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The Curious Case Of Michael Mann and the Most Controversial Chart in Science

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

On July 19, D.C.'s superior court handed down two decisions on a strange defamation case. Michael Mann, the man behind the hockey stick graph (dubbed "the most controversial chart in science"), is suing the conservative National Review Online and the Competitive Enterprise Institute for defamation. The two organizations attempted to have the charges of defamation dismissed, and were frankly turned down by the court. According to court documents, both organizations had for many years successfully called for investigations into Mann's work. This is especially true when the "climate gate" scandal occurred in late 2009. 

Both Mann and the researchers at East Anglia have been investigated by almost a dozen different organizations, including both the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States, and the National Science Foundation. Despite this, the National Review Online and the Competitive Enterprise Institute continued to assert scientific misconduct on the part of Mann, which is a very tough accusation on the scientific world, hence the defamation lawsuit.

Michael Mann is no stranger at this point to public criticism. After spending years as a political target, he has recently written at book on the topic. He even recently gave a talk on the subject at the prestigious American Geophysical Union Chapman Conference. The continuous targeting at this point brings up two substantial and difficult points about climate science and public policy in the United States. The first is the very well documented technique used by those attempting to block action on climate change of presenting the appearance of a scientific controversy. This tactic (like many of the tactics used to combat science in politics) owes its legacy to the tobacco industry. While this tactic is easily discredited, it still nonetheless is a significant thorn in the side of both climate scientists and activists. It is not as nefarious as the second point.

While one can easily go on about financial backing of climate denial, there is potentially a point that may be more pertinent: You simply can't change everyone's mind. Since the issue of whether or not it is anthropogenic has become partisan, the psychology of teams is now in play. The psychology of teams in politics reveals itself in the nasty habit of partisans tending to take on policy positions simply because they are attached to their party or political ideology. Once this is in play, it is very difficult to shift someone's views, as Chris Mooney has chronicled. This can even manifest itself in the form of individuals being ostracized from a group for disagreeing with the rest of the team. (Bob Inglis is the classic example.) When you have an individual like Michael Mann who has been deemed an enemy of the team, it can be difficult for anything to exonerate him. Exoneration attempts could even build on the idea that there is a cover up in the first place (known as the backfire effect). 

So, how does this change how we engage climate change in the public arena?

It means simply that we cannot rely on education alone to change the hearts and minds of those who oppose action on climate change. The organizing work done by groups like 350.org and Climate Reality may be one of the only paths to develop enough political capital for Congress to engage this issue. 

In the meantime, one can only hope that the recent call to action by President Obama, is followed through. Even if it is, it will mean grassroots organizing will be all the more important in order to ensure a strong base for the next election, so as to prevent the unraveling of progress on this issue.  More importantly, if such organizing brings down one politician who denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change, then it could shock the system.  

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