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:


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