2011-06-28 06:00:25Stick to the Science -- Michael Mann -- Scientific American
John Hartz
John Hartz
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Stick to the Science, Scientific American, June 24, 2011 

Editor's note: The following is a response by climatologist Michael E. Mann to a Q&A article that appeared in the June 2011 issue of Scientific American, which became available to readers in May.

Last month, Scientific American ran a disappointing interview by Michael Lemonick of controversial retired University of California, Berkeley, physics professor Richard Muller.  As an undergraduate physics major at Berkeley in the mid 1980s, I knew about Muller—and his controversial, now generally discarded, theory that a “death star” was responsible for major mass extinctions.  Later, as a graduate student studying climate, I became aware of Muller’s work attempting to overthrow the traditional Earth Orbital theory of the Ice Ages—that, too, didn’t pan out. To be clear, there is nothing wrong in science with putting forth bold hypotheses that ultimately turn out to be wrong. Indeed, science thrives on novel, innovative ideas that—even if ultimately wrong—may lead researchers in productive new directions.

One might hope, however, that a scientist known for big ideas that didn’t stand the test of time might be more circumspect when it comes to his critiques of other scientists. Muller is on record accusing climate scientists at the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit of hiding data—a charge that was rejected in three separate investigations. In his interview, Muller even maligned my own work on the “hockey stick” reconstruction of past temperatures. Muller falsely claimed “the hockey-stick chart was in fact incorrect” when in fact the National Academy of Sciences affirmed our findings in a major 2006 report which Nature summarized as ““Academy affirms hockey-stick graph.” Scientific American itself recently ran an article “Novel Analysis Confirms Climate ‘Hockey Stick’ Graph” (November 2009 issue).

Rather than providing a platform for Muller to cast aspersions on other scientists, Lemonick could have sought some introspection from Muller. How, for example, have the lessons learned from his past failures influenced the approach he has taken in his more recent forays into the science of human-caused climate change?

More than anything else, the interview was simply a lost opportunity. Not only can Scientific American do better. It will need to.

Michael E. Mann is a professor in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences at Penn State University, and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center. He is co-author of the book Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming.
2011-06-28 06:06:44
nealjking

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"More than anything else, the interview was simply a lost opportunity. Not only can Scientific American do better. It will need to."

I am sympathetic to Mann's evident anger. But this is a perfect illustration of how NOT to do public relations.

2011-06-28 17:53:14I have to concur
John Cook

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Ad hom attacks against Muller? Not Mike's best work.
2011-06-29 01:29:59
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
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Yeah there was too much "Muller has screwed up in the past".  Mann should have stuck to the errors in Muller's hockey stick criticisms.  There's plenty of ammo there, no need to attack the man.

2011-06-29 02:01:31On the other hand...
John Hartz
John Hartz
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Mann is fighting fire with fire. Given that all he's been through, I cannot criticize him for doing so.

2011-06-29 02:48:18
Rob Honeycutt

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Funny.  I read the piece more as an admonition of Scientific American to be better journalists.  I haven't read the original interview he's talking about but it sounds to me like he's saying the magazine should have done more research on Muller and had tougher questions for him.

Muller ultimately, from everything I've seen come from him on climate, has a fairly weak grasp of the topic for a prominent scientist commenting publicly on the issue.  If a good interviewer had done the proper background research and been prepared to give a hard interview they should have been able to expose his lack of knowledge. 

I think Mann's complaint is, appropriately, less with Muller and more with Scientific American.

2011-06-29 03:19:38
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
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Well frankly I think Mann is using Scientific American's reliance on Muller as an excuse to attack Muller for attacking him.  I agree, Mann has been constantly attacked for the better part of a decade, so I certainly don't blame him for returning the favor to Muller.  Nevertheless, it was not an effective response, IMO.  He should have at least focused on the errors in Muller's science-related comments.

But it's also true that Muller shouldn't be the sole source in a climate science article, unless it's about BEST.  Anything else climate science-related is outside his expertise and should at the very least be run past a real climate scientist prior to publication.  So I think Mann has a fair point there.

2011-06-29 05:43:17
nealjking

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My point is that Mann should not be using Muller's attack on him as an excuse for shooting himself in the foot. "I get to be a jerk because someone else was a jerk" is just not good PR: You still come off as a jerk.