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An Interview with CSICon Speaker Michael Mann

CSICon

Mark Boslough

October 20, 2017

Mark Boslough: At the time I interviewed you for CSICon 2016, Hillary Clinton was a pretty solid favorite to be our next president. Barely a week after the conference ended, we were all shocked by the result of the election. How has this changed your life over the course of the last year?

Michael Mann: Like many of us, I was shocked by the result of the election. The irony is that the Trump presidency made our book “The Madhouse Effect,” which was published months before the election, seem unusually prescient. Just as we thought we had found the exit door from the Madhouse of climate change denialism, it got firmly shut in our face. Climate change denialism has now infected our entire body politic, and the message of our book—that we must fight harder than ever to defend the science and to promote objective, science-based climate policy—is more important than ever.

Boslough: The Trump transition team didn't take long to start making antiscience policy statements and announcing hostile candidates for critical administration positions such as DOE secretary and EPA administrator. A month after the election, I saw you speak in San Francisco at a Rally for Science that was held in conjunction with the annual American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. Do you think that the scientific community as a whole has become sufficiently engaged in pro-science activism, or is there still a lot of apathy?

Mann: I think reality is somewhere between those two end-members. The scientific community is certainly far more engaged in pro-science activism than at any other time during my adult life. We saw this not just in the AGU rally a year ago but in the subsequent science marches and climate marches the following spring in DC and around the country. On the other hand, at a time when science, fact, and objective reality are under attack by a demagogue and his cynical enablers, scientists must be more outspoken than ever. To quote from an op-ed I wrote for the New York Times in January 2014 entitled “If You See Something, Say Something”:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

These words feel oddly prophetic today.

Boslough: Your words echo those of the great Carl Sagan as well!  It is great to encourage scientists at an individual level, but what about institutions? Are professional societies, universities, national labs, research institutes, and publishers sufficiently engaged?  What about those whose primary function is science communication? Do you think that the science media, bloggers, podcasters, documentary producers, and museums stepping up adequately?

Mann: Thanks Mark. I often do my best to channel Sagan, a true hero of mine. I think institutions—including universities and scientific societies and organizations, publishers, etc.—are too often risk averse when it comes to defending and communicating science that is perceived as threatening by powerful interests (tobacco, fossil fuels, chemical industry, etc.).

There are various reasons for this, one of which is simply the intrinsically conservative nature of large institutions that must serve broad constituencies with diverse views. But I think a large part of it is the way that special interests have “worked the refs” and cowed scientific institutions into silence and “both-siderism” on issues such as climate change by infiltrating advisory boards and funding infrastructure and by using their wealth and influence to levy political pressure. That having been said, I also see a lot of brave journalists, bloggers, documentary producers, and science institutions that are out there on the front lines defending science from the current onslaught of attacks. That gives me some optimism.

Boslough: As important as it is for scientists to defend science, should it be seen as a requirement for them to be involved? For example, should young climate scientists be judged negatively if they choose to stay out of the press and away from microphones so they can spend more time in the field, lab, office, or classroom?  Not everyone is good at everything.

Mann: This is a topic that was brought to the fore by the 2009 book Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, which seemed to take the position that this should be part of all scientists standard training. I reviewed the book positively for RealClimate (see: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2009/07/unscientific-america-a-review/), but did weigh in with a caveat similar to that you express above:

To some, the authors could potentially come across as a bit overly prescriptive here. One might interpret them as arguing that science needs to be taught in a fundamentally different way, with the new generation of science students fully immersed in the social sciences as part of an entirely rethought curriculum. Were the authors arguing this, one might indeed expect quite a bit of push-back from the scientific community. After all, the course work required to prepare today’s science students for careers of advanced research in cosmology or genetics (or climate modeling for that matter) is extensive, and slapping a whole bunch of additional course requirements in, say, communication and sociology, on top of their current requirements would be onerous to say the least. But this is not what the authors are saying (I can say this with confidence, having confirmed this in my discussions with them). To allow science to continue to flourish, it will of course be necessary to allow those scientists with neither the interest nor inherent aptitude for communication to continue to do science in the old fashioned way. It would be an unwise use of our resources and theirs to push these reluctant individuals towards outreach.

Boslough: Even so, it seems like scientists who do it should get credit and that such activities would be “cv-worthy.” I think scientists should get a feather in their cap every time they are attacked by a prominent denier or antiscience blogger. We all advertise our “h-index” which is a measure of our publication impact. What do you think about creating a “dd index” that quantifies our effectiveness at debunking denier misinformation? It could be based on the number of times we’ve been disparaged in print by the Heartland Institute or Anthony Watts, for example.

Mann: Hah—I love that idea. And I do think that we have to find a way to better reward those scientists who do put much time and effort into outreach, communication, and the defense of science against politically motivated attacks. Most universities recognize “outreach” as one of the three pillars of an academic’s job responsibilities (teaching, research, outreach). Well, these activities should be viewed as “outreach” in the same way that service to the university or academic profession is viewed as “outreach.”

Boslough: Earlier this year you were the recipient of the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication. Last month you received the James H. Shea Award from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers for your “exceptional contribution in writing or editing Earth science materials for the general public or teachers of Earth science.” Congratulations for these honors!  It must feel good to be recognized this way.

Mann: Thanks Mark. Sure, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nice to be recognized in this way. But it isn’t the reason I do what I do. Like others of us who are on the front lines of the battle to communicate the science and its implications, I’m in it because it just feels like the right thing to be doing. When I double-majored in applied math and physics at UC Berkeley, went off to study physics at Yale University, I hardly imagined that my career path would eventually take me to the center of the most contentious societal debate of all time. While it’s hardly what I signed up for, I consider myself deeply fortunate to be in a position to inform the larger discussion about what may well be the greatest challenge we have faced as a civilization.

Boslough: Returning to the election, part of the result was a very well-organized campaign of misinformation. The Mueller investigation will soon tell us the degree to which it was orchestrated by Russians. It almost seems that the climate misinformation campaign has been leading toward a near-complete breakdown in trust of subject-matter experts by Americans. As I recall, even the British Climate Research Unit email theft that led to the “Climategate” conspiracy theory had a Russian connection. Do you think there is a link between these antiscience and anti-democracy activities?

Mann: I’ve often said that those of us on the front lines of the climate battle were dealing with “fake news” and “alternative facts” years ago, before they became fashionable. And I do think that there are some remarkable commonalities between the fake “Climategate” scandal of 2009/2010 and the REAL Russigate scandal of 2016. Stolen emails, Russia, and “wikileaks” played a role in both cases. And an agenda of climate action and continued exploitation of fossil fuels played a central role in each as well. The fake “Climategate” scandal was intended to sabotage the December 2009 Copenhagen climate change summit, while Russiagate, many have argued, was really about insuring that Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil, and Russia could proceed in a joint venture to tap one of the largest remaining (Russian) oil reserves on the planet, a half-trillion dollar deal (something that was prevented under the Obama administration by U.S. trade sanctions against Russia resulting from their activities in the Ukraine). We still haven’t learned everything there is to know about either of these affairs, and I expect we will learn quite a bit more in the years ahead.

Boslough: I just learned that you have now collaborated on another book, called The Tantrum that Saved the World. Can you say something about it?

Mann: Yes, I’m very excited about this particular project. It is a collaboration with a children’s book author and illustrator, Megan Herbert. It tells the story of a little girl who comes face to face with an enormous challenge, feels all kinds of frustration as she tries to overcome it, and then channels those strong emotions into action, rallying all those around her to do the same. Following this engaging, relatable tale, comes the explanation of the science of climate change in language that children can understand, telling the stories of the climate refugees that appear in the story and how all their lives are interconnected. An Action Plan then outlines simple and positive steps every person can take to make a real difference and to become the heroes of their own stories. There are three parts to this book, each having appeal to a slightly different age group, which extends its lifespan for its intended audience. The story book part is written with four to eight year olds in mind. The science part of the book can be read to a child of any age, but its concepts and world-view perspective are better suited to children six years or older. The action plan poster is for everyone, including adults. Every member of the family can get something useful from this book.

Boslough: Thanks for your time. Anything else you want to say in closing?

Mann: Just this: Thanks for your own efforts Mark to inform the public discourse over climate change and to push back on the efforts by climate change deniers to distort the public understanding of science. It is a group effort and you have contributed vitally to it. I look forward to continuing to see you there alongside me on the front lines of this worthy battle, my friend. :-)

Mark Boslough

Mark Boslough is a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories and adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico. His work on comet and asteroid impacts has been the subject of many recent TV documentaries and magazine articles. He believes that the impact risk—at its core—is primarily a climate-change risk, and he has turned his attention to climate change as a looming national security threat. The opinions expressed here are his own.