay. Well - and you're since retired and it's still going on. Thanks very much for the call, Paul.

PAUL: Yeah. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: And Richard Muller, that's - you get to the point where - obviously policy decisions are involved in this and people do have a stake in how it comes out and they do care very much what the science says.

Prof. MULLER: Well, I think the key thing here is for scientists to stick with the science. I don't know - I don't have personal experience with scientists who have been silenced. I think, in fact, most people on the field of global warming have been well-heard.

CONAN: On all sides.

Prof. MULLER: Yes, on all sides. And the one thing that I think really I would encourage is that one should not play this credentials game in which you say ignore so and so, he has no credentials in this field.

In fact, in science, no matter who raises the question, it's a valid question. Whether it's a citizen, another scientist or a politician, you have to be able to address these questions. And if they are scientific questions, genuinely they can be addressed. I believe that what makes science separate from many other disciplines is that in the end we all agree on the science. It's that small realm of knowledge on which knowledgeable people will in the end reach agreement.

CONAN: We're talking with Richard Muller, a professor of physics. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go next to Robert, Robert with us from Denver in North Carolina.

ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: I almost said Colorado, but I suspect you've heard that before.

ROBERT: Yeah, there's actually a Denver in North Carolina. I've been teaching physics and chemistry for 13 years, and I'm an avid NPR listener, but I do consider myself a skeptic of global warming issues. And you know, you mentioned no matter who raises the issue, we should look into it. I think it's interesting. It makes me think of a Michael Crichton book a while back where he brought up a lot of scientific data that was also skeptical of it.

And I think that too often we - the general public examines or thinks about scientists as a white lab coat, perfectly objective and just seeking the truth. But I know that, you mentioned already, ideology and philosophy really sneak in too often, and I think that they're just human beings looking for grant money, looking for a job. And so often their ideology will, I think, in some way shape the science and the investigations they do and then they're gonna end up finding what they hope to find in the first place.

And anyway, I just wanted to see what your panelist thought of that idea, how often they see that and how (unintelligible) it is. I think that we should be stewards of our environment, but at the expense of the truth or even bending it a little to serve our ultimate aims of having people be responsible stewards, I don't think that's the way to go about it.

CONAN: Richard Muller?

Prof. MULLER: Well, I agree. And I'd like to draw the distinction between a scientist and a layman. A layman is someone who is easily fooled and even fools himself. A scientist, in contrast, is someone who's easily fooled and even fools himself and knows it and takes measures to undo that. Science has to be objective. We can't be advocates. We have to objective. And to the extent we're not, we're no longer being science - scientists.

I thought the Michael Crichton book actually raise a lot of issues. I have some sympathy for the people in the field because they're working really hard. The other groups that have measured global warming are working - many of them are working very, very hard to try to update and get better measurements, and they're besieged with questions. It's a full-time job, if you're going to do nothing other than just answer the blogs and answer the public criticism.

But I felt the Crichton book raised some good issues, and there are issues that need to be addressed. We're trying to address them maybe in more detail than other people have because we have a fresh start. We have the full set of data and we're doing a new analysis.

CONAN: Well, given the analysis that you reached, aren't there urgent policy decisions that need to be made?

Prof. MULLER: Oh, that's the irony. The policy decisions are so urgent that people tend to abandon the scientific method. It's ironic that when something's important, they sometimes feel they have to not be so candid and unbiased because it's urgent. I think just the opposite. When things are urgent, that's the time the scientist has to settle down and show - do things using the unbiased methods that they've been taught.

CONAN: Urgency, though, is the critical word here, is it not?

Prof. MULLER: Well, I think one of the things we're trying to do at Berkeley Earth is determine how urgent it is. The global warming attributed by the IPCC, the big U.N. Council that makes this consensus report, attributes about half a degree, half a degree Celsius of warming to humans. But is it .4? Is it .3? If so, we have a lot more time. Is it .6 or.7? If so, we're in a big rush.

CONAN: Richard Muller, thanks very much for your time today.

Prof. MULLER: You're welcome.

CONAN: Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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