O’ROURKE: The BEST Project isn’t the best climate science

Because scientific problems have grown incredibly complex, the public must trust conclusions from small groups of experts. The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) team recently received considerable attention after releasing their research on Earth’s changing climate. The national media embraced the team as impartial analysts who ended the putative “scientific” debate over climate change’s reality. But the BEST team’s publicity strategy tarnishes the trustworthiness of scientists.

Two years ago, this well-known group, composed primarily of physics professors, decided to reanalyze the entirety of available Earth surface temperature data to address existing criticisms, even though the vast majority of climate scientists considered these criticisms illegitimate. Global warming deniers expected evidence that mainstream climate scientists, who primarily receive funding from the federal government, are sloppy and biased. Instead, Professor Richard A. Muller, BEST’s scientific director, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that “you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer.”

Hardcore deniers immediately turned on Muller, but the national media proved receptive to his team’s aggressive marketing. The BEST team promotes itself as independent, reliable and inclusive, in the process managing to unfairly diminish other scientists’ previous work and artificially elevating its own relevance.

Undeniably, the BEST project scientists are incredibly accomplished and have produced high quality science. And, importantly, they confirmed what most scientists have long accepted: Earth’s average land surface temperature has risen significantly since the 1950s.

The team also developed impressive techniques for analyzing a gargantuan temperature dataset stretching from 1800 to today. Furthermore, the BEST project results refute two common objections to climate science — refutations in agreement with the previous scientific consensus. That is, neither urban heating from city growth in the last few decades nor the allegedly poor quality of many temperature stations significantly bias temperature estimates.

In the last few weeks, climate change deniers have nonsensically criticized these results by claiming the study hasn’t undergone peer review. But the current lack of formal peer review is irrelevant; the BEST results exactly confirm the scientific consensus and therefore will be uncontroversial to other scientists.

The BEST project is problematic, though, because it encourages the misconception that previous climate research, and science in general, is untrustworthy. The team markets itself as the response to the November 2009 “Climategate” scandal, in which climate change deniers willfully misread stolen emails from researchers in the United Kingdom and claimed they proved widespread scientific fraud. Major media outlets, especially Fox News, perpetuated confusion, undermining public confidence and politicizing basic research. No investigation has uncovered credible evidence of scientific misconduct in these emails.

Instead of fighting tooth and nail for its scientific comrades, the BEST team exploited this manufactured controversy for publicity and funding. Specifically, the team’s website trumpets three adjectives — “independent,” “replicable” and “inclusive” — that, by implication, do not apply to previous research.

The BEST team enjoys a strange sort of independence. Its single largest supporter is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, an offshoot of Koch Industries, the energy conglomerate that donates millions of dollars to deniers of anthropogenic climate change. If the BEST team had reached different conclusions, as many initially expected, people would call team members oil industry patsies, rather than independent researchers.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently declared on the campaign trail that “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” Of course, scientists thrive on controversy; to prove consensus wrong is to substantially advance a career. Scientists may not manipulate data for funding, but the BEST team certainly milked the perceived controversy surrounding climate change for hundreds of thousands of dollars to support its own research.

Computer programs that will reproduce the figures and calculations in the BEST team’s publications are available on the BEST team’s website. These files and the accompanying transparency are a boon to a small group of specialists, but they are an illusion of accessibility for the public. Not everyone can correctly think through climate change or even run the downloadable code. The physics of Earth’s climate and the logistics of data collection are so incredibly complicated that accurate conclusions require the determined efforts of educated experts.

The BEST project results are important ammunition against climate deniers, but their genesis and packaging are questionable. False controversy, stoked by politicians and others opposed to greenhouse gas regulation, created the impetus for this reexamination of climate data. Instead of defending the reality of and need for scientific impartiality, the BEST team seized an opportunity for private funding and media coverage.

Now that these contrarian physicists have settled their own doubts, perhaps they can return to defending the necessary role of science in modern society. Independence, replicability and inclusion are not novel. Scientific consensus is a powerful statement from a community in which legitimate dissent is strongly incentivized. Policy makers ignore it at their peril.

Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. Contact him at joseph.o’rourke@yale.edu.