Washington Post Editorial Page Condemns Cuccinelli

By Chris Mooney | May 7, 2010 7:17 am

Here it is. It’s damning, and the most powerful statement yet:

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.

Importantly, the Post makes the point that there is no serious evidence to justify the inquiry. You would have to have good reasons for suspecting Mann of fraud; merely disagreeing with his results certainly doesn’t suffice.

But there is no good reason for suspecting Mann of fraud–misreading emails and taking them out of context does not constitute any such thing. Every inquiry that has looked closely and seriously into ClimateGate has found that there’s no there there. Or as the Post recaps:

For Mr. Cuccinelli’s “investigation” to have any merit, the attorney general must suppose that Mr. Mann “knowingly” presented “a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” Mr. Cuccinelli’s justification for this suspicion seems to be a series of e-mails that surfaced last year in which Mr. Mann wrote of a “trick” he used in one of his analyses, a term that referred to a method of presenting data to non-experts, not an effort to falsify results.

IN FACT, the scientific community, including a National Academy of Sciences panel, has pored over Mr. Mann’s work for more than a decade, and though supporters and skeptics still disagree on much, it’s clear that his conclusions are not obviously, premeditatedly fraudulent, particularly since they come with admissions about the uncertainties inherent to his work. Inquiries in Britain and one at Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Mann’s current academic home, also absolved him of wrongdoing with regard to the e-mail controversy, the latter noting in particular that there is no evidence that he “suppressed or falsified data.”

Read the whole Post editorial here. Hat tip: Adam Siegel.

Comments (20)

  1. Prof Mike

    Chris, the public hasn’t put much faith in investigations done by the friends & family of the climate scientists. I don’t think the public is in the mood to give scientists any special treatment under the law, their just going to have to subject themselves to an inquiry like anyone else.

    Imagine if Goldman Sachs was investigated by a panel of Goldman Sachs investors, instead of by the government. Imagine if BP’s Oil spill was investigated by the BP Board of Directors. Imagine a soldier in Iraq being tried by his friends in the squad, and not allowing victims to testify.

    None of those would be acceptable. So why is it not only acceptable, but mandatory that Climate Science only be investigated by those with a vested interest? We expect our government to investigate those who cannot be trusted to do their own investigations, so we must allow the government to do an investigation even when we believe that the parties are trustworthy (the scientists).

    Climate Science can’t afford any more forbidden texts. Every time we object to a review, it influences the public into believing we have something to hide. By the time the truth comes out, nobody cares.

    McCarthyism was investigating people’s political affiliation. Cuccelli is investigating one person’s actions with Taxpayer money, as per VA law. Just because a theoretical conservative is investigating a theoretical liberal doesn’t make it McCarthyism.

    Remember, its the NAS who has sent out the demand of its members to sign this loyalty oath. Its the NAS who is now demanding its members publicly profess their loyalty to the movement.

  2. cgray

    Beautifully written, Prof Mike, but I’m afraid you’re wasting your time. Your comment involves logic and common sense, concepts which are completely foreign to liberals. Mr. Mooney has probably already dismissed you as a hillbilly Nazi teabagger racist.

  3. Lance

    cgray,
    Problem 1 – if the imagined concept that Mr. Mooney is guilty of broad generalizations like “hillbilly Nazi teabagger racist” you get to share a cell with him for your “logic and common sense, concepts which are completely foreign to liberals” comment.

    Problem 2 – the “Inquiries in Britain” mentioned above was conducted by the British governement. ProfMike’s request for a government investigation has been done.

  4. Matt Tarditti

    First, @cgray, yes Prof Mike’s comment involves an argument based on logic. Your post, however, is stupid. Nothing more needs to be said.

    @Prof Mike: This article, and the WaPo article, is criticising Mr. Cuccinelli’s choice to investigate Mr. Mann for FRAUD. The operable word here is FRAUD. I’m going to say it one more time for cgray to catch up: FRAUD. When you say that someone is committing fraud, you imply a willful act of subversion for personal or monetary gain. At worst, Mr. Mann made a lot of mistakes*. But a mistake is not a reason to be investigated for fraud. Especially because Mr. Mann even speaks to the uncertainty of his research in his own reports.
    We can (and probably will) debate and yell endlessly about the necessity to investigate the science behind climate change. Fine…whatever. But when you start saying that climate scientists are trying to bilk the public out of money by lying about their results, even when they ADMIT there is uncertainty in their results, then you misunderstand the law and you misunderstand the purpose of scientific inquiry altogether.

    And just so you don’t think that I only partially read your post: the parallel between investigating BP and investigating climate scientists is faulty. If you, YOU personally, were given records of BP’s inspection reports, would you be able to spot a lapse if it existed? Probably. If you were given the raw data of several years worth of temperature measurements at some remote station, would you be able to spot a “lapse” or an error? I don’t know your background, but I’m going to guess no.
    I’m not trying to insult you – I wouldn’t be able to spot it either. The point involves expertise. Non-scientists aren’t trained to look over science research. You need someone who KNOWS what to look for. A legitimate parallel would be: if a lawyer were accused of misrepresenting a client, you are arguing that a non-lawyer investigate the claim because any other lawyer assigned to the investigation would have a vested interest.

  5. fraud

    prof mike’s just upset to admit defeat.
    peer review is not a ‘friendly’ process.
    ‘critical’ assessment can only be performed by others trained in the field.
    no-one else.
    certainly not amateur wannabes…

  6. ChrisD

    @ProfMike #1:

    Remember, its the NAS who has sent out the demand of its members to sign this loyalty oath. Its the NAS who is now demanding its members publicly profess their loyalty to the movement.

    You’re quite mistaken. All of the signers are NAS members, but the NAS itself had nothing to do with it:

    The signatories are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences but are not speaking on its behalf or on behalf of their institutions

    A retraction is in order.

  7. moptop

    “critical’ assessment can only be performed by others trained in the field.
    no-one else.”

    True enough. They use different mathematics than everyone else. Different statistics, etc, and are subject to different standards, for instance, they don’t have to publish the results of statistical tests like all the other disciplines, just to give an example of why outsiders can’t understand climate science.

  8. moptop

    Not to mention that VA has a history of climate witch hunts:

    http://reason.com/blog/2010/05/07/politics-of-climate-change-sci

  9. ChrisD

    @moptop 8

    No political attacks on scientists by official bodies should be tolerated, period.

    And yet…

    The reason.com post quotes Chip Knappenberger:

    “I didn’t like it when the politicians came after Pat Michaels.”

    But what politicians “went after” Michaels? The post doesn’t actually mention any–it says “environmentalists”. There’s a world of difference between an official investigation by the state (Cuccinelli) and demands for action by private citizens (the “environmentalists”).

    And I think it’s also worth noting that the “environmentalists” never got the action they wanted. Yes, Gov. Kaine “disavowed” Michaels, but that’s really not the same thing as Cuccinelli’s investigation, is it? The Gov’s saying “This feller does not reflect my thinking” hardly rises to the level of an investigation by the state’s Attorney General.

    I’d need more information on the Michaels affair before I would offer a firm opinion on whether or not it was inappropriate. But it strikes me as very different from what’s going on now. I don’t think the comparison is valid.

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  11. moptop

    Right, I got it now. When you go after a skeptic, it’s not a witch hunt because, well, you are the good guys. I keep forgetting. You were after a denier. Mann is a forthright scientist who, I am sure, has his own good reasons for not publishing the statistical verification figures for his work. After all, Mann’s work is always of pristine quality, checking his figures would be a complete waste of time. Indeed, it would be the equivalent of hunting witches and an insult to his exemplary probity.

  12. Prof Mike

    I used the phrase “vested interest” for a reason. The British Labour government is more vested in AGW than any other. Their investigation lasted a week, and did not call a single witness other than the accused. Neither did the other British investigation of the Phil Jones and the UEA. The Penn State investigation of Micheal Mann was again carried out by Penn State itself.

    Matt, there is no reason to believe that Cuccelli will personally be reviewing either the Mann’s correspondence or scientific product. Its common in situations like this for a prosecutors office to use outside consultants for the technical analysis, like another climate scientist.

    I have a very good guess where Cuccelli is hoping to find his evidence of Fraud. At best he’s anticipating some obvious email confession, in a climategate style omission. He could also be interested in Mann’s formulas, which have still not been released. As for how many mistakes add up to fraud, I suppose its a matter of how obvious the mistakes were vs how much Mann benefited from them.

  13. ChrisD

    @moptop 10

    Right, I got it now.

    Apparently not.

    What I said was that there’s a difference between a group of private citizens demanding action and a criminal investigation by the government.

    I also agreed that we shouldn’t have politicians going after scientists, but noted that the reason.com post didn’t actually name any politicians who went after Michaels in any sort of official capacity.

    So, your response is a complete mischaracterization of what I actually said. Did you even read it? It doesn’t seem like you did.

  14. moptop

    ChrisD
    Right Chris, you get to define witch hunt. It’s your world, and we all live in it. Words mean precisely what you say they mean, nothing more, nothing less. Consider the possibility that it may be you who misunderstands what I write in your fervent desire to defend the faith.

    Naah!

  15. moptop

    I notice that you like to jump in on every perceived minor misstatement, yet you have nothing to say to defend climate science’s off-beat methods, lack of statistical verifications, indeed, refusal to provide data that any scientist is expected to provide, namely the results of his statistical tests on the “hockey stick”

    I just can’t see why you think it is OK for Mann to withhold that information while his work is being used to push an extremely expensive agenda that will eventually make driving trips or pleasure boating into activities reserved for the idle rich, among tons of other effects.

  16. ChrisD

    14: I didn’t even use the phrase “witch hunt”. Once again, what I said was that there is a difference between private citizens asking that something be done and a criminal investigation by the state government. Do you really disagree with this?

    15: It wasn’t a “minor mistatement”, it was a serious mischaracterization of what apparently happened. He said he didn’t like politicians going after the Knappenberger, with which I would agree–but it seems that no politicians did. If you don’t think that’s significant, I do.

  17. Sean McCorkle

    Excellent editorial in the Post. This observation is especially important, and needs to be emphasized

    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.

  18. Aplysina

    It is obvious to me than none of you live in Virginia or you would know that Mr. Cuccinelli’s actions are driven entirely by partisan politics, and not a desire to right a wrong. Our AG has already shown that playing to his partisan base is more important than anything else. Why else would he be suing the EPA over this issue that has already been decided by the Supreme Court. He cares nothing for right or wrong, just for political gain. We can and should debate the validity of Mann’s research, as well as any ethical violations, but we should do it in an appropriate scientific context, not as a partisan attack on anything resembling academic pursuits.

  19. ChrisD

    Well, this is maybe the 5th blog entry on this, and I think we’ve already covered Mr. Cuccinelli’s, er, issues. E.g.,

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/2010/05/02/attack-on-climate-scientists/#comment-57249

    (In fairness, I had a head start. I live in Maryland, which isn’t Virginia–thank God–but is close enough that I already knew about the Coochster.)

  20. Brian Too

    Think about what is to be gained, versus what is to be lost.

    Imagine Mr. Mann committed a fraud. He might do so in order to boost his reputation, get some grant monies, perhaps he is lazy. There is a terrible risk of discovery and ruin though. A scientist with a bad reputation is in a whole lot of trouble even if they have tenure. They will be shunned.

    Imagine Mr. Cuchinelli committed a fraud (the whole investigation thing is bogus and he knows it). Getting tough on the environmentalists plays well to the average conservative these days. What is the downside for a politician being wrong and found out? Yes, he will pay a reputation price, but mainly for people who weren’t his supporters in the first place. The fraudulent politician can alway claim that he had a duty to the citizens he represents, even if he never believed personally. If even that thin defense falls through? Well, the example of a recent president comes to mind–not much of a price was paid there.

    This does not prove anything to be sure. I just find it interesting that the relevant risk/reward profiles don’t seem to match up at all.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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