While I’m on a bit of a history kick, I thought I’d share one of my favorite annal passages (and, I hope, yours) from the science-wars saga. If you still haven’t bought a copy of Distinguished Professor Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Why A Hockey-Stick-Obsessed World Needs To Stop Talking About the Hockey Stick and Move on to Non-Hockey-Stick Topics Already, then you’re simply not a serious participant in the climate conversation, so don’t bother.
Those who do care about science will recall the theme of the book: one man’s courageous victimization at the hands of deniers armed with a terrifying new weapon. This technology (codenamed the Serengeti Strategy) took the scientific world by surprise, because it came from pretty much the last place they’d ever think to look: nature. Experts believe Serengeti has been in continual use in the animal world since the Cretaceous, but was first conceived by humans, circa 1999, as a way of harassing Michael Mann.
The idea is as diabolical as it is sophisticated. Essentially, you can think of climate deniers as subhuman African carnivores: lions, tigers, smiling smilodons or any other species of coldblooded contract killer. But their peace-loving, vegetarian prey—the legitimate climate community—has One Big Thing going for it: numbers. Consensus. A real scientist has no pride, so she relies on the protection of a vast and homogeneous herd.
I’ve never had time to watch the Discovery channel, but anyone who has can probably guess what the predators do next: they plot, in the shadows, against a single zebra. The top zebra. It’s simple zoology: avoiding the runts, gimps and weaklings, the big cats set their sights on the best, most robust and reproductively-fit alpha stud.
Enter Mike Mann.
But THSATCW:WAHSOWNTSTATHSAMOTNHSTA isn’t just about the bullying of isolated scientists by armies of contrarians. It’s also about the converse—the fightback phase, in which Mann finds himself cast, yet again, at the very centre of events as a hero to, and reluctant defender of the rights of, scientists everywhere.
This message of hope begins in the novel’s third act with the discovery, by the author himself, of an ingenious countermeasure to the Serengeti Strategy. But enough of my preamble; I’ll let a far better storyteller take it from here.
By now most Americans knew the story of Serengeti and of the eureka moment, on that fateful safari, when I’d suddenly deciphered the logic of denialism. But the story has a remarkable, and comparatively untold, postscript. In one of those coincidences you couldn’t possibly fabricate, the solution to Serengeti—a doctrine I wasted no time in dubbing the Sahara Strategy—also occurred to me on holiday; and on the very same continent, no less.
Having thoroughly enjoyed our first experience in Africa, my wife and kids spent months in eager anticipation of my next sabbatical and the chance to fly back there. (Yes, there’s one kind of hiatus we climate scientists welcome with open arms!) This time, however, we looked forward to exploring the North.
It was on a hot, dusty morning that the Sahara Strategy—or tactic, as it’s known by ecologists, ethologists and the militarily-literate—first came to me. We were en route to the bustling slave markets of Khartoum when I overheard a Tuareg proverb:
The snake with no fork eats the ass whole.
In a flash, this ancient wisdom would inspire a paradigm shift in the way the scientific war on doubt was fought. Forever.
“The snake is us,” I realized loudly, to no one in particular.
“Turn the bus around! Climate scientists must be warned. Hurry, before they try to eat another ass whole!
The other passengers thought I was crazy and annoying, a memory that still gets a chuckle out of me now—because, of course, it was they who were crazy and annoying.
On the open savannah of the climate wars, the naïve battle plan—the one reputable scientists had been following since the ’80s—had always been to try to prove the entire canon of skeptical thought fraudulent in one fell swoop. It sounds logical enough, but it was difficult in practice, and it was becoming less and less feasible every year as skepticism grew. Journal editors were now confronted with 200,000-page manuscripts, decades in the making, that had several thousand coauthors and didn’t even fit on a USB drive.
But if there was a better way, we couldn’t think of it. And we were the world’s leading scientists.
The insight that changed everything was as simple as it was subtle, and as subtle as a snake with cutlery: instead of continually biting off more than we could chew—I wondered—why not attempt to discredit one denier at a time, thus breaking the problem of skeptical climate scientists up into thousands of subproblems?
As proof of concept, we chose the serial skeptic Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon for a concerted campaign of isolation, exposure and attack.
Finding fault with the science in Soon’s papers proved to be easier said than done, however. (Like most contrarians, the Harvard-Smithshonian astrophysicist is careful not to put his flawed ideas in writing.)
Our small, brave band of assassins would need to try smarter, not harder: by digging into our target’s finances.
It’s at this point in the story that I’m invariably interrupted by a layman or laywoman of furrowed brow—usually on the old, white, libertarian end of the spectrum—demanding to know how the Sahara Strategy differs, morally speaking, from its cowardly and despicable Serengeti counterpart. (One late-night talk show host, who will go unnamed, actually put it to me that we appeared to be lowering ourselves to the level of skeptics!)
Needless to say, this genre of objections relies on such a total misunderstanding of the ecobiology, game theory and behavioral science that one cannot help suspecting the confusion is deliberate. In order to conflate Sahara with the sort of methods favored by deniers one would have to ignore too many swathes of reality to mention.
Still, I’ve always made it a point, in my engagements with the community, to gamble on the very slim possibility that those who raise their hands to voice doubts or incomplete understanding are somehow operating in good faith. It’s not always easy, and if you said I was kidding myself you’d probably be right. But the alternative would be to lose my cool and publicly tear them a new perineum, which would play right into the hands of every denialist with a cell phone and a YouTube account. (There are reams of scholarship establishing that fossil-fuel-using corporations routinely “plant” audience members at speaking appearances by myself and one or two other leading scientists.) As the old saying goes, you can never be too paranoid in climate.
© Michael E. Mann.
This excerpt was brought to you by Climate Literary Classics: because you can’t expect to be taken seriously if you don’t keep up with the literature. Reprinted with the author’s protest.