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davesmith_au - the lighter side of eu


The AAAS - Climate Change Causes Blurred Vision
by Dave Smith

July 06, 2011
Death threats and personal attacks not withstanding, surely the professional integrity of ANY scientist should be open to investigation if evidence emerges of possible misconduct or misuse of essentially public funds. Without stating a position one way or the other on anthropogenic climate change, my understanding of the debacle was not that it was based on "displeasure with their scientific conclusions" but rather on evidence of possible falsification of data/results. There is a huge difference.
- davesmith_au Jul. 1, 2011 at 7:19am [11:19 UTC]
The above comment was submitted by this author to a ScienceNews article which claimed that [The AAAS Board] decries intimidation of researchers, expresses concern that public access to important data may be in jeopardy”. I also decry intimidation of researchers and am concerned that public access to important data may well be in jeopardy. However the article which followed this introductory statement was anything but supportive of the initial statement. It referred mainly to a statement issued by the Board of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) supposedly regarding personal attacks on climate scientists. When you read through the actual statement with a critical eye, you are left to wonder what purpose it could possibly serve, except to obfuscate the real issues of what came to be known as Climategate.

From the Statement of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Regarding Personal Attacks on Climate Scientists:
We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. ...
As would anyone be, if it were as cut and dried as that, but it isn't.
... Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public. This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems. ...
Harassment and death threats aside, legal challenges are a vital part of maintaining the integrity of any group which uses public funds. Whilst harassment and death threats may indeed create a hostile environment, legal challenges should not be included in the same sentence. Legal challenges (in this context) are surely designed to help establish factual information and scientific analyses or to expose falsification or malfeasance if it is present. Blurring these lines of distinction is disingenuous of the Board.
... AAAS vigorously opposes attacks on researchers that question their personal and professional integrity or threaten their safety based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions. ...
There are two problems with this sentence.

First, questioning the professional integrity of a scientist is not an attack. In this case it is the legal right of the taxpayers whose funds support the work of said scientist(s). Adding "personal integrity" and "threaten their safety" into this sentence is again blurring the lines of distinction.

This kind of statement is much like asking someone "Should I be allowed to disagree with, abuse and beat my wife?" The answer to the question as a whole, has to be "no", but the answer to the "disagree with" would, in most cases, be "yes". However the emotional response to the second and third parts is strong enough to elicit a "no" to the question without separating the individual segments of it or qualifying the answer.

Second, the whole sentence is qualified by the phrase “based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions”. Anyone with even an ounce of fair play would agree that this should not be considered a reason to question even the professional integrity of another. However, basing an investigation on evidence of possible misconduct is another matter entirely. More blurring of the lines.
... The progress of science and protection of its integrity depend on both full transparency about the details of scientific methodology and the freedom to follow the pursuit of knowledge. ...
No-one would argue with this. Strangely, this is exactly what prompted this investigation. That is, it appears certain scientists may not have been compliant with this very principle!
... The sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists. The latter serve only as a distraction and make no constructive contribution to the public discourse.
Again, who would disagree with the statement that unreasonable and excessive FOIA requests of the type and used for the purposes stated would make no constructive contribution to the public discourse? And why even compare any FOIA requests to the sharing of research data? This statement does not even address valid, reasonable FOIA requests, which should be welcomed by any body using public funds, to assist in their exoneration had their integrity been questioned where no wrong had been perpetrated. The very use of the terms "unreasonable" and "excessive" are, in this context, serving to subtly undermine the validity of the FOIA requests in question, and thus to distract from the proper public discourse. More blurring.
Scientists and policymakers may disagree over the scientific conclusions on climate change and other policy-relevant topics. But the scientific community has proven and well-established methods for resolving disagreements about research results. Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. ...
This segment of their statement is largely referring to the "peer-review" system, the efficacy of which is not only unproven, but also has been seriously criticized. Whilst the public is continually bombarded with the misconception that peer-review is almost faultless, the reality is that the "well-established method" of peer-review has no scientific basis for reliance upon it to deliver what is claimed, yet it is the very system upon which we rely to deliver good science!
... Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. ...
Here again, "fraud investigations" and "harassment" are used in the same sentence and tied to providing controversial results in a manner which begs agreement from the uncritical observer. Of course no-one should be harassed. Nor should anyone be investigated for providing controversial scientific results. But a fraud investigation is not about controversial results, it is about malfeasance, a very serious issue if found in any of the sciences. To be quite clear, a fraud investigation has nothing to do with controversial results, but is instigated upon substantial suspicion of fraudulent activity. More blurring.
... Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process. The scientific community takes seriously its responsibility for policing research misconduct, and extensive procedures exist to protect the rigor of the scientific method and to ensure the credibility of the research enterprise.
This may all be true, but that does not negate the fact that people can, and do, subvert procedures to achieve desired outcomes. This is why a proper investigation should be conducted if a reasonable suspicion of fraudulent activity exists.
While we fully understand that policymakers must integrate the best available scientific data with other factors when developing policies, we think it would be unfortunate if policymakers became the arbiters of scientific information and circumvented the peer-review process. ...
It would also be unfortunate if policy-makers were to integrate falsified data with other factors when developing policies. Likewise it would be unfortunate if scientists were immune from investigation when there is evidence to suspect that they may have abused or even rigged the peer-review process. More blurring.
... Moreover, we are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.
And last but not least, another incidence of qualifying a statement in a way in which it is difficult not to agree. Of course an aggressive inquiry should not be established simply because a scientist's findings are unpalatable. However, allegations of impropriety (supported by at least some tangible evidence, however obtained) demand at least a cursory investigation. If this supports the initial allegations, then a fraud investigation should follow. Those who have done nothing wrong, have no reason to fear such action. More blurring.

So what was it that inspired the AAAS Board to put together what is essentially a shabby, ambiguous and misleading document? Janet Raloff of DiscoveryNews explains:
Together with marine scientist Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington D.C., Orbach introduced a resolution at the May board meeting of the AAAS asking for a formal condemnation of the public intimidation of climate researchers. When I asked him what had triggered the move, he pointed to a succession of events in recent years, including:
  • a campaign by Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli to obtain access to research data by former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann (now at Penn State). Cuccinelli said he wanted to prosecute Mann or his university under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act for misuse of state funds
  • a petition by the American Tradition Institute (ATI) — a “free-market”-based think tank — demanding that the University of Virginia turn over thousands of e-mails and documents written by Mann
  • ATI’s January 19, 2011, filing of a Freedom of Information Act request for NASA to hand over documents detailing “whether and how ‘global warming’ activist Dr. James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) has complied with applicable federal ethics and financial disclosure laws and regulations, and NASA Rules of Behavior”
  • and news accounts of climate researchers receiving death threats in response to reports of their findings.
Aside from one newspaper article, from Australia no less (a Canberra Times article is the sole citation relevant to "news accounts"), the entire motivation for the Board's statement appears to be a response to legally valid requests for information regarding the possible misappropriation of public funding. This appears to be political maneuvering, nothing more and nothing less, and hypocritical in the extreme. The hypocrisy becomes clearly apparent when one considers the Board's thinly veiled accusations against Attorney General Cuccinelli contained in their first statement on what is essentially the same matter, Statement Concerning the Virginia Attorney General’s Investigation of Prof. Michael Mann’s Work While on the Faculty of University of Virginia:
... Mr. Cuccinelli’s investigation, unless based on a much more substantial body of evidence than is apparent, could inappropriately inhibit the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and thus limit the progress of science. ...
Do the Board seriously think any Attorney General is going to launch an investigation based on thin air? And how could an investigation into the actions of one scientist be construed as leading to the inhibition of free exchange of findings and limiting the progress of the whole of science? Looks like even more blurring of those pesky lines of distinction.
... the manner in which this investigation is being conducted and the lack of a clear rationale for it suggest that the investigation may be aimed at something other than financial malfeasance. ...
*Waiting for the other shoe to drop* ...
... Unless more clearly justified, Attorney General Cuccinelli’s apparently political action should be withdrawn.
Ah, there it is. Accusing an Attorney General of abusing his position to gain political advantage is outrageous unless accompanied by substantial evidence, and should in itself be cause to launch an investigation into the integrity of the AAAS Board. Of course, the Board included "unless" and "apparently" to qualify their sentence, so as to make it not quite an accusation, thus it's the accusation you make when you're not making an accusation. Seems a bit blurry.

What possible political outcome could Cuccinelli be seeking in launching a baseless investigation? I suggest it would be "career suicide" for any Attorney General to do such a thing.

And what of the AAAS and how it is now using its essentially public funds? Funded in large part by grants, dues and donations one wonders if is it appropriate for the AAAS to engage in this sort of political interference in what is a legal process and should be something viewed from the sidelines until the legalities are played out.

It's interesting to note that the second of their statements on this issue shares a large number of phrases from their first statement. The first was a response to Cuccinelli's attempt to investigate Michael Mann. Now that more FOIA petitions are in action, they've just widened the scope of their first statement. They claim to serve 10 million scientists yet the Board sees fit to spend its time producing statements relating to the records of just a handful of these 10 million. Remember we are not talking here of a letter or two in support of colleagues, but the management of a huge association spending time and effort to make official its support of a handful of scientists whose professional integrity is questioned. Surely they have better things to spend their time and money on than what is essentially propaganda.

It seems the whole climate change issue has severely blurred the vision of the AAAS.
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