The climate denier blogosphere is going mad over “Polarbeargate,” supposedly the story of a rogue government scientist manipulating the evidence that polar bears are threatened by melting Arctic sea ice. The scientist, Dr. Charles Monnett, is on administrative leave and forbidden from communicating with co-workers pending an investigation by the Department of Interior’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).
In reality, Dr. Monnett, one of the country’s top Arctic scientists, “is being hounded in a political attempt to impugn his observations on polar bears’ vulnerability to retreating sea ice,” according to a scientific misconduct complaint filed today on his behalf by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) against Interior Department officials. Dr. Monnett, who has monitored bowhead whales in the Arctic since 1984, was the co-author of a seminal paper that recorded polar bears found dead in the open Arctic Ocean, stranded by retreating sea ice and a powerful storm, both symptoms of the region’s rapid warming.
PEER has posted the interview conducted by OIG Special Agents Eric May and Lynn Gibson with Dr. Monnett on February 23, which offers the only public clues to the reasoning behind his persecution. The transcript shows May and Gibson to be primed with skeptical questions about Dr. Monnett’s research observing sea life as a wildlife biologist for the Minerals Management Service. Dr. Monnett points out that many of the questions are “stupid” and “goofy,” evidently composed by someone “deficient in fifth grade math.”
A few months later, the OIG locked down the scientist, spurring a feeding frenzy among climate deniers who somehow don’t realize that the evidence that polar bears are going extinct has only grown starker each year, independent of Dr. Monnett’s work.
Monnett’s wife, scientist Lisa Rotterman, is concerned his persecution will send a “chilling message” at the agency right as it decides whether to open the Arctic to drilling by Shell Oil. “I don’t believe the timing is coincidental,” she told the Associated Press.
As Monnett attempted to explain in the interview, his influential paper included observations made flying over transects of a region of the polar ocean, as such:
Before a storm, 4 swimming polar bears observed / 11 percent of total region surveyed = about 36 expected swimming polar bears over entire region
After the storm, 3 dead floating polar bears observed / 11 percent of total region surveyed = about 27 expected dead floating polar bears over entire region
Thus, over the entire region, the rough estimate for the survival rate of swimming polar bears assuming they were caught in the storm is 9/36 = 25 percent.
The interview descends into farce as May reveals that he was incapable of understanding the very basic math behind the study:
ERIC MAY: Did they comment at all about any of the stats?
CHARLES MONNETT: Uh, there’s no stats in there.
ERIC MAY: Well, calculations, for, for example, the 25 percent survival rate.
CHARLES MONNETT: Oh, well, that’s just a mindless thing. That’s in the discussion. Um, that is not a statistic. Um, that’s a ratio estimator. It’s a, it’s a fifth grade procedure. Do you have kids?
ERIC MAY: No.
CHARLES MONNETT: Okay, well, if you had kids, you would know that in about fifth grade, they start doing a thing called cross multiplication. “X” is to “Y” as, you know, “N” is to “M.” And you can – there’s, there’s a little procedure you use to compare the proportions. And so that’s a, um, simply a calculation. It’s not a statistic.
May then tried to argue that there were actually 63 polar bears, because 4 live polar bears + 3 dead polar bears / 11% = 63. Dr. Monnett quickly grew frustrated at the innumeracy and illogic of this calculation:
CHARLES MONNETT: And so I, I don’t even still follow what they did to get the 60 percent. That, that’s –
ERIC MAY: The 63 percent.
CHARLES MONNETT: Yeah, that’s just goofy. [...]
ERIC MAY: Okay, and we’ll – let me, let – “of bears before the storm, then the total number of bears after the storm is 63,” and that’s where I came up with the sixty –
CHARLES MONNETT: That’s just stupid. I – did you do that?
ERIC MAY: No.
CHARLES MONNETT: That is stupid. …
CHARLES MONNETT: Somebody is deficient in fifth grade math.
ERIC MAY: (Laughing)
CHARLES MONNETT: Seriously. I mean, give me a break.
May also pressed Dr. Monnett on why, in his paper, he claimed that 2004 was the first time his project had observed dead floating polar bears. The project didn’t have any means to automatically log dead polar bears into its system for much of its existence, and May expressed skepticism that Dr. Monnett could simply ask his predecessor. Steve Treacy, to remember if he had seen any. As the New York Times reports, Dr. Treacy supports Dr. Monnett’s contention that the sight of the bloated body of a floating polar bear in open ocean was sufficiently notable to have been recorded:
In an interview, Dr. Treacy said that when he was in charge of the surveys on Alaska’s North Slope, “We recorded all the polar bears we saw. If there were dead ones, we would have noted that as such.” He added, “I don’t remember anything in the way of dead polar bears.”
Dr. Monnett has spent years being persecuted and harassed by the management of the Mineral Management Service during the Bush administration, and now during the Obama administration. If anything’s changed for Dr. Monnett since Barack Obama became president, it seems it’s been for the worse.
“My management have been trying to kill this study for a while, ever since really the polar bear thing came out,” he said in the interview. “That was when they realized that it’s dangerous to take data like this, because if there are changes and, you know, God forbid something that has anything to do with the climate change debate.”
“They don’t want any impediment to what they view as their mission, which is drill wells up there, and, put areas into production.”