The Importance of Open Disagreement to Science, and Why Mean Tweeters Like Mann are Missing in Forest Science

The Mann trial was supposed to be  part of Roundup #2, but as you can see below, I got a bit carried away.

I read an op-ed this week by Loolwa Khazzoom, who said:

We are all pieces of a highly complex puzzle. When we listen instead of project, discuss instead of argue, and have a goal of learning instead of winning – approaching dialogue with an attitude of curiosity and discovery – we can benefit from the unique life experience and thought process that we each bring to the table.

Which is my belief as well. Otherwise I wouldn’t spend so much time on The Smokey Wire and similar efforts. Also this week, I followed along on the highly entertaining podcast Climate Change on Trial presented by the Unreported Story Society. I think it’s safe to say that Michael Mann, the climate scientist and plaintiff in the defamation lawsuit against two bloggers, Mark Steyn and Rand Simberg, would not agree with that statement on the utility of listening and “approaching dialogue with an attitude of curiosity and discovery.”

At first, I thought the trial was a bit ridiculous. As if what two random bloggers wrote could actually defame Mann any more than a cursory examination of his Twitter feed, and that that would effect his financial remuneration in terms of research grants. Were they kidding? Then it turned out that this defamation biz had been going on for 12 years (!), and no one knows who is paying Mann’s court fees. My view is that in a just world, the jury would have awarded the past 12 years of legal fees to Steyn and Simberg. Of course, as a random blogger myself, maybe I’m being too sensitive. But it was OK, I guess, because according to the Hill, these guys are “right-wing” bloggers and I’m not.

So, at first, I was glad that scientists in our forest fields generally don’t behave that way. And I wondered if a podcast on some of our fuels treatment court cases with key parts being reenacted would be as entertaining. But as we delved into the Mann Tweets and emails, I wondered “how could that level of meanness be tolerated?” and “why was it OK for him to do what most of us would never consider doing?,” and “whose job is it to keep our convos civil, if anyone?”

The story of how all this developed was fascinating, at least to me. For those of you who don’t know, Mann was famous for the hockey stick graph, splicing together various measures of past temperatures including our very own tree rings. When someone asked for the data, he was unwilling to part with it, at least at the beginning. He clearly wasn’t a fan of FOIA either, forwarding a message to others to delete emails. The release of the Climategate emails was not a good moment for him.  If you were to ask him, I’m sure that he saw these as efforts to impugn climate science, and (thus, naturally, to him) he became combative in its (his own) defense.  It became a “good guys vs. bad guys” thing, with him, naturally, on the self-defined “good guys” side.

At the same time, you or I could also say that science should stand up to independent scrutiny, and that if someone wants the original data, they should be able to access it. I don’t think that that would be a big problem in forest science world. So what happened here? Perhaps Mann felt that the stakes were so high, it makes usual scientific practices and conduct obsolete. Some of us might say that that correlates at .99 with his self-interest, so.. But on the other hand, billions of dollar have been spent on climate science and Mann is just one of millions of climate scientists around the world, so the hockey stick is not all that important at the end of the day. But that’s today, and perhaps not when the posts were posted.

I started to think “what went wrong here?” and “are there lessons for us in less-favored and financed disciplines to learn?” Many of us belong to scientific and professional societies, universities and agencies, with codes of conduct that incorporate ideas like collegiality and respectful communications.

Dr. Curry (she of Mann’s so-called “slept her way to the top” email to Gavin Schmidt at NASA) drafted a complaint which she never sent:

“This defamation is affecting my academic reputation and my ability to conduct business. I note that I am far from the only person being attacked and libeled by Dr. Mann.
Penn State Policy AD47 (General Standards of Professional Ethics) states that professors have obligations as members of the “community of scholars” and are required to “respect and defend” free inquiry by other members of the community and to show “due respect” for the opinions of others:

IV.As colleagues, professors have obligations that derive from common membership in the community of scholars. They respect and defend the free inquiry of their associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas they show due respect for the opinions of others.

“The policy also states that researchers are required to be “open-minded when evaluating the work of others” even if that may “contradict their own findings”:

III…. As open-minded researchers, when evaluating the work of others, they must recognize the responsibility to allow publication of theories or experiments that may contradict their own findings, as only by free inquiry and dissemination of all facts will the fruits of the labor of the whole community be allowed to mature.

Policy HR64 says (my bold) that faculty members have “special obligations” as persons of learning and as educators and are obliged to “exercise appropriate restraint” and “to show
respect for the opinions of others” Faculty members are citizens, members of learned professions, and representatives of this University. When the faculty member speaks or writes as a citizen, the faculty member shall be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but the special position in the community held by the faculty member imposes special obligations. As a person of learning and an educator, the faculty member is expected to remember that the public may judge the profession and institution by his/her utterances. Hence, the faculty member agrees at all times to be accurate, to exercise appropriate restraint, to show respect for the opinions of others, and to make every effort to indicate that he/she is not an institutional spokesperson.”

Curry didn’t send it to Penn State because, as she says in her post .

“after all, the damage to my career was already done and I wasn’t clear where this would lead or whether it would have any effect.”

I wonder how Mann could have acted against these rules for so long with no one calling him on it.  I wonder if the folks he emailed (work emails) ever said, “hey, I’m not interested in gossip about our colleagues’ sex lives”,” or “maybe you should tone it down on  Twitter” or “I’m not sure we should try to evade FOIAs and delete emails.” From the court records, it sounded like a few people did.  If more had done so, could this all have turned out differently?

And how did he get awards from prestigious organizations for “science communication?” Was anyone reading his Tweets?

“I am truly humbled to receive the Stephen Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communications,” said Mann. “While none of us can fill the very large shoes Steve left behind, we can honor his legacy by doing our best to inform the public discourse over human-caused climate change in an objective, clear and effective manner.”

I don’t blame Mann for all of this.   People don’t always behave well when left to their own devices. This is a fact of human nature. That is why we have laws, law enforcement, codes of conduct and enforcement protocols.  It is the role of institutions to enforce their own rules.  And yet they apparently are not, at least in certain cases.


Having listened to the podcast of the case, I was amused by this NPR story:

In a D.C. courtroom, a trial is wrapping up this week with big stakes for climate science. One of the world’s most prominent climate scientists is suing a right-wing author and a policy analyst for defamation.

The case comes at a time when attacks on scientists are proliferating, says Peter Hotez, professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology at Baylor College of Medicine. Even as misinformation about scientists and their work keeps growing, Hotez says scientists haven’t yet found a good way to respond.

“The reason we’re sort of fumbling at this is it’s unprecedented. And there is no roadmap,” he says.


Imran Ahmed, chief executive at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, says any response has to include social media companies, as that’s where attacks on scientists happen every day. Research finds that social media platforms can encourage the spread of scientific and medical misinformation.

Hotez says he and Mann are working on an upcoming project, collaborating on what they see as overlap in attacks on climate science and biomedicine and how to counter it.

Was NPR even in the room? I guess you don’t have to actually observe things when you can just ask your friends what they think.

With all due respect to Hotez and Mann, having discussions and disagreeing is what science is about in the pursuit of truth; actually even outside of “science,” as in Khazzoom’s quote at the top of this post.  Characterizing people who disagree as “attackers” with “disinformation” who need to be throttled down is bad for discourse, bad for the public trust (yes, that public, the ones who vote for research budgets) and bad for science.  I’m curious as to why, of all the disciplines and subdisciplines in science and engineering, only these two fields (climate and Covid) seem to have this problem highlighted? Perhaps they have bought into a form of politics-science mutualism.  In the same way that a phone call changed the views of the virologists and led to the Proximal Origins paper on Covid origins, in the Mann case a discussion with the President of Penn State led the inquiry team to change its findings on censuring Mann.  Where disciplinary self-interest, institutional self-protection and larger world politics meet.. is probably not a good place for the rest of us, nor for any truth to come out.  And it’s definitely not “science.”

Aren’t we fortunate that we don’t have these issues in forest science? Do we manage it better, are the stakes so low no one cares for high quasi-political drama, or are we just lucky as to the character of our scientists? What do you think?

13 thoughts on “The Importance of Open Disagreement to Science, and Why Mean Tweeters Like Mann are Missing in Forest Science”

  1. Some of the disagreement in the climate world stems from the fact the disputants come from deeply different scientific backgrounds:

    “In this section we outline, after a brief retrospect of the success of physics, several concepts
    in climate science, which are not normally met in conventional physics—and thus represent
    serious obstacles from a physics point of view. One of the obstacles is the absence of ‘the
    equations’ and the need for parameterizations; another is the difficulty to ‘predict’ and
    finally the issue of inhomogeneity of data.” at pdf p.5.

    This is an academic examination of the phenomenon – there are probably less dense discussions of it but this is the first one I could put my hands on.

    Another possible factor, for which I admittedly have no academic support, is that the climate science debate emerged at about the same time as blogs became popular and easy to distribute. This enabled some scientists, with no doubt excellent scientific credentials but suboptimal people skills, to spread their views widely and abrasively. This was my first experience with the personalized high-school level of argument over serious issues that is now routine on social media. The upshot of many of these early climate blogs is that they often spread enmity at least as fast as knowledge, and established grudges that some of these early participants will likely take to their graves.

  2. This blog post is playing a bit free and loose with reality. I mean go ahead and think out loud, I understand the desire to kick ideas around the proverbial cyberfire, go for it, but let’s be factual about the sources you are relying on to launch your brainstorm. To be clear, the producers of the ‘Unreported Story Society’ organization that are responsible for the ‘Climate Change on Trial’ podcast that you refer to in the blog post have brought in several millions of dollars into their not for profit over the last few years to make their media. Good on them. They have a chunk of cash! They are notorious as climate science deniers, and for having made a pro fracking documentary with screenings of the film financed by groups associated with the fossil fuel industry. Of course they are terrified about the ramifications of others of their ilk being held accountable for defamation. Just as you are eager to point out the confirmation bias of the environmental movement, which deserves lots of critique, lets be sure you take a close look at the sources that you are presenting as being some sort of objective investigators of the truth, when they are really in many senses a propaganda front for extractive industry.

    • Gary, I never said the podcast was objective, just entertaining. You have slipped away from talking about “did they not report the exchanges accurately? Did they fake the recordings from the testimony videos?”. And I quoted Curry’s post.. what do you make of that? All I said was “Mann does not behave well” “the report was entertaining” – do you question either of those assertions?

  3. “these guys are ‘right-wing’ bloggers and I’m not.”


    Whose voices and what positions do you seek to amplify and whose voices and what ideas do you discredit or cast doubt on?

    The tone of your posts and perspectives is not NOT “right wing” flavored.

    • Well, you see, I don’t believe in “right wing” as a thing. If I seem critical of, say, the Biden Admin, it’s because here’s my analysis: mainstream media like the NYT and the WaPo are not at all critical, some would say they are not living up to their responsibilities. You may say that Fox or others have this info.. you will also note that I seldom/never cite them.. because, for the most part, they are not interested in our stuff. I actually don’t think dividing people along lines like “right wing” and “left wing” is very helpful to discourse. In fact, like all abstractions, it lumps together people who have very different beliefs and attitudes. I’m interested in these differences, not how they can be lumped together. Of course, when it comes to the need to “silence” “misinformation” anyone can be “right-wing” when it’s convenient for the silencers.. like folks with the lab-leak hypothesis (err.. conspiracy theory).

  4. I find this post and the podcast “Climate Change on Trial”, as you said, “entertaining” at best. Not very useful or informative. At the heart of lawsuit was the issue of defamation – and Michael Mann won. The report wanted you to believe that this would be about “reveals the truth about Climate Change and asks: “Is there really Free Speech in America?” It wanted to rehash “climategate” and “hockey stick-gate”. And Free Speech, we do have defamation laws in this country for a reason and do defamation suits shutting down free speech in America. I don’t think so. Has it or can it shut down free speech? If you have a bunch of money and want to go after someone or if you don’t have money to defend yourself – you bet it does. Has Mann’s suit shutdown critics of Climate Change, No.

    One would be hard pressed to say that the behavior of Michael Mann, Mark Steyn, Rand Simberg and even Dr. Curry are something we should want to teach future scientist. A lot of politics presented as science.

    Sharon you started off with a wonderful quote from Loolwa Khazzoom. Listen, discuss, learn, with an attitude of curiosity and discovery. Very true. And you ended with “having discussions and disagreeing is what science is about in the pursuit of truth”, but it does have to happen in a respectful way. Things go sideways when we start to personally attach rather than debate the paper/science/method/etc. Your musing about why such bad blood/behavior in Climate Change and COVID science – it is because the stakes are so high and our political system have made them wedge issues. But I do see it at all levels of science and science disciplines.

  5. Sharon, in regards to your questions at the end of your post, “Aren’t we fortunate that we don’t have these issues in forest science? Do we manage it better, are the stakes so low no one cares for high quasi-political drama, or are we just lucky as to the character of our scientists?”, my answer to your first question is that, no, we are not fortunate. We do have these issues. We simply have not been good at recruiting public voices like Mark Steyn’s who might have been willing to address them nationally. I believe that is because our profession has largely acted cowardly. It has been a disgraceful thing for the forestry profession as a whole that most of its members have largely remained publicly silent as the national forests of the West have been overwhelmed by out-of-control forest growth over the last 40 years. All but the willfully ignorant were aware of the dangers associated with that unaddressed growth, but most of our profession chose to say nothing when the practice of forestry was banished to the woodshed years ago. Sound forestry was replaced by untried ideas that have been proven to not work. The subsequent megafires across the West have been a sad consequence of that silence.
    If our profession had had more and louder voices of protest against the efforts to shut down the Forest Service timber harvesting programs across the West 40 years ago, we no doubt would have been able to save much of what has now been lost to catastrophic fire. We will never in our lifetime recover the million acres of forests that were lost in the 2021 Dixie Fire on the Plumas and Lassen NF’s, nor in the lifetimes of our grandchildren and great grandchildren the thousands of giant sequoias lost in the 2020-2021 megafires on the South Sierra. Those are gone forever. Would that we had had a voice like Mark Steyn’s addressing the forest growth problem on our national forestlands in the public arena starting decades ago. Maybe if we had, much of what we have lost would still be green.
    Mark Steyn is a hero for publicly taking on poorly done “science”. We should have been doing more of that ourselves. We’ve truly had our own “hockey sticks” produced from the willful tilting of science. What else would one call the “spotted owl science” that shut down forest management across much of the West with resulting catastrophic consequences to owl habitat?
    In answer to your second question, “…do we manage it better…?” The answer is no. The lack of forest management of the last 40 years across the national forest lands of the West has become a national disgrace. The resulting megafires of the last decade are ample evidence of that.
    As to the third, “..are the stakes so low no one cares for high quasi-political drama… ?” I’m not sure about the drama, but the stakes are truly not low. When 13,000 giant sequoias (20%) are lost to catastrophic wildfire in two back-to-back fire seasons, the stakes are shown to be enormous. These losses and the denial-of reality that brought them about should be dramatized. They are of epic scale. John Muir himself would not have remained silent about any of this.
    And on your last inquiry, “..are we just lucky as to the character of our scientists?”, I am mystified as to the silence of those who have known the truth about where our national forestlands have been headed since the 1980’s and yet have remained largely quiet. We have been in great need of hundreds more voices like Bob Zybach’s, George Gruell’s, Tom Bonnicksen’s, Steve Arno’s , Ed Stone’s, and Bill McKillop’s. It would have made a difference. Thousands of giant sequoias now dead would still be green. What we have doing in forest management over the last 40 years is not working. It’s time for those who know better to speak up. We need to be getting with it in the woods. Untreated forest growth will end up destroying all that we cherish if not corrected. This means quantified forest removals targeted at controlling enough forest growth to allow for the safe introduction of prescribed fire back into stands that are thinned . The forest cannot be protected without it. It’s called reality.
    Lastly, I don’t understand the sensitivities of those who have already responded to your post regarding their objections to public criticisms of obvious defects in published research. It is no mystery that much of the environmental “research” of the last 40 years has been used to push specific agendas. The spotted owl “research” initiated in the late 1980’s specifically intent on restricting timber harvesting on national forest lands is a perfect example of the perils of that. “Research” findings that may have huge impacts on natural resources, communities, and even our nation’s future are deserving of vigorous public discussion. Many of those who are angered by such scrutiny only bring attention to the weakness of their own arguments. Dismissing the arguments of Mark Steyn, Ann McElhinny and Phelim McAlee because they are “right-wingers” is reminiscent of those who demonized active forest management over the last decades because tree cutting in their minds was done solely to benefit sawmills and plywood plants. Those who embraced those sentiments eventually ended up throwing the baby out with the bath water. The destruction of many of our treasured giant sequoia groves has been one of the outcomes of that . Denial of reality has consequences. We are in the middle of those consequences right now in forests across the West.
    Thank God for men like Mark Steyn. He is a hero of open debate. Our society will not survive without others like him. We truly need an army of individuals having the courage to defend it. And thank you for your post on this trial. I for one would like to enlist McElhinny and McAlee to look into how 20% of our giant sequoias have been destroyed by the foolishness embedded in much of the “environmental” movement over the last 40 years . It is deserving of public scrutiny.

    • Logging was not shutdown in the Sierra Nevada, except for a few years after Clinton left office. There has been uncontested thinning projects in the Sierra Nevada. It was Congress that didn’t fund more thinning, more employees and better wildfire outcomes. You can argue about methods and “pace and scale”, but lawsuits have not hindered thinning projects. Diameter limits are unfortunate, but necessary.

      Of course, salvage projects are a quite different issue.

      • Logging has been basically shut down on all federal lands in western Oregon the past few decades, Larry, leading to catastrophic wildfires, as predicted. Three things that weren’t predicted were: 1) the public’s total lack of concern for these events, typically ending with the fall rains and clearing of smoke from urban areas; 2) that the environmental industry would be able to stop the salvage of flammable snags from these predictable events; and 3) that they would continue unabated for 35 years with no end in sight.

        • Ranger Districts still had timber targets, which they mostly met. It isn’t the fault of the Ranger District when the mandates and the funding come from “up above”. *smirk*

          Salvage does still happen, and it looks like, at least here in California, the loopholes have been closed. Hanson no longer seems to have success in his lawsuits. And, yes, we did log The Biscuit. There should be some opportunities for study in there, regarding treatment, no treatment, and privately-owned timberlands. It might be pretty difficult to not compare “apples versus oranges”, though. The landscape is just so varied throughout the burned areas.

  6. Larry, I appreciate your perspective on the national forest harvest programs in the Sierras since you were apparently involved with much of the ground-pounding during your career, but I don’t believe you are grasping the point. Keeping a dribble of volume continuing to come off of the national forests in the Sierras even with all of the “environmental” restrictions means nothing when quantified forest growth continues to exceed those removals by 10 times or more. We need to find ways to fix this. It is not going to happen in the absence of a huge and ramped up timber harvesting program. More environmental damage has been done to our forests as a result of the environmental” restrictions of the last 40 years than was ever done by logging. The results of the system you are defending are not good. We need to begin dealing with reality. If we do not the destruction of our forests will continue. Those who hate timber harvesting need to get over it. We tried it their way. It didn’t work.

    • Well, we’ve only seen a few years of the current funding of active management. It has taken many decades to get into this situation. If much of that volume is going into the remaining trees, after a thinning project, then I don’t see the problem.

      BTW, how has SPI’s land fared, within the Dixie and Caldor Fires? We did see where a recent USFS thinning project (which I worked on), stopped a ‘slop-over’ on the Caldor Fire. Plantations on private lands continue to be a flammable problem on SPI lands. Same for 50 year old plantations on Forest Service lands.

      How about we try the current system, with current funding, until Congress takes it away, again?

  7. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Why don’t we really try to fix it? Giving a broken system more money is not going to fix anything. Never will.


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