Dealing in Doubt

Part 2: Denier Tricks and Tactics

Page - September 10, 2013
Dealing in Doubt --> Part 2: Denier Tricks and Tactics --> Attacks on Scientists


Attacks on Scientists 




Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University has been repeatedly singled out for harsh criticism by climate deniers ever since the 2001 IPCC Third Assessment highlighted Mann’s graph of historic and prehistoric temperature records, famously dubbed the ‘Hockey Stick’ graph, which illustrates the temperature spike in the 20th century following 900 years of stable climate. The graph is easy to understand, and is a compelling piece of scientific evidence that the temperature changes currently underway are large, fast and significant historically.

In 2003, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon managed to get a study published in “Climate Research” which challenged the Hockey Stick study. Mann, in an interview, said of the paper:

“It really was one of the poorest pieces of scholarship that any of us in the climate research community had ever seen… it was clear that there was an effort by some on the editorial board to compromise the PR (peer review) process and allow through this deeply, deeply flawed paper in the professional literature where it was immediately held up by those in Washington opposed to taking action against climate change … as somehow being the dagger in the heart of the case for global warming, when in fact it was just an extremely bad study that never should have published”…

Mann and a dozen or so other scientists refuted the Soon/Baliunas paper in the American Geophysical Union’s publication, EOS.

Scientific American interviewed several experts whose work was also discussed by Soon and Baliunas:

  • "The fact that it has received any attention at all is a result, again in my view, of its utility to those groups who want the global warming issue to just go away," said Tim Barnett, a marine physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography
  • "The Soon et al. paper is so fundamentally misconceived and contains so many egregious errors that it would take weeks to list and explain them all," said Malcolm Hughes of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.

After publication it seemed that plenty of people agreed. The journal's publisher Otto Kline, eventually stated that "[the conclusions drawn] cannot be concluded convincingly from the evidence provided in the paper." The paper was acknowledged to have been partly funded by the American Petroleum Institute.[1] The journal’s editor was New Zealand denier Chris de Freitas, who published the study despite at least one of the peer reviewers expressing concern at the paper. The ensuing debate over the peer review process caused three Climate Research editors to resign.

Other deniers such as Canadians Ross McKitrick and Stephen McIntyre also attempted to take down Mann’s work. Mann’s Hockey Stick has been replicated by a number of studies, and was included in the IPCC’s AR4, which has now extended the timeframe back 1,300 years. RealClimate provides the complete details, but Mann sums up the key point:

“Our attackers never want to look at the big picture; they never want to look at the question of whether these critiques have any impact at all on the bottom line conclusions because they know that they don’t. Even if they had been successful in taking down the Hockey Stick - which they haven’t been - it still wouldn’t amount to undermining the central case for the science.”

The hockey stick argument put up by Soon/Baliunas and McIntyre remains a key mantra of denial arguments, despite the fact it has been repeatedly confirmed by numerous different studies.

Since the Soon/Baliunas paper, Mann has had to defend his work time and time again. In 2003, the leader of climate denial on the Hill in Washington and Chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen James Inhofe (R-OK), called on Mann to appear in the first of many hearings, to testify alongside Willie Soon. Inhofe, since he set foot in the house in 1989, has received $1.5m from oil and gas interests during his political career. Koch Industries are his all time top contributors.

2005:  Congressman Joe Barton sent letters to Mann and a handful of his colleagues, essentially demanding they supply “computer programs, scripts, notes, literally every document from our scientific careers” as well as data (which was already online and publicly available) so it could be discredited.[2]

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), publishers of the peer-reviewed journal Science, protested about the witch hunt in a June 2005 letter to Barton:

“Your letters, however, in their request for highly detailed information regarding not only the scientists’ recent studies but also their life's work, give the impression of a search for some basis on which to discredit these particular scientists and findings, rather than a search for understanding.”

As The New Scientist reported in November 2006:

“Texas Republican Congressman Joe Barton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, ordered Mann to provide the committee with voluminous details of his working procedures, computer programs and past funding. Barton's demands were widely condemned by fellow scientists and on Capitol Hill. "There are people who believe that if they bring down Mike Mann, they can bring down the IPCC," said [Ben] Santer at the time. Mann's findings, which will be endorsed in the new IPCC report, have since been replicated by other studies.”

Barton has received $1.75 million from oil and gas interests in his political career 1998-2013. 

Again, a house of cards approach by the deniers – try to discredit one scientist and one study and thereby cast doubt on the entire scientific consensus.

A Washington Post editorial titled “Hunting Witches” accused Barton of “outrageous” behaviour, stating that, “The only conceivable purpose of these letters is harassment.” Science writer Chris Mooney further details this “congressional inquisition” in a July 2005 article in American Prospect  entitled “Mann Hunt.”

Mann was back before the House in a special set of hearings in July 2006 before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, centered on George Mason University’s Edward Wegman. 

The “Wegman Report” as it became known, concluded that Mann’s work was flawed. But Wegman was later widely discredited for having allegedly plagiarized parts of the report, as well as deliberately cherry-picking computer simulation results to falsely argue that the scientist’s algorithm automatically produced “hockey sticks.”

He ended up being under investigation by George Mason University for his work, which exonerated him for a few of the earliest complaints, ignored many more, but found him at fault for a paper that had already been retracted for plagiarism. Absurdly, part of the plagiarism in the Wegman Report was ruled not plagiarism, even though it was a longer version of the retracted paper.

But the attacks continued, with Sen James Inhofe (R-OK) giving a speech on the floor of the House in 2006. 

[See Dealing in Doubt's section on Climategate from Part 1]



After so many years of being attacked, Michael Mann has begun fighting back.

He is currently in the middle of two court cases: one against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review Online – and one against Canadian scientist Tim Ball, both for defamation. 

Mann’s defamation case against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Journal online came after a particularly vicious attack on his character by the think tank and the media outlet which together accused him of producing bogus work, of being a fraud, and likening and comparing him and his science to the actions of convicted Penn State child molester Jerry Sandusky. Skeptical Science has the full story.  The defendants tried to get the case dismissed in July 2013, but their motions were rejected by the court.

Meanwhile, Mann is also suing Canadian denier Tim Ball and the think tank, The Frontier Center for Climate Policy. The case was filed in Canada’s Supreme Court of British Colombia in March 2011. Ball also accused Mann of fraud after the Climategate emails.

In an interview, an anonymous questioner asked Ball: “Various government and academic agencies have whitewashed the Climategate scandal so far. Do you think anyone will be prosecuted for fraud?" Ball responds, "Michael Mann at Penn State should be in the State Pen, not Penn State."

At the time of writing, in August 2013, both court cases are ongoing.

Michael Mann has now written a book about the denier machine’s ongoing campaign against his work: “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”



Dr. Benjamin Santer

Dr. Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California was lead author of chapter 8 in the 1995 IPCC SAR report, the chapter that first confirmed the human impact on climate change. The policymakers summary contained the sentence “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate,” a sentence that placed Santer squarely in the sights of the deniers. In fact Santer didn’t even write the sentence or come up with the word “discernible” – it was IPCC chair Bert Bolin.

Nevertheless, this marked the beginning of a long-running personal attack on Santer. He was falsely accused of “scientific cleansing”, in a Global Climate Coalition (the industry coalition GCC) press release before the report was released. He was also accused of “political tampering” with the text of the summary for policymakers and of “research irregularities” in his own work.

Commenting on the “scientific cleansing” charge Santer said:

“The GCC accused me of ‘scientific cleansing’ at a time when ‘ethnic cleansing’ was being committed in Bosnia. My paternal grandparents died in concentration camps during the Second World War. They were subjects of Hitler’s ‘ethnic cleansing.’ So maybe you can understand why the ‘scientific cleansing’ charge was so abhorrent.”[3]

In a June 12, 1996 Wall Street Journal Op Ed, Fred Seitz of the George C Marshall institute and long-time tobacco apologist, accused Santer of working to "deceive policy makers and the public into believing that the scientific evidence shows human activities are causing global warming." 

Santer stated in an August 2006 interview with the journal Environmental Science and Technology: “I’d guess that about a year of my life was spent defending that scientific conclusion and my own personal scientific reputation… I was a messenger bearing news that some very powerful people did not want to hear. So they went after the messenger. They were very good at it.”

A scientist interviewed about the targeting of Santer by deniers said it was “one of the most vicious attacks I have ever seen on the integrity of a scientist.”[4]

Santer has now detailed the full story on the RealClimate blog, in response to the whole episode being (again inaccurately) repeated in The Guardian.

Dr. Kevin Trenberth 

Five years later the Third Assessment report triggered a new round of personal attacks. This time Kevin Trenberth, the head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research was the target. Trenberth was one of the ten most cited authors of studies about global warming in the ten years to 2001.

He has been repeatedly attacked for a study he co-authored asserting that global warming has intensified storms and hurricanes, particularly evidenced by the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season (famous for the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina).

Meteorologist denier William Gray described Trenberth as having “sold his soul to the devil,” and Senator James Inhofe launched an investigation into Trenberth’s employer after the release of the study linking increased storm intensity to global warming.

Trenberth hit back, saying: "The attacks on me are clearly designed to get me fired or to resign."

Fred Singer also joined the fray, saying Trenberth was “out of his specialty,” an interesting accusation coming from Singer, who has purported, at various times, to be a scientific expert on everything from secondhandcigarette smoke, to the ozone layer, nuclear energy and the climate.

Using Freedom of Information to Attack Scientists

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have long formed the backbone of climate accountability research. FOIA and State Public Records Act requests have been used by NGOs, authors, academics and reporters, to investigate interactions between Government and fossil fuel industry interests long before the so-called “Climategate” attack was launched.

Such inquiries have netted evidence of Exxon representative asking in early 2001 for the for the ouster of then IPCC Chairman Robert Watson and, more recently, a FOIA to the Smithsonian Institute revealed that Dr. Soon has received well over $1 million in corporate funding for his work over past decade.

The scientists targeted at East Anglia University were contesting a broad Freedom of Information request that may have been the origin of the gathered emails that were eventually stolen.

Since 'Climategate,' there has been a notable increase in the use of Freedom of Information requests in the United States in attempts to seize scientists’ raw data and professional correspondence. The climate deniers came home to pursue the other end of the conversations revealed by the Climategate hackers.

They now request emails that scientists send to each other when they’re working, sharing parcels of data analysis, emails that push and challenge both method and conclusions, part of the robust cut and thrust of scientific endeavour.

The deniers then go through these emails to cherrypick phrases and information to twist and used against scientists, in attempts to drum up media scandals and slow down the scientists. It has to be noted that the scientists they target are those who are authors of papers that “prove” the science of global warming, or the human footprint: scientists of great repute who have done groundbreaking work that furthers our understanding of the climate science.

This freedom of information strategy is possibly also a way to waste scientists’ time and intimidate them from participating in normal scientific practice. 

The American Tradition Institute (ATI) was set up to specifically focus on FOIA US Freedom of Information Act legislation) cases. Christopher Horner, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is an ATI senior fellow who “provides strategic and legal counsel to ATI on cases involving Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filings...” 

The ATI has its roots in fossil fuel funded think tanks and oil magnates. A Southern Studies investigation found that “ATI has connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence.”

The ATI vs Mann and UVA

The group began with attempting to get hold of, through FOIA, all of Dr Michael Mann’s emails when he was at the University of Virginia (UVA). By May, 2011, when UVA was slow in responding, the ATI joined with a Republican member of Virginia’s House of Representatives, Robert Marshall, to sue the UVA through the courts for Mann’s records.  The University’s argument that correspondence between Mann and other scientists should not be released to the likes of the ATI convinced a Virginia State judge, who ruled against the move in September 2012.

As Mann wrote on his facebook page:

This finding is a potentially important precedent, as ATI and other industry-backed front groups continue to press their attacks on climate scientists through the abuse of public records and FOIA laws and the issuing of frivolous and vexatious demands for internal scholarly deliberations and personal correspondences.”

The ATI case followed an attempt by Republican and Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to use his office to pressure UVA to release Mann’s emails. The UVA spent close to $600,000 defending Mann’s right to his email correspondence, and, in March 2012, won the case at the State Supreme Court. Cuccinelli is currently running for Governor of Virginia.

ATI vs James Hansen and NASA

The ATI then turned its sights to another of their favourite targets, NASA’s James Hansen. The whole story is told by Joe Romm at Think Progress, showing that one result of these requests was to distract these scientists from their research.

James Hansen:

“I am now inundated with broad FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests for my correspondence, with substantial impact on my time and on others in my office. I believe these to be fishing expeditions, aimed at finding some statement(s), likely to be taken out of context, which they would attempt to use to discredit climate science.”

ATI vs Climate Scientists and Journalists 

The ATI has now set its sights on trying to get emails between climate scientists and journalists.

ATI and the EPA

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, Horner’s home organisation – and the ATI - have now filed FOIA requests with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an attempt to get former Administrator Lisa Jackson’s and current Administrator Gina McCarthy’s text and Instant Messaging records.

Milloy is also working for ATI attacking EPA

FOI in Australia 

The use of Freedom of Information has not been restricted to the US. The same tactics are also being used in Australia. 

In 2011, a number of stories were published outlining death threats against Australian climate scientists.

One blogger, Simon Turnill, set about trying to find out the details of those threats through a FOI request to the Australian National University. 

When those emails, released under FOI, showed abuse – but no specific death threats, bloggers and the Murdoch-owned The Australian newspaper rushed to claim that scientists were fabricating claims they were getting death threats.  Other Murdoch columnists picked it up in Australia, with one calling it a “mini climategate.”  The story was picked up by the denier blogs, including Antony Watts and James Delingpole.

Yet the FOI request was only for a specific 6-month period for a list of six academics at ANU. Most of the examples quoted had been from other scientists from different universities at other times.

Conspiracy of Doubt 

University of Western Australia’s Professor of Psychology Stephan Lewandowsky conducted a survey to find out about conspiracy theories. The results, now published in the journal Psychological Science, found that people who rejected the science of human-caused climate change were also likely to endorse various conspiracy theories, such as NASA faking moon landings and plots to kill Princess Diana.

The deniers rejected the findings outright, and invented a range of conspiracies about how Lewandowsky had fabricated his results. Blogger Simon Turnill again filed a wide-ranging FOI request to find out. 

The resulting emails released to Turnill showed no such conspiracy. Lewandowsky went on to write another paper about the conspiracy theories invented by the deniers about his paper about conspiracy theories, a paper the deniers have been fighting to stop the publication of ever since.



One particularly nasty outcome of the front-group-led denial campaign has been the abuse of climate scientists. The Scientific American, George Monbiot in the Guardian and Clive Hamilton blogging on Australia’s ABC website have all written recently about the storm of abuse climate scientists have received. 

The target of climate denier attacks for some years, Kevin Trenberth, told Scientific American:

 "In science there's a whole lot of facts and basic information on the nature of climate change, but it's not being treated that way. It's being treated as opinion."

The Guardian reported an uptick of abusive emails to climate scientists after the Climategate attack:

“Professor Stephen Schneider, a climatologist based at Stanford University in California, whose name features in the UEA emails, says he has received "hundreds" of violently abusive emails since last November. The peak came in December during the Copenhagen climate change summit, he said, but the number has picked up again in recent days since he co-authored a scientific paper last month which showed that 97%-98% of climate scientists agree that mankind's carbon emissions are causing global temperatures to increase.”

Clive Hamilton:

“In recent months, each time they enter the public debate through a newspaper article or radio interview these scientists are immediately subjected to a torrent of aggressive, abusive and, at times, threatening emails. Apart from the volume and viciousness of the emails, the campaign has two features - it is mostly anonymous and it appears to be orchestrated.” 

Hamilton authored “Scorcher – the dirty politics of climate change” a book where he outlines the decade-long, coal-industry funded campaign in Australia to deny climate science and its close relationship with then Prime Minister and climate denier John Howard who refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. 

He tells of a respected climate scientist, Professor David Karoly at the University of Melbourne, who received these emails:

 "It is probably not to (sic) extreme to suggest that your actions (deceitful) were so criminal to be compared with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. It is called treason and genocide” and "Oh, as a scientist, you have destroyed peoples trust in my profession. You are a criminal. Lest we forget."

Comments across the blogosphere follow a similar vein, such as this, posted on a Chicago Tribune blog explaining the robustness of the climate science conclusions:

“Global warming is a genocidalist scam to kill us all by 2050. There is no scientific basis for climate science, there is no such thing as radiative forcing. This hoax is bringing down the US Government and the rest because we see by their going along with this $45 trillion scam, they are just lining their own pockets. Both the Clintons and Obamas are personally involved in this mass murder ring worse than Hitler's Nazi Germany, in fact this plan is Nazi in origin, like the original Green Movement.” - Stan Lippmann (03/03/2010, 4:30 AM)

Climate scientists are used to robust debate through the peer review process with challenges coming from new research that proves or disproves their research. But when they are faced with a barrage of abuse from non-scientists, fed by the denial industry, it’s much more difficult for them to deal with. This is made worse because like most practicing academics the contact details of climate scientists are almost always publically listed on university websites.

As (the late) Dr. Schneider pointed out to the Guardian in 2010, this pressure is not an insignificant pressure on the scientists lives: 

Schneider described his attackers as "cowards" and said he had observed an "immediate, noticeable rise" in emails whenever climate scientists were attacked by prominent right-wing US commentators, such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

"[The senders] are not courageous people," said Schneider. "Where are they getting their information from? They just listen to assertions made on blogs and rightwing talkshows. It's pathetic."

Schneider said the FBI had taken an interest earlier this year when his name appeared on a "death list" on a neo-Nazi website alongside other climate scientists with apparent Jewish ancestry. But, to date, no action has been taken.

"The effect on me has been tremendous," said Schneider. "Some of these people are mentally imbalanced. They are invariably gun-toting rightwingers. What do I do? Learn to shoot a Magnum? Wear a bullet-proof jacket? I have now had extra alarms fitted at my home and my address is unlisted. I get scared that we're now in a new Weimar republic where people are prepared to listen to what amounts to Hitlerian lies about climate scientists." 



In 2004, Naomi Oreskes published a study in Science that reviewed 928 papers published on climate change between 1993 and 2003, looking for any evidence that the papers might conclude that climate change was what the denial machine claims: a “natural occurrence”.

She found no such evidence.

"This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect."

Oreskes then became the target of denier fury.

In 2005, the UK Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Benny Peiser, not a scientist, claimed to have analysed Oreskes’ work, and sent his analysis to Science Web to publish as a “letter”. It wasn’t published. Peiser later admitted he didn’t check the same abstracts that Oreskes used in her study.

Which is why I no longer maintain this particular criticism. In addition, some of the abstracts that I included in the 34 "reject or doubt" category are very ambiguous and should not have been included.”

In 2007, the Science and Public Policy Institute published an “open letter” from UK endocrinologist Mr. Klaus-Martin Schulte, who had submitted a paper taking down Oreskes’ paper to a journal renowned for publishing denier papers. The SPPI’s Lord Christopher Monckton weighed in with his own essay (one of many “papers” Monckton claims he has had “published”), quoting Schulte’s “soon to be published” work. The pre-publication noise was deafening.

But even the editor of the “Energy and Environment” journal, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen (herself well-linked with the denial machine), decided not to publish the paper, claiming it was a “bit patchy and nothing new.” 

Oreskes went on to write a book, “Merchants of Doubt” that chronicles the beginnings of climate denial. The media attention she has gained has made her an ongoing a target for the denial machine, the latest being called “The Queen of Climate Smear” on an Australian blog in 2013 (cross-posted by The Heartland Institute).

2013 consensus study shows 97% agree on human-caused climate change

In 2013 a new peer reviewed study was published in Environmental Research Letters, looked at more than 4,000 abstracts by more than 10,000 scientists that stated a position on human-caused global warming. 97 percent of the papers, and 98 percent of the scientists endorsed the consensus. See also the Consensus Project.

Anthony Watts led the attacks, calling the paper “fuzzy math” and “an epic lie of all proportions”. Heartland’s James Taylor said in Forbes magazine the “alarmists” had been “caught doctoring” their science.



[1] Willie Soon & Sallie Baliunas, "Proxy climatic and environmental changes over the past 1000 years," Climate Research, Vol. 23, p. 105 (PDF p.17)

[2] Comment from Mann to authors of this report.

[3] PAUL D. THACKER, "The Many travails of Ben Santer," American Chemical Society, 1 October, 2006, p. 5837,

[4] PAUL D. THACKER, "The Many travails of Ben Santer," American Chemical Society, 1 October, 2006, p. 5834,