Climategate: Penn State Moves to Protect Its Own
Appearances matter, and this doesn't appear good: Penn State is heading toward concluding that Michael Mann's role in Climategate is all a big misperception, a matter of appearances more than substance.
February 3, 2010 - 1:25 pm
I have looked over the Penn State University report issued today, titled: “RA-10 Inquiry Report: Concerning the Allegations of Research Misconduct Against Dr. Michael E. Mann, Department of Meteorology, College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.”
Below are eight points addressing my initial impressions, in the order they appear in the report (with one bracketed exception from page 4, moved up slightly in order of appearance here).
My takeaway is that the panel revealed most of what we need to know about the ability of this internal inquiry to credibly assess charges of misfeasance. They limited their evidentiary pursuit — outside of select blogs and media reports — to speaking with Mann, aided by a supportive NAS report (to the exclusion of the Wegman Committee report, inexplicable including for a factor cited, below) and one panel member interviewing ex parte two Mann supporters.
This approach did not do themselves or their institution any favors.
1. This is simply a point of interest, but in describing the CRU e-mail cache that finally shined a light on Mann’s practices so as to bring the sort of scrutiny that can yield direct professional consequences, the panel chose the word “purloined,” vs. “hacked” or “stolen.” (P. 3, p. 5)
This is an odd word choice in the general style and vocabulary of the document, and I am guessing that this was selected as the most neutral term; even if it includes “to steal,” the word also contemplates the actions of a suddenly unwelcome “whistleblower” — that erstwhile celebrated creature which the facts available indicate was the source of the documents long-sought under the UK’s freedom of information law. (P. 3)
2. The panel considered the NAS report that Mann’s suspect practices had prompted, but not the Wegman Committee Report. (p. 3) The University’s odd decision had already been noted by others for its sheer incomprehensibility. Even CRU emails acknowledge the importance of reading both, not one of them. No inquiry, even threshold, can be credible if it excludes that detailed assessment of relevant behavior even if it addresses work predating Mann’s tenure at PSU. The same is true of the NAS report the panel reviewed.
3. Just as a point of interest, I was struck by the panel’s inclusion of this assessment in a ten-page summary of two-months’ work. “Throughout the interview, Dr. Mann answered each question carefully…” Also on page four, they noted, “In addition, Dr. Mann provided a ten page supplemental written response to the matters discussed during his interview.”
4. In the in-person interview, “He explained the content and meaning of the emails about which we inquired;” (P. 4)
It is problematic that they only interviewed Mann to reach a threshold determination. If the content and meaning of the emails are important, as is implicit, then why would they not speak to the authors of these important emails mentioning him, and many others not written by him, which made the final cut for scrutiny and assessment?
Consider this in a judicial context and you see the curiosity of calling in Mann but only Mann to explain what other people wrote and meant. Happens in trials all the time.
Um, like when the authors are dead.
5. “He explained that he never used inappropriate influence in reviewing papers by other scientists who disagreed with the conclusions of his science;” though I note that this does not cover Mann pressuring others re: reviewing and publication. This seems sort of relevant, even if he did also issued a blanket denial of any inappropriate behavior.
6. “On January 22, 2010, the inquiry committee and Dr. Brune met again to review the evidence, including but not limited to Dr. Mann’s answers to the committee’s questions, both in the interview and in his subsequent submissions. All were impressed by Dr. Mann’s composure and his forthright responses to all of the queries that were asked of him.” (emphasis added) The assertion of Mann’s “forthrightness” alone, given inter alia the panel did not, as noted above, apparently interview others necessary to make such a determination (outside of one panel member meeting ex parte with two well-known Mann supports, see bottom of page 4), is troubling. But I suppose that’s what internal inquiries and other self-policing often produces.
7. The money conclusion, except for any that inform your assessment of the credibility of the inquiry, is this:
Finding 4. After careful consideration of all the evidence and relevant materials, the inquiry committee could not make a definitive finding whether there exists any evidence to substantiate that Dr. Mann did engage in, or participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research or other scholarly activities.” (Pp. 6-7)
Reading the panel’s quantification of this finding over the next two pages, they sure look like a band edging closer toward the outcome. When the music (inquiries) stops, they’re left standing pretty squarely on the spot staked out in the initial wagon-circling, dismissive response of the relevant and cloistered scientific community detailed by Wegman et al. Maybe they behaved less purely than is the driven snow, but that’s more a matter of perception derived from “private” correspondence never intended for outside assessment; who has not been indiscreet? However that is not the same as violating laws, etc.
The wagon-circlers in ClimateGate’s early days involved climate scientists waving away the actions of fellow climate scientists with whom they shared parallel interests of not seeing their gravy train derailed. Indeed, the panel summarizes that response of others as “nothing more than the private discussions of scientists engaged in a hotly debated topic of enormous social impact.”
Penn State risks the appearance of waving away the actions of a fellow Penn Stater with whom they share the interests in this not being a drawn-out tawdry affair for the University. We will see how they distinguish their own, surely more verbose ultimate conclusions from the wagon-circlers’ pithy dismissal.
8. Also troubling is the panel’s selective notation that “some may seek to use the debate over Dr. Mann’s research conduct and that of his colleagues as a proxy for the larger and more substantive debate over the science of anthropogenic global warming and its societal (political and economic) ramifications”. (P. 8.)
Yes. And some may seek to diminish the scrutiny of Mann’s research and conduct and that of his colleagues to protect the larger and more substantive industry that they represent. Why only one of these interests is worth mentioning is of a part with the panel being taken by just how forthright their subject was, despite not acquiring context to make that judgment but which assertion was material for inclusion in a ten-page assessment of more than two months’ work.
Sadly, the panel’s express focus, the only one among the relevant issues which troubles them for further inquiry, “questions in the public’s mind about Dr. Mann’s conduct of his research activity, given that this may be undermining confidence in his findings as a scientist, and given that it may be undermining public trust in science in general and climate science specifically.” (P. 9) This is likely to be viewed in hindsight as having revealed a driving desire of dispelling questions and rehabilitating Mann, “science” and/or the University, not into fairly exploring the substance.
In conclusion, these points all remind us of the frequent need for and widespread use of independent inquiry when seeking to truly discern the meaning and importance of credibly alleged misfeasance. Penn State is heading toward concluding that this is all a big misperception, a matter of appearances more than substance. Something similar can be said about their initial assessment. Appearances matter, and this doesn’t appear good.