More reasons to read The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

Posted November 28th, 2013 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Book reviews

HSCWWhen Michael Mann published what has become known as the hockey stick, he was not expecting the inquisition – from Joe Barton or Ken Cuccinelli or any of a number of other cranks and contrarians. If you have found the twists and turns of climategate confusing, or wondered why there are those who continue to be obsessed with his emails, or why he introduced Bill Clinton at a McAuliffe campaign rally and was featured in campaign ads, this would be a good time to get his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines – which was just released in paperback. Even if you have read it, you might want to read the new forward, by Bill Nye the Science Guy, and the update which shows continued vindication of the Hockey Stick, as it continues to be confirmed by additional studies. Those studies, and the now nine investigations in which no improprieties were found, surely make him the Most Vindicated Professor (MVP) ever – as he was referred to in a tweet by Peter Dykstra. But there are even more important reasons to read it.

In a nutshell, the book provides a well footnoted account of one scientist’s initially reluctant journey from the laboratory to the political arena, which goes by a very different set of rules, as he became one of the main targets of a deceitful disinformation campaign. In Mann’s words, he went from the “belief that the role of the scientist was, simply put, to do science” and to “avoid entirely the subject of policy implications” to becoming “convinced that there is nothing more noble than striving to communicate, in terms that are simultaneously accurate and accessible, the societal implication of our scientific knowledge.” In so doing, it also illustrates the changing nature of the relationship between science and society, as we grapple with the implications of living in the anthropocene.

I drew on the book heavily in a post earlier this year to make the case that those calling themselves “climate skeptics” are not making good faith arguments. Rather, that they are engaged in the performance of a deceptive parody of science, that starts with the act of calling themselves skeptics (Real skeptics actually consider and respond to evidence, and can even be swayed by it).  As discussed in a subsequent post, when challenged in a court of law, some of those who have made repeated claims that he has been engaged in fraud and scientific misconduct won’t even stand behind their own allegations. They now claim that their statements were merely “expressions of opinion and rhetorical hyperbole… not assertions of fact” – which could be proven false.

If these self-proclaimed skeptics are to be held to the same standards as scientists, there is no better place to start than by demanding that they respond to this book point by point – instead of changing the subject. They might also release the code used in the Wegman report and subject it to an actual peer review…. That should keep them constructively occupied and quiet long enough for the rest of us to consider the implications of climate change, and what we can do to actually get to some sort of a new normal. If they cannot or will not be held to these standards, they should be dismissed as cranks, along with anyone who gives them airtime – other than for the purpose of exposing this hypocrisy.

But Mann’s story is about much more than just responding to rampant disinformation about climate change – which is important to do but can seem pointless.  Given that climate change challenges not only vested interests, but also a deeply entrenched world view – as once did the notion that the earth goes around the sun, widespread denial of the human role in it should not come as a great surprise. Disinformation campaigns take advantage of equally entrenched and erroneous views of science among those to whom the misleading information is directed. Such misinformation only sticks because of unrealistic images and expectations of science, e.g., that, unlike life, it can deliver proof and certainty rather than probabilities.

In a rapidly changing world, as we grapple with the consequences of the human capacity to alter global scale processes of life support, even probabilities can be elusive, but science at least provides a basis for learning and hopefully, for detecting those changes in time to adequately respond to them. Therefore it is critical that citizens have some appreciation of the scientific process, if not the technical details of science.

Communication of that knowledge is not merely about “framing messages” but about a process of learning, which cannot happen in the absence of knowledge sharing and good faith dialogue in which value conflicts are at least acknowledged. Before we can have any hope of responding to pollution of the environment, we have to respond to pollution of the public discourse, which needs to be held to the same standards of good faith dialogue as scientific inquiry. In another excerpt from the book:

A fundamental principle of scientific inquiry is the honest exchange of ideas, the communication of caveats and uncertainty. Without a science-literate and politically aware populace, there can be no match against well-funded, well-organized groups that place little value on honesty or integrity, that cleverly masquerade denialism as skepticism, and that are more than willing to state their own positions in the most absolute of terms, while exploiting and indeed misrepresenting the frank admissions of uncertainty by those they view as their opponents.


Links to buy The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Frontlines:

Update – Links to other selected reviews of the book:


Book Review: Intervention – Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet

Posted December 4th, 2007 by Jerry Ravetz and filed in Book reviews

Denise Caruso
Intervention: Confronting the Real Risks of Genetic Engineering and Life on a Biotech Planet
San Francisco: The Hybrid Vigor Institute, 2006.
This book is required reading for anyone who still has illusions about the essential beneficence of science. With scientific insight and journalistic skill, Denise Caruso dissects the world of corporate biotechnologists, and provides a terrifying picture of what they are now doing to the world. She goes through the whole scene of biological interventions, including transgenic interventions of every sort. In every case, it’s the same appalling story.
The key to the problem lies in the researchers, perhaps motivated by scientific curiosity but definitely directed by corporate greed. Theirs is a Tinkertoy vision of reality, where all you need to do is to fit in a piece from anywhere and make it all work your way. Any idea of uncertainty, risks, unexpected effects or the reactions of complex biological systems, is totally absent from their vision. As to social consequences, this is left to the PR men who promise to cure any of mankind’s ills with their latest gadget.
The combination of myopic scientists, predatory corporations, and revolving-door regulators is totally lethal. Fortunately many of their productions have flopped on the market, and they hype each other as much as the public. But some of it will work, some time, somewhere. Only luck will save us from some sort of man-made Kudzu of some size, shape or form. We probably won’t know when it is happening, and may not even know about harmful consequences until much too late.
Of course there are still many scientists who work with breadth of vision and integrity, as well as citizens’ groups that raise the alarm. The question is, who will prevail. Our fate may well depend on the answer.

Book review: Unstoppable Global Warming – every 1,500 years

Posted January 24th, 2007 by Guest and filed in Book reviews

Editors note: The following book review, which analyses a new book by Fred Singer and Dennis Avery from the perspective of Post-Normal Science, was provided by Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre, who we are honored to welcome as a contributor to the PNT.

Unstoppable Global Warming – every 1,500 years
S Fred Singer and Dennis T Avery
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., Lanham, MA, 260pp.
Hardback 0-7425-5116-4, £49.00
Paperback 0-7425-5117-2, £15.99

Is this a book about science? It is certainly written by scientists, one a climate physicist (Professor Fred Singer, an ex-US Government science advisor and outspoken critic of the idea that humans are warming the planet), the other a biologist. Its central thesis – the warming currently observed around the world is a function of a 1,500 year ‘unstoppable’ cycle in solar energy – is linked to evidence that most people would recognise as being generated by science. And the book is written as a scientific text, with citations to peer-reviewed articles, deference to numbers and adoption of technical terms. But whether this book is about science or about something else depends on what you believe science to be. One of the central reasons we disagree about climate change is because we have different conceptions of what science is and with what authority it speaks – in other words, how scientific ‘knowledge’ interacts with those other realms of understanding brought to us by politics, ethics and spirituality.

Before I explain, let me precis Singer and Avery’s argument. Their contention is that a well-established 1,500-year cycle in the Earth’s climate can explain most of the global warming observed in the last hundred years (0.7degC), that this cycle is in some way linked to fluctuations in solar energy, and because there is nothing humans can do to affect the sun we should simply figure out how to live with this cycle. We are currently on the upswing, warming out of the Little Ice Age, but in a few hundred years will be back on the downswing. Efforts to slow down the current warming by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases are at best irrelevant, or at worst damaging for our future development and welfare.

This of course is not what the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will say next week. Its report from its climate science working group will conclude that it is likely that most of the warming of the last 50 years has been caused by rising greenhouse gas concentrations and that, depending on our actions now to slow the growth of emissions, warming by 2100 will likely be between about 1.5º and 6ºC. The upper end of this range is almost an order of magnitude larger than the warming Singer and Avery suggest is caused by the 1,500-year cycle. So is this a fight between scientific truth and error? This seems how Singer and Avery would like to present it – ‘science is the process of developing theories and testing them against observations until they are proven true or false.’

Last week on the Radio 4 Today programme, Dennis Avery discussed the ideas in the book with climate campaigner Mark Lynas. The interesting this about this ten minute discussion was that the battleground was over the scientific truth claims of the 1,500 year cycle – which reduced to how many scientific papers were cited in the book, were they ‘proper’ scientific papers, how many scientists wrote the IPCC report, and so on. It was odd to hear a biologist and a historian trading blows in front of half a million listeners over the scientific veracity of a geophysical phenomenon.

But this is symptomatic of what has happened to climate change. Too often the reasons we disagree about what to do about climate change are framed in this way, as disputes about the truth claims of some aspect of biogeophysical science – is the world warming; are greenhouse gases responsible; will this ice-sheet collapse? This reflects one view of science, the conventional Enlightenment view of science as an objective, disinterested endeavour incrementally leading us closer and closer to a universal and immutable view of reality … past, present and future. This is ‘normal’ science.

But for many years now, around 25 at least, philosophers and practitioners of science have identified a different mode of scientific activity, a mode where stakes are high, uncertainties large and decisions urgent, and where values are embedded in the way science is done and spoken. This is what Silvio Funtowicz labelled in 1993 ‘post-normal’ science. Disputes in post-normal science focus as often on the process of science – who gets funded, who evaluates quality, who has the ear of policy – as on the facts of science. The IPCC is a classic example of a post-normal scientific activity. The IPCC is a large procedural assessment activity involving first of all scientists, but then later entraining a broad range of other experts from government, business, civil society to evaluate the quality of the assessment, before the modified text is presented to government representatives for their amendment and approval.

But there is also a third way of interpreting contemporary science, which is yet one further step removed from the binary truth-falsehood view of Singer and Avery. This third way of seeing science pays more attention to the social and cultural context in which science works and speaks than to the phenomena being studied. Who are the scientists, what are their values, motives and preferences, why are they being asked to study this particular problem rather than some other problem, and who funds them? This understanding of science is what sociologists have termed its social construction.

Understanding the nature of post-normal science, and drawing upon some of the insights of social construction, helps us to re-interpret the Radio 4 discussion between Avery and Lynas. It will also help us towards understanding why we disagree about climate change. On the surface, Avery and Lynas were arguing about science – is there a 1,500 year cycle in world temperatures; do greenhouse gases warm the planet? This was normal science mode and many people, perhaps a majority, will have interpreted the debate in this way: truth or error, fact or fiction, or just more uncertainty and confusion between experts.

But what was really going on was a dispute about the much deeper (yet unexpressed) values and beliefs held by Avery (and Singer) and Lynas. Do they have confidence in technology? Do they believe in collective action over private enterprise? Can all things they value be quantified in monetary terms? Do they believe we carry obligations to people invisible to us in geography and time? We need this perspective on science if we are going to make sense of books such as Unstoppable Global Warming. Or indeed, if we are to make sense of polar opposites such as James Lovelock’s recent contribution The Revenge of Gaia, in which he extends climate science to reach the conclusion that the collapse of civilisation is no more than a couple of generations away.

The unfortunate thing is that many people still hold onto a ‘normal’ faith in science such that it can first find truth, then speak truth to power, and that truth-based policy will then follow. Fred Singer has this view of science; so does Mark Lynas. That is why they reduce their exchange to one about scientific truth rather than about values, perspectives and political preferences. If the battle of science is won, then the war of values will be won.

If only climate change were such a phenomenon and if only science held such an ascendancy over our personal, social and political life and decisions. To the contrary, in order to make progress about how we manage climate change we have to take science off centre-stage. This is not a comfortable thing to say – neither to those scientists who still hold an uncritical view of their privileged enterprise and who relish the status society affords them; nor to politicians whose instinct is so often to hide behind the experts when confronted by difficult and genuine policy alternatives. Two years ago, Tony Blair announced the large, government-backed international climate change conference in Exeter in his G8 year by asking for the conference scientists to ‘identify what level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is self-evidently too much’. This is the wrong question to ask of science. What is ‘self-evidently’ dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth-seeking; we might gain some insights into the question if we recognise the socially contingent dimensions of a post-normal science. But to proffer such insights, scientists – and politicians – must trade (normal) truth for influence. If scientists want to remain listened to, to bear influence on policy, they must recognise the social limits of their truth-seeking and reveal honestly and fully the values and beliefs they bring into their scientific activity.

Lack of such reflective transparency is the problem with Unstoppable Global Warming, and with Dennis Avery and Mark Lynas on Today. Such a perspective also opens a chink of weakness in the authority of the IPCC as it reports its latest science findings next week. What matters about climate change is not whether we can predict the future with some desired level of certainty and accuracy. What matters is whether we have just sufficient foresight, supported by wisdom, to allow our perspective about the future, and our responsibility for it, to be altered. All of us alive today have a stake in the future and so we should all play a role in generating sufficient, inclusive and imposing knowledge about the future. Climate change is too important to be left to scientists, least of all the normal ones.

Professor Mike Hulme
School of Environmental Sciences, and Director Tyndall Centre
University of East Anglia
Professor Hulme is currently writing a book “Why we disagree about climate change”