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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Michael Mann, Scientific American: Sticking to Climate Science

As an undergraduate physics major in the mid-1980s at the University of California, Berkeley, I knew about Richard Muller—the physics professor who was the subject of Michael D. Lemonick’s interview, “ ‘I Stick to the Science’ ”—and his controversial 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. He 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 that Nature summarized as “Academy affirms hockey-stick graph.”  Scientific American itself recently ran an article it billed as “Novel analysis confirms climate ‘hockey stick’ graph” [“Still Hotter Than Ever,” by David Appell, News Scan; Scientific American, November 2009].

Rather than providing a platform for Muller to cast aspersions on other scientists, Lemonick could have sought some introspection from him. 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

Pennsylvania State University

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