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August 2, 2010 

Latest Court Filing from Ken Cuccinelli Continues to Make Basic Scientific Errors

Below are a dozen of the most egregious errors the Union of Concerned Scientists found in Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's July 13 court filing requesting documents from the University of Virginia related to climate scientist Michael Mann.

  1. Cuccinelli inaccurately asserts that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age "disappeared" in Mann et al.’s original hockey stick paper.
  2. Cuccinelli misrepresents the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  3. Cuccinelli falsely maintains that climate scientists are primarily motivated by money, and suggests they are skewing their research results to attract grants.
  4. Cuccinelli exaggerates the importance of the hockey stick, implying that it provides the rationale for laws that would require emissions reductions.
  5. Cuccinelli cites a paper that criticized the hockey stick, but fails to cite refutations of that paper’s conclusions or the unusual circumstances under which it was published.
  6. Cuccinelli uncritically cites a study by Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick that erroneously criticized Mann et al.’s hockey stick research.
  7. Cuccinelli implies Mann was hiding something in a data folder marked "CENSORED," but fails to acknowledge that the folder was publicly available.
  8. Cuccinelli extensively cites the 2006 Wegman report, but fails to note valid criticisms of that report.
  9. Cuccinelli incorrectly cites three emails that were stolen last fall from Mann.
  10. Cuccinelli and his staff again make a basic mistake when describing the now well-known email that features the phrases "trick" and "hide the decline."
  11. Cuccinelli confuses the Muir Russell report’s criticism of a Phil Jones graph with Mann et al.’s hockey stick research.
  12. Cuccinelli’s filing demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science works.

 

 

  1. Cuccinelli inaccurately asserts that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age "disappeared" in Mann et al.'s original hockey stick paper. (page 3)
  2. The Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age were two natural climate fluctuations that took place over the past 1,000 years. Before the hockey stick papers were published, climate contrarians claimed that the Medieval Warm Period was just as warm as or even warmer than today. Therefore, they maintained, modern warming must not be unique. Mann et al.’s research showed that their argument was wrong. In fact, modern global temperatures are higher than they were over the past thousand years and climate change has been happening much more rapidly than it did during past natural climate fluctuations.

    Cuccinelli's claim that the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age do not appear in Mann et al.'s hockey stick paper is baseless. Both periods are evident in the hockey stick graph.

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  3. Cuccinelli misrepresents the nature of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (page 3)
  4. Cuccinelli understates the number of scientists involved in the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in climate science generally to try to make a case that relatively few scientists control the entire field and can somehow dictate results. Cuccinelli falsely argues that the number of experts involved in specific aspects of IPCC reports are "few in number." In reality, IPCC reports are extensively peer-reviewed, with each section undergoing review by dozens of scientists and outside experts, including climate contrarians. Overall, about 2,500 experts were involved in the most recent IPCC report (in 2007) at various levels, divided among many chapters and subchapters related to numerous scientific disciplines.

    Further, anyone can submit comments to IPCC authors for review and response. Chapter authors evaluate these comments, and post all reviews, comments and drafts online for all to see. Finally, U.N. member governments must approve IPCC report summaries. In this way, IPCC reports represent an extremely nuanced picture of climate science that has been subjected to intense scrutiny, more so than any single peer-reviewed paper would receive before publication.

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  5. Cuccinelli falsely maintains that climate scientists are primarily motivated by money, and suggests they are skewing their research results to attract grants. He also fails to take into account the self-correcting nature of scientific review. (page 4)
  6. "Because neither the IPCC nor governmental grants to climate scientists would likely continue were it to be determined that man-made global warming was not a serious threat," Cuccinelli writes, "potential conflicts of interest flow predominately in one direction."

    In reality, scientists are motivated to study specific issues because they want to learn more about the way the world works. If climate scientists found that modern warming was not influenced by human activity, there would still be a huge amount of scientific work to be done on the cause of that warming, how to adapt to it, and possible ways of mitigating the worst consequences of climate change. In any case, there is no shortage of environmental and public health challenges. Government grants are awarded based on what research has the greatest potential to build a scientific base that allows us to understand these challenges.

    Certainly there have been instances in other disciplines of scientific fraud. Rather than showing a failure of science, those instances show how the scientific process works, holding scientists to a high standard. If a scientist falsified his or her research, other scientists would quickly notice because they would not be able to replicate the fraudulent scientist's research results. Scientists' careers thrive or wiither based on the value and accuracy of their work. In this sense, science is self-policing.

    It would be essentially impossible for so many scientists to collude to manufacture research results in such a widely studied field as climate and go undiscovered for decades. Regardless of Cuccinelli’s claims, the Mann et al. hockey stick is one of the most extensively reviewed pieces of scientific research of our time. Over the years, the paper’s conclusions have been upheld as scientifically valid by several independent studies as well as a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) review. Cuccinelli essentially is alleging that those independent scientists as well as the NAS are all party to a conspiracy.

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  7. Cuccinelli exaggerates the importance of the hockey stick, implying that it provides the rationale for laws that would require emissions reductions. He falsely claims that if natural variations in past climates were no greater than warming measured today, there is no reason to worry about climate change. Further, his filing argues against climate policy, an issue that has no bearing on this particular case. (page 4)
  8. This section of Cuccinelli’s filing is similar to previous attacks on climate science. Rather than engage the entire body of scientific knowledge, climate contrarians over-inflate the importance of a single scientific claim and then try to discredit it. Then, they claim, if they can sufficiently debunk this single piece of research, the entire body of climate science should be called into question. But climate science, like many other scientific fields, is not a deck of cards; it is a puzzle built of thousands of pieces assembled over decades. A few incomplete or missing pieces do not obscure the overall picture.

    Further, even if the original hockey stick paper were never published, other scientists would have produced their own reconstructions of the Earth's past climate. While Mann et al.'s hockey stick research was groundbreaking for its time, it is far from the only piece of evidence that indicates human activity is significantly altering the climate.

    This passage also demonstrates a characteristic failure of contrarians to understand the societal implications of climate change. In fact, in the ancient past, the Earth has been both much colder and much hotter than it is today. These variations were largely due to cycles in the Earth's orbit and tilt, which took place over hundreds of thousands of years. What makes modern climate change -- brought about by the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels -- so different is the speed at which it is happening and the fact that it is due to human activity.

    The Earth’s temperature is not the critical piece of data, but rather it is the amount and rate of temperature change that is important. Today’s civilization (roads, coastal cities, agriculture patterns, etc.) is adapted to the relatively stable climate of the last several thousand years. Rapid changes to the climate in any direction would pose a threat to civilization.

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  9. Cuccinelli cites a paper (by Soon and Baliunas) that criticized the hockey stick, but fails to cite a response by Mann et al. refuting that paper's conclusions or the unusual circumstances under which the paper was published. (page 5)
  10. Climate Research, a peer-reviewed journal, published a paper by scientists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas under unusual circumstances. After it was published, half of the journal's editorial board resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the peer-review process. Some scientists alleged that the editor at the journal manipulated the peer-review system to publish the paper, which argued that current warming was unexceptional. The paper was disputed by scientists whose work was cited in it. A number of subsequent publications set the record straight, again demonstrating how the peer-review process over time tends to correct such lapses. Scientists later discovered that the Soon-Baliunas paper was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.

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  11. Cuccinelli cites a study by Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick published in the social science journal Energy and Environment that erroneously criticized Mann et al.'s hockey stick. (page 5)
  12. Cuccinelli fails to note that more than a dozen independent reconstructions reached largely the same conclusions as Mann and his colleagues did. He also fails to mention that papers published in a number of journals concluded that McIntyre and McKitrick did not invalidate Mann et al.’s original research. They found that McIntyre and McKitrick introduced their own errors that ultimately led them to a flawed conclusion.

    It is worth noting that Mann and his colleagues included caveats in their original paper and said the question of the Earth’s temperature changes needed further study. And they did make minor updates to their hockey stick paper in response to valid criticism by McIntyre and McKitrick. That fact demonstrates the self-correcting nature of science, and cannot possibly be considered evidence of fraud.

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  13. Cuccinelli implies Mann was hiding something in a data folder marked "CENSORED," but fails to understand the statistical meaning of "censored" or acknowledge that the folder was publicly available. (page 6)
  14. Cuccinelli is misrepresenting scientists’ jargon in this passage to cast aspersions on Mann. "Censoring" data is done for a variety of reasons in everything from climate science to baseball batting averages. A walk, for example, is not included in a baseball player’s batting average. Censored data may be taken out or reintroduced as warranted in an analysis.

    Cuccinelli’s implication that Mann was "hiding" the data is disingenuous. The folder titled "CENSORED" was publicly available on Mann’s website along with all the other data he used. If Mann was trying to hide something, he would not have made the folder publicly available.

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  15. Cuccinelli extensively cites the 2006 Wegman report by George Mason University statistician Edward Wegman and colleagues, but fails to note valid criticisms of that report. (page 6)
  16. The Wegman report, which criticized the statistical methods Mann and his colleagues used in their original hockey stick research, was hotly disputed when it was released and continues to be questioned. It was commissioned by Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), a longtime critic of climate science. Barton, then-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, released the report in July 2006 to try to discredit Mann and his research. More recently, Barton has been one of Congress’ most vocal proponents of false claims about the stolen emails from the University of East Anglia.

    Wegman was a curious choice to author the report, which was not formally peer-reviewed. He had no prior experience handling paleoclimate data and was largely unfamiliar with statistical methods used in climate research. He also apparently was not paying close attention to peer-reviewed papers that refuted claims made by McIntyre and McKitrick. He repeated their discredited assertions in his paper without noting that their claims had been largely debunked.

    Further, the Wegman report included a "network analysis" purporting to show a conspiracy among climate scientists based on the fact that Mann had worked closely with other climate scientists over the years. In fact, such close working relationships are not out of the ordinary.

    In any case, the Wegman report's claims do not challenge the underlying science of the hockey stick, which has been replicated by independent scientists using independent temperature records and methodology.

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  17. Cuccinell incorrectly cites three emails that were stolen last fall from Mann. (page 7)
  18. When setting up a quote from one of the stolen emails, Cuccinelli writes, "In writing about the Chief Editor of the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mann said…"

    In fact, the subsequent email Cuccinelli cites is about Chris de Freitas, an editor at Climate Research, not "the Journal of Geophysical Research." As mentioned above, scientists believe de Freitas manipulated the peer-review system at the journal to publish a paper by Soon and Baliunus that attempted to discredit Mann's research. Hans Von Storch, the editor in chief at Climate Research, quit in protest after he was not allowed to respond to this flawed paper's publication in the journal. Half the journal's editorial board ultimately quit in response to the incident.

    In the other two emails in question, Mann wrote about a paper that ran in Energy and Environment. The journal is notorious in environmental science circles for publishing low quality papers on politically charged topics that are not subject to appropriate peer-review. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, the journal's editor, conceded in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, "I'm following my political agenda — a bit, anyway. But isn't that the right of the editor?"

    Significantly, Energy and Environment is not recognized as a physical science peer-reviewed journal, but is instead considered to be an interdisciplinary journal that covers social science and policy and technical topics. It has published a number of papers that take a contrarian view of climate change science. Most, if not all, of those papers would not meet the standards of a peer-reviewed publication.

    Given the publication’s reputation, it is not surprising that Mann and other scientists would complain about Energy and Environment papers attacking them.

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  19. Cuccinelli and his staff again mistakenly describe an email Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia sent to Michael Mann and other scientists. It is the now well-known email that features the phrases "trick" and "hide the decline." (page 8)
  20. Phil Jones’ email states: "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 onward) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline."

    It is clear that Jones' email attributes a statistical technique or "trick" to Mann et al.'s paper and "[hiding] the decline" to another scientist, Keith Briffa, who published his paper after Mann et al. published their hockey stick paper. Regardless, Cuccinelli and his staff attribute both "trick" and "hide the decline" to Mann.

    The July 13 filing states: "Notoriously, although Mann did not write it, he was a recipient of an e-mail from Phil Jones of the CRU [Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia] in which Jones wrote of Mike's trick to the hide the decline."

    Likewise, Cuccinelli inaccurately described this email in his June 11 court filing. He stated: "[V]arious statements or methods have been attributed to Dr. Mann including the fact that he developed a 'trick' in order to 'hide the decline'..."

    Cuccinelli and his staff likely are aware of this error, but have not acknowledged it. The Daily Progress, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Virginia, asked Cuccinelli's office about this mistake after the attorney general filed his June court submission. Brian Gottstein, a spokesman for Cuccinelli's office, told the newspaper, "We will address any arguments that the University of Virginia has posed when we file our court brief on July 13.... We do not intend to address the arguments of other parties."

    In any case, multiple investigations have clarified that the terms "trick" and "hide the decline" should be understood as scientific jargon. However, the Muir Russell investigation of the stolen email controversy concluded that the graph Phil Jones was writing about in this email should have been labeled explicitly to indicate that he was splicing together two graphs to create what he considered to be an accurate paleoclimate reconstruction.

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  21. Cuccinelli confuses the Muir Russell report's criticism of a Phil Jones graph with Mann et al.'s hockey stick research. (page 10)
  22. The independent Muir Russell report, commissioned by the University of East Anglia to investigate the stolen email controversy, concluded that a graph Phil Jones made for the cover of a World Meteorological Organization report was "misleading" because it was not clearly labeled. That graph spliced data from Mann et al.’s hockey stick with data from a separate Keith Briffa paper.

    Cuccinelli confuses this criticism of Phil Jones' graph with Mann et al.'s research and accuses Mann, based on the Muir Russell report, of "[devising] a method of splicing data which could be misleading." In reality, Mann and his colleagues came up with a method for reconstructing the past climate in the hockey stick. It was Jones' graph that the Muir Russell report judged to be potentially misleading, but only because it was not labeled accurately.

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  23. Cuccinelli's filing demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science works. (page 10)
  24. This is perhaps the most puzzling passage in Cuccinelli’s July 13 filing. Citing a concept in the philosophy of science, he labels climate science a "Post Normal Science," which he says depends more heavily on the opinion of scientific peers than "classic science" because it addresses matters in which there is a higher-than-normal degree of uncertainty. Given that Mann has referred to a "community" of scientists, according to Cuccinelli he is engaging in "Post Normal jargon." Cuccinelli speculates that when Mann was a professor at the University of Virginia he may have perpetrated a fraud because he may have used such "Post Normal" phrases as "community" in his grant proposals. Cuccinelli maintains that it is incumbent upon scientists to ensure that grantmakers understand what their jargon means. He implies, without any evidence, that grantmakers may have been confused or fooled by the use of such jargon as "community."

    Cuccinelli's argument is hard to follow because it's based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how science works.

    Climate science, like other scientific fields, has well-established methods and specific, technical terminology. Major conclusions found in IPCC reports reflect consensus views of a community of climate scientists and government representatives. But when scientists apply for research grants, they ask for funds to conduct specific, measurable, quantifiable research, often in an attempt to reduce the uncertainties inherent in studying the Earth's past climate and projecting the climate's future course. It is not clear how the use of the word "community" or any other so-called "Post Normal jargon" would significantly affect how a grantmaker would view a grant proposal. It certainly would not constitute fraud.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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