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May 10, 2010 [feather]
How not to do it

Something definitely stinks about the conduct of climate scientists. In the past few months, we've seen all sorts of scandals and critiques and investigations and accusations floating around. Has the hockey stick been manipulated into being? Is it enabling further manipulations at the levels of policy and the market? Are climate scientists and peer-review journals shutting down dissenting views and debate? Are governments paying for "science" that will underwrite their expansive, expensive policy agendas? The science is not settled, the machinations are evident, and the aura of corruption surrounding it all should give pause to anyone who isn't already committed in ideologically-driven ways.

Certainly we've seen very poor behavior among climate scientists--who have worked hard to ensure that debate about the reasons for and extent of climate change does not proceed in a thorough, public, transparent way. And we've also seen extremely indefensible behavior by groups such as the UN's International Panel on Climate Change, which has been caught multiple times publishing incendiary scientific "facts" that turn out not to be facts at all.

The public uproar has led to investigations on both sides of the pond--which have led, in turn, to measured exonerations, that have themselves led to more accusations of conflict of interest, bad faith, etc. Now we're entering a new phase: government intrusion.

Here's KC Johnson:

When people outside of higher education hear the phrase "threat to academic freedom," they probably think of government officials (ab)using their power to punish professors with controversial views. The post-World War II Red Scare most immediately comes to mind, along with early 1960s purges of academic leftists. Of course, in the 21st century academy, the primary threat to academic freedom comes from within, as defenders of the status quo pay lip service to principles of "diversity" even as they seek to minimize pedagogical or ideological diversity among the professoriate.

Indeed, the more conventional threat to academic freedom---from government officials---has become so comparatively rare that when a case appears, it seems like a throwback to a bygone era. How else to explain the recent decision of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to demand data from the University of Virginia regarding former professor (and climate change expert) Michael Mann?

Mann was one of the scientists whose name appeared prominently in the "Climate-gate" scandal, the hacked e-mails from a server at the University of East Anglia. Yet an investigation by Penn State determined that he had committed no wrongdoing, and the idea of a government official investigating a university professor because of the professor's research positions is unseemly at best and---as the AAUP's Rachel Levinson put it---filled with "echoes of McCarthyism" at worst.

But Cuccinelli isn't a typical public official. Elected in 2009, he was caught on tape flirting with birtherism. He maintained that the state's public universities couldn't ban discrimination against gay and lesbian employees. He provided pins for his staff that modified the state seal to cover up an exposed breast. In short, he has emerged as something of an embarrassment to the Virginia Republican Party.

Using his authority under a Virginia statute targeting fraud by state employees, Cuccinnelli produced a civil investigative demand to UVA that came across as almost a caricature of a politician's witch hunt. The attorney general demanded all "correspondence, messages, or e-mails" from 1999 onwards between Mann and 39 other scientists, plus all correspondence between Mann and his research assistants. The document called for the university to produce "any or all algorithms, computer source code, or the like created or edited by Dr. Michael Mann." And Cuccinnelli wanted to identify all UVA employees who had any meaningful role in either the procurement or the execution of Mann's climate change grants.

Cuccinnelli's crusade against climate change has won him some support on the right, especially since he's also suing the EPA over the issue. But for those worried about the state of higher education, his action should arouse grave concerns, for three reasons.

First, Cuccinnelli's behavior will provide ammunition to academic defenders of the status quo---from the AAUP's Cary Nelson on down---in their campaign to portray the sole threat to academic freedom as coming from "right-wing" outsiders.

Second, the inquiry continues a conservative hostility to some types of science professors, which also appeared in efforts of GOP state legislators to use academic bill of rights proposals to mandate the teaching of creationism. Scientists are the natural allies of those contesting groupthink in the humanities and social sciences. Their commitment to the research ideal should be imitated, not scorned.

Finally, and most simply, this type of investigation is wrong. Ther's no credible evidence of wrongdoing by Mann, and there's considerable evidence of bad faith by Cuccinnelli.

No good, alas, will come from this development.

I think KC may be stretching a point about Mann right there--there's quite a bit of doubt accumulating about the legitimacy of the vaunted hockey stick, and Mann is right smack in the middle of the controversy. Where the facts will settle--and what this will tell us about the relative levels of honesty and competence of those involved in both sides of the debate--remains to be seen. But just as one doesn't rush to judgment, neither should one rush to exoneration.

That said, here's what interests me about all of this. Whatever you may think about the realities of global warming, there is no denying that the subject has got a very big public relations problem, and that this problem is also a problem for academia's own ongoing image issues. Academic freedom, after all, is, as the AAUP stated as early as 1915, a public trust. Professors are free to research, teach, and publish as they see fit only insofar as the public agrees that they can and will handle that responsibility with total impeccable integrity. The AAUP warned that if professors could not do that--if they failed to police themselves, and failed to keep the public convinced that they were worth its trust (these are two separate things), then they would forfeit their autonomy. Legislators and others could be counted on to step in and make an even bigger mess of things. And that's what we see happening in this instance.

You don't have to look very hard these days to find professors, professional associations, and unions who will claim that academic freedom is under threat from political operatives beyond academe. But that claim has to be understood within the context of academics' own obligations--insofar as they can't convince the public that they are worthy of its trust, they contribute to the erosion of academic freedom by providing a rationale for external interference.

The debate about climate change is becoming a debate about academic integrity. And as it unfolds, we are witnessing the frightening spectacle of academic freedom's endgame scenario: What is to be done when the public ceases to believe that academics are to be trusted to carry out their work with integrity? If Cuccinelli is wrong to do what he's doing--then what is the right thing to do, and who is the right person to do it?

UPDATE 5/12: The NAS' Peter Wood and FIRE have now weighed in. Wood's positions aligns more or less with mine, while FIRE is defending Mann quite unequivocally. In so doing, I think FIRE may be begging the questions I ask above. And while it's not FIRE's job to answer those questions or even to ask them publicly, I do hope they are actively discussing them in-house and that their discussions are informing their decisions about what cases to take on and how to approach them.

posted on May 10, 2010 7:31 AM

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I think KC Johnson is disingenuous in the extreme, and more than a little offensive when he misstates the basis of the investigation in order to accuse Cucchinelli of McCarthyism. From the full article: "...the idea of a government official investigating a university professor because of the professor's research positions is unseemly at best and---as the AAUP's Rachel Levinson put it---filled with "echoes of McCarthyism" at worst."
Cucchinelli is NOT investigating Mann on the basis of his "research positions." He is investigating him to discover whether or not he took taxpayer money and then falsified his research results in order to get more taxpayer money. If taxpayer money was not involved the current investigation would not be happening. For Johnson to fail to mention that taxpayer money was the basis of the investigation is inexcusable. Further, the investigation is not a witch hunt because the famously leaked emails of Mann provide more than a suspicion that the results he reported are not the results he found. Clearly, under the circumstances, an investigation is called for. Finally, I am bowled over that Johnson, of all people, would argue that the investigation is unwarranted because, "...an investigation by Penn State determined that he [Mann] had committed no wrongdoing..." A few years ago, Johnson's own university determined that its faculty had committed no wrongdoing in denying him tenure. Rather than accepting his university's finding, similar to Penn State's finding that their faculty member committed no wrongdoing, Johnson sued and won. How is it not hypocritical in the extreme for him to challenge an investigation by his university, and call it a whitewash and sue, then turn around and argue that Penn State's investigation of Mann should be the end of the controversy? Penn State had just as much reason, or even more reason, to protect their faculty with a whitewash dressed up as an investigation, as did Johnson's university...that he sued.

Posted by: dossier at May 10, 2010 12:14 PM

off-topic..Erin, you might be interested in my post "Intellectual Nondiversity."

Posted by: david foster at May 11, 2010 6:49 AM

Dossier has it right; from what we know of the Penn State investigation, it sure looks like a whitewash (quick turnaround, panel composed of Mann cronies, no witnesses interviewed). The East Anglia emails, and some statements made by Phil Jones since, have provided a reasonable suspicion that Mann may have committed fraud in the use of his grant money, and the AG is entirely within their purview to investigate. I didn't see anything unreasonable in the subpoenas as described by Johnson; it's a pretty standard request for a fraud investigation.

And, as Erin points out, what's the alternative? Clearly the academy isn't going to investigate itself on such a politically sensitive matter. And unfortunately the professional organizations, who could have forestalled this by doing their own investigating, have instead adopted the "my tribe, right or wrong" attitude. What angers me is that all of science is getting a black eye over this. Knowledge of, and trust in, science among the American public was already dangerously low before this happened; now it's in free fall. It's very important at this stage to identify and isolate the perps, so the rest of science can pick itself back up off the floor and start re-establishing some trust.

Posted by: Cousin Dave at May 11, 2010 11:12 AM

Guys, your comments are invaluable. Thanks so much.

Posted by: Erin O'Connor at May 11, 2010 11:58 AM