Is anthropogenic global warming (AGW) a valid scientific theory? Is it well supported by the empirical data or is it mostly an artifact of computer modeling? I don’t have answers to these questions. I stand, rather, on the side of those who favor rigorous scientific inquiry, transparency, and openness. I am not a climate scientist, but neither do I cede the whole matter of answering such questions to the designated experts. Good science doesn’t limit itself to the views of narrow-cast specialists. Valid observations, corrective criticism, competing hypotheses, and rigorous testing can and often do arise from other sources.
It surprises me, however, that proponents of AGW, or what might be called the climate orthodoxy section of AGW theory, often respond to criticism and dissent with a kind of fury. Far from welcoming discussion, they seek to suppress it. In doing so they jeopardize both their own authority and the prestige of the scientific community.
A month ago I posted on Innovations a brief item, “Bottling Up Global Warming Skepticism,” about the machinations of one of Professor Michael Mann’s ardent defenders, Dr. John Mashey, who has taken a no-holds-barred approach to silencing Mann’s critics. Mann himself has deployed nuisance lawsuits in a similar fashion. He has sued Tim Ball—a Canadian global-warming skeptic, an environmentalist, and former professor of geography—for libel for writing that Mann “should be in the State Pen, not Penn State,” for his role in Climategate. Mann also threatened a lawsuit against Minnesotans for Global Warming for a satiric YouTube video titled “Hide the Decline.” (YouTube suppressed the original video. There is now a “Hide the Decline II.”)
The tactic of suing critics of AGW theory to silence them isn’t Mann’s alone, and it isn’t the only extracurricular means the global warmists use in attempts to shut up dissenters. The BBC recently announced that in an effort to be more attuned to the scientific “consensus,” it would no longer strive to provide balanced coverage of climate issues. Its decision followed a report by the BBC Trust, “Review of impartiality and accuracy of the BBC’s coverage of science.” In 2007, Weather Channel meteorologist Dr. Heidi Cullen seemed to call for the firing of meteorologists who expressed doubt about AGW. She later clarified to The New York Times that “I didn’t exactly say that. I was talking about the American Meteorological Society’s seal of approval. I was saying the A.M.S. should test applicants on climate change as part of their certification process. They test on other aspects of weather science.” In 2009, Environmental Protection Agency economist Alan Carlin was subjected to a gag order by an EPA administrator after submitting a report that was critical of the role of CO2 in recent global warming.
The techniques vary. The results, however, are similar: What cannot be established by transparent science can be imposed by coercion and intimidation.
John Mashey, who was the subject of my initial criticism, exercised his right to post replies on Innovations and elsewhere to my initial article. He is welcome to express his opinions, but the pretense that he is defending science or academic due process wears thin. His replies posted to The Chronicle and elsewhere come in the company of some very irate people. Many of them seem to think that only those who accept the premises of their own sectarian version of climate modeling have a right to speak in this debate. Anyone else is fair game for—what shall I call it? It goes well beyond scolding.
For example, one of Mashey and Mann’s supporters has made it her business to contact by telephone and e-mail NAS trustees, members, employees, and others with leading questions about my views on climate change and sustainability. Her questions have insinuated that two former employees of NAS who died in 1995 were murdered, perhaps at the behest of Richard Mellon Scaife! (As it happened both died of heart attacks; and both had suffered previous heart attacks.) This woman has similarly attacked other people and organizations that express views on climate change that she disagrees with.
Her targets have sometimes spoken up, but as far as I can tell she is accepted by AGW proponents as a welcome contributor to the effort.
Let me go back to what started all this. On June 30, I wrote:
Science reports that retired computer scientist Dr. John Mashey is attempting to patch the tattered reputation of “hide the decline” Michael Mann, the climate scientist whose famous “hockey stick” chart shows exponentially increasing global temperatures in the near term. Mashey has been, as he puts it, “trying to take the offense” against global warming skeptics by flyspecking their publications. “You hope they make a mistake,” he says, and when they do, he pounces with demands that journals retract whole articles. Some journals indeed have. As Science puts it, “His critics say Mashey is more interested in destroying his foes than in debating the issues.” Professor Mann is extolling his efforts at “exploring the underbelly of climate denial.”
The issue of Science I referred to is Vol. 332, No, 6035, 10 June 2011, pp. 1250-1251.
The only mentions of Michael Mann in my article are in the two sentences quoted above. This provoked not only the long string of mostly hostile comments (over 60) on the original article but also threads of vehement commentary on other sites. Since I had said next to nothing about Mann himself, his scientific contributions, or the controversies surrounding him, it was up to those posting comments to focus their anger by inventing through creative inference things that I did not say.
Thus, for example, several respondents introduced the idea that I had somehow endorsed the behavior of a George Mason University economist and statistician, Edward Wegman, who was forced to retract a 2008 paper critical of Mann that he had published in the journal Computational Statistics & Data Analysis after Mashey published a 250-page online analysis of it identifying “portions of other authors’ writings” in Wegman’s article “without sufficient attribution.” Wegman defends himself as “innocently unaware” that a George Mason student had cut and pasted the paragraphs that he included in the report. George Mason University is investigating whether Wegman is guilty of plagiarism.
I, of course, said nothing about Wegman. I don’t know his work.
Rhetorical excess seems endemic to these defenders of Mannian climate orthodoxy. Scott A. Mandia declares in all caps, “DR. MANN’S WORK HAS BEEN VERIFIED BY MANY OTHER SCIENTISTS,” and that to doubt the hockey stick graph is “to also believe in magic.” Naumer and Mandia are among several correspondents who posted repeated declarations, in a crescendo of agitation. Mostly they seemed to want to drag me into a discussion of the scientific details. That wasn’t my topic and I declined, which brought out still more Mann enthusiasts. Ted Kirkpatrick observes “Dr. Mann’s reputation is extremely good, as his fellow climate scientists regard both him and his work highly.”
Mann’s reputation is “good?” Well, indeed, after Climategate, Mann’s work was subject to a series of extraordinary committee reviews—three that I know of. In each case, the committee found no particular fault with his work. I pass no judgment on those committees and I don’t presume to know Mann’s work well enough to venture an independent assessment of the quality of his science. But to rest the case, as Kirkpatrick does, on what “his fellow climate scientists” think is a doubtful proposition. I know of several climate scientists (e.g., Will Happer, Richard Lindzen, Fred Singer, Stan Trimble) who certainly don’t join in that endorsement, and some in the academy and among the general public judge Mann’s scientific contributions as suspect and his behavior as deplorable.
The hardball approach of his defenders is in large part a reflex of this loss of prestige and authority. The proponents of AGW, however, have chosen a very foolish tactic. Bullying skeptics and sneering at those who raise questions is no way to regain public trust.
The sharp practices of the warmists also damage the tenor of academic, scientific, and public debate. Frivolous lawsuits, intimidation, mobbing are not the flying buttresses of modern science. They are the rot that undermines the intellectual authority of science. Can you trust anything said by someone who engages in such tactics?
This warning can be turned against some of the global warming skeptics as well. There is, for example, a blogger who writes as “The Hockey Schtick” who refers to Mann’s 1998 article in Nature (which introduced the hockey stick graph) as “the most thoroughly discredited paper of the modern age.” Rhetorical excess for rhetorical excess. Some of Mann’s defenders, however, much as they preen themselves as defenders of scientific rigor, are skating in the same rink.
The science will, in due course, be sorted out. Shoddy hypotheses will be discarded. Data massaged to accommodate models will prove discrepant with better observations. It could be that anthropogenic global warming will win out as a valid theory; it could be otherwise. I’m not taking sides on the science. But when it comes to efforts to silence debate and intimidate critics, I very much take the side of those who want to see science rid of such mischief.
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on July 29.