Climate Science Politics: Mann-hunt

Crossposted with

Which hunt is in the news these days? The one led by Virginia's Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, II.

In her 2009 novel The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver tells the story of an artist who comes to the United States from Mexico in the mid-20th century. He hopes to add his voice to the exuberant American experience only to find himself caught up in the craziness of the McCarthy-era witch hunt. Initially, our hero dismisses the inquiries aimed at him as harmless. But they turn out to be anything but harmless.

On April 23, 2010, the Virginia attorney general's office sent a civil investigative demand to the University of Virginia's rector. Essentially a subpoena, the papers from Cuccinelli's office require the university to produce all documents and communications related to climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann's work on five research grants funded while Mann was on the university's faculty.

The demand was issued in connection with an investigation into possible violations by Mann of  Virginia's Fraud Against the Taxpayers Act.

Mann, you will recall, is the co-author of the so-called hockey stick graph depicting global temperatures going back some 1,000 years. Over the years, his work has been criticized and attacked and threatened by Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) et al. More recently, he was caught up in the so-called climategate fiasco (see my posts here and here) during which Mann was again attacked by Inhofe among others. Not surprisingly, as the latest barrage of attacks was leveled at Mann, Penn State cleared him of all charges raised in the inquiry that stemmed from the hacked e-mails.

Cuccinelli Takes Slightly Different Aim

Ken Cuccinelli is an interesting point of contrast to this history. Since taking office last winter, this tea-partying attorney general, formerly a state senator, has taken on an odd mix of issues. To whit, with Ashcroftian flair, he attempted to cover up the bare breast of the Roman goddess Virtus on the Virginia state seal; he also misinformed Virginia's universities that their umbrella of non-discrimination policies could not protect gays and lesbians; and he filed a motion to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. (For juicy details and other examples, see this Slate article.)

The interesting aspect of this latest salvo is that it is not aimed directly at Mann but at the university that employed him. Consider this:

  • In addition to all the documents related to the grant work and research, the lawsuit requires delivery of all communications with 39 named climate scientists and/or skeptics as well as "research assistants, secretaries or administrative staff" associated with the grants from 1999 to the present.
  • It also requires that the university provide the names of "all others" who worked on the awards or are "familiar" with the work.

It will be especially interesting to see how the university complies
with that last one. Does a faculty member or student who attended a
seminar by Mann or who had a conversation about his research over lunch
count as being familiar? What should the university do if officials
learn that during a visit to the Virginia campus I was seen talking to
Michael? I could have just been asking for directions, but maybe it was a
furtive science discussion. Would the university be liable for its own
fraud against taxpayers if its officials failed to turn over my name?

Is Cuccinelli just grandstanding, trumping up his conservative creds among the Virginia electorate, or is this intended as a shot across the bow of any institution that might consider launching a climate research program?

Regardless of the intention, the lesson of the McCarthy era as retold in Kingsolver's novel is that we dismiss such ploys at our own peril. It is therefore heartening to see the scientific community -- skeptics included (see here and here) -- coming together to condemn Cuccinelli. Despite the depths of the disagreement and the ill-will that has developed, the two camps can agree on some things and this is one of them.

Call it a Mann-hunt or a witch hunt -- whatever the name, this smells just as rotten.