More Misrepresentations of Climate Science in Legal Briefs Criticizing Michael Mann

, , former science communication officer | September 29, 2014, 11:09 am EDT
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The latest round of legal briefs have been filed in climate scientist Michael Mann’s lawsuit against the National Review (NRO) and Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI). Although these documents rehash a lot of arguments about the science I’ve examined previously, some claims jumped out at me.

How do we define fraud?

NRO makes a distinction between calling Dr. Mann’s work “fraudulent” and alleging that he had, for instance, embezzled funds or fabricated raw data.

Mark Styen -- Flickr -- Manning Centre

In 2012, Mark Steyn called Dr. Mann’s research “fraudulent” and quoted a CEI writer who compared Dr. Mann to disgraced Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Source: ManningCentre on Flickr, via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, there are gradations of accusations one can make against a researcher. Stating that a scientist is wrong in their analysis is a far cry from saying their work is shoddy, but both are normal parts of public discourse about science. It’s another thing entirely to accuse a scientist of manipulating data or knowingly using faulty methods to reach a pre-determined conclusion. Such accusations go directly to a scientist’s integrity. For scientists, “fraud” means something very specific, but that view is largely missing in the briefs, and the broader discussion about Dr. Mann’s lawsuit.

The worst thing one can do to a scientist professionally is to accuse him or her of fraud.  More commonly, scientists refer to fraud as “scientific misconduct” or “research misconduct.” The National Science Foundation has a definition of research misconduct that is typical. It includes fabricating data and results, falsifying research, and plagiarism.

While the original research Dr. Mann’s and his colleagues conducted 15 years ago was certainly subject to criticisms and scrutiny, it held up to that scrutiny, and nobody ever made the case that it was fraudulent.

I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t say whether scientific definitions like these have any bearing on the case. But it is worth noting that scientists see the word “fraudulent” as a very heavy accusation. That might escape folks who are used to seeing the term thrown around far more loosely in other contexts.

How many investigations does it take to clear a scientist’s name?

CEI’s legal brief rehashes investigations of scientists after a hacker (or hackers) stole emails from them in 2009. (We’ve summarized these many investigations here.)

Dr. Mann’s lawyers cite all the investigations in their brief. That makes sense since all the investigations are related and none found that Dr. Mann—or his colleagues—were guilty of scientific misconduct or fraud.

But CEI attempts to argue that these investigations were somehow insufficient. Regarding the two investigations that did focus specifically on Dr. Mann, CEI tries to downplay how serious they were. They write that Penn State’s committee looked at whether or not Dr. Mann “falsified data” and claimed that the “inquiry committee simply reviewed some of the [stolen] emails, spoke with Mann, and then dismissed it.” They also write the National Science Foundation “did not conduct an investigation of Mann’s data practices or research because it determined that ‘no direct evidence has been presented that indicates the Subject fabricated the raw data he used for his research or falsified his results.’”

CEI funding -- “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” by Drexel University social scientist Robert Brulle

As mainstream companies stepped away from groups that unfairly criticize climate science, privately owned companies, foundations and so-called “dark money” groups increased their support. I’m not saying CEI is bought-and-paid-for, but it’s clear that fossil fuel interests continue to fund groups that dispute climate science. Source: Page 89, supplementary material. Climatic Change V122 N4 “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” by Drexel University social scientist Robert Brulle.

In reality, these investigations were far more thorough than CEI suggests. But even CEI’s highly selective interpretation demonstrates just how baseless the charges against Dr. Mann were in the first place. The facts are clear: Dr. Mann was investigated by his own university and the NSF, both of whom determined that he didn’t commit fraud. Insisting that these investigators should have uncovered evidence that doesn’t exist seems more than a bit far-fetched.

It’s also worth noting that CEI tried to leverage the stolen emails to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from cutting heat-trapping emissions. Indeed, the EPA looked over the emails and wrote that they “do not show either that the science is flawed or that the scientific process has been compromised.” The agency says they “found no indication of improper data manipulation or misrepresentation of results.”

Oh, to have a constructive climate debate

These latest filings only reinforce my view that attacks against Dr. Mann are ideological and political in nature, not based on an actual assessment of his work. Thankfully, there are free-market groups that accept the scientific realities of climate change and engage in good-faith debates about if and how to respond. I wish the National Review and Competitive Enterprise Institute would join them.

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  • IskurBlast

    “The McIntyre and McKitrick paper is pure scientific fraud. I think
    you’ll find this reinforced by just about any legitimate scientist in
    our field you discuss this with. To recap, I hope you don’t mention MM
    [McIntyre and McKitrick] at all. It really doesn’t deserve any
    additional publicity.” Micheal Mann to the NYT’s Andy Revkin February 2005.

    • aaronhuertas

      I have no idea how relevant the legal arguments are around that, but at a basic level, a stolen email ≠ a public blog post. Also, if McIntyre and McKitrick had been investigated by a body like the NSF and cleared, I don’t think scientists would dismiss such an investigation.

  • mikehaseler

    If you receive public money for “science” and you do not work to the standards of science, then that it fraud.

    And when you offer yourself as an expert on a subject and give specific policy such as “it will certainly warm by between 0.14 and 0.58C per decade” and governments, companies and individuals rely on that advice.

    If then that advice is proven to be false (as it has been by the pause), then those governments, companies and individuals are entitled to legal redress to attempt to recover the money they wasted on the bad advice by pursuing all individuals and organisations who were party to that advice.

    How many people in the IPCC realise that they are personally liable and may well be pursued by commercial companies if their advice was anything other than correct.

    • odin2

      I doubt that it will ever happen, but I agree that Governments need to claw back a lot of the money that has been spent on fraudulent and irresponsible AGW research. Institutions that have participated in the worst cases should be banned from receiving government research funds for some time based on the amount of money received.

      • aaronhuertas

        Andrew Wakefield’s work on vaccines and autism is much closer to what scientists view as true research misconduct. The accusations against climate scientists are deeply misleading and almost universally political. No one has proven that their research, including Dr. Mann’s, is “fraudulent.” As I note above, even the NSF investigated him at the behest of climate contrarians and they cleared him of the accusations against him.

      • odin2

        We may be unable to prove fraud in the legal sense, but we can investigate those who refused to reveal their algorithms, emails and data on the grounds that they were proprietary. We can also investigate those who responded to critics with ad hominem attacks and efforts to block publications of those who disagreed with them in scientific journals. if we cannot put them in jail for fraud, we may be able to bar them from federal grants. The time periods could be based on the seriousness of the misconduct and the amount of public funds involved. Five years for a minor offense. Twenty-five to life for a serious offense. If universities participated or looked the other way, they could be barred or fined too. Stanford, Princeton, and Penn State come to mind. I am certain there are a number of others.

        I have read a number of articles on the supposed “investigations” surrounding “Climategate”. They were superficial at best and designed to whitewash the whole matter – not to find out the truth. We have to recognize that the abuses of the scientific method and politicization of climate science has permeated all of climate science and government agencies like a malignancy.

        It would also be interesting to expose the collusion between climate scientists and the media. The media probably would claim these emails as privileged, but the scientists cannot.

      • aaronhuertas

        Dr. Mann’s data and methods have been available on his website for years, something Ken Cuccinelli and staff were also unaware of when they tried to investigate him under the VA Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, an investigation that was blocked by the courts for good reason. Further, it’s hard to imagine that all the investigations were whitewashes; that just seems like a convenient excuse to ignore their conclusions. I’m all for greater transparency in science, but politicized accusations against scientists — often made without any compelling evidence behind them — degrade our public debates about if and how to respond to climate change. Folks who support free market policies and want smaller government have a lot of worthwhile contributions to make to that debate, but inaccurately criticizing science isn’t one of them.

      • odin2


      • aaronhuertas