Misuse of political office: science under attack

By Bryan Walker 07/05/2010


A couple of months ago I posted on Michael Mann’s fight back against the denialist attacks he is constantly subjected to.  Now there’s a new kind of attack.  The Attorney General of Virginia, one Ken Cuccinelli, has made a Civil Investigative Demand to the University of Virginia for a long list of documents relating to the grant-funded research of Michael Mann while he was working at the University from 1999 to 2005. Among the materials requested by May 27 were email correspondence with a long list of other climate scientists, including several who, like Mann, were prominent figures in Climategate. The Attorney General’s demand is made on the grounds that he is investigating possible violations by Mann against the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act when he sought funding for a number of research projects.

Cuccinelli is a climate change denier who describes the science as ’unreliable, unverifiable and doctored’.  He is currently suing the Environment Protection Agency over its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

His justification of his action against Mann to the Washington Post this week was: “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. Our act, frankly, just requires honesty.”

In addition to Mann’s email correspondence with other scientists, Cuccinelli asks for material which suggests he intends a scientific investigation of Mann’s work. It includes “any and all computer algorithms, programs, source code, or the like created or edited by … Mann” from 1999 to the present, and “any data, information or databases, structured or unstructured information, source code and formulas that may be stored in any format or media type…”  Such investigation is obviously well beyond the expertise of a law enforcement office and one wonders who Cuccinelli has in mind to do it.  Fred Singer perhaps? Singer has already welcomed Cuccinelli’s move:

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

’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.’

It’s worth noting that not all deniers welcome what Cuccinelli has done. Steve McIntyre calls it ’a repugnant piece of over-zealousness by the Virginia Attorney General, that I condemn.’

Mann went from Virginia to Penn State University in 2005.  He says: ’It seems clearly to me that it’s an attempt to intimidate and to silence me and to make an example of me for other scientists who might speak out on the science of climate change.’

Rachel Levinson, senior counsel with the American Association of University Professors, said Cuccinelli’s request had “echoes of McCarthyism.”

“It would be incredibly chilling to anyone else practicing in either the same area or in any politically sensitive area.”

The faculty of the University of Virginia has made a strong statement, which includes the following:

’Dr. Mann is an internationally respected and highly cited climate scientist. The funding he received for his research resulted from impartial, stringent peer review by respected independent scientists under the auspices of national scientific research organizations. His research findings, including many of those involved in this investigation, have been reported in leading scientific journals, which are themselves subject to additional exacting review by the scientific community prior to publication…

’We maintain that peer review by the scientific community is the appropriate means by which to identify error in the generation, presentation and interpretation of scientific data. The Attorney General’s use of his power to issue a CID under the provisions of Virginia’s FATA is an inappropriate way to engage with the process of scientific inquiry. 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. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.’

In a subsequent television interview Cuccinelli, who has been in his elected office only three months, drew back from the implication that he was making a scientific enquiry:

Warren: “What gives your office the authority to interpret what is scientific data?”
Cuccinelli: “That’s a worthwhile question. We aren’t targeting scientific conclusions. That’s not the issue. It’s the expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”
Warren: “Do you believe that manmade gases are actually warming the climate?”
Cuccinelli: “I think the jury is still out.” He went on to say, “I don’t think the evidence at this moment as it’s been presented would lead one to man-caused conclusion in that respect.”
Warren: “If you don’t believe manmade gases are warming the earth, how can we trust what your office finds? In other words, politics could be at play here?”
Cuccinelli: “There are some people who will never believe anything we do. But, for people who know me, I’m capable of being extremely objective.”

That objective capability he claims is hardly demonstrated in the demand he has made of the University of Virginia. The University at least initially believes it is obliged to accede to the demand, but the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors have sent a joint letter to the Rector urging him to use every legal avenue to resist providing the information and offering their assistance if wanted.

It is too soon to sense how this will play out. Probably the action of Cuccinelli should come as no surprise given the fevered pitch and irrationality of American denialism.  But attacks by politicians on established science and scientists are always unnerving.  Even Rodney Hide’s foolish statements in the New Zealand parliament carried a touch of menace with them. American academics and scientists will need to be united and firm in their defence of scientific independence. There is plenty of evidence that they will be, some of it referred to above, and more seen in an open letter from prominent members of the National Academy of Sciences published in the Guardian today.  It probably predates the Cuccinelli affair, but the principle clearly applies.

’We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular…

“Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence.

’…there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change.’