Confessions of a Climate Skeptic — Interview with Dr. Richard Muller

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I speak with Professor of Physics Emeritus at Berkeley University, Dr. Richard Muller, for an intriguing discussion on climate and data. The content of our conversation is mostly centered around the topic of global warming, one of the most hotly discussed topics in today’s scientific and political worlds. In the world of science, physicists have a long and well-deserved reputation for being on the cutting edge of data acquisition, data analytics, and big data in general. Dr. Muller is a larger-than-life figure in the world of physics and beyond and has had a long and successful career across particle physics, astrophysics, geophysics, and in the last couple of decades — climate science. He has won multiple awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Prize. His unique and fascinating views on using data and data analytics in the climate science discussion made him the perfect guest for the Masters of Data podcast.

As always, the discussion kicks off with a brief overview of Richard’s life and upbringing, and specifically what drew him into his current field. As Dr. Muller shares, he remembers wanting to go into physics before knowing what physics was. Loving science as a kid, he found it fascinating trying to understand the way the world works and when he finally learned what physics was, he realized that was what he’d always been interested in. He received a PhD in particle physics, while also spending time studying quantum physics, but he started to feel a hunger to do experiments himself and therefore transitioned into cosmology. It was during this transition that he began to see the impact big data really had on physics. As he explains, he began to look at the cosmic microwaves from the Big Bang, and the expansion of the universe to measure how much it was slowing down from self gravity. He was also involved in a project that measured the slow down of the universe, helping to discover that the universe wasn’t slowing down, rather it is expanding, an idea called dark energy. While he really enjoyed his time and experience with these projects, he began to move on to looking at how physics impacted big catastrophes like the extinction of dinosaurs, the Ice Ages and eventually climate and global warming, where he focuses most of his attention today.

One of the highlights of this discussion centers around Dr. Muller’s somewhat unique perspective on big data and its impact in today’s world, particularly in the sciences. As he shares, he feels that academia as a whole is dealing with some foundational systematic errors with the data being used, and fears that oftentimes the trend is to misuse the data, even if it’s with good intentions. The hardest part in big data, as he sees it, is not the statistics but what you do about the biases in big data. The scientists and others who look at and evaluate data see the impact the data shows, but it can easily lead to an exaggeration of the data in order to motivate people to change. And while the desire to motivate change in people is a great thing, the problem is what it may end up costing. As Dr. Muller and I discuss, scientists lose their credibility when they become advocates. The value of science is its objectivity, so when scientists throw out that objectivity, they lose their credibility. One example of this identified in the discussion is the issue of global warming. Dr. Muller candidly shares that he believes science has been hurt by global warming since so many scientists have engaged in exaggeration. The result? Scientists lose their objectivity, they are no longer trusted, and they lose their reputation as being the one part of information people can trust.

But the problem with exaggeration does not mean that data does not have a valuable place in the scientific method or in developing solutions. The solution to the misinterpretation of data as Dr. Muller shares, is getting back to objectivity. This is the motivation behind his own work and the work of his projects with Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST). The traditional approach to addressing problems has been start with a solution you like and develop arguments to make it the solution, but this usually results in a loss of objectivity in the analysis. Rather, the approach has to be to review the data to see what it is actually saying, and develop solutions that address the issues the data are pointing to. Part of the key to this, as the we discuss, involves not only career professionals like scientists, but all people; especially those in the next generation. There is a real need for everybody to have a fundamental education on STEM materials. As Dr. Muller shares, he’s convinced of this need, which is why he wrote Physics For Future Presidents and Energy For Future Presidents, because he recognized the importance of having students who are leading the next generation (no matter their area of academic study) understand energy, global warming, the physics of space, the physics of terrorism and counter terrorism, because almost every issue in the modern world has a high tech component to it that needs to be fundamentally understood. When people are educated by how these things interact we can begin to interpret data objectively and work together to develop comprehensive solutions for the global good.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

Learn more about Dr. Muller:

Follow Dr. Muller on Twitter @RichardAMuller

Learn more about his ongoing work:

Purchase his book Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

Purchase his book Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines

Learn more about Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature:

Follow Berkeley Earth on Twitter @BerkeleyEarth