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David Whitehouse: Climate Science Deserves Better Than This Shoddy Treatment

Climate science is important and both it and the public have been treated shoddily by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project

It is one of the strangest episodes in climate science, a subject where the science, politics and PR often mix in an unedifying mixture. More than in any other area of science I have encountered, climate science is accompanied by strongly held beliefs, a corporate culture and intolerance. It is as if, as someone once said, the truth is so important it has to be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies. The problem is telling them apart.

The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project promised much. It was established by Professor Richard Muller whose scientific field was atmospheric microwaves. He was a sceptic on climate change, or so he said, and in order to determine what was going on he obtained financial backing to reanalyse the data from the world’s weather stations to see if it were true that some that some ‘Climate-gate’ scientists had fiddled their data.

In October they released their findings based on almost 40,000 weather stations. But their conclusions were distributed not through a scientifically vetted research journal but on a website for the scientific community and the general public alike. Their trumpeted finding is not surprising – the world has gotten warmer in recent decades, or at least the land has. This is consistent with the other global temperature datasets.

But there was more to this project that just science. A press release issued by the project said, “Global Warming is real,” adding that it could find no evidence of a heat island effect that might account for recent global temperature increases. Even weather stations considered to be of doubtful quality still showed relative warming over the 1950-2010 period in question. The media lapped it up, often doing little else than reproducing the press release along with a quote or two from a campaigner or advocate, echoing what Professor Muller said: the case for climate scepticism was over.

There were some – so-called sceptics or otherwise – who tried to say this was nonsense and that there were very few sceptics who did not believe the world had warmed in the past three decades. The point, they said, was what was the mix of human and natural contributions to the global rise? That is a topic of intense scientific debate. It was wrong to pinpoint something that was not an important issue and hold it up as a sceptic litmus test. But then, as anyone conversant with the science and experience in PR could have predicted, it all started to fall apart.

In a BBC interview Professor Muller said that the global temperature standstill of the past decade was not present in Best’s data. It didn’t take long for the blogosphere to check and show that not only was this standstill present it actually showed up in Best’s data far more prominently than in other datasets.

Then questions were asked about why the findings were released publically before they had been checked, followed quickly by analysts who started finding holes in their logic and scientific method. Then it was discovered that professor Muller ran a private science consulting and communication group that included environmental and climatic issues. Whatever value there was in the new global land temperature data produced by the Best project, it would be fair to say that its value has been eclipsed.

To my mind, it goes to show what can happen when you try to be too clever. Sure, most of the mainstream media went uncritically along for the ride, but it was naïve to think that things would stop at that. Very quickly the spin and the strategy unravelled leaving behind questions and confusion.

The Best project’s treatment of science and of the public has been shoddy. That so many so-called reporters in the mainstream media should have been so uncritical and accepting of what was clearly misrepresentation is shocking. Once again they have been found to be supporters and advocates for a particular point of view when they should have been critical commentators and journalists. Climate science is important. It deserves better.

Dr David Whitehouse is on the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation

Public Service Europe, 2 November 2011