A prestige press classic: Science historian Fred Pearce on the unhidden story of the ‘decline’

From a story by Fred Pearce—Dendroclimatologists blame industrial emissions for the sudden inability of dendroclimatology to measure the sudden climate change dendroclimatologists blame on industrial emissions—which  first appeared in the science pages of The Guardian:

No man’s proxy

But why the decline? What was behind this sudden, obviously unprecedented, divergence?

Using common sense, Mann, Jones and colleagues worked it out:

Things are going fine, botanically, for thousands of years. Then one day during the Kennedy administration, a new chemical (its precise identity still subject to debate) emitted by the pollution industry makes previously-compliant bristlecone pines fly into a tantrum and reject the science of bristlecone pines. The irritated individuals—some of the oldest living life forms on Earth—dedicate themselves, from the organelle level up, to a vendetta against peer-reviewed botany that continues to this day.

To hell with the literature on growth rings, MXD and the “proper” way to respond when the temperature changes, they thought. They were here, keeping their ghostly vigil over the American desert, when Moses first experienced the thrill of taking a life, and they were sick of letting ivory-tower dendro geeks 1% their age say when to decline, incline, submit or deviate.

bristlecone 9

Twisted science: Bristlecone pines are “straight like denier logic,” quips Dr Michael E. Mann, whose PhD in physics enables him to extract “rings” from these miracles of evolution.

After all, it wasn’t the Middle Ages anymore.

They were no man’s proxy. They had too much respect for themselves.

News of the physiological mutiny spread throughout the brotherhood of bristlecones like a shot (at least by Ent standards), thanks to the well-known, centuries-old, mainstream science of ‘teleconnection.’ Don’t be misled by the New Agey voodoo-science name: ‘teleconnection’ is no figment of Dr Mann’s imagination, no pseudoscientific deus ex machina born of a perfect storm of ambition, career panic and unscrupulousness. Far from it. You’ll find ‘teleconnection,’ of trees, in the index of any decent college-level Intro to Biology.

The long march through the literature: First steps

Eager to share this explanation with their colleagues—and subject it to the scrutiny of peer-reviewed scientific examination on the off chance that there was a minor flaw somewhere in their thinking—Mann and his collaborators had soon submitted a paper about the divergence.

Alas, replied the editors of prestige glossies like Nature, Science and the trade rag Sap, the thesis was too self-explanatorily true for its own good. Arboreal telecommunication; a trophic revolution convulsing the xerosphere; the industrial waste that continues to sicken the oldest living species on Earth and the government that allows it to happen? Yes, yes, all eminently plausible.

But where’s the hook? There doesn’t seem enough “new” here to justify a whole paper. Perhaps it’s more of a letters-to-the-editor job, they suggest.

That’s what Mann, Jones and subauthors try next. But it’s like flaying a baby. Their baby. They’d have to find thousands of words of fat to trim—and Mann isn’t in the habit of writing fat. Every word had a job. It was there for a reason: to feed its family. Michael Mann can’t stand to put a single hard-working American word out on the street, and he’ll be damned if he’ll do it to thousands.

This excerpt was reprinted with the author’s protest. —BK

2 thoughts on “A prestige press classic: Science historian Fred Pearce on the unhidden story of the ‘decline’

  1. Pingback: The dark history of the climate debate | Climate Scepticism

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