Reflecting on Science and the Internet

As reported by the New York Times, climate scientist Michael Mann bemoans the “rise of the Internet as a vehicle for the spread of scientific misinformation.”  In the spirit of Sharon’s “period of reflection” regarding this blog, I offer the following article about his book, not to inflame, but as an opportunity to commend Sharon for her attempts to provide a forum for posters to present scientific facts along with  a wide array of sometimes not so scientific opinions while attempting to keep a clear distinction between the two. Sometimes the debate fostered by NCFP seems poised to devolve into a” shouting match” but usually folks here can agree to disagree. Occasionally I see comments that skirt the margins of Sharon’s no-name-calling rule but I have yet to see a comment (other than spam) that I would refuse to approve.  Maybe they get zapped first by Sharon, or maybe the sort of people who participate here are just inclined to be civil (unlike, apparently, some talk show hosts.)  It certainly takes a special breed to while away one’s spare time debating the finer points of planning the future of our national forests!

A Dispatch From the Barricades

Green: Science

As I noted in a recent article, the debate over climate science has come to resemble other angry battles in the nation’s culture wars. Much as one might dislike the idea of the earth’s future being decided in a shouting match, that seems to be the reality of the situation we are in.

Columbia University Press

That’s how Michael E. Mann puts it in a new book called “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.” Dr. Mann, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University, gives readers an inside look at a string of battles going back to 1999 in which he has played a central role. Many of these center on the famous “hockey stick,” a reconstruction by Dr. Mann and colleagues of the past thousand years of temperatures on the planet, relying on indicators like tree rings.

The graph of reconstructed temperatures is called a hockey stick because the right-hand side shows temperatures veering sharply upward in the last century. The paper and its graph, along with subsequent studies by Dr. Mann and several other scientists, suggest that this recent warming is anomalous, at least over the past millennium. Through no choice of Dr. Mann’s, the graph became a symbol of modern climate science when it was featured prominently in a 2001 report by a United Nations panel.

His book, published by Columbia University Press, is essentially about the drama that ensued after the paper was set upon by climate-change contrarians determined to undermine Dr. Mann’s conclusions. The tale features hearings in Congress, fevered denunciations of climate science as a “hoax,” stolen or leaked e-mails and one investigation after another after another. It also features mainstream scientists and leading scientific journals roused to defend Dr. Mann and the scientific method.

The book is secondarily about something else: the rise of the Internet as a vehicle for the spread of scientific misinformation. As it happens, the years when Dr. Mann was fighting these battles were also the years that public discourse of all kinds moved off the traditional news pages and into cyberspace. That offers enormous possibilities for the advancement of human knowledge, of course, but no informed reader will come away from Dr. Mann’s book feeling very happy about the way it has played out so far.

Michael E. MannAssociated PressMichael E. Mann

Important as the topic may be, I suspect this book will be more useful for insiders already familiar with the players and key events and less so for general readers. Anyone wanting a straightforward, elegantly written overview of the science might prefer Kerry Emanuel’s “What We Know About Climate Change,” which has the merit of being both complete and short. A reader seeking to understand climate politics in Washington might be better advised to pick up Eric Pooley’s “The Climate War.” (Dr. Mann, it turns out, was not the first to use martial language.)

Dr. Mann is focused instead on telling the tale of the hockey stick as he lived it. That is fair enough, but some of the discussion gets pretty arcane, as when he spends many pages on the details of the statistical arguments between him and his critics. It was probably necessary that he do so, but it will be tough going for a reader without much statistical background. Dr. Mann said he hoped that general readers would tackle the book and simply skip the parts they find too technical.

The Mann case exemplifies what to me is one of the central mysteries of climate contrarianism. Dr. Mann’s findings are but a small element in a vast body of scientific research suggesting that human society is running a serious risk with the planet. But many of the contrarians have been obsessed with the hockey stick for a decade, gnawing it over and over as a dog would a bone. They seem to think if they can disprove one small element of climate science, the whole edifice will collapse.

Unfortunately for our future, the findings of modern climate science are a great deal more robust than that. They do not depend on the validity of the hockey stick, as Dr. Mann himself makes clear. Even if they did, climate science would appear to be in pretty good shape: subsequent papers by other researchers with no stake in the original have confirmed his results. Investigations of Dr. Mann and other scientists have led pretty much nowhere, with the latest of them, by an attorney general in Virginia who is a climate contrarian, effectively shut down by that state’s Supreme Court last week.

Still, the climate wars go on, and perhaps they will for as long as the fossil-fuel industry sees political delay as being in its interests.

“The decades of delay in reducing carbon emissions have already incurred a very real cost to humanity and our environment,” Dr. Mann writes. “Each year that emissions reductions are delayed, it becomes increasingly difficult to stabilize CO2 concentrations below safe levels.”

2 thoughts on “Reflecting on Science and the Internet”

  1. What a world:

    the climate wars go on, and perhaps they will for as long as the fossil-fuel industry sees political delay as being in its interests.

    And just think, every time you fill up your gas tank, you (and I) are helping the Koch Brothers to finance their war on American government, because they, Goldman Sachs, and others are profiting handsomely from their devilish derivative plays in the oil market, that may account for 30% or so of our current gas price.

  2. Jim, I’m not on all the time, so have only disapproved posts a couple of times. What’s a bit of a miracle is that all of us approving posts have the same basic concept of what should be approved and that folks have been (mostly) within the parameters.

    I must admit that I am kind of soft on the “regulars” here and indeed they have gone close to or past the edge slightly. Mea culpa.

    re: climate policy I am a fan of the Hartwell paper approach. below is the executive summary. Here’s a link.

    Climate policy, as it has been understood and practised by many governments of the
    world under the Kyoto Protocol approach, has failed to produce any discernable real
    world reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases in fifteen years. The underlying
    reason for this is that the UNFCCC/Kyoto model was structurally flawed and doomed
    to fail because it systematically misunderstood the nature of climate change as a policy
    issue between 1985 and 2009. However, the currently dominant approach has acquired
    immense political momentum because of the quantities of political capital sunk into it.
    But in any case the UNFCCC/Kyoto model of climate policy cannot continue because it
    crashed in late 2009. The Hartwell Paper sets and reviews this context; but doing so is
    not its sole or primary purpose.
    The crash of 2009 presents an immense opportunity to set climate policy free to fly at
    last. The principal motivation and purpose of this Paper is to explain and to advance
    this opportunity. To do so involves understanding and accepting a startling
    proposition. It is now plain that it is not possible to have a ‘climate policy’ that has
    emissions reductions as the all encompassing goal. However, there are many other
    reasons why the decarbonisation of the global economy is highly desirable. Therefore,
    the Paper advocates a radical reframing – an inverting – of approach: accepting that
    decarbonisation will only be achieved successfully as a benefit contingent upon other
    goals which are politically attractive and relentlessly pragmatic.
    The Paper therefore proposes that the organising principle of our effort should be the
    raising up of human dignity via three overarching objectives: ensuring energy access for
    all; ensuring that we develop in a manner that does not undermine the essential
    functioning of the Earth system; ensuring that our societies are adequately equipped to
    withstand the risks and dangers that come from all the vagaries of climate, whatever
    their cause may be.
    It explains radical and practical ways to reduce non-CO2 human forcing of climate. It
    argues that improved climate risk management is a valid policy goal, and is not simply
    congruent with carbon policy. It explains the political prerequisite of energy efficiency
    strategies as a first step and documents how this can achieve real emissions reductions.
    But, above all, it emphasises the primacy of accelerating decarbonisation of energy
    supply. This calls for very substantially increased investment in innovation in noncarbon
    energy sources in order to diversify energy supply technologies. The ultimate
    goal of doing this is to develop non-carbon energy supplies at unsubsidised costs less
    than those using fossil fuels. The Hartwell Paper advocates funding this work by low
    hypothecated (dedicated) carbon taxes. It opens discussion on how to channel such
    money productively.
    To reframe the climate issue around matters of human dignity is not just noble or
    necessary. It is also likely to be more effective than the approach of framing around
    human sinfulness –which has failed and will continue to fail.
    The Hartwell Paper follows the advice that a good crisis should not be wasted

    Also here’s a link to a Pielke, Jr. post on the NY Times rewiew of the Mann book.


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