The Serengeti Strategy

What is the Serengeti Strategy?

“The Serengeti Strategy” is a term coined by climate scientist Michael Mann in which “special interests faced with adverse scientific evidence … target individual scientists rather than take on an entire scientific field at once.” His invention of the analogy must have been an interesting moment, given the context. In his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Line, Mann talks about a trip to scientific meetings in Arusha as an IPCC co-author, during which he took the usual side trip to the Serengeti:

After the meeting, I joined a daylong expedition to see one of the world’s greatest displays of nature: Serengeti National Park. Here, zebras, giraffes, elephants, water buffalo, hippos, wildebeests, baboons, warthogs, gazelles, and ostriches wander among some of the world’s most dangerous predators: lions, leopards, and cheetahs. Among the most striking and curious scenes I saw that day were groups of zebras standing back to back, forming a continuous wall of vertical stripes. “Why do they do this?” an IPCC colleague asked the tour guide. “To confuse the lions,” he explained. Predators, in what I call the “Serengeti strategy,” look for the most vulnerable animals at the edge of a herd. But they have difficulty picking out an individual zebra to attack when it is seamlessly incorporated into the larger group, lost in this case in a continuous wall of stripes. Only later would I understand the profound lesson this scene from nature had to offer me and my fellow climate scientists in the years to come.

Later in the same book, Mann, writing about attacks on his “Hockey Stick” research, notes:

Climate change deniers went on to wage a public—and very personal—assault against my coauthors and me in the hope that somehow they might discredit all of climate science, the fruit of the labors of thousands of scientists from around the world, by discrediting us and our work. The Serengeti strategy writ large.

More recently, Mann published a paper in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, The Serengeti strategy: How special interests try to intimidate scientists, and how best to fight back.

What do Michael Mann, Rachel Carson, Charles Darwin and PZ Myers have in common?

Mann provides other examples of the Serengeti Strategy in use. Most of these examples will be familiar to you. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian “think” tank, produced a website called “RachelWasWrong” for the purpose of discrediting the environment friendly writings of Rachel Carson. The site attacks Carson, ineffectively if you know the facts, in an effort to discredit environmentalism in general.

Mann also mentions Darwin. To my knowledge, there wasn’t much of a Serengeti Strategy launched against Darwin in his day. People didn’t operate that way back then, perhaps. The attempts at refuting Darwin’s theories of evolution were more regularly launched at the theories themselves, and of course, Darwin had his bulldog, Thomas Huxley, which helped keep him out of the fight. But in more recent times, we see creationist organizations attacking Darwin by trying to link him with Hitler, the Nazis, the Holocaust, etc., in order to make his ideas seem unpalatable. That is of course a good example of an ad hominem attack.

Individual modern day evolutionary biologists are also attacked this way. One of the best examples is probably the regular attacks by Bill Donohue, President of the Catholic League, or operatives of the Intelligent Design purveying Discovery Institute, on biologist and blogger PZ Myers.

I’ve been the subject of this strategy as well, most annoyingly by members of the Mens Rights Movement, who wish to discredit the commonly held and relatively sensible version of human behavioral biology (related to human behavior, sex differences, etc) to which I subscribe. This came to a head a while back when I wrote a novel (which you must have read by now, right?) live on the internet as a fundraiser for the Secular Student Alliance, an organization that I strongly supported. The very secular Mens Rights Movement set aside the fact that this effort was to raise money for a cause they actually supported in order to attempt to destroy sales of the revised version of the novel with numerous bogus awful reviews (here is where you can find the details of that dust up, and a link to get your own copy of the novel!). Michael Mann has been attacked, by the way, in a similar manner, on his Amazon page.

The point of all this is that ad hominem, or other, attacks on individuals who publicly represent a point of view, as a means of taking down the larger concept (the reality of global warming, evolutionary biology, etc.) is a technique. Mann is especially well prepared to discuss this problem because he pretty much lives every day with a ring of hungry hyenas following him around. (By the way, Mann leaves off hyenas in his list of dangerous predators in the Serengeti. Indeed, there are times and places in that region where hyenas are the main predator, to the extent that lions may be found scavenging off their kills more often than the other way around. But I digress.)

So why is this strategy employed and how well does it work?

From Mann’s paper:

…it is effective, for a number of reasons. By singling out a sole scientist, it is possible for the forces of “anti-science” to bring many more resources to bear on one individual, exerting enormous pressure from multiple directions at once, making defense difficult. It is similar to what happens when a group of lions on the Serengeti seek out a vulnerable individual zebra at the edge of a herd, which is why I call it the “Serengeti strategy”…

I can’t help but think that one of those resources, a gaggle of willing internet trolls, is more easily engaged in attacks on individuals rather than ideas because an attack on an individual is a potentially satisfying act of sadism, while an attack on an idea is not. Also, the latter is harder work. And, yes, there is evidence that the internet trolls are sadists.

Mann also notes that it is more difficult to attack an entire group of scientists, several individuals expert in a subfield, at once. This, indeed, is what makes the Serengeti predator analogy work. However, this is also an appropriate moment to note a minor weakness in the analogy. Super-predators in open habitats, those who hunt cursorially, tend to achieve the best results when an individual member of the herd goes off in the wrong direction or is slower because of a weakness or injury. That aspect of actual predation does not apply to the Serengeti Strategy against scientists, and in fact, it may be that going after one of the stronger members of the herd is the preferred strategy.

In his article Mann provides detailed discussion of the strategy and its links to big industry, and also ties together the idea of “swiftboating” and Serengeti Strategy. With respect to the latter, we may fold back in, once again, anti-evoltuionary biology strategies. As Mann notes, scientists are ethically bound to approach problems, and discussions of problems, in a certain way, whereby things like facts and strong theories predominate in the formulation of arguments. The attackers don’t have to do this. They can do and say whatever they want. They can lie, cheat, obfuscate, cherry pick. Moreover they can switch strategies as needed. The same individual science denialist may claim a certain scientific finding is invalid, say during an Internet conversation in a blog’s comments section. Once an argument is made (by others) against that point, that denialist may drop it, and move on to a different point. But later, in a different Internet context, the same denialist will re-use the original discredited point. Most denialists have a laundry list of points they keep coming back to, often shifting from one point to the next very quickly in order to avoid being pinned down. This is known as the Gish Gallop.

Speaking of attacks on the Hockey Stick research, which by the way has been tested by a great deal of subsequent research and found to be solid, Mann notes:

Many of the attacks claimed that the hockey stick was simply wrong, or bad science, or that it was debunked or dis- credited, despite all evidence to the contrary–such as the reaffirmation of our findings by the National Academy of Sciences, the subsequent reports of the IPCC, and the most recent peer- reviewed research.

Others were challenges to my integrity and honesty. Most worrisome were thinly veiled threats leveled against my family and me. (And some not so veiled, such as letters and e-mails threatening my life and my family’s lives, including an envelope sent in the mail that contained a white powder, subsequently investigated by the FBI …

Then came the manufactured, so- called “climategate” controversy … in which climate change deniers stole thousands of e-mails and mined them for words and phrases that could be taken out of context and made to sound as if scientists had been doctor- ing data or otherwise engaged in misbehavior. Nine investigations later, we know that the only wrongdoing was the criminal theft of the e-mails in the first place.

What to do about the anti-science Serengeti Strategy?

Mann notes that he became a “science advocate” instead of just a regular scientist because of these attacks. I find this interesting. Many other scientists, such as myself, have gotten into science advocacy because of attacks on science, but not necessarily because of attacks on us. The attacks came later because we stuck our heads up. I would like to know how unique that aspect of Mann’s situation is.

In any event, there are probably things one can do to respond to this situation, mainly having to to with communication. Giving public talks, lectures, and interviews is part of it, Mann notes. Engaging on the Internet, such as through a blog (Mann was a cofounder of RealClimate) helps. Mann is a go-to guy for the press, which as he notes must be very satisfying. When denialists are circling and begin to howl, their very victim is brought in to provide a response. You don’t see that on the African Savanna very often. And, where possible, Mann suggests engaging with good faith skeptics in a constructive manner. But, when the good faith is not there, don’t engage.

Mann closes his article on a positive, or at least, optimistic note:

There is some evidence that flat-out climate change denial has lost favor over the past few years. With authoritative reports coming in from not just the scientific community but the business community, the national security community, and even some conservative groups that climate change is a very real and existential threat to society, a new breed of climate change contrarian — ?the delayer — has now emerged.

Examples of individuals occupying that niche in the media today are folks like Judith Curry … Richard Muller, and … Bjorn Lomborg. Rather than flat-out denying the existence of human-caused climate change, delayers claim to accept the science, but downplay the seriousness of the threat or the need to act. The end result is an assertion that we should delay or resist entirely any efforts to mitigate the climate change threat…

So while the battle is far from over, the tide does appear to be turning. We are seeing the slow but steady retreat of climate change contrarians … The window of public discourse appears to be shifting away from the false debate … There is still time to act so that we avert leaving a fundamentally degraded planet for future generations….

We scientists?must hold ourselves to a higher standard than the deniers-for-hire. We must be honest as we convey the threat posed by climate change to the public. But we must also be effective. The stakes are simply too great for us to fail to communicate the risks of inaction.

I recommend reading the original paper, as I’ve only briefly summarized it here.

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27 thoughts on “The Serengeti Strategy

  1. A few words on evolution, since I often see the belief in evolution compared to the belief in climate change in articles on the web.
    While I don’t believe in creation, I do believe in evolution, but not as it’s taught. My electronics and computer experience can’t allow me to believe in blind chance natural selection evolution. They pronounce inventors like Thomas Edison geniuses because they were very clever inventors, but ascribe no intelligence to the process of evolution. So evolution to me was a paradox, it happened, but it just can’t be that there was no intelligent process involved. Then along came a scientist named Seth Lloyd, who said that the universe is a quantum level computer and the driver behind evolution. Seems like a plausible explanation to me that gives me the answer I’ve been looking for. But get atheistic evolution scientists to swallow this one will be a hard sell, because their bias is against anything that hints at anything to do with the supernatural, which Lloyd’s theory seems to me to be indicative of.
    You might ask, who is the creator of this quantum level computer? And I would say that let’s just accept the science as discovered and let future discoveries answer that question, if it’s possible to answer it.

  2. I have found that one effect techniques is to attack the denier’s sense of honor. I don’t mean to use ad homs, but to accuse the denialist of being lacking in personal honor or integrity.

    Deniers don’t care of the truth or facts so they don’t care if an argument is true or uses fallacious reasoning. Their goal is to disrupt, confuse and derail by any means necessary. Liberals make a big mistake in thinking that once they have debunked a denier’s claim that he will stop using it. There is no reason for him to do that because he doesn’t give a crap about the truth.

    What he does care about is his own personal sense of honor and integrity. That is what really matters to the authoritarian personalty. so if you can accuse him of lying, of lacking any honor that will really sting. of course you have to be careful not to use ad homs. I’m also not sure it always works as you can alienate observers if you are too aggressive.

    Another tactic is simply not to get pulled into debates over minute features of the topic. You should throw your own questions back at the denialist. “If what you say is true then CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. How is that possible?’ Make them explain their ideas. Don’t accept the frame of them asking questions and you passively giving answers. Put the onus back on them to have to come up with an explanation.

    Attacking a denialists honor and accusing them of lying may or may not be a good idea. I’m on the fence about that so I’ not sure it’s the best strategy. But there is a concept in chess, yes I used to play, called initiative. Typically the player that can take the initiative away from the other player and make him respond to your moves usually wins. That I do think is a winning strategy.

    1. Some of the deniers in blogs are oil and coal paid climate trolls. You can recognize them by their use of the words warmist, alarmist, liberal.

      I can also recognize them when they call me a communist, socialist, or comrade.

      One of the things I tell them is that they are spreading oil and coal capitalist propaganda.

      And I can also recognize them when they throw out accusations against scientists like they are in it for the grant money, and any other accusations that scientists first threw at deniers originally.

  3. I think I get your point of using hyenas to illustrate the idea of the Serengeti Strategy instead of one of the big cats.

    Climate Change deniers are more like hyenas, individually small but dangerous and tenacious in large packs.

    Lions etc bringing down a zebra are way too proud an image!

  4. My guess is that we are one catastrophic event, or a series of them, away from our climate future becoming crystal clear to everybody. Climate change deniers will join the ranks of disco dancers. So far we’ve just experienced extended or more powerful versions of common weather events, droughts and hurricanes for just two examples. Something different and more serious like a massive methane release will change everything.

    Until the fear of God kicks them in the ass, the majority of the population will not support the changes and effort necessary to avoid the worst of the climate changes looming ahead. The worst thing that could happen could turn out to be the best thing to happen.

  5. The hyenas may have the last laugh if existential threat inflation continues to escalate.

    While conservation oriented conservatives can defend the science against know-nothings like Donahue and Delingpole in the Climate Wars, their efforts are hampered by the rhetorical overkill of their erstwhile allies.

    Reanimated Cold War PR strategies that bring existential threat inflation into play can alienate laymen and scientists alike ,

    Three decades ago the Union of Concerned Scientists applauded when Richard Garwin called Robert Jastrow a hyena during a Star Wars hearing on the Hill. Now Jastrow is on the scientific board of the Marshall Institute .

    I doubt he would be if the rhetoric hadn’t gone nuclear .
    A lot of people have taken to writing works of scientific fantasy of lake, some perhaps even more than they are given credit for,

    I don’t care how many focus groups have proven susceptible to scaryand repetitious rhetoric — words have meanings, and the effort to elide a lot of science by calling warming at a 22 microkelvin a day an “existential threat” is an exercise in semantic agression better suited to works of political fantasy than environmental science.

  6. Russell @7 — Jastrow died in 2008.

    Also, I don’t think Garwin’s rhetoric had anything to do with his embrace of right-leaning positions. That’s just who he was.

  7. Raymond DeBrane:

    blind chance natural selection evolution…it just can’t be that there was no intelligent process involved

    I know I’m responding to an off-topic comment, but it seems you have a rather distorted view of what Evolution is. Rather than resorting to personal incredulity as an argument against it, you might try to learn more about it. The best book I can recommend to you is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” by Daniel Dennett. Look for it at your local library.

    1. Mal,
      thanks for the suggestion. I’ll look into it. There is a rare bird of a microbiologist named Michael Behe who wrote a book called Darwin’s Black Box. In short, he says the cell is irreducibly complex so creation had to have happened. I ain’t buying that theory, especially because he admits he is a religious man. Can’t have religion mix with science. The two are like oil and water.
      I never said I am arguing against evolution having occurred. Creation is not my bag as you can see from the above. What I did say is that I hate it when I constantly read blogs and articles that make the comparison of evolution to climate change science because climate change is settled science where evolution sure as hell ain’t. And I said that scientist Seth Lloyd has come up with the theory that the universe is a quantum level computer and the driver behind evolution. Now that makes sense to me because I come from an electronics and computer background, and I know it takes intelligence to imagine, conceive, plan, engineer and build those systems, educated intelligence in a number of disciplines. I don’t believe in creation, but I felt the theory of evolution is just that, a theory with not a lot of supporting facts on how biological system evolved by blind chance and natural selection alone without the aid of some intelligence behind it. It seems Seth Lloyd has figured out that there is an intelligence to the universe, a quantum level computer that drives evolution. Other scientists are examining his work to see if they come to the same conclusions. if Seth Lloyd proves to be right, this new understanding of how evolution works will stick in the craw of atheistic, evolutionary scientists because they built their careers around evolution having no intelligence behind it and have rejected anything that hints at the supernatural. Seth Lloyd’s theory sure sounds supernatural. But as someone somewhere I recollect said, the supernatural is just an extension of the natural. By the way, those new fancy cochlear hearing aids convert analog audio to some form of digital audio using microprocessor technology because the natural hearing system uses some form of fancy digital encoding and sends those digital signals to the brain, which obviously runs on some form of digital processing. Since the natural hearing apparatus doesn’t work anymore in a totally deaf person, it was up to out inventive, educated, brainy scientists to develop an analog to digital converter that would convert the analog audio coming into the hearing aid microphone to a form of digital encoding that the brain can work with, and improvements are being continuously made. Now how in the world did blind chance natural selection evolution invent analog to digital processing? Analog to digital and digital to analog converters used in audio or video processing for our DVD players and DTV’s are very complicated and require a lot of expert engineering talent to make them possible.
      Here’s my contribution to being on topic. Check out and see how bad his assessment of the climate crisis is. If he proves to be correct, when the arctic becomes ice free in September sometime before 2020, there will be a big methane burp out of the arctic that will raise the temperature up several degrees Celsius and then we’ve had it. Add to that, he mentions James Hansen who says that it takes about 40 years to feel the effect of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, so as Prof McPherson says, all that future warming is baked into the cake but hasn’t been realized yet. And add to that that Prof McPherson points out that there are over 40 self reinforcing feedback loops that feed on themselves and each other, feedback loops such as methane escapes a rapidly warming arctic which causes the temperature in the Arctic to rise, which releases more methane and it becomes a viscous runaway cycle. Another feedback loop he mentions is that the arctic ice melts, causing the suns rays to fall on water instead of ice, which will warm the water in the Arctic further, melting more ice. I believe Al Gore (or Algore as the nutjob wacko brainwashed conservatives call him) mentioned it in his movie as well.
      Lately Prof McPherson made a stunning prediction that we could see destructive abrupt climate change occur anywhere from 2 to 20 years. GeeeeZZZZ!!!! So there’s my contribution to staying on the topic of climate change.

  8. Raymond DeBrane, you write “Now how in the world did blind chance natural selection evolution invent analog to digital processing”.

    That sounds like an argument from incredublity. It may well be that humans are capable of doing so only with the brightest minds, but apart from the fact that hearing does not really involve analog-to-digital signal processing (cochlear implants by necessity have to do this, but they do not produce a ‘natural’ sound), nature has had billions of years to do so through trial-and-error with billions and billions of test subjects.

    There are a lot of examples in nature where an engineer will say “I can do this better, simpler, and less error prone”, but because it ‘works’, it is the way it is. An example is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which stupidly makes a huge detour in many animals (including humans, and craziest in giraffes with something like 4.5 meters – the short route is a few decimeters). There really is no discernable advantage of having such a detour, and plenty of disadvantages.

    So the question you could ask there is “Now how in the world did blind chance natural selection evolution invent such a useless detour”. Your answer?

    1. You spelled incorrectly.
      the state of being unwilling or unable to believe something.
      “he stared down the street in incredulity”

      You bet I’m unwilling to believe that blind chance and natural selection evolution is responsible for all of the biological complexity we have on Earth.

      In answer to your question, I can’t explain these evolutionary detours anymore than atheist evolutionists can explain all the details of evolution that they expect us to take on faith. Yes, that’s right, faith, a strange way of referring to atheistic scientists. They can’t explain all the details so they expect us all to just accept what they don’t know and can’t tell us without question. That’s not how I operate. If you can’t be specific about the details and just tell us to accept blind chance natural evolution as fact, I ain’t accepting it, especially when it seems scientist Seth Lloyd has discovered a plausible explanation of how evolution occurred.

  9. De”Brane”: Some of the deniers in blogs are oil and coal paid climate trolls. You can recognize them by their use of the words warmist, alarmist, liberal

    If you actually believe this, you’re going to have a lot of fun arguing about evolution on this here internet.

    1. You are correct! Those are the telling words that mark those bloggers as paid trolls. I got one of them all mad at me by giving them the following equation:

      alarmist + warmist = Koch speak

      I hate to argue. I would rather discuss evolution. The fun I’m having is pointing out that evolution is not settled science (Google Seth Lloyd) but climate change is. Of course there are uncertancies in climate science but the science of climate change is ‘evolving’ to be more certain of some of the uncertaancies. But there is a problem with climate scientists. British climatologist Kevin Anderson and also Guy McPherson. They are both of the opinion that mainstream climate scientists are holding back from telling the public how bad the climate crisis is.

  10. Raymond, if you consider the translation of vibrations of certain haircells into electric impulses in the nerves as A/D conversion, fair enough (it isn’t the same in my book). But then you have no need to refer to the ear specifically, because then *every* sense involves a A/D conversion.

    It’s quite funny, however, to see you go on and on and on about not believing in blind chance as a driver of natural evolution…and then refer to Lloyd’s quantum computer ideas, which rely on chance too (more correctly, probabilities).

    Oh, and sorry for making a spelling error. Probably never happens to you, eh? (hint, your last comment contains two – notably of the same word)

    1. Are you from Canada, eh? Sorry for the word repetition.

      Sorry, I should have pointed out that the link I sent you on cochlear implants referred to the information that is sent to the brain as neural codes, not digital processing. Nevertheless, a code is not an analog signal. It seems that vision works the same way, the optic nerve does much the same thing. A cochlear implant is a very crude A / D converter compared to the natural conversion apparatus. And, I didn’t know this before I read the article, only a small portion of the cochlea is practical to attach an implant, the whole cochlea is used by the natural hearing apparatus.
      I learned one other thing a while back. The ear drum attaches to a small bone that performs mechanical amplification. Now that’s an amazing natural invention! Thomas Edison who invented a mechanical amplifier for his phonograph. It was the horn attached to the stylus that played the cylinder record. The stylus vibrated and the horn acted as an acoustic transformer the match the impedance of the vibrations coming from the stylus to the impedance of the air in the room, thus acoustically amplifying the sound. Audio output transformers on a vacuum tube amplifier match the high impedance of the audio output tube the low impedance of a loudspeaker. One of my electronics instructor many moons ago said that the mechanical world and the electronics world have a lot in common. Also, when asked the question, how does that circuit work? He would answer, it works just fine! Funny guy. He must be either very old or perhaps passed on to that great unknown by now.

      As you said, every sense requires an A / D conversion. Funny how we are not conscious that we function in this way. It’s amazingly transparent to us. I have a theory with no proof. I suspect that those of us who can do math real well have neural code functioning in the brain that is not as transparent as it is in people who can’t put 2 and 2 together.
      An amazing example of this kind of thing can be seen in the movie Rain Main, where an autistic man’s mind works like a calculator. If I remember correctly, one scene shows a doctor working a calculator and asking Rain Man to do the same calculation in his head. Both the calculator and Rain Man came up with the correct answer!

      Seth Lloyd’s quantum level computer has to rely on the chance that a planet is suitable to sustain life, and has to use the resources available to it to drive evolution. I guess this is at least one area where probabilities come into play. I’ll have to search the net and see what new info Seth Lloyd has on the universe’s quantum level computer and rehash old information I have seen but forgotten so I can talk more knowledgeably about the subject..

      By the way, call me a conspiracy nut if you like, but after seeing documentaries, books, and online articles about the 1947 UFO crash in Roswell NM, I believe it was a true event and there were alien bodies involved. From the description of them, it looks like they evolved quite differently than humans have. Curious though, that the basic structure is the same, a head, neck, body, two arms, two legs, bi pedal. It looks like Seth Lloyds quantum computer can take some strange twists and turns but it seems to like to stick to the basics. One description of the skin of the aliens is reptile-like, having only 4 fingers on each hand and suction cup like structures on the ends of their fingers. A fantastic example of off world evolution.

      As Lionel on the WPIX-TV news in NYC would say, “comment as you see fit.”

  11. I didn’t proof read my comment well enough before I submitted it. It still has some mistakes.

    By the way, you can see some of Lionel’s WPIX-TV videos on YouTube. They are well worth watching.

  12. Hi Raymond
    you write
    “the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which stupidly makes a huge detour in many animals (including humans, and craziest in giraffes with something like 4.5 meters – the short route is a few decimeters). There really is no discernable advantage of having such a detour, and plenty of disadvantages.
    So the question you could ask there is “Now how in the world did blind chance natural selection evolution invent such a useless detour”.
    Surely your question should be “how could an intelligent being invent such a useless detour?”

  13. What does Mike call it when a couple of live hyenas laugh loudly as they savage the corpses of three dead lions ?

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