Michael Mann touts skeptics, targets "deniers"

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“Hopefully, every scientist that a media organization interviews is a skeptic. We should all be skeptics,” said former UVA climate scientist Michael Mann, who returned to grounds January 17 to deliver a keynote lecture for EnviroDay. “Contrarians or deniers, I think that there has been some tendency to give those who deny the scientific consensus far too much prominence in the public discourse.”

Former UVA climate scientist Michael Mann was selected EnviroDay keynote speaker by an overwhelming number of UVA environmental science students. (Photo by John Robinson)

Mann’s Charlottesville stop served as, among other things, a chance to discuss his new book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, which is slated for a March release. The book speaks volumes about Mann’s trajectory from a Nobel Prize-winning climatologist to a figure who might well spend more time defending scientists than being one.

However, it also offered Mann a chance to share his thoughts about how local and national media affect public perceptions of science. For Mann, news reports that split time between climate researchers and deniers might leave many readers with an inflated idea of how many people disbelieve global warming.

“It gives the public this sense that the scientific community is equally divided on this issue,” said Mann. “There are actually careful studies that show it’s a minuscule fraction of actual publishing climate scientists who do not accept a basic, consensus understanding.”

Mann directs Penn State University’s Earth System Science Center, and has studied environmental signifiers of climate change, drought variables, and climate model simulations. Widely published, he has also been criticized for e-mails leaked from an East Anglia University computer server—an incident some call “ClimateGate.” He also created a graph that shows a spike in global temperatures during the last 150 years; his critics have questioned the graph, which was constructed using data that estimates 1,000 years of temperature records. Multiple investigations cleared Mann of any allegations of wrongdoing.

As did a Charlottesville court, when Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli launched a fraud investigation into Mann’s funding and failed to adequately clarify his search. Cuccinelli has appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Which means that, while Mann may have been among like minds during his recent EnviroDay lecture, the University planned for dissent. Two uniformed police officers watched the door to the Clark Hall auditorium where Mann spoke to a capacity crowd. Inside, one plain-clothes police officer kept watch during Mann’s hour-long discussion.

Despite inquiries into Mann’s research that have supported his conclusions, some coverage suggests it may be harder for the scientist to clear his name. Following his appearance at UVA, one local TV report described climate research itself as “controversial.” The Hook opened a story about Mann’s appearance with this quote from the scientist: “There’s nothing wrong with being wrong.”

That quote, however, was ripped from context. Mann’s comment referred to Berkeley Professor Richard Muller, not to himself—something not clarified in the paper’s coverage, and labeled “misleading” by one commenter. In an October interview, Muller said that “everybody should have been a skeptic two years ago,” but he concluded in a separate study that a rise in temperature was confirmed “without bias.”

In 2010, researchers from Stanford University and the University of Toronto surveyed more than 1,300 climate scientists that actively publish on the subject. In the study, researchers concluded that “97 percent of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of [anthropomorphic climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” Mann was one of many scientists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their work with the IPCC.

Did the UVA students invite Mann to make him answerable to their disbelief? It didn’t seem that way. According to graduate student Rosemary Malfi, chair of the EnviroDay events, UVA environmental science students nominate keynote speakers, then vote on their preferred guest. According to Malfi, Mann was “the overwhelming choice among students.” Asked about other candidates, Malfi told C-VILLE that Attorney General Cuccinelli was not nominated as a potential guest.

Malfi, a doctoral candidate in ecology whose work concerns bumble bee populations, said in an interview that Mann is an “important spokesman” for the separation of science and politics. She also spoke about her exposure to climate change deniers.

“I can’t say that I’ve experienced that type of reaction among students and faculty,” she said. “But I can say that I have, in general.” If more scientists should face similar criticism and reception, then all should be prepared to meet their skeptics head on.

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