VA conservatives persist in bogus ‘Climategate’ witch-hunt against Michael Mann

This is a Mediamatters repost by Solange Uwimana. For background on the science, see “The hockey stick lives! Recent global warming is unprecedented in magnitude and speed and cause.”

Conservatives, ever desperate to disprove the science behind global warming, have latched on to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s baseless investigation into climate scientist Michael Mann and his work at the University of Virginia. As the Washington Post reported, Cuccinelli is “demanding that the University of Virginia turn over a broad range of documents” from Mann, a former professor at the university, “to determine whether he defrauded taxpayers as he sought grants for global warming research.”

Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly responded to Cuccinelli’s investigation by proposing several measures to limit the power of attorneys general to issue civil subpoenas, including to public universities, citing “government intrusion” into academic and private life.

Jim Hoft, who continually amazes with the inanity of his attacks on progressives and the president and his wife, charged that Democrats are moving to “block” the investigation of what he called “manipulated global warming junk science data.” He further alleged of climate change: “We all knew it was a scam.” Fox Nation claimed that Democrats “are panicked over ‘Climategate’ probe,” and right-wing blog Weasel Zippers, who asserted that “Mann was knee-deep in ClimateGate,” wrote of Virginia Democrats: “It’s almost like they’re trying to hide something.”

There at least three basic problems with conservatives’ defense of Cuccinelli’s investigation:

  1. The so-called “Climategate” scandal that forms the basis of Cuccinelli’s investigation is based on distortions and misrepresentations and does not cast doubt on the science behind climate change;
  2. the Democrats’ proposal to limit Cuccinelli’s powers would not bar him from pursuing a lawsuit against Mann and UVA if he could prove there really was fraud; and
  3. Cuccinelli’s use of his subpoena powers to attack Mann and the university run the risk of chilling academic freedom.

“Climategate” Is Based On Distortions And Misrepresentations

In December 2009, Mann, who is now at Penn State University, was pilloried by the conservative media as part of the manufactured “Climategate” scandal. This supposed scandal involved stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, which conservatives said undermined the scientific consensus that human activities cause climate change. As we have noted, the claims rested on outlandish distortions and misrepresentations of the contents of the stolen emails. One 1999 email from CRU director Phil Jones mentioned Mann and alluded to a “trick,” which conservatives cited as evidence that scientists at East Anglia “had tampered with data or perverted the peer review process to exaggerate the threat of global warming.”

But as explained, climate change skeptics had grossly misrepresented the email in question:

Claims that the e-mails are evidence of fraud or deceit, however, misrepresent what they actually say. A prime example is a 1999 e-mail from Jones, who wrote: “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” Skeptics claim the words “trick” and “decline” show Jones is using sneaky manipulations to mask a decline in global temperatures. But that’s not the case. Actual temperatures, as measured by scientific instruments such as thermometers, were rising at the time of the writing of this decade-old e-mail, and (as we’ve noted) have continued to rise since then. Jones was referring to the decline in temperatures implied by measurements of the width and density of tree rings. In recent decades, these measures indicate a dip, while more accurate instrument-measured temperatures continue to rise.

Scientists at CRU use tree-ring data and other “proxy” measurements to estimate temperatures from times before instrumental temperature data began to be collected. However, since about 1960, tree-ring data have diverged from actual measured temperatures. Far from covering it up, CRU scientists and others have published reports of this divergence many times. The “trick” that Jones was writing about in his 1999 e-mail was simply adding the actual, measured instrumental data into a graph of historic temperatures. Jones says it’s a “trick” in the colloquial sense of an adroit feat — “a clever thing to do,” as he put it — not a deception. What’s hidden is the fact that tree-ring data in recent decades doesn’t track with thermometer measurements.

Indeed, investigations into the leaked emails exonerated Mann and Jones, finding no evidence that they or others had falsified data:

  • An independent panel led by Lord Oxburgh found “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.” [CBS News, 4/14/10]
  • CNN reported that a seven-month review conducted by Muir Russell “found no evidence to question the ‘rigor and honesty’ of scientists involved” and concluded that “scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU) did not unduly influence reports detailing the scale of the threat of global warming produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” [, 7/7/10]

Penn State, which also assembled a committee of scientists and department heads to investigate whether Mann had engaged in “research misconduct,” concluded that “there is no substance to the allegation against” Mann. The report stated: “More specifically, the Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scolarly activities. The decision of the Investigatory Committee was unanimous.”

Yet Cuccinelli continues to pursue his investigation, claiming that “the documents, including grant applications and e-mails exchanged between Mann and 39 other scientists and university staffers,” will “help determine whether Mann committed fraud by knowingly skewing data as he sought publicly funded grants for his research,” as the Post reported. The Post further stated:

An Albemarle County judge quashed one version of the subpoena in August, ruling that Cuccinelli had not properly explained his rationale for thinking fraud might have been committed. But Cuccinelli reissued the request, and the issue remains in litigation.

In his reissued CID [civil investigative demand], the attorney general wrote that he seeks the documents because Mann wrote two papers on global warming that “have come under significant criticism” and that Mann “knew or should have known contained false information, unsubstantiated claims and/or were otherwise misleading.”

“Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect,” the new CID alleges.

In an interview with the Post, Cuccinelli stated: “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.”

This isn’t the first time Cuccinelli has used the “Climategate” emails to push back against global warming. As Think Progress reported in February 2010, in his petition challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions are a danger to the public, Cuccinelli claimed that global warming is “unreliable, unverifiable and doctored” science. The climate science blog, Climate Progress, has pointed out that Cuccinelli has mocked the dangers posed by carbon dioxide by “telling Tea Partiers to hold their breath and make the EPA happy.”

Moreover, according to campaign finance disclosure reports gathered by the Virginia Public Access Project, the attorney general is backed by powerful energy interests. He received more than $210,000 from the energy industry from 2008 to 2010, including $7,500 from Koch Industries, whose subsidiaries “have been in the petroleum business since 1940” and “engage in petroleum refining, chemicals and base oil production, crude oil supply, and wholesale marketing of fuels, base oils, petrochemicals, asphalt and other products.”

Dems’ Proposal Would Not “Block” Cuccinelli From Pursuing Investigation

Virginia Democrats, including state Sen. Donald McEachin and Del. David Toscano, introduced a bill that would strip the AG’s power to issue CIDs under the state Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, which is the law Cuccinelli cited in pursuing the university records. A separate proposal by Sen. Chapman Petersen would exempt colleges and universities from complying with demands targeting academic research. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Toscano “said U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson ‘would be turning in his grave’ over Cuccinelli’s actions, which he termed a ‘fishing expedition’ to advance global warming doubts.”

McEachin stated that his bill would not prevent Cuccinelli from filing a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing and seeking documents as part of that lawsuit, but it would prevent him from issuing the subpoenas to Mann and UVA without filing such a case first. From the Virginian-Pilot article:

McEachin believes the attorney general should proceed like other lawyers in civil cases: file a lawsuit if he thinks a wrong has occurred and obtain documents as it proceeds, not the other way around.

“No civil lawyers have the ability to issue a subpoena without articulating a cause of action,” he said.

Cuccinelli’s Investigation Infringes On Academic Freedom

Cuccinelli’s investigation has also received criticism from scientists, academics, and the media for its infringement on academic freedom. In a statement addressing Cuccinelli’s inquiry, Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Scientific Integrity Program, accused Cuccinelli of “‘abusing his power” and playing “politics,” saying:

Here we go again. Ken Cuccinelli is flagrantly abusing his power. There’s only one reason I can think of to pursue a case where there’s no evidence — and that’s politics.

The attorney general continues to harass Michael Mann and other climate scientists simply because their results don’t fit with his political views. Dr. Mann’s research has been broadly replicated by many other studies. The attorney general is sending a message that legitimate scientific research is not welcome in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

This latest salvo is even more flimsy than the previous one. Dr. Mann’s research is already public. This investigation serves no purpose other than to artificially inject doubt into the public discourse on climate change and distract us from addressing a real problem. If allowed to go forward, the subpoena would force these scientists to waste hundreds of hours of time putting together what the attorney general has asked for — when there is no evidence whatsoever of fraud. In this case, the only person who is misusing Virginia taxpayers’ money is Ken Cuccinelli.

Rachel Levinson, a senior counsel with the American Association of University Professors, told the Post that Cuccinelli’s suit has “echoes of McCarthyism,” adding, “It would be incredibly chilling to anyone else practicing in either the same area or in any politically sensitive area.”

In an editorial, titled, “U-Va. should fight Cuccinelli’s faulty investigation of Michael Mann,” the Post blasted Cuccinelli, for engaging in what the Post referred to as an “ongoing campaign to wish away human-induced climate change.” The Post further wrote that Cuccinelli has “declared war,” not only “on reality,” but “on the freedom of academic inquiry as well.” The Post continued:

By equating controversial results with legal fraud, Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom. The remedy for unsatisfactory data or analysis is public criticism from peers and more data, not a politically tinged witch hunt or, worse, a civil penalty. Scientists and other academics inevitably will get things wrong, and they will use public funds in the process, because failure is as important to producing good scholarship as success. For the commonwealth to persecute scientists because one official or another dislikes their findings is the fastest way to cripple not only its stellar flagship university, but also its entire public higher education system.

—  Solange Uwimana, in a Mediamatters for America repost.

25 Responses to VA conservatives persist in bogus ‘Climategate’ witch-hunt against Michael Mann

  1. spacermase says:

    You know, as a former Virginia resident, and a UVA grad, this is really kind of puzzling on Cuccinelli’s part. It’s fairly common knowledge that Cuccinelli is using the AG as a stepping stone to governorship.

    However, in the course of this fishing expedition, and the big fuss he made about state schools not being allowed to have anti-discrimination policies based on sexual orientation, he has pretty thoroughly alienated himself from the members of the Board of Visitors/Rectors/whatever else you want to call it of most the public universities in the state. Virginia being Virginia, most of those people are members of their respective Boards because they are very wealthy and *very* well-connected, and, the old-boy network being what it is, tend to lean slightly conservative.

    So, pretty much, Cuccinelli, in his quest to establish his perceived need for conservative credentials, has managed to piss off the *last* people in Virginia politics you want to mess with, and who would otherwise been more sympathetic to his side than not.

    Methinks he isn’t thinking his strategy through very well, if at all.

  2. mike roddy says:

    I hope not too many people from overseas read this. Cuccinelli makes us look like harebrained hillbillies.

  3. Jan Paul van Soest says:

    Sorry Mike (@2), lots of people overseas read this. But many of us here can make the distinction between political and scientific motives.

    The general sense here (Netherlands) is that may be Cucinelli tries to hide hís decline.

  4. Buzz Belleville says:

    As a Virginia resident and a professor of law (including a class on the law as it relates to Climate Change), Mr. Cuccinelli has become an embarrassment to our state. I have students in the heart of Virginia coal country who are skeptical of AGW theory and even they can’t believe what the AG is trying to pull. It reflects poorly on my state and my profession.

  5. Hey Mike #2 — People overseas should see what you wrote about these people:

  6. George Ennis says:

    I think if Mr. Cuccinelli succeeds than scientists at publicly funded educational institutions may need to reconsider their career options. It’s hard to imagine anyone conducting science (not just climate science) under this type of threat which would be hanging like the sword of Damocles over them.

    What is frightening is that as the evidence for climate change grows stronger with ever increasing extreme weather events “conservatives” in the US have become ever more extreme in their words and actions. If the American people do not wake up soon I fear that it will be too late to do anything. Unfortunately the spiral downwards into illusion and magical thinking seems to be accelerating not only in the popular culture but in politics too.

  7. Many overseas folk have long been puzzled about that half of the American people who are reverting to superstitious and magical thinking.

    Unfortunately they are not alone and we have a worrying number of our own here in Australia.

    Even worse they are heavily reinforced by short term commercial interests, almost guaranteeing that our efforts will be too little too late.

  8. John Mashey says:

    In addition, Cuccinelli’s 2nd try CID is heavily-based on the 2006 Wegman Report, and Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report (SSWR) shows why that might not be a good idea. There is much evidence that the WR was a manufactured misrepresentation to Congress, and incompetent at best, or fraudulent at worst.

    Too bad Cuccinelli and sidekick Russell are George Mason U grads, because they really should be checking that out, if anything. See Strange Inquiries at George mason University. Sooner or later, I strongly suspect that will lead to charges of funds mis-use.

    It is not obvious that the US Army or National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism should pay for:
    – low-quality Social Network Analysis written to attack peer review of climate scientists
    – that had substantial near-verbatim plagiarism
    – and was published in a statistics journal that didn’t publish SNA, going from Received to Accepted in 6 days (average was 200)

    (See SSWR Appendix W.5.6 for the story behind that mess.)
    Of course, it may have helped that Wegman had been an advisor since 1986, although he suddenly dropped off the Editorial Board a month or so ago.

  9. MapleLeaf says:

    Is Mr. Cuccinelli above the law? Do his actions not constitute slander and harassment?

    Mr. Cuccinelli reminds me of Mugabe…

  10. adelady says:

    No, no mapleleaf. It might be the same mindset about suppressing opposition to one’s own ideas, but Mugabe is in the vile, violent dictator class.

    Cuccinelli will never get into that exclusive club. But he is a lot like all those ignorant witchdoctors and others opposing polio vaccinations on spurious cultural and health grounds.

    Ignorant, malignant people misusing their powers, however local and restricted, to threaten the well-being of their own people and everyone else in the world.

    Sound familiar?

  11. Jeff Gazzard says:

    Sorry to be off-thread but this evening’s UK BBC2 programme “Horizon: Science under attack” sees current Chair of the Royal Society and Nobel Prize winner, Sir Paul Nurse, look at the media and science, including climate change. Sir Paul totally eviscerates the Daily Telegraph’s climate denier James Delingpole – go to 29 minutes to see floundering denier completely dumbstruck for a priceless moment!

    Sir Paul’s first 40 minutes are a masterclass in the incorrect reporting of climate change science and the damage such wilful, in many cases, “reporting” causes. The rest of the programme is spot on too and reflects many of Joe Romm’s own insightful posts here.

    The programme can be found on here:

    Have a look please. And enjoy!!!


    Jeff Gazzard

    [JR: Not viewable in U.S. — something I am working on.]

  12. MapleLeaf says:

    OK, maybe Mugabi was a poor analogy (although I was probably thinking more how he goes on with hunts against people who challenge him or do not conform).

    Good points though– I should probably not try and liken Cuccinelli to some dictator– that is probably what he is striving for and would take it as a compliment ;)

  13. David B. Benson says:

    But they are not conservatives in the traditional, i.e. conservative, meaning of the word.

    Call them Mad Hatters; that’s closer.

  14. 350 Now says:

    Canada Tar Sands on CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki
    two brief clips at link below; James Cameron is involved with this documentary
    Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands Thursday Jan 27; repeat Sat. Feb. 5

    As far as I can tell, this documentary is not available for US viewers online.
    Just as well, I suppose – the US is way too busy with Dancing with the Stars to tune in (snark)

  15. J Bowers says:

    Re. 11 Jeff Gazzard

    Yep, saw it too. Delingpole lectures Nobel Prize winning scientist and president of the Royal Society on how science is done. Delingpole admits he never reads peer reviewed literature. Money quote: “I interpret the interpretations.” Look up dictionary definitions of a prophet. Nurse’s most important point was that unless scientists engage with the public more, then denialists will continue to fill a void that the scientists should be filling.

  16. The Lorax says:

    Joe says above, “What’s hidden is the fact that tree-ring data in recent decades doesn’t track with thermometer measurements.”

    The real investigation should be the study of why the tree rings are deviating from the norm. This can’t be a good sign for the trees, plants, and hence, our food.

    Wit’s End is right on with her commentary about tree health.

    The Lorax

  17. William P says:

    #7 Alistair said:

    “Many overseas folk have long been puzzled about that half of the American people who are reverting to superstitious and magical thinking.”

    There has always been this phenomena of “superstitious and magical thinking” but now it seems to have taken massive hold in the US.

    Can it be the large, concentrated right wing propaganda media who are constantly attacking any possible infringement on corporate profit? This media, especially on TV, is unique to our times.

    Or can it be many really sense the doom that global warming holds for man, and idiotic, nonsensical attacks are the emotional result?

    It is very hard to explain the amount of completely illogical denial we see today in our government and populace.

  18. robert says:

    I actually think the best thing for climate science is for the prosecution to continue. Perhaps Mann should actually seek a full-blown trial. It will look like an inquisition and garner enormous publicity. I feel the same about the coming inquisition in the U.S. House of Representatives.

  19. Anne van der Bom says:

    I learned history classes about the dogmatic rejection of science. Galileo, Darwin. I thought that was part of history, and that humanity had moved on. It is unmeasurably sad to be witnessing the same delusional rejection of reality first hand. They are simply trying to excommunicate of Michael Mann.

  20. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Cuccinelli needs to be able to specify the statute that he believes Mann has violated in order to pass the due process requirement.

  21. DaveE says:

    Cuccinelli has already wasted more of Virginia’s money than Mann ever received in grants from VA–presumably to enhance his own political standing. How about a citizen’s group launching an investigation against him for the misappropriation of Virginia funds?

  22. BillD says:

    This case shows that Cucinelli and his tea party backers care not one iota for the US Constitution. This case makes me more angry than just about anything else that I read on this blog. As a sceientist, most of my published reasearch findings have held up well. However, it’s hard to imagine being prosecuted for fraud, if a science-ignorant politician simply thought (or even proved) that some earlier scientific result was mistaken.

    Cucinelli is often described as a “rising star” of the Republican Right. I plan to send money to his political opponents for whatever office he may aspire in the future. Unfortunately, my pockets are not deep.

  23. Jim Groom says:

    I’m with Robert @18. Prof Mann should have his day in court and take full advantage of the system to prove the AG to be an ass. The public might begin to notice if the men and women of science spent more time in front of the cameras and mikes explaining the science and exposing the anti-science crowd for what they are.

  24. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’m afraid that pointing out that Delingpole and Cuccinelli are nasty, ignorant, probably stupid, opportunists, and, I think it is undeniable, really grand hypocrites, is missing the point. That character assessment merely makes them more endearing to their followers, who are, in my opinion, equally stupid, ignorant, arrogant and, increasingly, vicious. I’ve always seen those imbued with the Rightwing psychopatholgy as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to share a plant with’, but now it’s so preposterously undeniable as to take one’s breath away. There is a global civil war going on, indeed its been going on for millennia, almost entirely one-sided from those who get off on screwing others, but it has now reached the stage where we need stop kidding ourselves and do something about the evil fraction of humanity (and it can’t be violent, because that is their preferred tactic)or we are going extinct. The thought of execution tends to concentrate the mind, or it bloody well ought to.

  25. J Bowers says:

    New word: Lysenkarthyism