01 May 2010

Fishing Expedition

The attorney general for the State of Virginia has sent a letter to the University of Virginia demanding a great many documents related to work done under several grants received by Michael Mann for research conducted while he was a professor at the University of Virgina (he is now at Penn State University). The letter basically asks for all of Mann's work-related files, emails, computer code and DNA starting from 1999 (that last bit was something I added). (Sources: here and here)

The specific part of the statute that the attorney general has invoked as being potentially violated by Mann is the following:
1. Knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, to an officer or employee of the Commonwealth a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval;

2. Knowingly makes, uses, or causes to be made or used, a false record or statement to get a false or fraudulent claim paid or approved by the Commonwealth;

3. Conspires to defraud the Commonwealth by getting a false or fraudulent claim allowed or paid;

I'm no lawyer, but the chances of Mann being found guilty of violating this statute are precisely zero. Mann's work has been pored over for years. The worst that can be said about Mann is that he may have done sloppy research using poor methods that won't stand the test of time, and when challenged he tends to act petulant and nasty. Let's just accept this as true for the purposes of discussion. OK, so what? None of this rises to scientific misconduct or fraud, not even close, and no one has even made such a case, despite the ample noise in the blogosphere.

The attorney general for the state of Virginia can get away with this harassment of an individual scientist because climate change is fully politicized as a wedge issue and Mann is unpopular, even among many climate scientists. The frothing hoards on the internet who rise to Mann's defense probably don't help his image among anyone undecided about the issues who decides to take a look at the online debates. But make no mistake, this is a fishing expedition pure and simple. The point of the "investigation" is not to recover Virginia funds that were misappropriated, as the law might suggest, but to go back the the Climategate well one more time to see if more embarrassing information or emails might be dredged up. And on this point, there are probably more embarrassing things in Mann's emails and files. But given the attention he has received and the information already found in the East Anglia emails, it'd be a shock to find anything indicating research misconduct.

The attorney general's "investigation" is a cheap publicity stunt hoping to uncover something of political value. It should serve as a warning to everyone in the academic community who works for state universities or receives public funding for their research (one of which most everyone in the academic community falls under) -- your entire life's work is subject to public scrutiny at any time. This is just a fact, no point in complaining about it. Academics should behave accordingly, because each of us has a chance to be in Mann's position. Mann's circumstances are pretty extreme, but even so.

What should Mann do? He should respond to the request for information as quickly as possible. Resisting or stonewalling is simply not an option and will fuel suspicion that something is being hidden. If, as I have surmised, there is nothing to be found in his files other than the occasional embarassing private correspondence and evidence of sloppy work, he should explore every opportunity to sue the state of Virginia to the extent possible by law. If he takes these actions, he'll have my full support.

Note: I am among those named in the attorney general's letter as a target of emails with Michael Mann.

31 comments:

  1. I dunno, I'd think the explicit hiding of data that contradicts one's premises found in "Mike's Nature Trick" comes pretty darn close to scientific misconduct, if it's not over the line.

    To quote one of the greatest scientists in recent years, Richard Feynman, "Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."

    But if you want to set as the baseline that there's no fraud to be found, then yeah, I guess you can use that to say this is nothing but harassment. I'm not ready to say that yet.

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  2. "The attorney general's "investigation" is a cheap publicity stunt hoping to uncover something of political value."

    Speaking from across the Potomac in Maryland, I can assert that nearly everything the new Virginia AG has done since taking office falls under this description. The University of Virginia may already be irritated enough at a previous stunt directed at state schools to take its sweet time in complying with the request. They might well join a lawsuit with Mann once he's found to have not violated the statute.

    That said, Mann should still do nothing to add fuel to the fire Cuccinelli is seeking.

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  3. I'm not a fan of Michael Mann. I think he is ideologically driven to obtain some result. I believe that history will judge him has a very poor example of a good scientist. But, having said that, I also find this inquiry kind of ridiculous. We must note that this is not the first ridiculous action made by Cuccinnelli in Virginia.

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  4. I am rather confused by this report.
    Firstly, you rightly point out that all work done for the government is subject to scrutiny at any time, but then you suggest that you would back Mann if he chose to sue the State of Virginia if nothing incriminating is found.
    Sue them for what?
    There have been many and widespread accusations of misconduct by Mann. The Penn State review was widely seen as a whitewash.
    How else should this tacky story proceed.
    Surely, a proper investigation, by a qualified state official is the correct process to invoke.
    To suggest that Mann might be able to benefit financially from what, at the very best, has been work of a very low standard, would seem to be a rather extreme idea.
    Prof Mann and his fellow researchers, by error, omission or suggestion, may have cost the world staggering sums and put in place policies which have, and will continue to affected the most fundamental aspects of all our lives.
    Is it too much to ask that the work of this man should be completely and critically reviewed?

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  5. Of course it's a stunt but it's also the only remaining recourse for those who believe public money has been awarded in huge amounts based on that sloppy work. The scientific community has had many opportunities to police itself and they clearly just don't. I suspect it was Mann himself who spurred this on, by threatening legal action to others. His skeptic targets said "well two can play at that game." Anyone can be wrong but you expect them to be honest about it. Yet Mann still doesn't admit even the upside-down proxies and so that recon will be carried forward into the next IPCC report uninvestigated because it's clearly obvious that the science establishment are only interested in the politically correct, not the factually correct.

    As for harrassment of scientists by the state of Virginia I think Pat Michaels has something to say about that. Wasn't his title of state climatologist taken away (like Legates and Taylor) for trying to counter the relentless and baseless climate alarmism. So far, he's been factually correct too, especially with his criticisms of the IPCC and CRU methods: It doesn't ever seem to make a difference.

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  6. He has brought this scrutiny on himself

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  7. The frothing hoards on the internet who rise to Mann's defense probably don't help his image among anyone undecided about the issues who decides to take a look at the online debates.

    I imagine that the frothing hordes on the internet who continually attack him don't help the undecided either.

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  8. SteveF, some of us bubble mouths are compulsive savers, too.

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  9. Fishing? I think house cleaning is more like it.
    Are tax payers not justified to wonder why a guy who has gotten it way wrong, has hidden data, created an algorithm that turns noise into hockey sticks, used a bunch of public money?
    If they don't like the heat, stay out of the kitchen.
    And calling efforts by the political leadership to put an end to the climate of fear Mann and pals have created unfounded is not really appropriate.
    Look, the elephant in the room is that there is no great calamity, fever, tipping point, etc. happening. Like most scientific/social panics the actual risks are vastly overstated. Part of this social panic has permitted some really bad science and a lot of money to get spent badly.
    Mann is one of the great profiteers of this panic and the sooner he and his friends are shut down the better.

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  10. The evidence of fraud or criminal conduct on Prof. Mann's part is precisely equal to the evidence of AG Cuccinelli's scientific acumen.

    If Cuccinelli was a liberal Democrat, he'd be aiming this stunt at one of the conservative think tanks headquartered in suburban DC.

    This reminds me of the Joe the Plumber incident from the 2008 Presidential campaign. Somebody didn't like his politics, so they set to digging up dirt.

    One doesn't have to be a fan of Prof. Mann's science (I'm not) to see the AG's abuse of power as shameful and grotesque.

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  11. The State of Virginia well within its right request these as they paid for them. It is standard procedure for Atty's to ask for a laundry list in discovery. Mann has not been charged with anything. If nothing is found of a fraudulent nature that will end it. AG's don't bring charges unless they believe they will win. Also AG will probably bring experts to examine the material. This might be the best thing for Mann if he has nothing to hide.

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  12. Support of AG Cuccinelli's campaign against Prof. Mann strikes me as exactly the sort of tribalism that Judy Curry has been discussing at the blog Collide-a-Scope.

    If an Ontario Human Rights Commission decided to subpoena Steve McIntyre's records to search for possible violations, would that be okay?

    "Oh, this has nothing to do with McIntyre taking controversial, confrontational stances that we happen to loathe. We try and keep tabs on possible hypothetical human rights violations committed by all retired mining engineers."

    Right.

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  13. Wow! Just wow! I wonder how much of the requested materials was retained when Mann left UVa?

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  14. I'm a little puzzled at the hyperbolic statement that "the chances of Mann being found guilty of violating this statute are precisely zero." I'd agree that with what I know, the odds are against successful prosecution, but certainly quite a bit higher than zero.

    What might a successful prosecution look like? I think it depends on what, exactly, the grants and the grant process look like, legally. What are the requirements for deliverables? What did the applications say to win the grants?

    As a semi-hypothetical, consider recent discussion about Mann including Oaks as proxies. At minimum, this is sloppy, since I'd assume he should at least have some knowledge of a proxy's suitability before including it (as the paper was published in 2008, it's outside of this particular inquiry). But suppose there was some documentation of him knowing the unsuitability, yet including them anyways. It seems that such a situation could easily run afoul of the quoted statute.

    As someone on the same side of the Potomac as Cuccinelli (though who doesn't always follow local news as closely as he should), I'd be interested to hear from David (3) and Sylvain (4) on other "stunts" by Cuccinelli.

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  15. Roger, you say that "The worst that can be said about Mann is that he may have done sloppy research using poor methods that won't stand the test of time, and when challenged he tends to act petulant and nasty."

    What about perverting the peer-review process and the IPCC reports? Sloppy work and nastiness is minor compared to that, as far as my understanding goes. Especially as Mann and his friends have apparently been quite successful at it, in spite of persistent claims to the contrary. That would be worth a thorough investigation.

    Perhaps what you meant was "the worst that could possibly be covered in this particular investigation." That seems about right.

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  16. Roger,
    I agree with you entirely. This is outrageous. One might ask how many other academics this AG has gone after.

    In fact, one might ask how often academics anywhere are exposed to this sort of witch-hunt.

    I don't like Mann's scientific methods, but his unpopularity with some of us should not be a trigger for the sort of investigation which is likely to chew up a lot of people's time, not just Mann's.

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  17. I submitted this to an online newspaper in Virginia and have emailed it to Mr. Cuccinelli:

    Open Letter to Mr. Cuccinelli, Attorney General

    Sir, As co-author of a book (Climategate: The CRUtape Letters) that was harshly critical of the performance of Michael Mann and his colleagues, I write in criticism of your decision to investigate Mr. Mann for potential violations of state laws on fraudulent payment of claims.

    Mr. Mann has been extensively investigated regarding his work product, and although I consider his actions to be often unprofessional and politically oriented, neither I nor any of the people interviewed for our book have any doubt whatsoever that Mann performed the scientific work he has been commissioned to do, or that he engaged in any fraudulent actions.

    No matter what has prompted your investigation, there is no doubt that it will be interpreted as a witch hunt. If you are in fact investigating a credentialed scientist for results that do not suit your political opinion, that interpretation is correct. Unless you can reveal to the public prima facie evidence that shows cause for this investigation, I beg you to reconsider. There are ample avenues of professional and academic recourse for people like me who think he has done something wrong. But being wrong is not a crime, and intimidating scientists not a path that this country, including I presume Virginians, should ever pursue. You may consult with colleagues in Salem to determine how long it takes to live this type of thing down.

    Sincerely,

    Thomas Fuller

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  18. I found some relevant expert opinion here.

    Thus, it was with some interest that I received an email today announcing a press conference by Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann, organized with the Center for American Progress>

    I think we can get past the lie -- and it was a lie -- that these activist scientists, in the words of Gavin Schmidt, "are not taking a political stand." They are indeed taking a political stand and they are doing so in stealth fashion using the authority and institutions of science as cover to do so

    http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.com/2009/12/your-politics-are-showing.html


    If Mann and Schmidt were in control of their own destinies, one would assume they were simply stupid. However. one imagines they have advisers that are much smarter than they are. Tying them to one wing of the political divide, gives them the potential support of 50% of the population, including the majority of academics, right or wrong.

    My understanding is that the investigation probably has a political motivation. Oh well.

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  19. Cuccinelli has, since taking office in January, directed universities to rescind their policies banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

    http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/news/local/education/article/VCUU30S1_20100429-213203/341041/

    Just this past week, he has also been distributing pins with a modified version of the state seal that covers up an exposed breast. That he may have been inspired by similar actions by Attorney General Ashcroft a few years ago brings a bit more attention to this gesture.

    http://www2.newsadvance.com/lna/news/local/article/cuccinelli_clothes_goddess_on_state_seal/26650/

    IMO, along with the suit involving Mann and UVA, it suggests Cuccinelli is more interested in appealing to part of his base of support rather than in administering the legal affairs of the Commonwealth. I don't think he is honestly interested in proving fraud on the behalf of Mann or the University. I may be wrong, but his past actions suggest otherwise.

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  20. Prof Mann and his fellow researchers, by error, omission or suggestion, may have cost the world staggering sums and put in place policies which have, and will continue to affected the most fundamental aspects of all our lives.

    Is it too much to ask that the work of this man should be completely and critically reviewed?


    And how would it be "critically reviewed" by lawyers? Headed by a politically appointed lawyer. Beholden to a politician above him. (Ask yourself -- would you be so happy to see this review if it was by a liberal democrat?)

    The AG cannot, and will not, review his science. He wishes to discredit him by other means.

    If the state wants a critical review of climate warming then they have the resources to set one up.

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  21. Roger,
    I followed the link, because this did not sound like the writing I have come to expect at your site. Is this your letter?
    The link led me Examiner.com, where it appears Thomas Fuller wrote the above. His Bio ends, ¨About half of what he writes here will be a liberal skeptic's view of environmental issues.¨
    Fuller complains,¨The attorney general's "investigation" is a cheap publicity stunt hoping to uncover something of political value.¨
    Had Mann´s colleagues corrected him years ago, the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia probably would not have commenced this action. I trust a prompt and complete response will help everyone.

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  22. Whatever the politics, it would be good to see a hostile investigation into the man who's discredited research was contemporaneous with the Enron inspired signing of the Kyoto protocol by Vice President Gore (of Occidental Oil).


    Enron were more enthusiastic about global warming than a conference full of climate scientists/environmentalists.


    Enron’s climate change policy as downloaded in October 2002.

    http://climateaudit.files.wordpress.com/2006/05/enronclimatechange.pdf

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  23. This AG has a pretty impressive academic credentials for a politician.
    He graduated from Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., and went on to earn a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Virginia, a masters degree in International Commerce and Policy from George Mason University, and his juris doctorate from the George Mason University School of Law and Economics.

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  24. "I'm no lawyer, but the chances of Mann being found guilty of violating this statute are precisely zero."

    I think that prediction is a bit premature as no charges have yet been filed. Remember, a jury trial is conducted before real people, not academics. ;)

    Mann's "hockey stick" is either real, or contrived. If contrived, then Mann either knew or should have known that his representations would be called into question.

    Innocent people are convicted by jury outrage, and guilty people are set free through jury nulification.

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  25. I think calling this a 'witch hunt' or 'fishing expedition' when it is well documented that Mann has made deliberate errors and misuses of data in his work is not appropriate.
    Mann's phony hockey sticks have been used to justify tax increases, onerous regulations and have made him a great deal of money.
    If Prof. Mann was involved in investment management and evidence of him doing with other people's money what he has done with clmate science was produced, would a responsible legal representative not be less than professional if he or she chose to ignore the situation?
    Mann has brought this upon himself. The transparent whitewashes here and abroad only emphasize the need for a critical aggresive review of how he and others have spent public money.

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  26. What actually prompted this action? Is it part of a larger strategy to fight the DEA efforts to control CO2 emissions? Is there evidence of simple malfeasance in the use of the grant money?

    There is something odd here in the inclusion of a couple of very small grants.

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  27. Some have called it a witch hunt--Even if there are witches- history teaches witch hunts can go very very wrong.
    No fan of Mann but this is a bad road.

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  28. From what I recall from reading Ross McKitrick's account of what they found on Mann's website, the calculations and runs in various files all point to the conclusion that Mann was well aware of the problems with the bristlecones (he did runs with and without) and came up with his bizarre new significance measures after the normal ones failed. Hard for Mann to argue that he cranked out the work on the computer and saved the files, but somehow wasn't aware of the work. And if he was aware, that would be scientific misconduct.

    As for the AG being guilty of political motives, I'm "shocked, shocked" to find a politician being political. Although actually, I am pretty shocked to learn that a Republican politician had the nads to take a page from the Democratic playbook like this. For example, it would be a travesty for Mann to get railroaded like Scooter Libby was.

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  29. What this really comes down to is whether Cuccinelli can find an expense that was inappropriately charged to the grants. Since, as Eli understands the PI was NOT Mann, they will have to find it on some travel claim that Mann made.

    For why all of the mouth breathing here is not worth a bucket of warm spit, look at the definition of what research misconduct is not (this is from UVa, but it appears in all of the policies):

    "It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data."

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  30. Oh yeah, a comment about the hockey stick. The part that we know best is the blade, the instrumental record. To claim that it is contrived is to claim much sharper changes and much higher rises in the past. Good luck.

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