The Vertigo at the Top of the Stick

UPDATE: When I wrote this, the Mann vs Steyn suit was about to enter its sixth year; it’s now about to enter its eighth year. The DC court system is where justice goes to die.

In a couple of months, Michael E Mann’s defamation suit against me will enter its sixth year in the constipated bowels of DC justice. Given the proceduralist swamp in which the case is now mired, it is not unreasonable to assume that its ultimate disposition will consume most of my remaining time on earth: as I’ve remarked before, in medieval England trial by jury replaced trial by ordeal; in 21st-century America it’s the other way round.

So, just in time for Michael E Mann’s Congressional testimony this week, Watts Up With That posted a guest essay by Rick Wallace reflecting on my book “A Disgrace to the Profession”: The World’s Scientists – in Their Own Words – on Michael E Mann, His Hockey Stick and Their Damage to Science – Volume One. Mr Wallace writes:

Mark Steyn’s A Disgrace to the Profession is a compilation of scientific commentary on Michael Mann and his work and is a valuable antidote to the idea that questioning or criticizing this particular researcher is an overt admission of ignorance, let alone an “attack on science”. What I will argue in this essay is that Steyn has done serious students of the AGW hysteria an even greater service. In fact, this work reveals some features of the hysteria that are, I think, critical for understanding it in depth. The present essay, which will elaborate on this point, is intended as a contribution to the study of what one of those quoted in Steyn’s book called “pathological science”.

For those who aren’t familiar with the work, Steyn’s book is a collection of highly critical comments by scientists of varying degrees of eminence concerning Michael Mann and his (in)famous “hockey stick” temperature graph. The book emanated from a still-ongoing lawsuit that Mann filed against Steyn for writing in a National Review Online article that the hockey stick was fraudulent. Steyn was struck by the fact that, when it came time to file third-party amicus briefs, no one filed a brief in Mann’s defense. So he began combing the Web and other resources, and found a plethora of critical comments that he collected into one volume. In fact, by now almost everyone, skeptic or warmist, has backed away from this very flawed piece of evidence.

That’s true. Mann’s whole hockey shtick is to present himself as the very embodiment of science – or, in his more modest moments, climate science: le climat, c’est moi. On the whole, science is disinclined to play along – which is the point of my book. One of Rick Wallace’s footnotes underlines the point:

4 See, for example, “35 scientific papers: Global sea levels were 1-2 meters higher than now for most of the last 7,000 years” (6 February, 2017); “17 new (2017) scientific papers affirm today’s warming was not global, unprecedented, or remarkable” (26 January, 2017); “The hockey stick collapse: 60 new (2016) scientific papers affirm today’s warming isn’t global, unprecedented, or remarkable” (22 December, 2016).

Actually, while we’re footnoting (and Wallace’s are very good), here’s the next one:

5 A curious feature of these lawsuits is that it almost seems as if Mann stumbles into them, since he seems completely unprepared to handle the ensuing court cases. Instead, he acts as if he expected that the larger world would simply acquiesce to his claims. And when it doesn’t, he is left high and dry. There is an insularity in all of this that is quite wonderful.

That’s one of the themes of Rick Wallace’s essay – just why it is that a man of science is so insular he expects “the larger world” to “simply acquiesce” to what he and a shrinking coterie noisily assert. Mr Wallace continues:

When they are read together, the quotations and commentary in Steyn’s book also shed more light on the Michael Mann phenomenon. For one thing, they show that his behavior over time has been quite consistent. There is, for example, the tendency to play fast and loose with methodology. This is shown most clearly in the methods that gave rise to the original hockey stick. Over time and thanks to the perseverance of a few, the puzzle of how it was derived is now pretty well understood. Steyn touches on all of the major points, each one a little story in itself.

Mr Wallace runs through these “little stories” – problematic proxies, dubious weighting, errors of basic geography, upside-down data – and then turns to Mann’s attitude to anybody who points these flaws out:

This vehement defensiveness has been accompanied by continual attacks on opponents and even colleagues who question any of his methods; such people, including prominent people who are actually warmists of a sort such as Judith Curry and Craig Loehle, have earned epithets like “#AntiScience” and of course the dread word “denier”. There have also been concerted attempts (along with members of the UK Climate Research Unit) to discredit the editors of journals who published skeptical articles or who publically questioned the hockey stick. In one case this actually led to the resignation of the editor of the journal Climate Research…

Along with this is the constant self-aggrandizement. This was on display in the Steyn case, where the original complaint said that Mann was suing Steyn and others for “defamation of a Nobel Prize recipient” (Steyn, p. iii, quoting from the legal statement). Later this claim had to be withdrawn. And of course there is his self-assumed role of “defender of science”…

One problem in getting a proper perspective on this case is that Mann seems to fit the role of the villain all too well. Because in all of this it is essential to remember that people do not have to have malevolent intentions to wreak tremendous havoc on the world.

I’m not so sanguine about Mann’s “malevolence” – not with respect to, say, fellow scientists such as Lennart Bengtsson or Judith Curry or Roger Pielke Jr. Nonetheless, Mr Wallace is granting a point in order to explore his larger thesis – the “tremendous havoc” wreaked by the hockey stick in the wider world:

Given all these problems as well as the extreme behavior of the protagonist, it is astonishing how rarely questions have been raised about the hockey stick, especially in the public arena. In fact, many people seem to have blinded themselves to the facts on display – and this is part of the larger phenomenon that we are dealing with.

At a certain level, it’s conscious blindness. The Wallace essay is particularly strong in its examination of the supposed critical “demolitions” of my book – by people who haven’t read it, and indeed seem oddly scared of reading it. So instead it’s a chain of ever more banal Chinese whispers – a précis of a simplification of a dismissal of a distortion by a handful of hardcore Mann-boys:

Another post appeared around this time on a blog called Hot Whopper:21 This is a brief cut-and-past account of the scientific evidence followed by a lengthier polemic against “deniers”. Strangely enough, the author later added an “addendum about the contents of the book” …followed by what is essentially an admission that the author still hadn’t read it: “I can’t imagine there is anything in it that would damage Michael Mann, but I do expect it will have a lot of material that will damage Mark Steyn.”

“I can’t imagine”? But you don’t have to “imagine”; it exists, and you can read it – which would be not just a normal courtesy but a necessary pre-condition for any critical demolition:

Why did they assume they could write an adequate commentary on the basis of promo quotations (which are likely to be abbreviated, and are necessarily taken out of context)? And why couldn’t they wait to make their critical (and in some cases derisive) comments? Why did they come off the blocks almost as soon as the title was announced? What does this imply about these people?

It is also telling that none of these articles mentions the situation that inspired the book. Instead, it is treated as another malevolent “denier” attack, which must be discredited at once…

At this point let us recall some context surrounding the lawsuit and the book. If the hockey stick were valid and Mann had been vindicated, then there should have been dozens of amicus briefs filed in his defense at the trial (including, one would have thought, briefs from Messrs. Tet and Zorita). Moreover, as some of the quotes in Steyn’s book make clear, the hockey stick flies in the face of a body of evidence supporting the occurrence and world-wide scope of both the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age, both of which were more or less obliterated by the flat handle of the hockey stick. In addition, despite some of Mann’s (amazing) protestations, the stick itself is an enjambment of proxy-based temperature derivations (the handle) and direct surface temperature records (the stick). One reason that this was done was that proxy data for the 20th century did not match the actual temperature record.

The important point is that none of this is reflected in any of this commentary. It is as if all these problematic facts, all these warning signals, have simply glanced off the minds of these people, as the saying goes, like water running off a duck’s back.

Not once do these writers speak to the actual arguments of McIntyre and others. Not once. Instead, they put together parallel arguments, much like someone plastering up a new billboard sign to cover the one underneath. In short, they never connect. Instead, what is achieved is a kind of cognitive closure (using the latter term in the sense given to it by Gestalt psychologists). One could also call it dissonance reduction. Or more simply, evasion.

In his estimable footnotes, Rick Wallace adds that “if you want to experience reality-distortion to the point of vertigo” read the actual book, and then one of the above mentioned blog posts.

Like much of the work at Watts Up With That, this is a fine essay, well worth your time. We struggle on, and, assuming I live long long enough, we will prevail.

~I have another little project I’m working on at the moment – about the highly lucrative American “student-loan industry”, and especially so-called PLUS loans marketed direct to parents. If you’ve any interesting observations to share, do shoot me an email. Confidentiality will be respected.