Interview with Michael Mann on the Penn State Final Report and the war on climate scientists

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Climate Science Watch interviewed Michael Mann on the release of the Penn State University “Final Investigation Report” on allegations of misconduct levied against Dr. Mann late last year by climate change ‘skeptics’ and denialists. The report concluded that there is “no substance” to the allegations. We also asked Dr. Mann about ongoing attacks on the credibility of climate science and on the integrity of climate scientists, and about his recent comments about the iconic ‘hockey stick’ graph of the global temperature record.  See Details for video and transcript.

Post by Rick Piltz and Rebeka Ryvola

As the bogus ‘climategate’ controversy over scientists’ stolen emails – a denialist propaganda coup that was mishandled with shameful credulity in the mainstream media – recedes in the rearview mirror, there is still the ongoing war on climate science and climate scientists to deal with. Hopefully reporters and commentators won’t continue to blow the climate science story with a weakness for diversionary tactics.

Transcript of our interview with Michael Mann

Climate Science Watch director Rick Piltz:  Can you comment on the Penn State report? How should people interpret the findings? What follows from it?

Michael Mann: I was pleased that the committee, which was made up of a blue ribbon panel of leading Penn State scientists, found that I had not engaged in anything that could in any way be described or assessed as misconduct. They were unanimous on that point, that there was in fact no evidence of scientific misconduct. They were quite specific, they took their task quite seriously. They addressed every allegation that has been made by our detractors. They interviewed leading scientists in my field.  They looked at issues involving procedures in obtaining grants and writing proposals. They looked at issues involving the archiving of data. In every case they found that, despite the allegations made by my detractors, in no way have I engaged in any inappropriate scientific behavior over the course of my career. They’re simply specious allegations that have been lodged against me.

CSW: Even if we could put this bogus stolen e-mail controversy behind us, and after all the misuse that’s been made of it, the problem of the attacks on the credibility of climate science and on the integrity of climate scientists is not in the past, it’s ongoing. How is that affecting your work and the work of other climate scientists? What kinds of things are going on right now that people should know about and be concerned about?

MM: I think there’s a concerted, well-organized, and very well-funded campaign to attack climate scientists – not just the science but the scientists themselves. This campaign has been funded by industry special interests who don’t want to see action taken to combat the problem of climate change. They’ve sought to discredit the science by attacking it with misleading and specious claims, and through attacking the messenger, attacking the scientists themselves. I, of course, have been caught in the crossfire of those attacks.

I think that what this indicates is that those who continue to deny that climate change is a problem do not have science on their side. They’re not engaged in any good faith discourse on the reality of the problem. They know the science isn’t on their side and they’ll lose that argument. So instead they’ve turned to smear campaigns. They’ve turned to character assassination. I think that over time it’s become increasingly clear – at least I hope it has – to the public that this is the nature of the campaign of climate change denial. It’s intellectually dishonest and uses whatever means available to it to try to discredit the science behind the basic facts that climate change is a reality and it’s something we need to deal with.

CSW: The denialists got a lot of mileage out of the propaganda they were able to spin up on the basis of reading people’s email and cherry-picking it and misinterpreting it and so forth. That, as a tactic, is it being carried forward? Do we see systematic attempts to use various intrusive and harassing demands to get inside people computers and poke around in their documents and pull out all sorts of confidential material? Is this an ongoing tactic?

MM: Well it is. Of course, there was the criminal hack into the Climate Research Unit’s (CRU) server, where they obtained thousands of emails. But apparently they’re not happy with that, so the climate change denial movement has now sought to obtain even more personal emails of climate scientists by using legal attacks against their institutions. I know of at least a half dozen cases where conservative groups, including the Landmark Legal Foundation, another is the Southeastern Legal Foundation, another of the groups is the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Now these are all fossil fuel industry-funded front groups or groups funded by people like, for example, Richard Mellon Scaife. They’re using legal maneuvers now to try to obtain personal emails from scientists, from their institutions, so they can go through this whole process again.

Now, of course, having been seen in the light of greater scrutiny over the past several months, it’s become clear that all of the claims that they had made originally, about the stolen CRU emails, are incorrect, do not stand up to scrutiny. There is no evidence of any impropriety on the part of the scientists. There’s no indication of the fudging of data. There’s no indication of any of the things they claim that these emails showed. And every investigation that’s been done thus far has concluded that.

So, I guess they want to go back and mine even more emails in the hope that they can further distort the work of climate scientists, in the hope that they can find words or phrases to try to embarrass scientists. But they have fundamentally failed in their effort to prove that climate change is a grand hoax, a grand conspiracy. It appears, however, that they haven’t give up on their efforts to intimidate climate scientists and to try to dig for more dirt.

CSW: Well that’s clearly something we’re going to have keep an eye on, follow up on, and document to bring to people’s attention. Let me ask you one last question. You were quoted recently with reference to the so-called ‘hockey stick’ graph from the temperature record study that you published in the late 1990s that is still a bête noire of skeptics, contrarians, and deniers; sometimes they try to talk about it as if there were not a whole body of paleoclimate literature and subsequent work. You apparently made a comment to the effect that you were skeptical about how much of an icon that particular graph had become. Some of the deniers have jumped on that and said, “Aha! Michael Mann is walking back his conclusions about the temperature record.” What should people make of what you said, what is the appropriate way to take your comment?

MM: Yeah, this is all too predictable. This is what the climate change denial machine has been doing for years. What they’ll do is they’ll quote a statement out of context. In this case it was a statement I did in the course of an interview for the BBC. Then it’ll be turned into a news article in a fringe media outlet, in this case the Telegraph – which, in my view, has engaged in the sloppiest and most slanted coverage of climate change now for years. So it’s no surprise to me that the Telegraph would again publish a very misleading, slanted piece that took what I actually said out of context.

All that I said in that interview was that it was somewhat misplaced for the hockey stick to be made the central icon of the climate change debate, for the obvious reasons: It isn’t that there’s just one study. In fact, there are more than a dozen studies now that come to the same conclusion as our original work. That’s beside the point though, because paleoclimatic reconstructions are really just one line of evidence among multiple lines of evidence that indicate the Earth is warming, that the climate is changing in a way that is consistent with that warming, and that it can only be explained by the human influence on climate.

So, to pretend, as deniers like to do, that all of our understanding of human caused climate change rests on the so-called hockey stick is disingenuous, to say the least. I was simply pointing out in my interview just how disingenuous that argument is. Of course, it was twisted and contorted in the way that we now have come to expect: To imply that I was saying something other than I was actually saying. It’s really quite sad.

Penn State press release and report

Project on Climate Science press release

Earlier CSW posts:
May 28: University petitions court to quash Cuccinelli subpoena of climate scientist Michael Mann’s papers

March 10: Michael Mann interview: Denialists are waging “asymmetric warfare” against climate science

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