Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Repressing Science in VA

Something astonishing is going on in Virginia. Michael Mann, a climatologist at University of Virginia until 2005, is being targeted by the state's attorney general with what is being called a fraud investigation into years-old research and grant funding.  Nature calls it a "witch hunt" in this article.  See The Chronicle in this article.  Related articles are here and here.  The most telling quote is:
"Throughout his career, he has shown that he is a man of deep, deep political commitment," says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. "He seldom shrinks from applying those views when he has the power to do so."

Mr. Cuccinelli, Mr. Mayer says, "really believes that global warming is a hoax." And, politically, "there's not really a downside for launching an investigation" of a university professor, Mr. Mayer says, because Mr. Cuccinelli probably counts few professors among his supporters. "He doesn't lose any votes from his base; he certainly gains more national credibility" in the Republican Party.
Mann is a main contributor to, but I found no reference to this there.

It's tempting to draw the parallel to other misguided individuals, who let ideology trump scientific inquiry, e.g. (from Wikipedia):
Lysenko was put in charge of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the Soviet Union and made responsible for ending the propagation of "harmful" ideas among Soviet scientists. Lysenko served this purpose by causing the expulsion, imprisonment, and death of hundreds of scientists and eliminating all study and research involving Mendelian genetics throughout the Soviet Union. This period is known as Lysenkoism. He bears particular responsibility for the persecution of his predecessor and rival, prominent Soviet biologist Nikolai Vavilov, which ended in 1943 with the imprisoned Vavilov's death by starvation. In 1941 Lysenko was awarded the Stalin Prize.
But this isn't the Soviet Union, and this case seems more like a populist-driven crusade than a top-down enforced conformity to an ideal.  If the voters allow this, this is a real indication that the education system has failed.  The Nature article puts it like this:
Cuccinelli's actions against Mann hark back to an era when tobacco companies smeared researchers as part of a sophisticated public relations strategy to raise doubts over the science showing that tobacco caused cancer, and delayed the introduction of smoking curbs for decades. Researchers found themselves bogged down in responding to subpoenas and legal challenges, which deterred others from the field. Climate-change deniers have adopted similar strategies with alacrity and, unfortunately, considerable success.
As someone said, in a democracy people get the government they deserve.

If you want to see what the blogosphere has to say, here's a link to technorati.

Update: U Va decides to fight back  


  1. I don't know, Dave. These articles don't give me enough information to come to much of a conclusion other than Nature and the Chronicle are protecting their own. They don't like conservatives and Cucinelli seems to be especially guilty of being one. Maybe he is on a fishing expedition, but I suspect that the objections you've pointed to are mostly concerned with whose ox is being gored (and who's doing the goring) rather than supporting on some putative principle, of freedom of inquiry or such. Are you sure this isn't a simple question of promoting interests?

  2. Bob, I do think it's a case of promoting interests: it's obviously a politically motivated attack to distract and discredit Mann and climate science in general. It is particularly telling that this is a subpoena without a lawsuit.

    Should Nature and the Chronicle (and others) simply remain mum lest they seem to be biased? Judging from the Nature coverage of the stem cell researcher Hwang, who was discovered to have falsified data, the journal does not "protect its own" when legitimate problems arise.