Michael Mann And The ClimateGate Whitewash

  • Date: 28/06/11

Two universities that have employed Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist, have been called to task for insulating him from accusations of wrongdoing in the wake of scandalous ClimateGate email revelations. His current employer, Penn State, is being accused of botching an internal inquiry, and a recent judicial ruling is ordering the University of Virginia, his employer during the period in question, to release requested documents in compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Mann emerged as a key figure in many sensational exchanges among influential members of the UK’s East Anglia University Climate Research Unit (CRU) network. Some reveal disturbing scientific improprieties connected with preparation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Climate Change 2007: Fourth Assessment Report (commonly referred to as AR4).

Two series of exchanges, both involving Mann and CRU’s Director Dr. Phil Jones, are particularly noteworthy. One involves a request from Jones to Mann to delete public records, and pass that instruction on to another colleague. The second, from Jones to other parties, refers to using “Mike’s Nature [Journal] trick” to “hide a decline” in tree ring-derived temperatures during the past half-century that were reported by another researcher.

Following a deluge of letters, emails and telephone calls accusing Mann of bad science practices, Penn State found it prudent to conduct an internal investigation. An Inquiry Committee was appointed to consider four types of allegations — whether he directly or indirectly: 1) suppressed or falsified data; 2) deleted or destroyed emails or other information related to AR4 as suggested by Phil Jones; 3) misused privileged or confidential information; and 4) engaged in any activities that “seriously” deviated from accepted academic practices. They interviewed Mann for “nearly two hours”, and he disclaimed all allegations.

The Committee reportedly “culled through” about 1,075 CRU emails to identify those sent by Mann, sent or copied to him, or which discussed him. Among these they found 377 connected to him in some way, focusing on 47 they deemed “relevant”. They also reviewed a variety of Op-Ed columns, blogs, newspaper articles and scientific reports, and requested that Mann produce all emails in his possession related to AR4. These were obviously intended to include all that Jones suggested he delete. In other words, he was asked to furnish any evidence against himself under an honor system.

Two outside sources were asked to lend opinions, Dr. Gerald North, a professor at Texas A&M and first author of the NAS 2006 report regarding Mann’s research, and Dr. Donald Kennedy, a professor at Stanford and former editor of Science Magazine. Both were Mann’s friends, and both defended him.

In conclusion, the Committee found “no substance” to the first three allegations, and that there was “no basis for further examination” of those three. For example, they determined that the “trick” referred to in Phil Jones’s November 16, 1999 email was nothing more than “a statistical method used to bring together two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field”.

Regarding the fourth allegation (deviation from accepted academic practices), the Committee conducted additional interviews, including three with scientists not affiliated with PSU: Dr. William Curry, a senior scientist with the Geology and Geophysics Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; Dr. Jerry McManus, a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Columbia University; and Dr. Richard Lindzen, a professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

When Lindzen was informed during the interview that the first three allegations had already been dismissed at the inquiry stage, his response, as quoted in the Committee’s report, was: “It’s thoroughly amazing. I mean these are issues that he explicitly stated in the emails. I’m wondering what is going on?”

Dr. Lindzen’s bewilderment is understandable. Concerning the Committee’s conclusion regarding the first allegation (suppressing or falsifying data) — characterizing the “trick” to “hide the decline” as legitimate application of a conventional statistical methodology, ignored or misconstrued salient facts. While Mann’s own research methodology and results have indeed been challenged as fatally flawed, the actual trick should be examined within a broader context.

First, there is a widespread misconception that the reference to a decline refers to concealing an observed fall in global temperatures since a peak in 1998, the warmest year for some time. Instead, it really has to do with graphic trickery suggesting that man-made CO2 emissions over the past 40 years have produced a nearly vertical temperature escalation.

A 1,000-year-long graph was cobbled together using various proxy data derived from ice cores, tree rings and written records of growing season dates up until 1961, where it then applied surface ground station temperature data. Why change in 1961? Well that’s when tree ring proxy data calculations by CRU’s Keith Briffa began going the other way in a steady decline. After presenting these unwelcome results to Mann and others, he was put under pressure to recalculate them. Briffa did, and the decline became even greater.

This presented what Mann referred to as a “conundrum.” Emails reveal that the late 20th century decline indicated by Briffa would be perceived by IPCC as “diluting the message”, was a “problem”, and posed a “potential distraction/detraction.” Mann went on to say that the warming skeptics would have a “field day” if Briffa’s declining temperature reconstruction was shown, and that he would “hate to be the one” to give them “fodder.” So one aspect of Mike’s “trick” was reportedly to show all of the proxy and surface measurement chartings in different colors on a single graph, but simply cut off Briffa’s in a spaghetti clutter of lines at the 1961 date.

Regarding the second allegation, determining if Mann had directly or indirectly deleted or destroyed emails or other information, the findings were at least very lenient. When Phil Jones asked Mann to delete email records being sought under the UK’s Freedom of Information Act and get a colleague, Eugene Wahl, to do the same, he replied “I’ll contact Gene about this ASAP”. And while PSU investigators never chose to interview Wahl, he later testified to a federal inspector general that he did receive Mann’s message and complied. Accordingly, it would appear that Mann was at least “indirectly” involved in deleting information when he passed along those instructions. And since there are no records to prove otherwise, everyone is asked to take Mann’s word that he didn’t do the same.

The findings have set off a new wave of criticism, accusing the university and its panel of failing to interview key people (such as Jones), neglecting to conduct more than a cursory review of allegations, and structuring the inquiry so that the outcome — exoneration — was a foregone conclusion. In February 2010 Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the House Investigations Committee, charged that Penn State failed to settle all of the charges regarding Mann’s work and demanded that all of his current research grant funding be frozen. That would include a $541,184 National Science Foundation stimulus grant to study climate change.

In May 2011, a Prince William County judge ordered the University of Virginia to release 9,000 pages of Mann’s documents that may shed new light on his ClimateGate exchanges while working there. This action was in response to a FOIA request from Delegate Bob Marshall and the American Tradition Institute (ATI) under Virginia law. The state-funded university had previously provided about 20% of the petitioned amount and has resisted releasing more, including documents previously requested by Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli under the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act. Although this matter is on appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, UVA has finally agreed to produce all documents not protected from disclosure by August 22.

So is it true, as Michael Mann claims, that he has been exonerated of all charges in these matters? Possibly not—the final jury is still out.

Forbes, 28 June 2011


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