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.