Review: The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars

02/27/2012 03:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2012

The Hockey Stick and the Climate WarsI often argue that science is never partisan, but science is always political. It is political because new knowledge either confirms or challenges vested interests.

Take Galileo. His simple observations proved that Earth revolved around the sun. But this contradicted the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, then the center of world economic and political power. Galileo was harassed, threatened, indicted, and ultimately forced into house arrest in the hills of Arcetri. The English poet John Milton visited him there, and wrote that the "inquisition tyrannies" of the church's crackdown had "dampened the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written, now these many years, but flattery and fustian." As a result, the world's science capital moved from Italy to England, and Italy never recovered.

Today, the center of world economic and political power is the US Energy industry. Exxon Mobil is the world's most valuable company. Koch Industries alternates between first and second largest privately held US company. A vast infrastructure of utilities, mining interests, drilling and shipping services, and power generation facilities form the blood supply of the United States economy. And the simple observations charted in Michael E. Mann's hockey stick graph that Earth is warming rapidly is challenging that vested interest - and it is fighting back.

Mann's new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines (Columbia University Press) recounts that battle in gripping detail. The hockey stick graph has become one of the most iconic and politically charged images in the history of science, and the book details how a self-described "math geek" stumbled into climate science and then found himself, by making simple observations, at the center of a political maelstrom.

Michael MannIronically, Mann didn't start out interested in human-caused climate change. Instead he researched natural climate variability, and decided to try to chart it over time. Certain tree rings, for example, grow more or less dense depending on that year's average temperature. By correlating these tree rings with known temperature data, researchers found they could estimate the temperatures for centuries before there were records.

There are several other lines of "proxy data," for example ice cores, and Mann and his colleagues laid the temperatures they indicated out on a chart, then added error bars and the known thermometer records for more recent times. The results were stunning. They showed a relatively stable average global temperature over most of the last thousand years, followed by a sharp spike in the last half century that resembles the end of a hockey stick. The image set Mann up for what would become the most coordinated attack on science in history.

hocket stick graph

Science denial has come a long way since the 1633 indictment of Galileo, when the church asserted that "the proposition that the sun is in the center of the world and immovable from its place is absurd, philosophically false, and formally heretical; because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scriptures." Because we live in a democracy, ideological policies can no longer simply be decreed by authorities. Science deniers need to convince or at least confuse the public, and so they have become expert at propaganda and disinformation, and a good deal of the book details how climate science came of age amid such increasingly sophisticated disinformation attacks.

For example, deniers found that by focusing attacks on individuals, they can create scapegoats that uneducated or mentally malleable followers can project their anger on. This type of attack, called ad hominem, is based on the idea that if you can discredit the individual, you can discredit the broader science. One bad or misguided person is much easier to hate and dismiss than the conclusions of thousands of climate scientists working over fifty years.

Mann has been the subject of ad hominem attacks for a decade now. Like Galileo, he has been harassed, threatened, investigated, sued, buried under public information requests, pilloried in the media, and singled out for public scorn by a sitting denialist US Senator and a state Attorney General. His book details these battles and what it's like being a scientist trying to work under a war-like constant assault. Like my book on science and politics, Fool Me Twice, Mann's The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars was attacked on Amazon by climate denier propagandists who hadn't even read it but were only interested in dissuading others from reading it. I investigated and found that there is an organized effort to do this, which I reported on in a previous post.

One of the key chapters begins with a famous quote from Cardinal Richelieu. "If you give me six lines written by the most honest man," the Cardinal said, "I will find something in them to hang him." This method was adopted in 2009's "climategate," in which computer hackers stole thousands of private emails from the Hadley Climate Research Unit and selectively released the few that could be spun to "hang" Mann and other prominent climate scientists in more ad hominem attacks. The chapter recounts how Mann's words were reinterpreted and spoon fed to a lazy, financially stressed, and incompetent media that was all too ready to trumpet a good scapegoating. Most journalists haven't had a science class since high school or earlier, and were poorly equipped to understand how easily they were being manipulated by the propagandists. That Mann and his colleagues were fully exonerated and their science was reaffirmed in numerous subsequent investigations was nowhere near as well reported.

Mann details his necessary transformation from mild-mannered climate researcher to intellectual warrior fighting for truth, justice and the American way. What makes The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars an important addition is the thread of Mann's evolution in thinking as he followed the simple logic of science where it led, something we want any graduate student to do, and as a result was increasingly forced to defend his work, himself, and ultimately the future of the planet. A harrowing ride through the politics of truth and denial.

Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, Starred Kirkus Review; Starred Publishers Weekly review. Visit him at Like him on Facebook. Join to get the presidential candidates to debate science.