To Serve Mann: Virginia

Peter Wood

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II has opened an investigation into whether Professor Michael Mann violated the Commonwealth’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act when he served as a faculty member at the University of Virginia. 

Cuccinelli’s investigation has triggered alarms in higher education among people concerned that it may undermine academic freedom.  Michael Mann, of course, is the climate scientist, now at Penn State’s Earth Systems Science Center, whose “hide the decline” email was an the center of the Climategate scandal.  Penn State subsequently pursued its own investigation of Mann’s scientific conduct and reported that he had done nothing wrong.   The Penn State investigation, however, satisfied few critics and Mann’s scientific work continues to draw harsh assessments from observers who doubt both the probity of his findings and the rigor of the University’s internal review.

Is Cuccinelli’s new investigation a warranted exercise of public authority over a matter that the academic and scientific communities have swept under the rug?  Or is it overreach by a government official who is taking advantage of public sentiment to intrude on matters best left to the academy?

Those who say that Cuccinelli’s investigatory flashlight is welcome illumination point to Penn State’s anemic review of Mann’s work as the primary reason for a new look into what the inventor of the famous “hockey stick” really knew about the data underlying his depiction of the earth as in the midst of rapid and historically unprecedented warming.  As critics have pointed out, Mann’s graph of temperature changes was arranged in a manner to leave out a medieval period of global warming that may have been greater than recent temperature increases. John Hinderaker, writing on the Powerline blog, refers to the hockey stick graph as “the source of much of the misguided hysteria that surrounds the global warming movement,” and dismisses the academic freedom argument as a claim for the freedom “to make stuff up, hide or falsify data, and thereby impose trillions of dollars of costs on consumers, all while being supported by taxpayers.”

On the other side, Cuccinelli’s “civil investigative demand” No. 2-MM, (a CID, which functions like a subpoena) has been called a “witch hunt” by Mann himself, and has been joined in that view by Chip Knappenberger, a former UVA climate scientist who declared, “I don’t like it that the politicians are coming after Mike Mann.”    

Cuccinnelli’s action has also been criticized by NAS member KC Johnson, who, writing on Minding the Campus, sees the investigation as “a throwback to a bygone era” in which government officials tried to “punish professors with controversial views.”  Part of what alarms Johnson is that “Cuccinnelli's behavior will provide ammunition to academic defenders of the status quo---from the AAUP's Cary Nelson on down---in their campaign to portray the sole threat to academic freedom as coming from "right-wing" outsiders.”  But Johnson also cites the Penn State exoneration and declares, “there's no credible evidence of wrongdoing by Mann.”   

My sense is that KC Johnson is being a little overly generous toward Mann and certainly a bit credulous about the Penn State investigation, which has gone down poorly with some informed observers. For one thing, Penn State’s internal review was carried out by Penn State employees who had a stake in protecting the institution and its stream of climate research grants. 

But is Johnson right on the principle?  Is it out of line for a state attorney general to launch a search, as the CID puts it, for “data and other materials that Dr. Mann presented in seeking awards/grants funded, in whole or in part, by the Commonwealth of Virginia”?  Any researcher confronted with a demand such as this would surely find it irksome, and such irksomeness could indeed rise to a concern about academic freedom if the demand were made lightly or on the basis of political animus towards the researcher’s views. 

Yet surely Mann’s publicly funded research should be subject to some sort of external review.  Mann gladly accepted government funding and evidence has continued to mount that not only was some of his scientific work suspect but that the normal checks and balances of peer review were compromised.  Moreover, Mann himself appears to have had a hand in fostering those compromises, as in his notorious “trick” to disguise data that didn’t match an interpretation he hoped to promote.[1]

The situation at hand seems abundantly awkward.  Attorney General Cuccinelli appears to be afflicted with a syndrome epidemic among states attorneys general:  the desire to make colorful, headline-grabbing declarations.  He wouldn’t be the National Association of Scholars’ ideal pick for someone to take a serious look into the backfiles of Professor Mann’s career. Was there anything dubious in Mann’s “Paleoclimatic Reconstructions of the Arctic Oscillation” or “Resolving the Scale-wise Sensitivities on the Dynamical Coupling Between Climate and the Biosphere” or “Decadal Variability in the Tropical Indo-Pacific:--three of the five University of Virginia projects that fall under Cuccinelli’s review?  Chances are that Cuccinelli and his staff will have a hard time deciphering the scientific protocols in this work and discerning whether Mann was on the up-and-up or slanting the analysis.  Yet as in the East Anglia emails, some of the side chatter could reveal habits of mind and character that do cast light on the larger question of the scientific integrity of Mann’s work. 

John Hinderaker’s point is well taken. No one has the right to take public funds just to make stuff up and pass it along as science. And “academic freedom” could well suffer a greater crisis of legitimacy from that kind of abuse than from the interference of meddling politicians. 

In that sense, I am cautiously in favor of Cuccinelli’s review of Mann’s work. The potential for this review to turn into a “witch hunt” is real and we therefore need to be vigilant. Virginia should respect the underlying nature of scientific inquiry, which must have room for honest mistakes, failed hypotheses, and even some unseemly eagerness for the chips to fall one way rather than another.  But academe has brought this crisis on itself. 

For three years, the NAS has been warning that the “sustainability” doctrine on campus has taken on an ideological edge that threatens open-minded inquiry and academic standards.  The late-November revelations of skullduggery at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia came as an unwelcome confirmation of that warning.  Higher education so far seems not to have registered the full significance of the ensuing scandals in which public confidence in the integrity of climate science in general has been shaken. 

At NAS, we are neither supporters nor skeptics of climate science per se. We support good science on important topics. Good science, however, sometimes requires more than closely-cabined peer review.  It also requires public accountability.  And this is especially true in a campus atmosphere dominated by unscientific certainty on the matters in question.  The reigning unscientific certainty in higher education is visible in lots of ways, including the 685 college and university presidents in the United States that have signed on to a preemptive declaration—the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment—that treats global warming caused by human emissions as a settled fact which requires by way of response “integrating sustainability into the curriculum.”  

The sustainability movement may accomplish some good things, but it is hardly conducive to good science.  The Cuccinelli investigation may have to be reckoned among the costs to higher education of our hasty and uncritical embrace of this movement.

[1] The term “trick” appeared in an email from CRU director Phil Jones to Ray Bradley, Mike Mann, Malcolm Hughes, Keith Briffa, and Tim Osborn, regarding a diagram for a World Meteorological Organization Statement. Jones wrote, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temperatures to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” 

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