The climate witch hunt

It started with Senator James Inhofe’s claim that he was looking into for ways to prosecute and criminalize more than a dozen leading climate scientists:

Senator James Inhofe, ranking Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has gone a step beyond promoting his long-notorious global warming denialist propaganda. He is now using the resources of the Senate committee to seek opportunities to criminalize the actions of 17 leading scientists who have been associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports. A report released by Inhofe’s staff on February 23 outlines this classic Joe McCarthyite witch-hunt: page after page of incorrect and misleading statements, a list of federal laws that allegedly may make scientists subject to prosecution by the U.S. Justice Department, and a list of names and affiliations of 17 “key players” in the “CRU Controversy” over stolen e-mails and their connections with IPCC reports.

This, despite these scientists having been cleared of any wrong doing. And now Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is investigating Michael Mann for his use of state funded grants totalling almost half a million dollars over 6 years:

In papers sent to UVA April 23, Cuccinelli’s office commands the university to produce a sweeping swath of documents relating to Mann’s receipt of nearly half a million dollars in state grant-funded climate research conducted while Mann– now director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State– was at UVA between 1999 and 2005. … Among the documents Cuccinelli demands are any and all emailed or written correspondence between or relating to Mann and more than 40 climate scientists, documents supporting any of five applications for the $484,875 in grants, and evidence of any documents that no longer exist along with proof of why, when, and how they were destroyed or disappeared.

And while half a million dollars might seem like a lot, in this context it isn’t. Consider that this money was shared with Mann’s lab, his assistants, collaborators, PhD students, and used to buy equipment over a 6 year period. [UDATE: In the comments Michael Tobis explains that by the time the scientific staff got hold of it, it was probably about 240 K, or about 40 K a year, and that the money was never in Mann’s pocket.]

But despite this, and despite the fact that Mann has already been cleared of wrong doing, Cuccinelli demands every piece of paper Michael Mann touched while in Virginia.

This is a witch hunt plain and simple, with some potentially dangerous implications:

Cuccinelli’s demand letter suggests he intends for his investigation to look at Mann’s scientific methods of Mann’s work — a sphere that could be beyond the technical capacity of a law enforcement office, and underlines concerns about the probe’s potential to infringe on academic freedom.

Of course it is this freedom which protects deniers like Lindzen from being fired for publishing (flawed) papers that contradict the consensus view on global warming.

And there is a chilling effect on science in Virginia. Why would a scientist want to work in a state where political attacks on their work by state officials are the norm. Why not go to a more science friendly state instead?

Even some of the more absurd deniers, like Fred Singer, make it clear that this is nothing but a witch hunt:

There is a good chance that Virginia’s Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli will come up with the “smoking gun” — where other socalled investigations have only produced one whitewash after another.

So according to Singer there is no smoking gun, but if we ask for enough documents then maybe we can find one! Which is the exact definition of a witch hunt… well not really since Mann has not yet been accused of being a witch.

Of course Singer being a denier, and deniers having no sense of constancy, immediately contradicts himself:

We know from the leaked e-mails of Climategate that Prof.Michael Mann was involved in the international conspiracy to “hide the decline” [in global temperatures], using what chief conspirator Dr.Phil Jones refers to as “Mike [Mann]’s trick.” Now at last we may find out just how this was done.

So now we do have a smoking gun, and its in the climategate emails. So then, if we already have a smoking gun, why do we need the documents Cuccinelli is asking for?  And why does Singer still think that ‘hide the decline’ refers to global temperatures? And if this trick is a smoking gun why not just go look at the article published in Nature where it is described?

And Cuccinelli himself seems to agree that it is a witch hint, saying:

“In light of the Climategate e-mails, there does seem to at least be an argument to be made that a course was undertaken by some of the individuals involved, including potentially Michael Mann, where they were steering a course to reach a conclusion.

In other words he is saying “I don’t know that anything inappropriate took place, but I’ll ask for everything that might be relevant so I can conduct a witch hunt.”

Perhaps the most absurd notion is that Cuccinelli claims that he is conducting this investigation because Mann defrauded taxpayer, and he wants to recoup those funds. But:

State Sen. Donald McEachin estimates that the Cuccinelli lawsuit will cost Virginia taxpayers between $250,000 and $500,000 if it goes all the way to the Supreme Court. Spending half a million dollars of taxpayer funds to possibly recover some part of half a million dollars of misspent grant money doesn’t even begin to make sense.

This is so obviously a with hunt that people normally very critical of Mann are stepping up to his defence

Roger Pielke Jr (who is no fan of Mann) thinks this is absurd:

The worst that can be said about Mann is that he may have done sloppy research using poor methods that won’t stand the test of time, and when challenged he tends to act petulant and nasty. Let’s just accept this as true for the purposes of discussion. OK, so what? None of this rises to scientific misconduct or fraud, not even close, and no one has even made such a case, despite the ample noise in the blogosphere…

The attorney general’s “investigation” is a cheap publicity stunt hoping to uncover something of political value.

And even more surprising Steve McIntyre (who is even less of a fan of Mann) has also condemned this investigation:

This is a repugnant piece of over-zealousness by the Virginia Attorney General, that I condemn…

To the extent that Virginia citizens are concerned about public money being misappropriated, Cuccinelli’s own expenditures on this adventure should be under equal scrutiny. There will be no value for dollar in this enterprise…

To the extent that there are issues with Mann or Jones or any of these guys, they are at most academic misconduct and should be dealt with under those regimes.

The bottom line is that there is no case for this investigation. The scientists involved have all been cleared of wrongdoing. The motivations for this investigation are obviously political:

Cuccinelli is not pursuing a scientist because he did wrong, he is pursuing a scientist because he did not like the results he honestly got. He is using the law to take a political cheap shot with no basis in substance. That can only have a chilling effect, if carried out: apparently, the only results you are allowed to get at the University of Virginia are those that fit the preconceptions of conservative ideology. If anyone has acted unethically in this matter, it’s Virginia’s Attorney General.

This investigation sets a dangerous precedent. It needs to be fought on all fronts.

UPDATE: The Washington Post agrees:

WE KNEW Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) had declared war on reality. Now he has declared war on the freedom of academic inquiry as well. We hope that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the University of Virginia have the spine to repudiate Mr. Cuccinelli’s abuse of the legal code. If they do not, the quality of Virginia’s universities will suffer for years to come…

By equating controversial results with legal fraud, Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom. The remedy for unsatisfactory data or analysis is public criticism from peers and more data, not a politically tinged witch hunt or, worse, a civil penalty. Scientists and other academics inevitably will get things wrong, and they will use public funds in the process, because failure is as important to producing good scholarship as success. For the commonwealth to persecute scientists because one official or another dislikes their findings is the fastest way to cripple not only its stellar flagship university, but also its entire public higher education system.

That’s why the university should immediately challenge the attorney general’s “civil investigative demand” for documents, which the law allows, and which a university spokeswoman says it is considering. It’s also why Mr. McDonnell should condemn the attorney general and aid the university, making it clear that Mr. Cuccinelli speaks only for himself.

5 thoughts on “The climate witch hunt

Add yours

  1. I think the best thing to do is make sure (somehow) that everything that gets handed over is public which may go some way towards negating any CRUhack-esque cherrypicking and selective editing of quotes.

  2. Roughly half of all grants in the US system go to fund the institution, in this case U. Va.; clerical staff, groundskeepers, infrastructure, utilities, shared computing facilities, bandwidth, security. By the time the scientific staff got hold of it, it was probably about 240 K. About 40 K a year. This is the amount even remotely eligible for an argument of misappropriation by a scientist.

    What’s more, the money was never in Mann’s pocket. It is, in this case, a state owned, state funded university that is possibly being sued by the state. Go figure. It’s like WalMart suing Walmart or Oracle suing Oracle for breach of contract.

  3. @ Chris

    Normally I would agree, but given the ability of the denialosphere to make mountains out of mole hills, and a media who is more than willing to play along, I am not so sure.

    @ Michael

    Thanks for the clarification about the amount of grant money Mann had access to. I have added that to the main post.

    Your analogy of Walmart suing Walmart is great.

  4. I liked the gist of the post, but I found this post confusing and repetitive [there seems to be block verbatim repetition].

    OTOH, perhaps it’s just me.

Leave a Reply

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑