Friday, February 12, 2010

Transparency and transparent ignorance

That "Climategate"protest held by the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) and the 9.12 Project was about at least two things: transparency and ignorance. On the one hand, they called for transparency from Penn State in Michael Mann's case surrounding these leaked emails from East Anglia University Climate Research Unit hoping for an independent investigation. On the other hand, it was also an appalling display of ignorance by people invested, for whatever reason, in denying climate change. We'll tackle these two things as we move through a loose narration and description of the event.

Just before the protest started, I met up with several members of Penn State's Eco-Action and a couple of the College Democrats to get IPCC handouts in order and a couple of signs. A young woman was also there gearing up a camera with which to interview YAF and 9.12 members to sort of see why they were there and what not. I take it that video will be coming out soonish. We'll be posted I'm sure.

Outside of the HUB the protesters geared up a little banner decrying "Mann's Nature hide the decline." That's a reference to one of the stolen emails from the East Anglia database regarding some research methods. As reports it (one of whose contributors is Mann himself):
“Declines” in the MXD record. This decline was hidden written up in Nature in 1998 where the authors suggested not using the post 1960 data. Their actual programs (in IDL script), unsurprisingly warn against using post 1960 data. Added: Note that the ‘hide the decline’ comment was made in 1999 – 10 years ago, and has no connection whatsoever to more recent instrumental records.
So this alleged "hidden" decline was reported in the scientific literature itself, the method was written up and included in peer-review, and happened more than 10 years ago, during which time climate science has only found more empirical data to support human-induced climate change.

One of YAF's members stood on a milk crate and gave a speech. He decried Penn State's investigation on this matter (here in pdf). They have not been thorough enough. They are playing semantic games with the word "trick" that remind him of Clinton's squabbles over the definition of "is." Look, the context matters. What one guy calls a "trick" in an informal email that relates to something vetted through years of scientific work is not like a magic trick used for deception by Penn & Teller or the Houdini. Once again on this matter I defer to the editor of Nature on this matter:
One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a 'trick' — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature's policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.
Not many organizations out there will have that much more interest in protecting science's integrity than Nature. And Penn State, whose reputation has come to be built on a very strong research and development program, is not so interested in crashing itself to save one guy. Who conducted the last investigation?

The Collegian reports that "[t]hree Penn State employees, Henry C. "Hank" Foley, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school; William Brune, head of the meteorology department; and Candice Yekel, director of the Office of Research Protections, sat on the inquiry panel." One of the original possible panel members, Dean of Earth and Mineral Sciences William Easterling, recused himself because of conflicts of interest. Office of Research Protections must protect the research integrity of the university. They are the biggest pain for researchers because they oversee so much and examine the ethical ramifications of what people do and they have to be responsive to government agencies like the National Institutes for Health and the like. I'd think that Candice Yekel (who I also know personally) isn't about to jeopardize her position for Michael Mann.

The good of the one does not outweigh the good of the many and it is not in the investigating panel's interest to clear Mann of charges of which he is guilty. As our own Collegian reported, "the panel concluded there is "no substance" to the first three allegations: falsifying or suppressing data, intending to delete or conceal information and misusing privileged or confidential information." They reached this conclusion after doing the following (see report pdf link above):
• 206 emails that contained a message/text from Dr. Mann somewhere in the chain;
• 92 emails that were received by Dr. Mann, but in which he did not write/participate in the discussion; and
• 79 that dealt with Dr. Mann, his work or publications; he neither authored nor was he copied on any of these.

From among these 377 emails, the inquiry committee focused on 47 emails that were deemed relevant.
Now this made the YAF speaker nuts. He had this 10-page mind-numbing (he used some term like that) document from Penn State on the Mann investigation. "47 emails! Just 47 emails out of more than 1,000 emails." He then made fun of this process and the university for focusing on "47 emails!" This is what we call selective quoting or "quote mining." Tell people that more than 1,000 emails were taken in and then make it about 47 emails without noting at all how the panel decided to get to it. So the context of the process of the panel is annihilated and misrepresented for political points. Isn't there something almost beautifully hypocritical and paradoxical about a group who is out for the truth about documentation, transparency, and process misrepresenting documentation, transparency, and process? I think so. What about the fourth allegation?

The committee have punted on the fourth accusations so that it can be taken up by good people who are qualified to assess it. They write:
Given that information emerged in the form of the emails purloined from CRU in November 2009, which have raised 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, the inquiry committee believes an investigatory committee of faculty peers from diverse fields should be constituted under RA-10 to further consider this allegation.

In sum, the overriding sentiment of this committee, which is composed of University administrators, is that allegation #4 revolves around the question of accepted faculty conduct surrounding scientific discourse and thus merits a review by a committee of faculty scientists. Only with such a review will the academic community and other interested parties likely feel that Penn State has discharged it responsibility on this matter.
So they appointed five investigators unattached to this climate business. The Collegian reports:
Five Penn State faculty members will sit on the investigation committee into the fourth allegation: Mary Jane Irwin, a computer science and electrical engineering professor; Alan Walker, an anthropology and biology professor; Albert Welford Castleman, a chemistry and physics professor; Nina Jablonski, an anthropology professor; and Sarah Assmann, a biology professor.

[Candice] Yekel [of the Office of Research Protections] will provide administrative assistance to the committee, according to the report. The investigation will take 120 days from initiation to completion, university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
So now you have five high-powered nationally and internationally respected scientists determining whether Mann's actions undermined "public trust in science." Seems to me that we have very good people working on this. But it's not enough for YAF and the 9.12 guys. They want to "Turn up the HEAT on Mann!" They want independent investigators. According to one of the protesters, the National Science Foundation is available for this investigation. Once again, I find it odd that an essentially anti-government group wants a government organization that works with funding on this issue to investigate Mann.

This group says they want "transparency." Me too. You should too. Science should be quite transparent within the limits that organization's put on the availability of their data. Sadly, the public cannot always see behind the process because nations, states, corporations, and other institutions simply make things confidential. As a sidenote, I don't see Pfizer or Exxon Mobil making their R&D transparent.

But this is beyond transparency. It's hounding of a very old kind that Chris Mooney documents quite well in The Republican War on Science. Pro-economic growth big business interests aligned with libertarians aligned with anti-science religious conservatives just can't take climate change so they call for "transparency" to serve their obstructionist tactics. That's Orwellian.

I, personally, do not find any of this to warrant much more investigation. In general, this is just more denialism being legitimated by the media. I don't object to the NSF doing an investigation in principle, but it seems a waste of time and more ways for climate denialists to keep their incredible celebration of ignorance in the media spotlight.

And what a celebration of ignorance it was. There was a guy holding up an American flag and saying things like, "Global warming? Haven't you noticed how cold it is?" Another guy said, "I want all those people to go stand in the ice and snow over there and tell me about global warming" or something very close to that. [Sadly, I didn't have my recorder out for this so my quoting is slightly off.] Both of these guys show that they fundamentally do not understand climate change, that they are deluded on the subject, or want to just lie about it. I point you all to the National Science Foundation's materials on it; you know, that group these denialists want to investigate Mann. The NSF calls climate change "the most important puzzle that humankind has attempted to solve."

The Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report from its Fourth Annual Report warns us that the problem’s severity is escalating and accelerating:
Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level” and that “observational evidence from all continents and most oceans shows that many natural systems are being affected by regional climate changes, particularly temperature increases.
Grounds for “skepticism” have been soundly refuted. According to Naomi Oreskes' literature review on the subject, of 928 papers on climate science published between 1993 and 2003, there was no significant dissent from “the consensus view…[that] climate change is caused by human activity” leading to the conclusion that the evidence for human-induced climate change is “clear and unambiguous." In the five years since her paper was published, that consensus strengthened.

It's pretty stunning to watch this kind of entrenched anti-reason at work. In our work as teachers of ecological literacy, I hope to do better for a better tomorrow.


In a closing note: There were multiple media outlets there. I was interviewed by a Collegian reporter and someone from one cable news channel. The YAF and 9.12 Project folks and people from some environmental groups including Eco-Action were interviewed as well. Watch local stations and check the paper next week.

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