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Amazon-ian challenge: what is the right thing to do?

February 9th, 2012 · 3 Comments

While the Amazon is under serious threat invisible to most, this post is about yetThe Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines another ‘rating war’ (and rating abuse) on Amazon as anti-science syndrome sufferers, urged on by the Andrew Breibart of the global warming denial world and other anti-science vigilantes, are swarming on Professor Michael Mann’s just-published book

As Scott Mandia opened a discussion,

It is a shame that the science deniers are much better organized than the rational people. As of 8 AM this morning, Dr. Michael E. Mann’s latest book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines had 15 reviews, all of which were 5 stars. My review (posted below) had 58 out of 59 votes for being helpful.

Something has changed.  As of the moment of writing this piece, there are now 41 reviews: 

  • “5-star”: 24
  • “4-star”: 4
  • “3-star”: 0
  • “2-star”: 0
  • “1-star”: 13


Has the books suddenly gotten worse? 

No, a “Watt’s Up With That“, one of the most prominent climate science confusion sites, put up a post calling on readers to attack Mann’s book and to attack positive reviews.

Thus, a pile of 1-star reviews — essentially none with substance and the substantive ones with bad science . The ‘top rated’ 1-star review begins as follows:

221 of 430 people found the following review helpful:
1.0 out of 5 stars assumptions are not fact., February 8, 2012

For someone who obtained a PhD, the lack of rigour and detail in areas such as greenhouse effect (he ignores the chemical fundamentals and fails to address saturation theory for CO2 and just draws a mickey mouse diagram for primary school kids), climate models (he goes into no detail about why models have been shown to be widely inaccurate according to some and spot on according to others) and the historical relationship between temperature and CO2 ( the lag argument ).

Besides the absence of “Amazon verified purchase” for a book released just today (with Kindle edition out for a little while), this doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. As Scott Mandia responded:

This reviewer packs quite a few climate myths into the first paragraph.  Can you say Dunning-Kruger?  The debunking of these myths can be found by visiting Skeptical Science’s Arguments page and clicking on #71, #6, and #12.

[Note: Debunking myths is difficult and resource demanding.  A very useful Debunking guide.  And, an example of a recent whacking moles debunking effort.]

In addition to the posting of shallowly dismissive 1-star reviews, there was a rash of downrating of those substantive reviews that were up prior to WUWT’s post.  Scott Mandia’s very substantive review now has a rating of “139 of 274 people found the following review helpful” which means that this (very substantive) review (published with permission, in full, after-the-fold) no longer appears on the front page of reviews.

This is a very open and blunt example of a conspiracy to mobilize resources to freep Amazon ratings, to drive down the visibility of seriously substantive reviews while seeking to drive down attention to (and interest in) a book through a raft of negative (even if shallow) reviews.  The Amazon review system is open to all sorts of gamesmanship and unethical behavior.   Such abusive behavior as seen today with Dr Mann’s work is far from isolated to climate science (see here for an interesting example of review abuse).

Thus, to the title question: “What is the right thing to do?”

Clearly, Amazon is not about to step in to provide some meaningful enforcement beyond what exists (such as “Amazon verified purchase”) to remove 1-star ratings, put meaningful reviews ‘higher’ in the queue despite the flood of ‘not useful’ ratings shortly after the WUWT call to action.

One option would be a call to action: go to  Amazon and uprate all five-star reviews and down-rate all 1-star reviews.  That, however, would be simply inappropriate.  Another option is to simply ignore which, in the larger scheme of things, is likely a better use of most people’s time.  A third option, one that would actually require far more time than option 1, would be to go to Amazon and actually read the 5 star and 1 star reviews. If you find a review helpful, no matter what the star rating, let Amazon know and do the same if you find it unhelpful.  While I have a good idea what the resulting ratings would be from a reality-based community, this is an ethical way to react to anti-science syndrome sufferering swarming within the flawed Amazon rating system.

With permission from Scott Mandia:

The Science, Drama, and Politics of Climate Science, January 29, 2012

Amazon Verified Purchase

Dr. Michael E. Mann’s book is a must-read for those that are relatively new to learning about climate science. This book has it all: science, drama, and politics. How many non-fiction science books can make that claim?

The hockey stick is a famous historical temperature plot that shows for the past 2,000 years global temperatures moved up and down very slightly (hockey shaft) but in the past several decades the temperature has rapidly risen (hockey blade). Although there are multiple lines of evidence and well-understood physics that show humans are dramatically warming the planet, climate science contrarians have seized upon the stick as being the single pillar that holds up the entire climate science edifice. They figure if they can take down the stick and Mike Mann, they can take down all of climate science. I know, sounds foolish, right?

Mike’s book takes the reader on a journey beginning with his early interest in math and science as a youngster, his various areas of career research (hockey stick is just one of many), and ends the book detailing the disturbing attacks on him and colleagues – many of which occurred on Capitol Hill!

The early parts of the book describe how he ended up researching climate. Mike, like just about all scientists, is motivated by curiosity. Even as a young boy he was fascinated by science and math and got his greatest adrenalin rushes from discovering elegant solutions he calls “tricks” to solve unique problems. While he was in high school he discovered a trick to program a tic-tac-toe game that used artificial intelligence to improve on itself and at UC Berkeley he worked with superconducting materials and found a neat trick to better model their properties.

While at Yale, Mike wanted to work on something that was big, new, and had many unanswered questions. Climate science was not on his radar at the time but then he met with Barry Saltzman who was using the tools of physics to simulate (model) Earth’s climate. Climate modeling was a big and new area of research so naturally Mike wanted to help. Mike’s research focused on understanding the importance of natural climate oscillations. In fact, in the early 1990s Mike thought natural causes of change were more important than human causes. However, by the mid-1990s, due to the mounting evidence, it became clear to him that human causes were “rising above the noise” of natural causes. During that time he was oblivious to the attacks on Ben Santer being waged by S. Fred Singer, Frederick Seitz, Patrick Michaels, Global Climate Coalition (a group of fossil fuel interests) and others because Santer’s (and others) research showed that humans were in fact causing climate to change (IPCC 2nd Assessment ,1995). Mike explains that by the mid to late 1990s scientists knew that humans were warming the planet and offers five easy steps of understanding.

It was Mike’s curiosity about multi-decadal natural climate changes and a serendipitous moment that led him to his research that led to the famous hockey stick temperature reconstruction. Mike’s parents happened to be speaking over a glass of wine with Ray Bradley of UMass-Amherst and suggested that their son Mike should meet up. After their first “scientific blind date” a partnership emerged. When Mike began working with Ray Bradley, he was interested in reconstructing the patterns of temperature variation in a way that would provide insight into the workings of the climate system. It was from this landmark research that the Mann, Bradley, and Hughes (1998/1999) hockey stick was born. (For the real climate/math geeks there is a lengthy chapter describing principal component analysis [PCA] but I think many readers might quickly skim over this section.)

Mike explains why his plot was highlighted alone by the IPCC TAR (2001) even though there were other reconstructions at that time. “(1) It was the only reconstruction done at the level of individual years rather than decadal or longer-term averages, and (2) it came with error bars, which the other reconstructions didn’t. Thus, unlike other studies, it spoke to whether recent years, such as 1998, stood out as unusual against the backdrop of the longer-term reconstruction and its uncertainties.”

The most important information in this book is the extensive detail describing climate science denial and the attacks on scientists. Mike is clear to distinguish true skepticism which all scientists possess versus denial which is the refusal to accept facts due to one’s political or financial interests. Mike offers to the reader his “six stages of denial”.

Mike describes the well-documented tobacco industry “doubt is our product” misinformation strategy that is now being used in climate discussions. This strategy is being funded by industry groups such as Koch Industries and the Scaife Foundations that find climate change science to be inconvenient to their bottom lines. Mike also calls out other groups such as American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Advancement of Sound Science Center, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, Hudson Institute, George C. Marshall Institute, Fraser Institute, Heartland Institute, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, Media Research Center, National Center for Policy Analysis, and Citizens for a Sound Economy (better known now as Freedomworks).

As Mike explains, various media outlets often propagate climate change disinformation in their editorial and opinion pages. He mentions newspapers such as the National Post and Financial Post in Canada; the

Daily Telegraph, Times , and Spectator in the United Kingdom; and U.S. newspapers such as the Washington Times and the various outlets of the Murdoch, Scaife, and Anschutz conservative media empires, which include Fox News and the Wall Street Journal , the regional network and Web sites like Newsbusters.

The most disturbing sections of this book detail the personal attack on Mike Mann and his family as well as attacks on other prominent scientists such as Ben Santer Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, Herbert Needleman, Stephen Schneider, James Hansen, Eric Steig, and Wei-Chyung Wang. Mike relates these attacks as using “`Serengeti strategy’– the tried and-true tactic of the climate change denial campaign. The climate change deniers isolate individual scientists just as predators on the Serengeti Plain of Africa hunt their prey: picking off vulnerable individuals from the rest of the herd.”

The book also chronicles the dirty politics of climate change denial in Washington, D.C. Mann begins with Philip Cooney. In 2001, Cooney, a lawyer with a bachelor’s degree in economics and no formal scientific training, was appointed as chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). He was previously a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute (API). Cooney was instrumental in getting the environmentally friendly Christine Todd Whitman, head of the EPA to resign. Cooney also worked with the Competitive Enterprise Institute to invalidate a climate change report known as the National Assessment. Cooney also removed the hockey stick plot from the EPA’s 2003 State of the Environment report and instead placed in a study by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas that was financed by Cooney’s former employer, the American Petroleum Institute. The Soon and Baliunas paper was so bad that half of the Climate Research journal editorial staff resigned in protest because the seriously flawed paper should never have passed peer review.

Mike also details the 2003 Senate hearing called by friend of oil, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). In this hearing Inhofe’s expert witnesses included Soon, Baliunas, and Michael Chrichton – a novelist! It was in this hearing that Inhofe made his notorious claim that “manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Mike then moves on to Congressman Joe Barton (R-TX) who was the Chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. (Barton is a household name now for his notorious public apology to British Petroleum in June 2010 when the White House asked BP to pay for the clean-up and lost jobs.) In 2005 Barton sent threatening letters to Mike Mann and several others suggesting that they may have engaged in scientific malpractice. Many major science organizations and the mass media issued loud protests because it was an obvious witch hunt. Senators and Congressmen on both sides of the aisle including Republican Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chair of the Science Committee, and Republican Senator John McCain (R-AZ) told Barton he should immediately retract the letter but Barton refused.

In November 2005, Sen. Boehlert formally commissioned the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to review the science behind paleoclimate reconstructions and the final NAS report fully vindicated Mann.

Barton commissioned his own study by tapping stats professor Edward Wegman of George Mason University – a man with no climate science background. The Wegman Report repeated the debunked McIntyre and McKitrick (M&M) claim that the hockey stick was a mathematical artifact of using PCA conventions, while ignoring published peer-reviewed papers that refuted M&M’s claim. The more authoritative NAS review, for example, dismissed the claim that PCA conventions had any significant impact on the hockey stick results. (Currently, Edward Wegman is being investigated for plagiarism and his 2008 journal article on the subject was retracted by Computational Statistics and Data Analysis.) Mike then summarizes the two House hearings on the subject in July 2006 where Barton’s witnesses, including Wegman, were embarrassed by their own incompetence. Sadly, Wegman did not even understand the heat-trapping physics of greenhouse gases!

As the book nears the finish Mike describes the value of the peer-review process in rooting out bad science but admits it is not perfect and it is much slower than the immediately available Internet pseudo-science that most in the public read. To show how peer review can allow bad papers to slip through he discusses papers from Craig Loehle (2007), David Douglass, John Christy, Ben Pearson, and S. Fred Singer (2007), and John McLean, Chris de Freitas, and Bob Carter (2009). Each of these were trumpeted as the final nail in the coffin for manmade warming but subsequent analysis has dismissed them because of their many errors. (Of course, Mother Nature does not read these journal articles and the planet keeps on warming.)

Mike then moves on the stolen emails from Climate Research Unit, a well-orchestrated smear job on climate science that the press had unfortunately dubbed Climategate. Mike opens that chapter with this famous line by Cardinal Richelieu: “If you give me six lines written by the most honest man, I will find something in them to hang him.” In an attempt to sabotage the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, the anti-science crowd loudly proclaimed (yet again) that climate science and its scientists were a sham. They used taken out of context quotes with words such as “trick” and “hide the decline” to smear Mike and many others. Of course, we all know that “trick” is just another word for an elegant solution which Mike has made a career out of. The media coverage was appalling and Koch Industries and the Scaife Foundations played a particularly important role. One report showed that twenty or so organizations funded at least in part by Koch Industries had “repeatedly rebroadcast, referenced and appeared as media spokespeople” in stories about climategate. In time there were many independent investigations and Mike and others were fully vindicated. (Sadly, the vindications received little coverage and I do not recall seeing any formal apologies from the press and certainly not from the ant-science crowd which still today trumpets climategate even while droughts, floods, fires, and sea level rise keep increasing.)

Mike also writes about the failed attempt of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to try to access his private emails and other documents while he was a researcher at University of Virginia. (Although not appearing in the Kindle version of the book, Mike is under attack again by American Tradition Institute, a right-wing astroturf group that has ties to Koch Industries and others. Mike is now fighting a long and expensive legal battle to prevent them from using his and many others’ emails to spin up another climategate. It is a shame that so much of his time is being taken away from his research but I must commend him for standing up for climate science on his own dime. I wonder how many others would do what Mike is doing?)

One would think that after all of this bad history, Mike might end the book with sadness or cynicism. Instead, he offers much hope and describes how these attacks on him and others have awakened climate scientists to their responsibility to defend their work and speak out against attempts to stifle the free exchange of science.

To those that still question Mike’s research, know this: since the first hockey stick paper of 1998, there have been more than a dozen studies published by many scientists using different methodologies (PCA, CPS, EIV, isotopic analysis, & direct T measurements) that duplicate the hockey stick. To believe Rep. Joe Barton, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, and American Tradition Institute, one must also believe in magic. Consider the odds that various international scientists using quite different data and quite different data analysis techniques can all be wrong in the same way. What are the odds that a hockey stick is always the shape of the wrong answer?

Hmmm …

Whether you agree with Mann or not, is this not a “helpful review” in any decision-making process as to whether or not to buy this book?

You be the judge



To be clear, with a huge backlog in the Energy Bookshelf, I have yet to get (and thus haven’t read) Michael Mann’s book.  I am considering getting it, because it is likely worth reading, and would recommend that you consider it as well.

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