Michael Mann, hounded researcher

Originally posted at Skeptical Science

Here is a translation of  recent article (December 25th, 2011) in the French newspaper Le Monde by science journalist  Stéphane Foucart. He reports on a talk that Michael Mann gave at the 2011 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, in which Mann introduces his forthcoming book  The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. Foucart interviews Mann and discusses the background of the Hockey Stick and Climategate controversies. What is refreshing is the absence of the false balance, both-sides-of-the-story, style of reporting that is found so often in English language newspapers.

Original article (in French) from Le Monde by Stéphane Foucart

In early December, at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (the annual grand gathering of the bigwigs of the geoscience world), Michael Mann introduced his forthcoming book to his peers. The lecture was entertaining and the audience laughed heartily.  The American climatologist, Director of the Earth System Center at Pennsylvania State University, cracked numerous jokes and made many witty asides. He scoffed at the anti-science of the Republican politicians and mocked their ridiculous statements on climate change; everybody laughed out loud.

But this, surely, is no laughing matter. Michael Mann’s forthcoming book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press), is not really a science book; rather, as its title suggests, it deals instead with the war on climate science, which has at times turned into a manhunt, frequently with Mann as the quarry.

Lively, talkative and likeable, passionate about his research, Michael Mann is Conservative America’s most hated scientist. His crime is defined by two words, Hockey Stick, the nickname given to a curve showing how temperature has changed; a diagram that he will now forever be associated with.

In 1998, and again in 1999, with co-authors Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes, he published a “reconstruction” of Northern Hemisphere temperatures, from the year 1000 to the present day.  Using the traces of past climates recorded in tree rings, corals and sediments, he succeeded in producing a striking curve in the shape of a hockey stick. The long handle shows a fairly regular decline in temperatures from 1000 to around 1900, whereas the blade displays a sudden and a rather worrying sharp upward increase that is very obvious since 1950. The main conclusion of the Hockey Stick is that the last decade of the twentieth century was probably the warmest in over a thousand years.

“The irony is that I wasn’t originally working on anthropogenic climate change but on natural climate oscillations”, says Michael Mann. “I wasn’t looking for a hockey stick; it simply emerged from the data!”

The curve was given pride of place in 2001, in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It provided a striking visual image of the climate emergency. It became a symbol, and consequently, for all climate skeptics, an icon to destroy.

There began, at the beginning of the past decade, “an intense campaign of defamation, essentially financed by industry”, according to Mann. A statistician—also a consultant for the fossil fuel industry—disputed the data processing that produced the famous curve. The basic data themselves were subsequently put under suspicion and soon Mann was accused of having deliberately manipulated them. The Internet became awash with all kinds of myths linked to the Hockey Stick, urban legends that are occasionally passed on by scientists misled by the technicality of the arguments put forward. It is impossible today to Google the term Hockey Stick without finding hundreds of pages that detail alleged frauds, intentional errors and manipulations attributed to its creator.

The campaign worked wonderfully. In 2006, an American Congressman asked mathematician Edward Wegman (George Mason University) to prepare a report on the famous curve. The “Wegman Report” piled on with more criticism of the Hockey Stick. The American National Academy of Sciences was soon put to work to produce a report on the Hockey Stick, but they didn’t find much to complain about. “There was a legitimate technical discussion on the statistical method used in the data processing”, said Pascal Yiou (with France’s Climate Science and Environment Laboratory), “but others have processed the same data with different methods and that didn’t change the shape of the curve”.

Above all, as the controversy was artificially kept alive on the Net, a dozen other temperaturere constructions reached the same general conclusions as the original Hockey Stick.

The attacks were not just restricted to the iconic curve, however. Its author also was personally targeted. At the end of 2009, his emails—along with those of a number of other climatologists— were pirated and published on the Web. Most of the sentences, taken out of context, suggested collusion. A Republican Senator called for an enquiry into several researchers, Michael Mann first among them. The Attorney General for Virginia demanded that Mann’s Alma Mater, the University of Virginia, hand over all documents relating to him, including his archived emails, to search for possible evidence of fraud.  As for Pennsylvania State University, it was pressured in 2010 to open an investigation on Mann, but ended up exonerating him.

Michael Mann feels that things can get carried away at times. “One day, a year and a half ago, I received a letter with white powder inside it that looked like it could be anthrax. I forwarded the letter to the police who sent it for analysis: it turned out to be corn flour.” Since then, he won’t open letters unless he knows the sender.

How does anyone survive almost a decade of attacks and slander? “Getting caught in such storms isn’t something that scientific training prepares you for”, he says. “You have to become expert in defending yourself and dealing with misinformation and attacks. But I like a fight!” When the attacks started to focus on him, one of his mentors, the late Steve Schneider (Stanford University), suggested to him that if “they” were coming after him, it was because his work was important. “That was really something that helped me to have the courage to face all this”, he says.

What, ultimately, is the outcome of all this? He suddenly becomes less talkative. “Those who attack us have won in the sense that they have succeeded in delaying any action on global warming by ten, twenty, maybe thirty years,” he concedes with worry as he sees his country succumbing to anti-science. “Denying either anthropogenic climate change or evolution has become a condition of admission to the Republican Party. That’s something quite new and very scary”.

(Translated by Andy Skuce. Please note that the quotes attributed to Mann were translated back into English from the French version of his words as reported in Le Monde. They will not therefore correspond exactly to what he originally said.)

Further reading: additional translations of newspaper articles and commentary (in English) on the reporting of climate change controversies in the French press can be found here.