The Curious Case of Richard Muller, Former Climate Change Critic
James Lawrence Powell, author of The Inquisition of Climate Science, was born and raised in Kentucky and graduated from Berea College. He received his Ph.D. in Geochemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has had a distinguished career as a college teacher, college president, museum director, and author of books on earth science for general audiences. He serves as executive director of the National Physical Science Consortium, a partnership among government agencies and laboratories, industry, and higher education dedicated to increasing the number of American citizens with graduate degrees in the physical sciences and related engineering fields, emphasizing recruitment of a diverse applicant pool that includes women and minorities. He has taught at Oberlin College and has served as its acting president. He has also been president of Franklin and Marshall College, Reed College, the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush appointed Powell to the National Science Board.
James Lawrence Powell: Just of late there’s been a subject or a study that many people will have read about, many of you will have read about, by a physicist named Richard Muller, who is a very distinguished physicist who’s always taken a sort of a different position on various scientific topics. And two or three years ago he began to say critical things about the science behind global warming.
And he decided that in order to find out where the earth was warming he would do a study himself. So many members of the denier community said well, whatever Muller comes up with we’re going to trust that. So Muller did his study and he reported out about three or four weeks ago, well, lo and behold, he said the earth is warming. And if you look at the chart of his study compared to the other major studies, they lie right on top of each other; you can’t tell one study from another.
I think the deniers picked up on Muller's work and unwisely in retrospect agreed to accept whatever he said, because he had been very critical of global warming. And so I think there was a leap of faith you might say or a leap of hope on the denier community, that here’s a very distinguished physicist who’s finally going to say that we’re right and the scientists are wrong.
Well, I think what we could learn from the case study that Muller did is that he should have trusted the other scientists and the peer reviewed, peer review process which had produced the data that he was questioning. In a recent interview, he said two years ago everyone should have been a skeptic. Well, two years ago you had 98 percent of the climate scientists in the world saying that they accepted human cause global warming. You had the data produced by Columbia University. You had data produced by NOAA, data produced by the University of East Anglia. There was no reason to question that data and it was a little offensive, at least I feel was rather offensive and arrogant of Muller to simply say well, I don’t believe this until I do it myself.
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 laboratory, it passes peer review you should at least tentatively accept it until somebody shows you some reason why it’s wrong. So I think all of us who are trying to educate you and other people about global warming have mixed feelings about Muller.
I don’t know that I like his initial reasons, but I think the end result is an affirmation of what we’ve all known and what we’ve been saying. I’ve been seeing more headlines now in magazines and newspapers that say yes, the earth is warming, there’s no longer any reason to doubt this. And it is.
Directed / Produced by
Elizabeth Rodd & Jonathan Fowler
Author James Lawrence Powell explains the case of the physicist Richard Muller, who used to be critical about the science behind global warming. Muller conducted a study funded by the Koch brothers that reported, lo and behold, the earth is warming. But would climate change deniers accept his conclusions?
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