No Apologies, No Regrets
By Paul Basken February 05, 2017 Premium
As President Trump (& Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull) assemble a cabinet stocked with climate-change skeptics and champions of fossil fuels, one of their most battle-hardened opponents is bracing himself for the next round.
Michael E. Mann has been in the trenches since 1998, when he and colleagues used a graph resembling a hockey stick to depict the sharp upward movement in Northern Hemisphere temperatures that coincided with the emergence of the industrial age.
The uncomfortable facts he uncovered as an atmospheric scientist put him at odds with some of the world’s most powerful corporations.
Mr. Mann, who has been at Pennsylvania State University since 2005, has endured personal threats, attacks on his academic freedom, the theft and publication of his emails, and about a dozen investigations of his work.
He responded by helping fellow scientists cope with similar attacks, and by writing books detailing his political battles and the facts behind climate science.
Each of his three books are dedicated to his daughter, Megan, he said, out of a concern for the “sort of planet we’re leaving behind” for her.
Mr. Mann discussed with The Chronicle how scholars have met the political challenge and what his expectations are for the coming four years.
You’ve written recently about the various threats you’ve endured, like the 2010 mailing made to look like anthrax.
Has that activity eased off, and have you seen any evidence since the November election that it might resume?
The rhetoric subsided in recent years as the evidence has become so clear that climate-change denial just isn’t credible, and with the fact that people can see many of the impacts now with their own two eyes.
But now there does seem to be an uptick with the resurgence of heated rhetoric associated with Trump’s campaign.
Clearly you have important scientific accomplishments to your name, but that doesn’t mean you needed to engage in the public arena the way you have.
Why did you do it?
The attacks on me and the hockey stick represented a ratcheting-up of the character-assassination machine that had been honed over time and deployed to discredit people like Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich, back in the 1960s and 1970s, and then folks like Stephen Schneider in the 1970s and 1980s, Ben Santer in the 1990s.
Ultimately it amounted simply to a question of was I going to retreat and allow the critics to be successful in their campaign to discredit me and humiliate me, or was I going to fight back?
And I’ve always been the sort of person who believes in fighting back.
Courtesy of Michael Mann
The so-called hockey-stick graph depicts a sharp rise in Northern Hemisphere temperatures that coincided with the emergence of the industrial age.
Do you regret it?
Not one bit.
I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it was about a lot more than just defending myself, that there is this mean-spirited, cynical, bad-faith campaign funded by conservative interest groups and the fossil-fuel industry to mislead the public and policy makers about what may be the greatest threat we’ve ever faced as a civilization. And it would have been a dereliction of my responsibility to not do everything I could to inform that debate.
Are your colleagues standing with you, or are they keeping quiet, hoping the attacks will land elsewhere?
Precisely because scientists like myself have stood up to the bullies, that has sent a message to our colleagues, our fellow scientists.
Over the last decade and a half we’ve seen a far greater level of courage and commitment on the part of climate scientists to fight back against this disinformation campaign.
We saw the fruits of that trend at the American Geophysical Union meeting this past December, where hundreds of scientists demonstrated against the efforts of the incoming Trump administration to censor science and to provide an outlet for misinformation and disinformation.
What do you think about the planned March for Science in Washington?
As I’ve commented on before — like in my New York Times op-ed “If You See Something, Say Something” — I don’t think scientists need to apologize for arguing that policy should be informed by objective science.
And if scientists are unwilling to advocate for science-based policy making, it leaves a vacuum that will be filled by those with an ax to grind and those who truly are driven by a partisan political agenda.
It is unfortunate that we now find ourselves in an environment where merely advocating for, and speaking out in defense of, objective facts is considered political or partisan.
But is that a relatively recent type of behavior among your scientific colleagues?
That’s just the most recent example.
In my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, I spend the better part of a chapter talking about how the so-called Climategate attacks had the unintended consequence of awakening a sleeping bear.
Climate denial is a matter that experts in other fields could help solve, using skills in areas like behavioral studies, economics, and politics.
Are other disciplines carrying their weight?
I think so.
There are economists focused on understanding the economics of climate change, and increasingly you see these communities interacting and making an effort to understand the languages of the different disciplines.
Should universities train scientists to handle the harassment?
That was the thesis of the book Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum.
And I differed a bit with them.
I think it would be probably an overreach to try to make science communication — or, “defense against the dark arts,” if you will — part of the required training of scientists because there are many who probably won’t ever have to deal with that.
Rather than a requirement, it has to be there for those students who want or need it.
Are you concerned that people who understand the scientific reality may engage in the same type of rhetorical liberties as their political attackers, describing climate predictions with far more certainty and much less attention to margins of error that seem lost on many laypeople?
The underlying premise is that scientists would ever go out of their way to understate uncertainty or caveats.
What scientists do naturally is the worst possible inclination from the standpoint of communication, which is to lead with your uncertainty.
“I don’t think scientists need to apologize for arguing that policy should be informed by objective science.
And if scientists are unwilling to advocate for science-based policy making, it leaves a vacuum.”
In journalism, you lead with what you know, and what are the key findings or the key conclusions.
Scientists do the opposite.
So when somebody asks, “Was Hurricane Katrina caused by climate change?”
climate scientists will respond with the mantra, “Well, you can never relate climate change to any single meteorological event,” almost like it was taught in Bad Meteorology Communication 101.
So rather than answer the question that was asked, you should answer the question that you feel they are trying to get at:
Did climate change impact this event in some way?
Scientists are getting better at that, and the critics don’t like the fact that we’re no longer leading with the uncertainty.
As “merchants of doubt,” they want to magnify what we don’t know, because the forces of inaction recognize that all that’s necessary to preserve the status quo is to convince the public that the scientists don’t know what’s happening.
We’ve seen it in all the confirmation hearings — climate-change deniers who are being nominated for key posts using, “Well, the scientists don’t know.”
As much as the science deniers seem aligned, there are some major examples of internal dissent.
Might the forces of scientific denial bring each other down rather than unify themselves?
It turns out that the critics really don’t agree on much of anything.
Some will say the globe isn’t warming, others will say it’s warming but it’s natural, or it’s partly human but that part of it is small.
They don’t have a consistent message other than: “Don’t listen to those scientists.
Those scientists are wrong.”
But they can’t tell you what’s right because there isn’t a consistent scientific framework that differs from the actual scientific framework.
You’ve recently published The Madhouse Effect, using editorial cartoons to illustrate the folly of the climate-change debate.
Why was that book necessary?
We were told that there’s no need to publish a book on climate-change denial — that we’re past that debate.
It turns out that history had a different answer, and we were proven, unfortunately, to be more prescient than we had reason to think we would be.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy.
He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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