U-Va. should fight Cuccinelli's faulty investigation of Michael Mann

Friday, May 7, 2010

WE KNEW Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) had declared war on reality. Now he has declared war on the freedom of academic inquiry as well. We hope that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the University of Virginia have the spine to repudiate Mr. Cuccinelli's abuse of the legal code. If they do not, the quality of Virginia's universities will suffer for years to come.

In his ongoing campaign to wish away human-induced climate change, Mr. Cuccinelli has targeted Michael Mann, a climate scientist who used to teach at the University of Virginia, investigating him for allegedly defrauding taxpayers by obtaining grants from the commonwealth to conduct research on global temperatures. The attorney general is demanding that the university turn over astonishingly vast numbers of e-mails and other documents relating to Mr. Mann, including all correspondence with a long list of other reputable scientists.

As ammunition for this chilling assault, Mr. Cuccinelli twists beyond recognition a statute designed to punish government contractors who use fake receipts to claim taxpayer funds and those who commit other such frauds. For Mr. Cuccinelli's "investigation" to have any merit, the attorney general must suppose that Mr. Mann "knowingly" presented "a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval." Mr. Cuccinelli's justification for this suspicion seems to be a series of e-mails that surfaced last year in which Mr. Mann wrote of a "trick" he used in one of his analyses, a term that referred to a method of presenting data to non-experts, not an effort to falsify results.

IN FACT, the scientific community, including a National Academy of Sciences panel, has pored over Mr. Mann's work for more than a decade, and though supporters and skeptics still disagree on much, it's clear that his conclusions are not obviously, premeditatedly fraudulent, particularly since they come with admissions about the uncertainties inherent to his work. Inquiries in Britain and one at Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Mann's current academic home, also absolved him of wrongdoing with regard to the e-mail controversy, the latter noting in particular that there is no evidence that he "suppressed or falsified data."

By equating controversial results with legal fraud, Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom. The remedy for unsatisfactory data or analysis is public criticism from peers and more data, not a politically tinged witch hunt or, worse, a civil penalty. Scientists and other academics inevitably will get things wrong, and they will use public funds in the process, because failure is as important to producing good scholarship as success. For the commonwealth to persecute scientists because one official or another dislikes their findings is the fastest way to cripple not only its stellar flagship university, but also its entire public higher education system.

That's why the university should immediately challenge the attorney general's "civil investigative demand" for documents, which the law allows, and which a university spokeswoman says it is considering. It's also why Mr. McDonnell should condemn the attorney general and aid the university, making it clear that Mr. Cuccinelli speaks only for himself.

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