The Observatory

Muller’s media circus

UC Berkeley physicist Richard Muller was all over the media last week talking about his “total turnaround” from global-warming skeptic to adherent of the longstanding scientific consensus that the planet is heating up.

The question is: Did he deserve the attention?

The frenzy started with an op-ed published in The New York Times, in which Muller explained why he now believes that “humans are almost entirely the cause” of rising temperatures. At the same time, his team at the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which he founded three years ago, published five papers on its website laying out the research that caused his conversion. According to the analysis, average world land temperature has climbed 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 250 years, and about 0.9 degrees in the past 50 years.

The problem with BEST’s work was twofold, however. First, its bottom line didn’t amount to much more than what other scientists had been saying for years. Second, the research wasn’t peer-reviewed.

Meteorologist Jason Samenow, who blogs for The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, counseled readers, many of whom are reporters, to give the research a pass. He also advised them to disregard meteorologist-blogger Anthony Watts, who was in the process of pulling a similar stunt, having released an un-reviewed paper at the same time BEST did (Watts’s paper said that warming in the US since 1979 is about half of what federal government says it is):

Both studies staged high-profile releases and represent concerted efforts to influence public perception about what we know about climate science. But neither has been published in a peer-reviewed publication and there is cause to question their legitimacy…

The bright-young-things hypothesis

The downward spiral of Jonah Lehrer’s career over the last month has shocked his peers and instilled in them a visceral need to understand. Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?

One theory, proffered by Salon’s Roxane Gay, is that “there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” According to her piece:

Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.

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