More Misrepresentations of Climate Science in Legal Briefs Criticizing Michael Mann

September 29, 2014
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

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.