Michael Mann Makes His Case

February 10, 2012 at 12:15 am 18 comments

I approached the podium a few minutes before Michael Mann was scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon to ask him a simple question: Were all those police out front there because of him?

“Probably,” he smiled. “I think they’re probably superfluous, but it’s better to be safe.”

I’ve gone to probably a dozen Penn State Forum lunches in the past five years, and Thursday’s event at the Penn Stater Hotel was the first in which I’d seen a police presence. Three armed campus police officers—one from a K-9 unit—stood outside the packed conference room in which Mann spoke. I imagine they were there to stem any potential unrest after ads appeared on local radio this week urging people to boycott or protest Mann’s speech; I imagine those officers were aware as well that Mann has received death threats because of his work.

Mann, of course, is a climatologist, Penn State professor of meteorology and geosciences, and director of the University’s Earth Systems Science Center. If you know his name, it’s probably less because of his work—including his role in developing the iconic “hockey stick” model for measuring long-term global warming—than the reaction to it. U.S. Senators, state attorneys general, and TV pundits (among many others) have all gone after Mann in an attempt to discredit findings that show the reality and alarming rate of man-made global warming. If he’s not the favorite target of climate change deniers, he’s near the top of the list.

Mann’s speech Thursday was titled “Confronting the Climate Change Challenge,” and like his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, its focus was split between a plain-spoken, fact-based primer on global warming and the political battle that has emerged over the science—with Mann entrenched on the proverbial front lines. Talking about his place in the midst of the conflict, Mann says “political lightning rod” was never among his career goals. “I was a reluctant combatant,” he said. “As scientists, we have no preparation for the situations we find ourselves in. We have to be quick studies. But over time, I’ve embraced that role. I can think of no better purpose to engage myself in.”

I first met Mann about five years ago, when I moderated a roundtable discussion of Penn State experts on global warming. I remember thinking at the time that this unassuming, admittedly nerdy guy—he writes in his new book about skipping the weekend party scene in high school to write computer programs with like-minded friends—seemed an unlikely candidate to be publicly defending the scientific consensus on climate change. But Mann is certain that his work, so thoroughly vetted at this point by colleagues and foes alike, stands up; he’s also motivated. Before taking audience questions for 25 minutes on Thursday, he ended his prepared presentation with an image of his young daughter. “This is an ethical issue,” Mann said. And, clearly, a personal one.

I know it’s nearly impossible for some to put politics aside on this topic, but I think an hour spent listening to a scientist like Mann—one of many at Penn State, including fellow Nobel Prize winner Richard Alley, whom Mann called “probably the best communicator” on climate science—defend his work and his purpose would help. Death threats and constant public challenges to his work would seem an awful lot to cope with for someone who didn’t believe deeply in its validity and importance.

Ryan Jones, senior editor

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Entry filed under: Controversy, Earth & Mineral Sciences, Faculty, University Park. Tags: , , , , .

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18 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barry  |  February 10, 2012 at 10:53 am

    It is unfortunate that a Penn Stater senior editor was unable or unwilling to simply ask the campus police who had assigned them, and then gone to the source to determine the reasons. That sort of reporting might have made for much more interesting reading. Serious climate science readers are much more interested in facts than in what authors (Mann included) imagine.

  • [...] Read the entire post. Share this:PrintEmailMoreStumbleUponTwitterFacebookDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Climate Change. Bookmark the permalink. ← Mann or Myth: Part 4 [...]

  • 3. psumba  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:00 am

    I try to understand and keep an open mind on both sides of the climate change debate. I have no doubt of Dr. Mann’s commitment to his ideas. I’m concerned, though, when any scientist uses emotional arguments (our kids) to advocate his scientific position. Would he be as protective of our kids on other immediate issues that are certain to threaten their near-term future … like our out of control federal budget deficits and unfunded governmental liabilities?

    Both Joe Paterno and Michael Mann were significant rainmakers ($$$) for the university! I wish that Joe Paterno received the same level of “due diligence” from Penn State that Michael Mann received. This refers to when Dr. Mann was investigated by Penn State due to claims that he doctored his data to fit the conclusions that he wanted to reach.

    If Dr. Mann were found to be guilty, this would have been as big a scandal as the one that claimed Paterno … but with much greater impact because it would have tainted the academic research side of the university!

    Where can we learn more about that internal investigation? I’ve heard too may people use the expression “whitewash” when referring to it. It would make it personally easier to defend PSU against those charges if we knew more about the details of the investigation.

  • 4. R. Shearer  |  February 10, 2012 at 8:35 pm

    On the contrary, psumba, the PSU investigation of Mann was a whitewash just as the early investigations of the Sandusky scandal. You have identified the reasons for both…$$$.

  • 5. Randy  |  February 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Barf

  • 6. Richard Brown  |  February 10, 2012 at 11:43 pm

    I was fortunate to be in State College for the talk which I found to be very interesting. Am looking forward to reading Dr. Mann’s latest book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars.” Regardless of your readers’ view on the issue, I would suggest that they take the time to read it.

  • 7. jim karlock  |  February 11, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Just a question:
    Did Dr. Mann show any actual evidence that man’s CO2 is causing dangerous warming?

    Of course, we all know that correlation is not causation, that unusual weather is not evidence of the cause, that man only emits about 3% of the total annual CO2 emission, that historically CO2 increased AFTER temperature in the antarctic ice cores and that water vapor causes the majority of the greenhouse effect.

    Thanks
    JK

  • 8. edwardhs222@gmail.com  |  February 11, 2012 at 11:40 am

    JK,
    Repeat after me,
    “We are witnessing the evidence everyday”

  • 9. taxpayer  |  February 11, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    edwardhs222

    What you are seeing every day is called weather. Long term weather variablity is climate. The remarkable thing is how stable the climate has been for 100 plus years, about 1 degree change in a century. Why so stable and why is this bad? Extremes are no more common now than ever were. Warm decades have more high temperatures (like the thirtys) and cold decades have more cold extremes.

  • 10. Marcia Turnquist  |  February 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    Mann came to Oregon for a similar talk. He spent a good deal of his time fear mongering about how CO2 is turning our oceans acidic. He wouldn’t take any questions from the audience that weren’t written out ahead of time and screened by a friendly “peer.” I asked one anyway, politely, from the second row. It was simple and therefore difficult to ignore. My question: Aren’t our oceans actually alkaline and not acidic? After stumbling around for a minute or so, he admitted yes, our oceans ARE alkaline. This is basic science, people. A substance that is alkaline is, by definition NOT acidic. So in his stumbling he was trying to say that they were turning LESS alkaline. That’s still not acidic, in case you’re wondering.
    It’s another example of fear mongering backed by dubious science. Yet somehow we’re supposed to be afraid that our oceans are turning so acidic from CO2 that shells and coral reefs will just dissolve away.
    I’m sure there’s an acid-bitten hockey stick to be had in there somewhere. Perhaps some old petrified sea kelp can be used as a proxy.

    Schools like Penn State need to stop assisting the advocacy of causes and computer models and return to evidence based science before they don’t have any reputation left.

  • 11. Geoff Brown  |  February 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    edwardhs222 @8

    Repeat after me,

    Even if it were warming, that is not evidence that warming is caused by man-made Co2 emissions.

    Just a question:
    Did Dr. Mann show any actual evidence that man’s CO2 is causing dangerous warming?

  • 12. Tom  |  February 11, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Paterno gets thrown to the wolves and this guy gets a white wash. Academics really do protect each other.

  • 13. Brent Hutchings  |  February 11, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    I just attended the seminar by Dr. Michael Mann at Penn State and noticed that he dropped the last 5 years of data off of one of his slides. One may say that this was just an oversight, however considering that the last 5 years of observed climate data has diverged greatly from the computer models he was touting, one may come to a less generous conclusion.

  • 14. Ryan Jones  |  February 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    Brent: It would’ve been informative to hear you ask Mike about the data you cite. As he took questions for about 25 minutes after his talk, then stayed around for another 20 minutes or so to meet people and sign books, certainly anyone who did attend the luncheon had ample opportunity to discuss such issues with him.

  • 15. Geoff Brown  |  February 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Ryan:

    I would point out what Marcia said (@10) “He wouldn’t take any questions from the audience that weren’t written out ahead of time and screened by a friendly “peer.”

  • 16. Ryan Jones  |  February 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Geoff: Marcia referred to a talk in Oregon. I can vouch for the fact that, last week, anyone who wanted to ask him a question, verbally and face-to-face, could’ve done so. The Penn State Forum format asks that questions be submitted in writing and read aloud by a moderator for every speaker at every event, and that’s the format that was followed last week. But as stated, Mike was available for at least 20 minutes after he finished the formal Q&A setting. Anyone who might’ve wanted stick around — as a few dozen people did — could’ve asked anything they wanted.

  • 17. Geoff Brown  |  February 13, 2012 at 3:22 am

    Sorry, Ryan. My mistake.

  • 18. Richard Brown  |  February 13, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    As I noted in a previous post, I had attended Dr. Mann’s presentation at the Penn Stater and found it to be both interesting and very enlightening. Also, after the talk, Dr. Mann was very open to questions from any who wished to remain after the luncheon.

    For those who may not have seen today’s (Feb. 13, 2012) Penn State Newswire, there was an article noting that Dr. Mann along with a fellow Penn State climate scientist in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, David Pollard, were elected as Fellows of the American Geophysical Union for their exceptional contributions in original research in climate change. Since no more than 0.1 % of AGU’s 60,000-plus members are elected annually as Fellows, it is apparent that such honors are not given lightly.

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