On Hearing Your New Book Already Needs Updating

Michael Mann’s ‘Hockey Stick’ Dispatches

The scientist most identified with the climate change ‘hockey stick’ graph offers his own first-hand views on having become one of climate skeptics’ favorite punching bags. And in his just-released book, Mann characteristically does so with gusto.

Also see: Yale Forum Youtube Video with Michael Mann

One can readily understand Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann’s mood of celebration on learning that his newly released book contains some key text already needing to be updated.

No better way to learn that than to hear the end has come for a long, drawn-out, and ideologically motivated legal threat. In this case, it was one brought by a state attorney general widely seen as having gone off on an ill-considered vendetta.

Book Review and Commentary

Mann was getting the news of the Virginia Supreme Court’s quashing of A.G. Ken Cuccinelli’s action against him and Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia. He got the news just as he was preparing for a March 2 interview with public radio’s Ira Flatow and “Science Friday.”

He scarcely had time to put out a reaction statement celebrating the take-down of what he called “Cuccinelli’s witch hunt.” He added that he regretted the state’s and his supporters’ having had to spend money and time on the suit: He did so with a tweak of Cuccinelli, saying those funds could have been better spent on “measures to protect Virginia’s coast line from the damaging effects of sea level rise it is already seeing.”

Michael Mann, as those who have seen him in action will attest, can take a punch. In his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, he shows that he can throw a few too.

It’s a good thing, as climate “skeptics” have long trained their haymakers on Mann as the single individual most identified with the “hockey stick” icon. And therefore, by their strange reasoning, with much of the concern over a warming climate.

As much as any climate scientist alive today, Mann, because of his hockey stick research, has become, by his own term, “a principal bête noir for those who denied the importance or even the existence of climate change.” Mann clearly includes controversial Virginia Attorney General and governor-want-to-be Cuccinelli as part of “a coordinated assault against the scientific community … vested interests who simply want to stick their heads in the sand and deny the problem of human-caused climate change, rather than engage in the good-faith debate about what to do about it.”

Mann by no means takes fondly to assaults on the solar plexus, or, he would maintain with ample justification, others aimed well below the belt. He, for one, is disinclined to suffer his many and harshest climate “skeptic” critics gently or in silence.

He by no means gives them the silent treatment in the newly-released The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, from Columbia University Press. Any doubt about his determined resilience will be readily dismissed with a reading of Mann’s new first-hand (“up close and personal,” some might say) “dispatches.”

Add an M to MBH … for ‘Moxie’

The “MBH99″ acronym familiar to those in climate science spheres stems from the 1999 research report Mann did with two coauthor’s, Ray Bradley of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona. With this new book comes another term for that “M”: You can make that Moxie.

It’s not like Mann set out as a young scientist to quickly rank among the climate science community’s most heavily-targeted “villains,” as judged by those rejecting the well-established scientific evidence. Indeed, he writes in his first-hand account that he more or less became the accidental icon of climate change concern when his 1999 hockey-stick-shaped illustration of Northern Hemisphere temperatures over the past thousand years found itself front and center in the 2001 IPCC “Summary for Policy Makers.”

That prominence fed “a very public — and very personal — assault against my coauthors and me in the hope that somehow they [skeptics] might discredit all of climate science, the fruits of the labors of thousands of scientists from around the world.”

It ain’t-a-gonna happen, not on Mann’s watch, not if he has anything to say about it at least. And say about it is exactly what he does through the nearly 400-page hardback.

While not one to automatically run from the spotlight thrust on him, Mann acknowledges in the book that “There is a potential downside to one’s scientific study becoming the focus of so much attention …. The more prominence a particular study or idea gets, the more tantalizing it is to best it in some ways.” In being seen (correctly) as bolstering the case “for the reality and threat” of human-caused climate change, it was only natural for that MBH study to attract “the unwanted attention of the climate change denial machine.”

And attract it, it indeed has. And no doubt will, for some time into the future, notwithstanding the hockey stick’s by no means being the single linchpin on which climate concerns rest.

Mann writes in his book of the “Serengeti strategy,” in which predators single-out a particular victim they may judge to be most vulnerable and seek to separate it from the larger group. He points to repeated independent peer review analyses of and support for the results of his research to indicate his critics have misfired.

Mann throughout spares no rod in castigating what he sees as science pretenders set on demolishing his and his colleagues’ scientific research on climate. He writes of his critics in the University of East Anglia hacked e-mails controversy as having engaged in “one of the best-coordinated ‘swiftboat’ campaigns in modern history.” He writes of a commentator’s summarizing a 2010 investigation spearheaded by Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, he of the “hoax” line, with the McCarthyite reference: “Are you now or have you ever been a climate scientist?” He is unrestrained in his blasts at Republican Congressmen Joe Barton of Texas, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, much of Fox News, and myriad bloggers and assorted blow-hards.

And yet, “At some level, the attention was almost flattering,” Mann writes of his critics targeting of him. That is, except for the “direct aim” not just at him but at “my livelihood, my reputation, my safety — but even my family.”

“The forces of climate change denial have, I believe, awakened a ‘sleeping bear,’” It’s clear he’s not limiting that reference to just him: “My fellow scientists will be fighting back, and I look forward to joining them in this battle.”

It should surprise few that Mann’s book is unlikely to change the minds of those pre-programmed to adhere to their unwavering view of the climate crisis as nothing of the kind. For those already in his camp on the science of the issue, he provides fresh ammunition for confronting the charge of some skeptics that “man-made” climate change should be spelled with two m’s. Both, it can be said, will be better off for taking the time to read Michael Mann’s account for themselves … and then go from there.

The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, © 2012 Michael E. Mann; Columbia University Press, ISBN-10: 023115254X; ISBN 978-0-231-15254-9 in paperback and ISBN 978-0-231-52638-8 as e-book. Listed at amazon.com in early March for $18.22.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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4 Responses to Michael Mann’s ‘Hockey Stick’ Dispatches

  1. pauld says:

    I have not read the book but from the reviews it does not appear to contain any new arguments that have been debated back and forth for years on the internet.  In my view Mann’s defense of MBH99 has lost that debate decisively.  Although it has its staunch defenders among Michael Mann’s colleagues, and those who have relied on their judgment, it has faired far less-well among the technically savy who have investigated independently.

    I came across the following comment
    at Bishop Hill’s blog that I think summarize the views of many of us who have followed the debate carefully.  It is written by Dr. Jonathan Jones, professor of physics at Brasenose College , Oxford University

    “Like many people I was dragged into this by the Hockey Stick. I was looking up some minor detail about the Medieval Warm Period and discovered this weird parallel universe of people who apparently didn’t believe it had happened, and even more bizarrely appeared to believe that essentially nothing had happened in the world before the twentieth century. The Hockey Stick is an extraordinary claim which requires extraordinary evidence, so I started reading round the subject. And it soon became clear that the first extraordinary thing about the evidence for the Hockey Stick was how extraordinarily weak it was, and the second extraordinary thing was how desperate its defenders were to hide this fact. I’d always had an interest in pathological science, and it looked like I might have stumbled across a really good modern example. …”

    “For me the Hockey Stick was where it began, and probably where it will end (and I will daringly suggest that the same thing might be true for our host). The Hockey Stick is obviously wrong. Everybody knows it is obviously wrong. Climategate 2011 shows that even many of its most outspoken public defenders know it is obviously wrong. And yet it goes on being published and defended year after year.”

    “Do I expect you to publicly denounce the Hockey Stick as obvious drivel? Well yes, that’s what you should do. It is the job of scientists of integrity to expose pathological science, and it is especially the job of scientists in closely related fields. You should not be leaving this to random passing NMR spectroscopists who have better things to do. But I’m afraid I no longer expect you to do so. The opportune moment has, I think, passed. . . .”

       http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2011/12/2/tim-barnett-on-the-hockey-stick.html (scroll down to comment 30)

    • John says:

      First, you should read the book. It contains the ‘back and forth’ debate about the Hockey Stick chart not on the internet, but in the peer-reviewed literature.

      Second, there is nothing in Jonathan Jones’ statement that refers to any scientific finding. The fact that global temperatures have been roughly stable over the last 1000 years, up until the time of instrumental records (at about 1900) shouldn’t be so surprising. “The Hockey Stick is obviously wrong”?? One would have hoped for some evidence supporting such a contention, or at least a link to a literature report.

      That said, the Hockey Stick graph, although widely known, is not the only evidence (by far) for a warming Earth since the industrial revolution.

      • Pauld says:

        If one wants to hide behind the wall of peer-reviewed literature, one can avoid confronting most of the debate that has occurred on Mann’s hockey stick paper. One problem with such a limit is that many of the criticisms, rebuttals, sur-rebuttals, ad infinitum go back and forth at a pace far too fast for the journals. Next, many of the most cogent critics, who have sophisticated statistical backgrounds outside the climate field, also have day jobs and have chosen by and large not to enter a published debate outside their primary field (e.g. Hu McCulloch (professor of economics, Ohio State University). Finally, those who might think about publishing are aware of the gauntlet they must run through as documented at Climateaudit or as told by Ross McKitrick in a slightly different context here . http://www.rossmckitrick.com/uploads/4/8/0/8/4808045/gatekeeping_chapter.pdf

        The full story is laid out on the internet in a way that can be followed with reasonable effort by anyone with a decent background in statistics and a willingness to review both sides. The primary anti-hockey stick site is climateaudit.org. The primary pro-hockey stick site is realclimate.org . You will find plenty of original material on both sites, as well as links to the peer-reviewed literature and links to cogent commentary elsewhere on the internet. It is an interesting and informative tale for anyone who makes the effort to follow it.

        Dr. Jonathan Jones comments cited above are regrettably without links and citations. In fairness to him, however, his comment was published at Bishop Hills blog where most of the audience knows where to go to find the appropriate materials and shares similar views. I was perhaps a bit unfair to him to cross-post it on a forum where many readers are less familiar with the controversy.

  2. Taylor says:

    I’d suggest that peer review is exactly the opposite of how Pauld describes it. It’s not a “wall” to “hide behind”; being published in a peer-reviewed journal says (usually) at least two things: your research has met some minimum of thoroughness and your work is now part of the larger scientific literature and accessible to any peer who wants to comment on it. Yes, junk papers sometimes get into print; so too do worthwhile papers get unfairly rejected. But my impression (from having worked in the journal-publications department at a scientific nonprofit for several years) is that most papers are neither accepted nor rejected outright at first submission. Following their review, most go back to the authors with suggestions from anonymous reviewers for changes to be made and are accepted only after those reviewers’ comments have been addressed.

    Mann in his book does spend time on the “scientific give-and-take” in the peer-reviewed literature over the 1998 paper that produced the first hockey-stick-shaped graph: “A number of different reconstructions were produced [in the years following the Hockey Stick], and while they all appeared to come to the same overarching conclusion—that recent warming was unusual in at least a millennial context—they didn’t agree on all the details.”

    There follow several pages of how, for example, one team of authors then published the results of reconstructions of past temperatures using boreholes; those authors concluded that the Little Ice Age was 0.5C cooler at its peak. Another team’s study concluded that the proxies Mann et al. used lacked the precision to distinguish an apparent 0.5C difference in temperature between the current-day and medieval-period warmth. Etc., etc. In the end: “As we [Mann and coauthors] continued to collect further data and refine our own methods and analyses, many other researchers would introduce alternative approaches, challenge assumptions, and contribute positively to the advance of the discipline” (p. 105).

    That strikes me as a how science ought to operate (certainly not always how it does); in any case it reflects the time (years) it often takes for research questioning earlier conclusions to be conducted and its results published. Our news cycle (hours, days) seems more and more to be fundamentally incompatible with and hostile to such a timeframe. To paraphrase Twain, a shoddy, error-ridden blog post/TV newscast/press release can travel halfway around the world before a peer-reviewed article has even put its shoes on.