As we wrote yesterday, love him or hate him, you have to agree that Dr Michael E. Mann has left an incurable ulcer on the body of science. Now that the news of his retirement has had time to sink in we’re seeing the first attempts to grapple with Mann’s titanic impact. Here’s what some of the lesser outlets are saying in the wake of yesterday’s bombshell.
(Note: the following articles get the science completely wrong, but they’re still useful, broadly speaking. They weren’t written by scientists anyway, so it doesn’t matter.)
Dr Mann described himself at yesterday’s press conference as a “lifelong maverick” with a “healthy disdain for authority.” The description fits. In 1998, as a freshly-minted PhD, he shot to stardom by ignoring the warnings of more experienced scientists against the use of bristlecone pine growth rings as indicators of past temperature. By following his gut instead of the peer-reviewed opinions of the experts, Mann succeeded in showing for the first time what climate scientists had always believed: that rumors of a Medieval Warm Period [MWP] had been greatly exaggerated by the world’s historians, archaeologists, documentary analysts, oenologists and climate scientists.
The resulting graph, which debuted in a paper by Dr Mann and coauthors Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes, was so iconic it even got a popular name: the Hockey Stick. One science reporter who grasped the significance of the finding was The Guardian’s Fred Pearce, who wrote that it “solves one of the nagging scientific paradoxes of the late 20th century: if it was just as warm in the Middle Ages as it is today, how do you explain the well-known fact that we urgently need to fight climate change?”
Thanks to Mann’s pioneering work, nobody serious would hesitate to treat bristlecone tree rings as temperature proxies these days. There’s a clear consensus that their usefulness more than outweighs any esoteric objections to their biological validity.
But whatever you do, don’t suggest Mann’s fame as a scientist was a case of “overnight success”—a mistake that cost comedian Bill Maher his friendship with the climatologist earlier this year. Maher was excoriated in front of his own studio audience for having bought into what Dr Mann called a “denialist meme.”
“Non-scientists like you,” snapped the scientist, “only see the tip of the iceberg—the Nobel-Prize-winning [sic] graph. And you think, oh, how difficult could that be? My five-year-old nephew could draw that.
“Listen, Bill: if I was allowed to explain the s**t I had to go through to make that graph then maybe, just maybe you’d comprehend why they say ‘science is 99% perspiration.’ As a scientist I have to be willing to throw out 99 wrong answers before I get one that actually advances the science.
“I’ve got a whole directory full of this unpublishable s**t. If the public could see the contents of our computers, they might start giving our [climate scientists’] work the respect it deserves.”
By next morning Dr Mann had already fired off an email to Bradley and Hughes, CCed to all legitimate scientists, under the subject line Bill Maher no longer credible on science. All work-related messages sent from a climate scientist’s work account are considered private, so the Herald asked Mann’s permission to read the body of the email. In it he calls on his peers to give Maher “the big cutoff”—science-speak for take your business to a better late-night left-wing semi-funny talk-show host if you hope to be taken seriously.
But people have been telling Dr Mann what he should and shouldn’t do all his career. The scientists who discovered some important mud in Finland, known as the Tiljander varve, darkly admonished against any attempt to infer historical climate conditions from it, particularly the topmost layers where twentieth-century agricultural activity had “contaminated” the sample.
To quote Mann’s 2011 memoir, “This seemed like good advice, until I asked myself: where would I be today if I’d listened to the naysayers on bristlecone pines? Not in a Professor’s chair, that’s for sure. Not on the [US] President’s personal science advisory—a position in which I could do more good, by spreading more science, in a single year than in the average academic lifetime.”
And so, in another small step for Mann and giant leap for science, he ignored the warnings and discovered a whole new solution to the Hockey Stick challenge. Using Tiljander, it was possible to get almost as good a graph as the original-and-best 1998 version.
The legitimate science community now had a killer comeback to its critics: if the varve is a spurious proxy for past temperatures, then how come it agrees with the bristlecone pine data?
But Mann’s friends say the decision was not entirely unexpected. According to water scientist and document authenticity expert Peter Gleick, “Mike has probably made more money out of this [climate change science] than any of us, so early retirement was always on the cards.”
Nevertheless, Mann’s exit represents a massive loss of institutional knowledge, said his friend Naomi Oreskes. The Harvard historian and science-fiction author believes Mann “is irreplaceable. There are maybe a couple of guys on the planet who can make a Hockey Stick [graph] without his help—but nowhere near as well.”
In a sign of the universal esteem Dr Mann commands, it’s not his allies but his opponents who’ve most strenuously begged him to reconsider.
Marc Morano, a political activist and filmmaker who denies that climate science exists, is one of many who hope Mann is just bluffing. Today Morano praised the scientist as “a guy who’s done even more to encourage skepticism than I ever could.”
Unfortunately, Mann is adamant. “This is no hoax,” he assured us by telephone.
But he won’t be idle in retirement! As he told reporters yesterday, he’s already secured a publisher for his first project: a book about how to do science.
“Think of it as a kind of dummy’s guide to the scientific method,” he explained. “It’s the book I wish someone had given me when I was starting out [as a scientist].”
If the murmurs of agreement throughout the room are anything to go by, it ought to be as successful as everything Mann has turned his mind to.
Dr Mann was a leading figure in a new breed of scientists known for their obscurantism and defensiveness, bordering at times on paranoia. To the traditionalists offended by this attitude, Mann has always had a simple message: blame the skeptics. Like any other scientist, he’d love nothing better than to be humble, transparent and collegial at all times—but that’s a luxury scientists simply can’t afford when their doubters have no genuine desire to be convinced.
The difficulty of behaving scientifically in a science-doubting world was best summed up by Mann’s close friend, Professor Phil Jones, who asked rhetorically, “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”
The great ecologist Paul Ehrlich went further, likening the new dynamic between scientist and skeptic to a knife fight. “And you don’t bring data to a knife fight,” quipped Ehrlich in a Nature op-ed.
“Gravity doesn’t work,” explained Dr Mann in an 2002 NPR interview, referring to a failed 17th-century attempt to explain falling, “because Newton was a nice guy.”
Determined not to make the same mistake, Mann said he and his colleagues in climate science had adopted a policy of uncooperative arrogance from the start.
“How could we live with ourselves if excessive niceness caused [the theory of catastrophic climate disruption] to be wrong?”
Aptly enough, this new generation of warrior-scientists calls itself the Hockey Team—an allusion to North America’s most violent sport.
But climate rejectors wasted no time in spreading rumors that the name referred to the Hockey Stick, a 1998 graph that made Dr Mann’s career.
The allegation understandably enrages the scientist, who could barely maintain his composure when we asked him about it last year.
“Listen: that whole idea is deeply defamatory,” he schooled our reporter. “To suggest that a team of paleoclimatologists—that a team of any self-respecting scientists—would name themselves after a particular conclusion they wanted to reach… it strikes at the very heart of their honesty as scientists. It’s tantamount to accusing us of intellectual fraud.”
When pressed to name a scientist comparable to himself, Mann usually picks Richard Feynman. It’s not hard to see why: both men are revered as much for their teaching as for their contributions to science itself.
In what is being praised as a “populist stunt,” Oxford Dictionary last week unveiled a preview of its annual list of new words, which finally acknowledges the term ‘to mannsplain’ and its derivative adjective, ‘mannsplanatory.’
(The verb, which can be used transitively or intransitively, means ‘to explain [sth.] on a strict need-to-know basis, usually to persons not capable of understanding it anyway.’)
But the honor comes too late to change the Great Mannsplainer’s mind.
Indeed, colleagues consider Oxford’s recognition of the award-winning communicator to be several years overdue, calling the delay “inmannsplicable.” Computer scientist and climate conspirologist John Mashey believes the only mannsplanation is that the lexicographers allowed themselves to be intimidated by industry-funded threats.
If Dr Mann has reached more people and opened more minds to science than Feynman did, he modestly puts it down to an advantage that the discoverer of quantum electro-dynamics could never have even imagined: modern computers. Mann is famous for refusing to go to bed while anyone in his Twitter feed is unsatisfied or has any unanswered objections to the science—a discipline he says has paid off, being the only scientist who can honestly boast that his followers don’t include a single skeptic.