You’ve probably seen the commercials for the recently-published, already-controversial new book from Professor Richard Muller of UC Berkeley.
My Year Among The Skeptics is based—says the bestselling physicist—on his experiences as a climate-skeptic impersonator between 2011 and 2012.
Here’s what the lesser outlets are saying about it.
Adapted from Muller’s diaries, the book appears to tell the intimate first-person story of a year spent living “as” a “climate denier.”
But many are asking if it’s the real deal.
Last week’s launch has revived interest in Muller’s contribution to amateur anthropology, which is usually eclipsed by his titanic stature in physics.
The reader is hooked as Muller gradually gains the skeptics’ trust, learns how to behave and sound like them, and is, in time, accepted as one of the tribe.
“They’re closer to us—more like us—than we suspect, or would like to admit,” Muller said at a writers’ festival yesterday when asked about the most surprising thing he’d learned.
The 330-page memoir describes a gentle, inquisitive, meritocratic society. Its narrator even claims to witness acts of uncalculated decency which, more than once, move him to tears.
“I think [people] could learn a thing or two from [skeptics] about how to treat our fellow man,” Muller went so far as to tell Conan O’Brien last year, drawing audible gasps from a studio audience.
(He’s since walked back from this, explaining that he “misspoke.”)
Muller says he grew up—like most American kids of his era—accepting “without question” the propaganda about the dangers of approaching a gang of skeptics.
“But you know what? They’re just as afraid of us as we are of them.
“Can you blame them? Statistically, we’re more likely to ‘beat the crap out of’ them, or ‘ripe’ their throats out, than vice versa,” he says, alluding to to a widely-leaked forum discussion of plans to cull alpha skeptics.
As a reader I can’t help but want to believe Muller.
I’m also well aware that he has a history of making the sort of claims my third-grade teacher would have written off as ASD—“attention seeking disorder”—especially when there’s a book to promote.
But the Richard Muller sitting opposite me today is a man who seems to have learned his lesson, or at least taken his meds.
“Suppose, hypothetically, that a group of climate skeptics—gaggle? group?—somehow got onto campus, and was sighted in our vicinity,” I say, gesturing around the leafy Berkeley quadrangle.
“It’s a bit of a stretch as thought experiments go, but all right. It’s gaggle, by the way. Go on.”
“Are you really saying,” I continue, ”that you’d just sit there, calmly sipping that latte and grading papers?”
“Why not? Absolutely. My colleagues would probably think I’d gone mad… der. But so what? The vast majority of climate skeptics—and I can show you the surveys—are law-abiding, peaceful people who reject the use of violence in their name.”
Strangely, I don’t doubt his sincerity. But I want to press him on this.
“What if your kids were here too? Running around, maybe kicking that pile of leaves over there, completely oblivious in the way only children can be. Are you honestly telling me you’d have no fear at all for their safety?”
For once, the professor with an answer for everything is lost for words.
“Oh, come on,” he replies at length. “Sure, but that’s un—of course I—what is this, gotcha journalism?”
The author of My Year Among the Skeptics likens his research process to undercover work, and it’s an apt analogy.
The ‘mission’ was officially terminated on April 11, 2012, when climate physicist Richard Muller came clean to the Huffington Post: “I was never a [climate] skeptic.”
Muller was offered counselling during his reintegration into mainstream, science-abiding society. This is standard practice in law enforcement and intelligence agencies the world over (leading a double life for extended periods of time can, after all, take a psychic toll on even the most hardened operative), but the popular UC, Berkeley prof found the precaution unnecessary in his case.
“I felt fine, believe it or not. Ever since I was a kid, disingenuity is something I guess I’ve always been comfortable with, so [the deception involved] was no big deal.
“The media has [sic] given people the wrong idea about me. Let me clear this up:
“Just because I drew the line at Hiding The Decline,” he says, referring to a celebrated YouTube rant against malpractice in paleoclimate science, “or just because someone may have filmed me calling [scientists Dr Michael] Mann and [Professor Phil] Jones a disgrace to the profession, doesn’t make me some sort of Feynmanesque, bend-over-backwards-to-tell-the-truth paladin of absolute veracity! Hell, I’d be lucky to be as honest as the median member of the population.
I admit I didn’t.
“Short version: I’m on record as all in favor of distorting the facts if it gets results. So if you want to compare me to anyone, compare me to Steve Schneider.
“Having said that,” Muller continues, “there’s got to be a limit. Telling the occasional fib to get ahead, trading a bit of honesty for a bit of effectiveness—that’s all well and good. You wouldn’t last five minutes in the climate game if you were too squeamish for that.
“But Hiding the fucking Decline? Come on. That’s below even my low standards. I do have some shame.
“So, no, pretending I was a skeptic for a while—I can’t say that cost me a wink of sleep.”
Still, Muller does count himself lucky to have been pulled out when he was. He prefers not to dwell on what might have happened had the assignment continued.
“By month ten or eleven, aping skeptical behavior was beginning to, shall we say, affect me.
“I’d actually started to think skeptically.
“It only happened once or twice, but as soon as I told my wife, she was like: enough! You’re pulling the plug. I want my husband back!
“No book, no matter how informative and thought-provoking yet accessible and entertaining, is worth this, she said.”
Was he relieved to rejoin the rest of civilization, I ask?
“You bet. I missed my friends—who’d obviously wanted nothing to do with a guy that was ’skeptical,’” answers Muller, complete with air quotes, “of the truth about carbon dioxide, climate sensitivity and positive feedbacks. And I don’t blame them.”
He was also keen to pursue his interest in climate science again, a hobby that had fallen by the wayside for obvious reasons.
“I’d had my laptop with me the whole time, of course, but trust me: it’s not easy getting climate science done with skeptics looking over your shoulder the whole time!”
Since his return to society Muller has been a passionate advocate for the conservation of skeptic populations, and not just in captivity.
In fact, various flaws in the science—thanks to which skepticism has survived, and even grown, from year to year—are credibly rumored to have been introduced at Muller’s behest. But he’s far too modest to confirm what sources are telling us. All he will admit, with a wink, is that the last chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a close personal friend.
“We were certainly on behesting terms, I won’t deny it, me and… me and…
“What’s his name? This is going to bug me all day. No, don’t google it. It’ll come to me… Sanjay! Sanjiv? Sanjay. N…ath.”
How else has Muller’s thinking changed as a result of his time among the skeptics, I ask?
“Unlike most scientists, climate [scientists] at any rate, I find it hard to use skeptic as a dirty word any more. Whenever somebody in the [UC Berkeley physics] lab hurls ‘skeptic’ around in its usual, pejorative sense—you subhuman pest—I just have to shake my head in a sort of patronizing sadness.”
Richard Muller is under no illusions. He knows his vivid description of the skeptical world from the inside is going to polarize readers, scaring those who have a deep-seated need to view themselves as a higher species.
The possibility that we have more in common with skeptics than we think is “a threat to our self-image,” he believes.
For Muller, the real surprise was their capacity for what appeared to be empathy. He now gets annoyed when skeptical society is portrayed as an individualist, law-of-the-jungle Thunderdome.
“That’s such a lazy stereotype. Sure, skeptics are all elderly white libertarians, but I’ve got news for you: they still care about their sick, their weak, their young almost as much as we do.”
In what is proving to be one of the book’s most controversial passages, the diarist claims to witness a skeptic ‘mourning’ a dead child.
The mother denier is described as vocalizing, secreting tears and even lingering by the body, refusing to eat.
Prof. Mark Maslin, an authority in climate anthropology, says the scene is ”emotionally compelling, perhaps because such behaviors are eerily similar to the signs you or I might show when bereaved.”
Unfortunately, says the University College, London-based scientist and climate businessman, he doesn’t buy a word of it.
“Cute as it is, the whole story flies in the face of 20 years of mainstream scholarship telling us that deniers don’t have descendants. Or if they do, they have little interest in their welfare.”
Such errors, says Maslin, illustrate the dangers of amateur empiricism.
“Muller is completely uninformed by the years of scholarly groundwork it takes to be taken seriously. I don’t recall seeing him at a single [scientific] conference [on science denialism].
“We have a saying in science: theories aren’t determined by observations, observations are determined by theories. How could anyone be intellectually reckless enough to try to learn another culture by naïvely immersing himself in it?”
Is he suggesting Muller has it wrong, I ask?
“Obviously. He’s projecting his own human capacity [for complex emotions like grief] onto his subjects. It’s such a classic n00b fallacy, we have a name for it: anthropomorphizing.”
But for Maslin, the book’s worst academic sin is its direct quotation and close paraphrasing of skeptical characters.
“It’s irresponsible and dangerous. Muller parrots what they say, but he never warns you why.”
Professor Muller is reluctant to be drawn on Maslin’s criticisms, except to reply that Maslin is an idiot.
“It’s sad to see this level of evolutionary illiteracy alive and well among supposed biologists,” says the physicist. “They actually seem to imagine [climate] deniers live in a cartoonish dog-eat-dog dystopia even Darwin would have known was preposterous.”
Muller attributes such tropes to the binaristic thinking endemic among today’s stupid.
“Listen, fools: just because skeptic[al] society isn’t Animal Farm, that doesn’t mean it’s 1984.”
Meanwhile, Professor Maslin reveals that he was invited to write a 1-star review for the New York Times literary supplement.
“I had to tell them, sorry, I don’t intend to read [the factually-contested memoir]. Ever.
“They were like, oh, OK then, we don’t blame you!
“So I thanked them for being understanding. How much per word are we talking here, I asked?”
The negotiations having been concluded successfully, Maslin is now putting the finishing touches on a point-by-point refutation of the book’s core ideas, due out next issue.
“Look for [the headline] Deniers in the Mist: Why I Won’t Read The Muller Diaries, And Neither Should You.”
But climate psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky is less charitable in his interpretation. If you ask him, Maslin is praising Muller by faint damnation.
The Bristol, UK-based cognitive scientist think Professor Muller’s “jungle diaries” are just another move in “a well-organized, clandestine campaign to rehabilitate, humanize and whitewash public perceptions of the very people who least deserve it.”
And just to clarify, I ask, they would be…?
“The people who question the quality of the evidence that global warming is a sufficiently net-dangerous consequence of human carbon-dioxide emissions to justify urgent mandatory changes in industrial practice.
“Or in scholarly language: ‘climate deniers.'”
Whether Maslin himself is in on such a campaign—and how much the corporations behind the plot are paying him, not only for his softball critiques of climate denial but his ongoing silence about the existence of the campaign itself—Lewandowsky sees little point in speculating very much.
“For Maslin’s sake, I just hope they’re indexing his annual hush money to [keep up with] cost-of-living increases.
“The point is: Richard Muller is engaged in outright fabulism, and he gets away with it for one simple reason. It’s uncheckable.
“I call it the Marco Polo Effect in one of my recent blog posts at The Conversation, as well as a peer-reviewed paper—currently pending peer review—based on the ideas developed there.
“To disprove Muller’s narrative you’d have to do what he did: you’d have to literally spend time interacting with skeptics!
“So he can write whatever he wants, safe in the knowledge that no one in the mainstream community is ever likely to discover otherwise.”
Legitimate scholars can only do so much to fight such disinformation, laments Lewandowsky.
“The average person has no way of knowing who’s the expert. Those of us who’ve put in the years of study and publishing necessary to understand the ideologies, and pathologies, at work [in climate skepticism] are at a major disadvantage.
“Because Muller can just pull out his trump card:
“‘Hey, I’ve actually met them!’
“And who’s Joe Q. Idiot going to believe? So it’s clever, what Muller is doing, but it’s deeply dishonest.”
Lewandowsky has earned widespread respect for his approach to skeptics, which is to avoid approaching them.
“My philosophy as a research psychologist is simple: ’engagement is not the answer, it’s just a tremendous waste of time.’
“There’s a well-documented history of climate denialists using conversation as a ploy to distract legitimate scholars—people like myself, George Marshall and Adam Corner—from useful work, like writing and publishing about what makes denialists tick.
”It’s all highly, highly orchestrated.”
“Treat all denier overtures to get to know you—however sincere they sound—as bullying,” says Lewandowsky.
“Keep the number for your [university’s sexual] harassment hotline on speed-dial. The next time an individual with little or no connection to the reputable scholarly community attempts to engage, don’t be afraid to call it what it is:
The book had an uneasy gestation, hitting the headlines earlier this year when the scientist, historian and science historian Naomi Oreskes backed out of writing the foreword. Oreskes had agreed to pen it as a favor to Muller, a longtime family friend—but only, she says, “on the understanding that he intended to add to the science [of science denial], not peddle doubt and confusion by finding evidence against it.
“As soon as I heard about the sort of ideas his journal peddles I knew with sadness that I’d overestimated Richard’s good faith.”
She now wonders if perhaps this wasn’t his plan from the start: to drum up controversy by finding something wrong with our understanding of the skeptic problem.
“In retrospect, I’m not even sure he ever believed in the science [around skepticism]. I think he was hoping, deep down, that he’d discover something new, something science had missed.”
(Real skeptics, she explains, seek to reaffirm what the science says, not change it.)
But Oreskes blames herself too.
In all their decades of friendship she’d failed to do the most cursory background check on Muller. “I hadn’t even read his SourceWatch page, I’m embarrassed to say,” she confesses to me.
Had she known what kind of person he was—what kind of players he considered it acceptable to keep company with, what kind of ideas and publications he was happy to allow himself to be associated with—she would have thought twice before asking Muller to be godfather to two of her children, let alone lending a hand with his book.
My Year Among the Skeptics will have a “chilling” effect on the exchange of legitimate scientific ideas, she predicts.
“This is very important: if a scientist wants to say something true, she says it in a peer-reviewed journal. Otherwise it’s worthless. When a scientist expresses herself elsewhere, on any topic, you have to wonder why it wasn’t good enough for the literature,” explains the geologist by telephone.
But even when judged on its merits alone, says Oreskes, the book fares little better.
“If you go through the claims [in Muller’s story] scene by scene, what you find, event after event after event, is that in every single case it’s just an isolated event. That’s not science! The plural of anecdote isn’t science!“
(Oreskes is yet to come across a piece of “skeptical” writing that didn’t suffer this fatal flaw upon sufficiently fine-grained examination, she notes as an aside.)
“Who was it that famously said, ‘you can throw it in the dustbin?’
“Well, whoever it was, that’s how I feel about this [farce of a book],” she says with a laugh, before adding in her best Indian accent: “’Throw it in the the dustbin! Throw it in the the dustbin!’”
What she never expected, however, was to be attacked personally for renegging on the foreword.
Vitriolic, ad feminam allegations of churlishness forced Oreskes to issue a media release clearing up this falsehood, explaining that she “simply [didn’t] feel comfortable giving anti-science the oxygen of publicity or the imprimatur of scientific respectability.”
“It’s hard to say this without sounding elitist,” she elaborates, “but the non-intellectual public can’t possibly be trusted to investigate stuff for themselves. Even if they wanted to they wouldn’t have the… well, the intellect.
“They’re so easily dazzled and blinded by factors like reputation, authority, how many letters you’ve got after your name, that sort of thing.
“So if someone like me endorsed it then—in their mind—the book would have to be true.”
Unfortunately, argues Oreskes, Muller is promoting what scientists call crap.
“Now if you don’t mind I seriously have to get back to work. You know, actual paid work. The trequel [in the science fiction series I’m coauthoring with Erik M. Conway] isn’t going to coauthor itself.”
I try to remind her that she’s receiving a healthy honorarium for the interview—to put it mildly—but she’s already hung up.