‘Hockey Stick’ shoots and scores for climate science

Robert Starr

Science and politics make poor bedfellows, particularly when the former is debated in the arena of the latter. The two major areas where the pairing seems particularly gruesome are evolution and climate science. While both are important ideas for our society to comprehend, the misunderstanding of climate change has much greater and more immediate consequences.

Climatologist Michael E. Mann of Pennsylvania State University has been dragged into the political world, despite never wanting to leave the scientific one, all for studying the evidence and reaching the conclusion that the planet has been warming and humans are the main culprit. He details his experiences in his new book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars,” which tells the development of our understanding of climate change from Mann’s point of view, starting out as a grad student and eventually becoming a professor.

Reading the book, one gets the idea that those who perpetuate global warming denial not only hold their beliefs for ideological reasons rather than rational ones, but that there’s no level too low for them to stoop to in order to get their position across. The tactics, rather than being about scientific arguments, have led to personal attacks and death threats
against Mann.

More importantly, the prominent data seeming to refute a global warming hypothesis is based on faulty science and poor applications of statistical methods, in addition to some outright lies. One of the favorite arguments, for instance, is that the “Medieval Warm Period” actually saw higher temperatures than the 20th century. However, what Mann explains is that this is only true up to the 1950s — temperatures from the final decade of the century exceeded those during the “Warm Period.”

Ignorance is forgivable, however. And while the science in “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars” is interesting and well-written, the most fascinating element is seeing just how dirty his opponents are willing to fight. This is most apparent in the recent “Climategate” scandal that Mann found himself in the middle of, which he describes throughout the book with a surprisingly non-confrontational tone. The scandal arose after a still unknown person hacked several private email accounts and leaked pieces of those emails, which related to Mann’s work. Taken out of context, the select emails seemed to suggest that climate scientists falsified evidence in order to cover up whatever data conflicted with the global warming hypothesis.

Rather than getting defensive, Mann directly and simply addresses the issues head on, admitting that though the tone in the private emails may have been a bit inappropriate at times, there was still nothing in them to be ashamed of as long as they were read in the larger context. One example involves using the word “trick,” which out of context seems to suggest deception, but actually refers to a mathematical shortcut to accomplish the same job with less effort. Just like in science, one needs to look at the big picture, rather than just cherry-picked pieces of data that support certain beliefs.

All things considered, Mann keeps things light and informative, explaining the science in clear and concise terms, responding to personal attacks by rebutting them without getting particularly defensive. His patience and ability to avoid frustration is impressive considering he’s essentially dealing with a topic that may or may not amount to the end of the world depending on how quickly we act, as well as people whose utmost goal seems to be to prevent any progress in his field.

The title of the book refers to a famous graph, which shows a long period of relative stability in average yearly temperatures followed by a spike beginning around the Industrial Revolution. The graph is a powerful image and very suggestive in and of itself that anthropogenic global warming is a reality, and for that reason has been one of the main topics of contention among skeptics.

However, science isn’t about looking at one piece of evidence, but mountains of it. Mann can’t possibly journey through all of the mountains in the space he has available here, but those who read his book will come away from it with little doubt that global warming is real and that we are the cause.

Printed on Monday, March 5, 2012, as: Professor explores dynamic between climate, politics