Cuccinelli goes fishing again

In keeping with our role as a site that tries to deal with the science of climate change rather than the politics, we have specifically refrained from commenting on various politically-motivated legal shenanigans relating to climate science. Some of them have involved us directly, but we didn’t (don’t) want to have RC become just a blog about us. However, the latest move by Ken Cuccinelli, the Attorney General of Virginia, against Mike Mann and UVa is so ridiculous it needs to be highlighted to the widest audience possible.

For background, Rosalind Helderman at the Washington Post has covered most of the story. The last installment was that Cuccinelli’s attempt to subpoena 10 years of emails between 39 scientists and Mike Mann and ‘all documents’ residing at UVa related to four federal and one Commonwealth of Virginia grant, was thrown out by a judge because Cuccinelli did not provide any reason to suspect that fraud had occurred and that federal grants are not covered by the relevant statute. Without due cause, the AG is not allowed to investigate (and without such a restriction, there would be no end to politically motivated witch hunts).

Yesterday, Cuccinelli filed a new demand that takes this previous judgment into account. Namely, he attempts to give a reason to suspect fraud and only targets the Commonwealth grant – though still asks for 10 years of emails with an assortment of scientists. However, his reasoning should scare the bejesus of anyone who has ever published a paper on any topic that any attorney might have a political grudge against. For the two papers in question the fraud allegation is that the authors

… knew or should have known [that they] contained false information, unsubstantiated claims, and/or were otherwise misleading. Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect.

So in other words, if you publish a result that might turn out to be statistically weak or with understated error bars – even if this was in no way deliberate and regardless if you were aware of it at the time – Cuccinelli thinks that is equivalent to fraud. And any grant that you apply for that even cites this paper would therefore be a false claim under the statute. Cuccinelli is specifically not stating that deliberate scientific misconduct must have occurred, all you need to have performed is an inadequate (according to him) statistical treatment or you made an unsubstantiated claim. If you want “unsubstainted claims”, Soon and Baliunas (2003) (cited approvingly by Cuccinelli) would be a great example of course. But more generally, this would clearly open up pretty much the entire literature to ‘fraud’ investigations since one can almost always improve on the statistics. You didn’t take temporal auto-correlation into account in calculating the trend? Cuccinelli thinks that’s fraud. You didn’t fully characterise the systematic uncertainty in the “unknown unknowns”? That too. You weren’t aware of the new data that showed an older paper was incomplete? Too bad. This is not just an attack on Mike Mann, it is an attack on the whole scientific enterprise.

However, as appalling as this reasoning is, Cuccinelli’s latest request is simply bone-headed because the grant in question, entitled “Resolving the scale-wise sensitivities in the dynamical coupling between the climate and biosphere”, simply has nothing to do with the MBH98 and MBH99 papers! Even if one agreed with Cuccinelli about their quality (which we don’t), they are not referenced or mentioned even obliquely. The grant was to look at how climate variability impacted land-atmosphere fluxes of carbon, water and heat and doesn’t involve paleo-climate at all. So even if, for arguments sake, one accepted Cuccinelli’s definition of what constitutes ‘fraud’, nothing associated with this grant would qualify. We doubt there could be a clearer demonstration of the inappropriateness of Cuccinelli’s case.

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