Hockey sticks and academic freedom

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Recently the Virginia Supreme Court put the kibosh on Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s quest for information relating to former University of Virginia (UVA) climate scientist Michael Mann. Mr. Cuccinelli sought this information under Virginia’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act after questionable comments by Dr. Mann surfaced in what became known as “Climategate.”

The court’s ruling is a sad development for Virginia taxpayers, but is even more disturbing for science.

No real reason exists for withholding this information from the public, save perhaps to protect Dr. Mann or UVA from potential embarrassment. Dr. Mann sought public money, both state and federal, to conduct research at a public university, and thus the taxpayers should have every right to scrutinize those grants and the resulting work. After all, this is not national security, releasing this information would reveal no state secrets — but it may reveal secrets or perhaps errors.

Recipients of public grants should never be allowed the “just trust me” defense when asked to show their work. This truism is particularly vital in the area of climate-science policy, where the stakes are so high.

Dr. Mann is best known for his “hockey stick graph” showing a severe spike in global temperatures in the second half of the twentieth century, purportedly due to anthropogenic global warming. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) featured the graph on the third page of the executive summary of its 2001 report.

The U.N., through the IPCC and other outlets, is using Dr. Mann and others’ conclusions to call for a massive social reordering and wealth transfer program. And they are not shy to say so. For instance, the 2011 report “Working towards a Balanced and Inclusive Green Economy” envisions “a fundamental shift in the way we think and act. For this to happen, investments in people’s capacities and the fulfillment of their entitlements are needed.”

What does this “fundamental shift” embody? An earlier U.N. report’s aim is explicit: “retool not only the economy but also economic thought … [to use] a different way of measuring human activity … abandoning the outdated assumption that quantitative growth is unconditionally desirable and embracing instead the notion of qualitative growth.” Just who will decide if economic growth is sufficiently “qualitative”? In the name of science, U.N. bureaucrats and their lower-level government cohorts will strictly monitor and control human progress through “regulatory tools.” The U.S. government is firmly on board with global warming as official policy — if not yet as to U.N. prescriptions — as a cursory review of www.globalchange.gov reveals. Global change? Whatever happened to climate change?

With so much at stake, climate scientists owe it to everyone to have their conclusions scrutinized, even by their harshest critics. Verifiability, of course, is a hallmark of science. Certainly, given the fact these scientists have so often been wrong in their computer-model predictions, and the use of more sophisticated methodologies, like satellite technology, has at times “shocked” them, the imperative to “get it right” is obvious.

Unfortunately, the opposite has been true. Even independent investigations that largely exonerated climate scientists in the wake of “Climategate” noted a definite resistance to requests for their work.

Critics have bemoaned Mr. Cuccinelli’s use of the fraud statute as heavy handed, an infringement on academic freedom, and a “witch hunt.” But given scientists’ hostility to public records requests, the force of government may be the only alternative.

At some point Dr. Mann crossed the line from scientist solely in pursuit of truth to activist with a book to sell. The book’s title is illuminating: “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.” Activists go to “war,” scientists do not. Through Twitter, he links to liberal websites touting President Obama’s electoral prospects as evidence of his perceived persecution. And in one of the “Climategate II” emails he wrote he “gave up” on another scientist because she was not firmly committed enough to the “cause.” But Dr. Mann’s cause, whether it be selling books, preserving his professional reputation, or obtaining more government funding, is not purely science. And the Virginia Supreme Court shouldn’t make us “just trust him.”

Paul H. Jossey is a lawyer living in Alexandria, Virginia. His policy interests include environmental and First Amendment issues.