What a childish mind! Michael Mann's scientific conclusions were changed by pretty pictures
Michael Mann has just given an interview in which he says his belief in global warming arose when he saw temperature differences represented in color. The numbers had not influenced him until that point. See below. To us real scientists, the numbers are everything but not to the 4-year-old mind of Michael Mann.
So what could cause an adult mind to be so childish? I am a psychologist so I should be able to ansewer that, right? Right. I can. It's a matter of salience. When you are dealing with global 20th century temperature records, the numbers are completely salient. You can't dodge anything about them. And the most obvious thing about them is how uniform they are. They differ only by tenths of one degree Celsius. They show that we live in an era of exceptional temperature stability
But when you display the tiny differences as colors, what you see are relativities rather than absolutes. The absolute magnitude of the differences is no longer salient. It fades into the background. The colors treat as significant differences that are in fact tiny. The colors do no doubt have a numerical code to go with them but that is only a minor detail of what you see. Mann wanted to believe so all that had to happen was for small differences to be represented as dramatic ones. Pathetic!
I am rather amazed that he admitted as much. He must have been lulled into a false sense of security by an interviewer treating him as a hero
Mann’s PhD examined the natural variation in climate to establish whether this might be at least a partial cause of recent global warming. “So I went into climate research more from the standpoint of somebody who was more on the sceptical side. Some of my early work was actually celebrated by climate change deniers,” he explains.
But then something changed his mind.
Mann started doing research with Saltzman and another of the professor’s former students. This was Robert Oglesby, a postdoctoral researcher who is now with the University of Nebraska working on general circulation modelling (GCM).
The scientists had privileged access to the very latest technology—including modelling software and even a colour printer.
“This was in the early days of computer printers. So to get a colour printout you had to get special paper, and you would go up to the third floor to the special colour printer, so there was a certain drama. Until you printed it out in colour on paper you couldn’t really appreciate the results.”
They printed out world maps which had been colour-coded to show the rise in temperatures for each of the decades, moving through light yellows for little change to reds for the occasional spot where there had been a significant rise.
These maps are now ubiquitous in climate research and reporting, but this was the first time Mann had produced or even seen one like this.
“We were just looking decade by decade where there’s been maps of temperatures: 1900, 1910s, 20s, 30s, all the way to the 70s. And if you compare the 70s map to the 1900s map, there isn’t much of a difference,” Mann remembers.
“But once you get to the 1980s, it's like 'bam!' The map turns bright yellow and red. It was in that moment that I actually think that all of us, including Barry I think, crossed over into weighing more on the side that there is a discernible human influence on climate. This is before the IPCC reached that conclusion in 1995 with the publication of the second assessment report.”
In a single moment, Mann abandoned his scepticism about the reality of human-caused climate change. As it happens, he would dedicate the rest of his working life to understanding the true scientific meaning and implications of those red smudges on an early colour printout.
There were three scientists in the room that day. No politicians, no ideologues, no closet Communists tampering with the ink cartridges.
Mann points out: “The important thing to understand there is that our views on this issue were led by the science we were doing, which is the way it should be. The science that we were doing was not influenced by our views on the climate change issue.”
The colour maps formed part of Mann’s first climate change publication, with colleagues, in a peer-reviewed paper. He then set about trying to place modern climate change in a larger context.
What he found, and what he wrote, would throw him headfirst into a sometimes vicious and soul-destroying battle with the climate sceptics who had previously celebrated his work.
Next time, we look at how the dynamic Professor Bob Watson became chairman of the IPCC in 1997 amidst a groundswell of political activity.