May 6, 2010- When I blog, it is generally about neat weather facts, weather history, atmospheric optics, you know, fairly tame stuff. I don't like to talk about climate change because it is a deeply polarizing issue, and most people have already made up their minds about the topic.
However, I became aware of something last week that bothered me in a way that is difficult to explain. This time, it originates in my home state, and it is a story that troubles me very deeply as an earth scientist.
On April 23, the Attorney General of the Commonwealth, Kenneth Cuccinelli, filed a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) with the University of Virginia (Link 1). The individual targeted in this investigation is Dr. Michael Mann.
You may have heard of Dr. Mann, as many of his unflattering emails were stolen from the University of East Anglia, in Great Britain. Depending on who you ask, these emails are either a group of scientists arguing and being rude, or sufficient evidence to prove climate change science is a scam.
Dr. Mann is now Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, but he was an Assistant Professor in the UVa Department of Environmental Sciences from 1999-2005. Judging from a Charlottesville on-line news report (Link 2), Cuccinelli believes there is probable cause to suggest Mann fraudulently manipulated data regarding his work in the field of paleoclimate reconstruction while at UVa.
The CID requires UVa to provide all emails and correspondences that either mention Dr. Mann or were authored by him within 30 days.
Mann has already been investigated at great length.
In 2006, Joe Barton, a U.S. Representative from Texas, commissioned an investigation into the Hockey Stick temperature studies, largely credited to Mann. The testimony and debates were lengthy (and sometimes acrimonious). But there was no evidence of fraud. The transcript of the congressional hearing is at Link 3.
Also in 2006, a report from the National Research Council of the National Academies suggested that Dr. Mann's research, while not perfect, was still based in sound principles:
"The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on ice caps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years." (Link 4)
Once the stolen emails were released to the public, Penn State conducted an internal investigation of Dr. Mann. Of the four allegations brought against him, he has already been cleared of three. A decision on the fourth is expected this summer. The full ten-page report of the Penn State investigation can be found at Link 5.
No dataset is perfect. Raw data need to be checked for quality. Sometimes that data is smoothed or corrected. This happens every day when data is input into our weather forecast simulations.
Science debate is best left to scientists. The debate is not always pretty. Scientists will criticize each other's methods on very deep levels. But outright fraud is an extraordinary claim. Dr. Mann has already survived a university investigation and a congressional inquiry. At what point does this become a witch hunt?
Stephen McIntyre runs the blog Climate Audit and is a vocal critic of Dr. Mann's mathematical analyses. McIntyre and Ross McKitrick were among the first to challenge Dr. Mann's analyses. But McIntyre understands that an important line has been crossed. McIntyre leads his May 2 blog entry (Link 6):
"This is a repugnant piece of over-zealousness by the Virginia Attorney General, that I condemn."
Another one of Dr. Mann's vocal scientific critics is Thomas Fuller, who co-authored Climategate: The CRUtape Letters. He wrote an open letter to Cuccinelli which includes the following (Link 7):
"Mr. Mann has been extensively investigated regarding his work product, and although I consider his actions to be often unprofessional and politically oriented, neither I nor any of the people interviewed for our book have any doubt whatsoever that Mann performed the scientific work he has been commissioned to do, or that he engaged in any fraudulent actions.
No matter what has prompted your investigation, there is no doubt that it will be interpreted as a witch hunt. If you are in fact investigating a credentialed scientist for results that do not suit your political opinion, that interpretation is correct. Unless you can reveal to the public prima facie evidence that shows cause for this investigation, I beg you to reconsider. There are ample avenues of professional and academic recourse for people like me who think he has done something wrong. But being wrong is not a crime, and intimidating scientists is not a path that this country, including I presume Virginians, should ever pursue. You may consult with colleagues in Salem to determine how long it takes to live this type of thing down."
Whether you agree with Dr. Mann's findings or how he conducts his research is not the issue. Science does a very good job of policing itself. If the data had been fraudulently manipulated, it would have been caught well before now. Publishing in a peer-reviewed journal is no easy task. If the work does not meet the standards of the journal, the paper is not accepted. I know. Before I published in Monthly Weather Review many years ago, I had to make many modifications to my manuscript (Link 8).
Most recently, on Wednesday, May 5, the University of Virginia Faculty Senate issued a statement regarding the Attorney General's CID (Link 9). Part of the statement reads:
"His action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer-review standards send a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth's climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline."
I can come to no other conclusion. The Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia has started a witch hunt. Because he does not agree with a scientist's methodology or results, he is using the power of his office to harass and smear that scientist.
At best, it is troublesome. At worst, it is an egregious abuse of power.