Ken Cuccinelli seems determined to embarrass Virginia

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

When Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli II on Monday revived his anti-climate science crusade with a new, 30-page civil subpoena demanding boatloads of documents from the University of Virginia, we wondered what he might have discovered recently about the work of former U-Va. researcher Michael E. Mann, the object of the probe, that would justify further investigation. The answer: essentially nothing.

Slapped down once by a Virginia judge in his effort to investigate Mr. Mann, the attorney general is trying again with a screed that rehashes a lot of the old arguments about Mr. Mann's findings, including the complaint about his famous "hockey-stick" graph in 1998, which shows a spike in world temperature during the 20th century. What Mr. Cuccinelli doesn't discuss is a 2006 inquiry from the National Academy of Sciences on reconstructing historical temperature data, which found that Mr. Mann might better have used some different statistical techniques but that his methods weren't unacceptably poor. Instead, the academy stressed that his basic conclusions appear sound. Nor does Mr. Cuccinelli spend much effort discussing the fact that Penn State University, Mr. Mann's current employer, also cleared the scientist of scientific malfeasance this year; or the fact that subsequent study has supported Mr. Mann's essential findings; or the fact that, in response to criticism, Mr. Mann has refined his work since 1998 -- the normal give and take of academic work.

What's particularly astonishing, though, is that Mr. Cuccinelli's legal case against Mr. Mann seems unrelated to any of the controversial research the attorney general spends so much time attacking. Mr. Cuccinelli is supposedly investigating whether Mr. Mann committed fraud when the scientist applied for and received a state-funded research grant -- to study what Mr. Mann describes as "the interaction of the land, atmosphere and vegetation in the African savannah." The topic "has nothing to do with climate change or paleoclimate," Mann says. The attorney general appears to argue that, since Mr. Mann listed his controversial papers on his curriculum vitae when he and two other scientists applied for the savannah research grant, he may have committed some kind of fraud.

The attorney general's logic is so tenuous as to leave only one plausible explanation: that he is on a fishing expedition designed to intimidate and suppress honest research and the free exchange of ideas upon which science and academia both depend -- all because he does not like what science says about climate change. Among other things, the attorney general demands that U-Va. turn over any correspondence it may have between Mr. Mann and 39 other scientists. Mr. Mann points out that among those Mr. Cuccinelli did not list by name are the two other researchers on the African savannah research grant that the attorney general is supposedly investigating.

What is this farce costing? To defend itself from Mr. Cuccinelli's investigation into the distribution of a $214,700 research grant, the University of Virginia has spent $350,000, with more to come, and that doesn't count the taxpayer funds Mr. Cuccinelli is devoting to this cause. Sadly, though, that's the smallest of the costs. The damage to Virginia's reputation, and to its universities' ability to attract and retain top-notch faculty and students, will not be easily undone.

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