Trusting your fellow scientist

In my last post, I told you that Berkeley Physics professor Richard Muller is the go-to guy for proof of anthropogenic climate change. Maybe that strikes you as odd. Why would I look to a physicist for information about our atmosphere? Shouldn’t we be talking with UC Berkeley’s Atmospheric Sciences program instead?

Of course, Muller and his team at Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature don’t claim to be the first people to measure the change in global temperature over time. When they began that project in 2010, there was an active field of climate scientists claiming that the Earth is warming, and there was also an extremely vocal group of skeptics disagreeing with their results. Muller entered the conversation with the mindset of an impartial third party, someone who could analyze the data without any political or financial incentives often attributed to the climate scientists.

Last fall, Berkeley Earth began to release their preliminary results online. Their analysis shows that the Earth is indeed warming; in fact, their plot of average annual temperature since 1900 is a nearly perfect match of the previously existing plots. The Berkeley Earth study hasn’t converted everyone to a believer yet—prominent skeptics like Anthony Watts continue to question the transparency and validity of the study’s methods—but it has gotten significant attention from Congress and the national media, and the discussion will certainly continue when the results are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Much of the media attention has focused on whether or not the skeptics will change their minds. But what about the people who championed climate change all along? How have they responded? Are they high-fiving Muller, or are they shrugging, saying “We told you so”? Geologist and author James Lawrence Powell, in a video for the Big Think series, describes his feelings this way: “He should have trusted the other scientists and the peer review process which had produced the data that he was questioning.  Two years ago, you had 98% of the climate scientists in the world saying they accepted human-caused global warming. There was no reason to question that data, and it was a little offensive of Muller to simply say, ‘Well I don’t believe this until I do it myself.'”

In an interview with Science magazine, Muller explains why he thought there was in fact a reason to question the data. Yes, many climate change skeptics sound more like conspiracy theorists than scientific critics, but there was also some practical criticism of the existing methods of data collection and analysis, such as measuring temperature in overheated urban areas or combining disparate data sets (see the hockey stick debate, for example). Berkeley Earth, on the other hand, posts all their raw data online, along with detailed explanations of their methodology. Muller was hoping to improve on what had been done before, not just repeat it for the sake of seeing it with his own eyes.

Whether or not you were offended by Muller’s attempt to calm the climate change debate, I’d like to focus instead on Powell’s deeper message. He claims that scientists have a responsibility to trust each other. As he says in the video, “If every scientist said, ‘I’m not going to believe what anybody else did until I do it myself,’ scientists would be at least a century behind where we are right now. That is, if something is done by a reliable lab, passes peer review, you should at least tentatively accept it until somebody shows you some reason why it’s wrong.”

This is a bold statement, and it made me think. As scientists, skepticism is one of our main responsibilities, maybe even our first priority, because we have implicitly agreed to collect knowledge from the physical world rather than myth or superstition. We must be skeptical of claims, unless they are supported by empirical evidence. So how did we end up with a “scientists vs. skeptics” debate, where scientists are compelled to say “don’t worry, just trust me”?

From what I can tell, Powell is not actually calling for a new age of non-skeptical scientists; his argument boils down to efficiency. With the immense volume of data being collected reported on a daily basis, it is in everyone’s interest to give scientists the benefit of the doubt, to assume that they are performing their work competently. And this is exactly what happens, in almost every sub-field of science. We allow the members of each community to check each other’s work, and then we trust their consensus. Something that is considered established fact by geologists is then accepted by chemists, astronomers, geneticists, and everyone else, including politicians.

It is only in certain special cases (climate change, evolution, vaccines, etc.) where cultural opinion butts up against scientific fact, that we have skeptics questioning skeptics, and everyone is scrambling to prove that the truth is on their side. Unfortunately, in the case of climate change, the policies made by today’s governments may be a matter of life and death, for humans and most other species on our planet (cockroaches and extremophiles not included).

So in the end, I think Powell should go easy on Muller and his team. They saw a messy debate (replete with scandals, basically a P.R. nightmare for science), and they decided to enter the fray, but their contribution has been based on calm, rational discourse. They certainly deserve a high-five for that.

Further reading
NYTimes: Climate Study Does Not Placate Skeptics
Science: Q&A with Richard Muller

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  1. Adam Merberg

    Efficiency might be what Powell talked about in the video, but I have a hard time believing that’s really the source of his discontent. He looks genuinely angry, or at least frustrated in the video, and I doubt that he cares that much about the cosmology that would otherwise get done in Muller’s lab if Muller were to apply his efforts there.

    One thing that might have been on Powell’s mind is that climate research is highly politicized. When Muller came out and announced the BEST project, it wasn’t just another project. It helped to legitimize doubts about the existence of climate change. On the other hand, when he began announcing the results of the project, he won plenty of people over, so I suspect this isn’t his real issue either.

    My guess, and this is admittedly speculative, is that Powell thinks it is arrogant for Muller to wade into the study of climate science. There are many scientists who have spent their lives in the field and built up a vast body of research on climate science. For Muller and his team of (mostly) physicists to put aside their work and try to produce the authoritative work on a subject disrespects the climate scientists, their work, and their training.

    Truth be told, attitudes like this are not so uncommon among physical scientists and mathematicians. Serge Lang, who is said to have published more words than any other mathematician, was infamous for challenging scientists for not being sufficiently rigorous. In fact, he had enough materials on these challenges to fill a 211 page book (“Challenges,” published by Springer in 1997).

    For better or for worse, there tend to be perceptions that certain fields of study are harder than others, and people who work in the “harder” fields tend to be taken more seriously when they stray beyond the boundaries of their field of expertise. If a team of geologists were to challenge some findings in cosmology, would they be taken seriously in the same way that Muller and BEST were? I doubt it.

    Of course, this doesn’t invalidate Muller’s work. Indeed, it does seem to be the case that people who train in very theoretical fields sometimes acquire analytical reasoning skills that have broader utility (a notable example is the mathematician-turned-biologist Eric Lander, recently profiled by the New York Times). On the other hand, it’s altogether reasonable for climate scientists to believe that research in their field requires extensive knowledge and years of experience, and that reasoning skills aren’t enough.

    Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this issue, but I think this is a dynamic to be aware of because it is bound to create tension.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Adam. I think you’re exactly right about the power imbalance between fundamental scientists and their more applied colleagues. I wonder how the public views this spectrum of scientists and whether they would also err on the side of trusting the physicist over the geologist. Speaking personally as a chemist (we like to call ourselves “the central science”, so I don’t feel allied to either side), it often seems like most media attention goes to the field that is easiest to grasp. If your breakthroughs can be explained in a soundbite, then you win more news coverage and more respect in the public eye. It also helps if you have controversy, which we clearly do in this case. So my point is: if there were a politically relevant debate about cosmology, and some geologist tried to settle the issue, it might actually work. Most people would just hear the news stories saying “Recently, scientists found that…”.

  3. Nils Ohlson

    Well actually there was an essentially geological argument being made about a cosmological event, which proved successful, when the Alvarez father-son team postulated that the dinosaurs were killed off by the effects of an asteroid strike, inferred from a layer of iridium in 65 million-year-old rocks. And they caught a lot of heat until astronomers, notably Piet Hut, could chime in with the corroborating evidence. So I think there is precendent for this. Now that was not a controversial issue with a strong scientific consensus, but the principle is similar.

    In the present instance the “challenge” by Muller could not be expected to be welcomed by climate scientists for the reasons cited above by Adam Merberg. But because everyone involved had “done their homework”, the result was corroboration, from another angle, making it much harder in the long run to say, “this whole human-caused climate change thing is a cozy conspiracy between scientists to get more research dollars”. (Seriously, in the Comments page on your cross-post at Berkeley Blog, someone contends that scientists cooked up anthropogenic global warming theory so they could throw wild parties with taxpayer funded research money! I’m not making that up!).

    Thank you for your thoughtful post bringing this to our attention; thank you Prof. Muller for your contribution; and take a deep breath, Prof. Powell and don’t worry, science is not disrespected by this sort of cross-disciplinary work.

  4. That’s an interesting case, Nils. (And yeah, I saw that comment too… hard to know how to respond, except to breathe deeply and hope for the day when we have so few scientific problems to solve that we can spend time and money on wild parties.)

  5. Pingback: In Scientists We Trust… Except When We Don’t | The Science Friday Blog

  6. edward

    A point that seems to have been missed here is that Muller’s testimony before a congressional hearing *and* the massive publicity he ensured the BEST team got were prior, repeat, prior to peer reviewed journal publication. In fact, a check of suggests this still hasn’t happened.

    There’s several decades of published research that shows more than Muller’s, providing some justification for unhappiness on the part of global warming (note the bias here on my part) researchers (another note: Powell doesn’t claim to be one) for his very successful PR campaign.