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Scientists And Law Suits – Greg Laden’s Blog

Here is an email sent by Professor Roger Pielke Jr to Professor Michael Mann:

Hi Mike-

I hope this finds you well. I see you quoted in the media characterizing my work, and in light of your ongoing lawsuit related to libel, I want to make sure that you have been quoted correctly.

*At Salon you characterized my work as “misinformation when it comes to the issue of human-caused climate change.”

*You also say there that my work: “completely ignores technological innovations (sturdier buildings, hurricane-resistant structures, etc)”

*At Climate Progress you say I am an “an individual who has displayed a pattern of sloppiness when it comes to the analysis of climate data”

Just to be clear, do you stand by the public claims as accurate representations of my scholarly work?

For the record I believe all three of these claims to be false and potentially libelous smears. Perhaps you were misquoted? I do request a response.

Many thanks,


Compared to academics, the Mafia is relatively benign. Why? Because the latter mainly kill their own. Or so it is said by the unquotable WA.

But most of the academic fighting happens within academia, which is, after all, set up as a fight club. And, the number one rule of Academic Fight Club is this: Never stop talking about Academic Fight Club. Or, it stops working. So, let’s talk.

If two sets of researchers disagree on something, there are mechanisms for them to work out their differences. Sometimes those mechanisms work, and sometimes they don’t.

The best mechanism is what I call, perhaps uninspiringly, the “honest conversation.” I’ve written about this before. I’ll give you an actual example of an honest conversation I had the pleasure of witnessing. A young scientist, an advanced level graduate student, had taken multiple core samples in fresh water bodies, and analyzed the samples using a range of techniques that each used a different high tech method. The results were confusing and contradictory. The lakes did not correlate with each other as expected, and within some of the lakes, the results from the different techniques did not correlated as expected either. So, for example, the amount of iron in the soil changed up and down in a certain pattern, indicating wetter vs. dryer periods, while the amount of sediment also varied, but in the opposite way (the more wet, the more sediment, usually). That sort of thing.

The young scientist had been invited to a major research center to discuss his previous project. This talk was being given at a federally funded center at a major land grant university. It was a good talk, and everyone learned, but during the talk he mentioned that he had this problem with these lake core data. So, the scientists who had invited him to give the talk suggested we meet the next day at the geology department and have a conversation.

The young man brought along his data, conveniently set up in slides (most of it) and showed us what he had. In the room was an expert on magnetics, a couple of isotope experts, an expert on sedimentation, an expert on pollen, a couple of climate change experts, and every one of these experts was an expert on fresh water lake coring and analysis. The person who invented the whole idea of fresh water lake coring was not present but most of the senior scientists in the room had been his students.

A conversation happened. The conversation had these goals:

1) Help the student understand what might have gone right or wrong with each of the multiple methods he was using.

2) Help the student understand how the lakes he was investigating may be working in a way different than expected.

3) Help the student understand how to improve his analysis of the existing data.

4) Help the student design, if appropriate, another phase of analyzing the existing cores, or if needed, getting some more cores, to address these questions.

Every one of those questions was advanced significantly, some of the open questions were just plain answered and put to rest, other questions were raised. The student’s work was advanced significantly, and several of the scientists in the room also advanced their own thinking, mainly about methods, by seeing an example of a set of problems and how they came about.

The conversation lacked these goals:

1) Proving that an idea some person had 23 years ago is correct regardless of what we have learned since then.

2) Making an ally or student look better than they deserved by denigrating someone else’s work.

3) Advancing a political agenda by playing fast and lose with the data.

4) Developing bogus evidence, or making a foundation-less accusation, that a scientist was acting dishonestly or in a fraudulent manner.

The first two of this second set of goals is what many academics do much of the time because they are assholes. There are a lot of assholes in the world of academia, mainly because there are few mechanisms to sort them out or re-focus them. But even the assholes know better than to do these things, so while List 2:1 and 2:2 happen often, depending on the sub-field and other factors, they can usually be controlled.

Items 3 and 4 on List 2 are more often done by marginal scientists who for some reason decide the mainstream is flowing in the wrong direction, or who are paid off or otherwise courted by an industry that is negatively affected by a growing scientific consensus (like, that smoking kills, etc.), or by non scientists who are working for politically motivated “think tanks” or “journalistic” outlets.

The term “honest” in “honest conversation” does not mean people are not telling lies, though that is certainly an expectation. Rather, it refers to intent. In an honest scientific conversation, everyone is honestly striving for the goal of advancing the understanding of a natural system. This means that other goals (self aggrandizement, political gain, etc.) are not part of the process.

So, let’s look at three examples of “conversations” that lack the characteristics of the so-called “Honest Conversation.” These are exemplified by: The circumstances leading to Mike Mann‘s law suit against various parties (it is complicated) including the National Review and Canadian shock-jock Mark Steyn; Roger Pielke, Jr’s threat against Mike Mann (see above); and the Jacobson-Clack action.

Mann vs. Steyn, National Review, etc.

In this case, various entities, mainly using the National Review, a politically motivated right wing outlet, including anti-environmental shock-jock Mark Steyn, attacked Mike Mann. That attack included clear statements that Mann had doctored his data and committed acts of fraud. As a result, Mann sued the parties for libel, and while this law suit is taking forever, Mann has won at each stage as the NR, Steyn, etc have tried to put the suit off, stop it, invalidate it, whatever. It really looks like Mann has a clear case and will win. He is not suing for financial gain, but rather, to make it less likely that politically motivated entities such as radio jocks and biased media outlets act in a nefarious manner in relation to important scientific issues in the future.

But, Mann’s suit is constantly misrepresented by the same forces that oppose the research, mainly climate change deniers. This misrepresentation happens mainly in two ways. One is to say that Mann did cook the data and won’t let anyone see the data on which is research is based. This accusation has probably been made 200 or more times just on my blog, in the comments sections of various posts. It is simply false. The data were not cooked and the data are available.

The second misrepresentation is that Mann is suing people who do not agree with his scientific conclusions. This is, however not what the suit is about. To know what the suit is about all you have to do is re-read the last few paragraphs because I already told you. But I’ll say it again because Dale Carnegie was right. The suit is about libel, about statements that Mann committed a fraudulent, illegal act.

Did I mention that Mann’s suit is about libel, that the suit is regarded as very likely winnable, and that every decision made so far along the long and complicated legal process has favored the suit — the libel suit — the suit that is not about the science, but rather, about incorrect and inappropriate, potentially damaging accusations of illegal activity? Oh, I did mention that? Great! Now you know!

Roger Pielke, Jr. Versus the World

Roger Pielke Jr. is a political scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Earlier in his career he carried out what could have been an interesting analysis of the effects of hurricanes in the Atlantic, not looking at the climatology, but rather, the economic impacts. One might ask how a political scientists is qualified to do research that combines climate change and economics, but the analysis was more of a statistical one than anything else, and we all know how to use spreadsheets.

However, one could argue that RPJr’s analysis was flawed, possibly in a couple of ways. Here is my opinion on what is potentially wrong with this work.

Say we are interested in understanding the negative effects of hurricanes and how they may change over time with change in other things, including but not limited to global warming. Hurricanes occur in all the tropical ocean basins around the world, but each basin is distinctively different from the others. For example, Eastern Pacific hurricanes almost never hit land, while western Pacific ones very often do. The Atlantic basin is very quirky owing to its small size, odd shape (getting smaller as one goes north), strange continental or quasi-continental features such as the Rocky Mountains (yes, that affects the basin), the Gulf of Mexico (big factor), and the islands, mainly the Greater Antilles (which is a thing I can never mention without thinking about my dear departed Great Aunt Tillie … but I digress).

Roger wanted to study the effects of hurricanes hitting land.

So, here’s the problem. Globally, we have all these hurricanes. The Atlantic is a quirky subset of hurricanes which, statistically speaking, are poorly behaved. Whether or not a hurricane makes landfall is itself a quirky thing, and whether or not even a landfalling hurricane actually hits something it can seriously damage is quirky. We have had a number of famous historic hurricanes that were much worse than average because they happen to hit a very vulnerable and densely populated area. A few miles one way or another, and that same hurricane would have joined the set of similar sized storms that we don’t remember as universally because they were not quite as disastrous.

So let me give you an analogy. Say I want to study the gambling behavior of people at a certain casino. I could just go to the casino, randomly chose gamblers, making sure to cover different days and times of day, etc., and interview them systematically.

Or, I could do this: Go to the parking lot, and watch the gamblers leaving. I want to have a reason to approach them, so I wait until I see gamblers who are clearly demonstrative of something related to winning. Like, walking along with their friends and giving each other fist bumps, and saying things like, “all right, that was great” and so on. I’ll approach them, and say, “you seem really happy, can I ask you a few questions, and for your time, I’ll give you this free casino poker chip?”

That would be a pretty bad methodology, because of the myriad known and unknown biases that such a sampling technique produces.

Now, with that analogy in mind, go back to Roger’s research. If you want to know if hurricane like storms are getting worse over time, study the hurricanes. All of them. We track all of them, and have plenty of data on them. But what Roger has done is to take a quirky subset of them (the Atlantic storms) and of those, took a quirky subset of them (those that made landfall) and, if I’m not mistaken, he has also excluded one major hurricane, Sandy, from the sample for very bad reasons (but I may be confusing that with a different researcher, not sure).

I say above that Roger’s research topic is interesting and the research could be interesting, but something went wrong. This seems to be, at least in my opinion but I think this is a widely held opinion, that he has taken his interpretation of the quirky data he deals with and broadened it to make general statements about hurricanes, claiming that a result of global warming is NOT to see in increase in hurricane damage over time. He attributes most of this to the fact that we are adapting to hurricanes, but he uses what many see as an inappropriate measure of that, which is percentage of GDP that a particular year’s worth of hurricane disasters represents. This has at least two problems. One is that major damage to natural areas or major damage to poor settled areas are under represented. The other is that a year with several major disasters will have an increase in GDP because, the way GDP is counted, our response to major disasters inflates that number. This means that the cost of disasters adjusted for GDP is an inappropriate measure because the magnitude of costs of disasters is correlated with GDP.

These considerations of Roger’s work are widely held in the climate science community. Roger has never, seemingly, changed his mind about this work. I would have expected him to engage in what could have been an honest conversation, and reorient his research questions and adapt his methodological approach to do some really interesting research at the intersection of climate science, global economics, and political policy. But instead, he’s mostly doubled down on his work, and has gotten terribly defensive. I can no longer follow his work using Twitter because my own comments to him, which weren’t particularly bad or anything, but showed a disagreement, caused him to block me. In fact, almost everybody I know is blocked by Roger. He doesn’t want to hear criticisms.

But, he does like to threaten. See the email above.

Professor Mann has a tweeted response to Roger’s missive:

Jacobson vs. Clack

I’m not going to say a lot about this particular issue but I want to make a point or two. I’ll try to give a fair summary of events thus far.

One team of researchers, led by Mark Jacobson, wrote a paper claiming that we could transition our economy to 100% renewables over a certain point of time if certain things happened. This research involved running a model that made certain assumptions.

A different team led by Christopher Clack wrote a paper saying that the Jacobson team was all wet, and making some specific claims about the model and assumptions.

This was all carried out in the peer reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Jacobson, as per normal, saw the Clack response and made comments on it, providing clarification and information. However, according to Jacobson, Clack ignored some of those data. Furthermore, PNAS, according to Jacobson, failed to act in a correct and professional manner in their handling of the matter.

When word of the suit broke, via a very biased and non-journalistic web site (apparently), almost everybody in the field responded by saying that this was a terrible idea, that academics should not settle things by law suit, that there are mechanisms to work out differences, etc. etc.

Amid these comments flying around the Internet, there was one comment that was different. I won’t say who made it because it was made in private, but it said, roughly, “don’t assume this law suit is bogus. Look at the details. There might be something here.”

Since the person who made the comment is a trusted friend who often sees the forest through the trees, and I had learned to pay attention to his contradictions, always made as part of the longer, on going, honest conversation, I got a copy of the law suit and read it. He was right.

There are two parts of this controversy. One is in the scientific interpretation of the problem, the use of methods, the outcome of those methods, and the interpretation thereof. The other is in the handling of the process and the ensuing meaning, which does in fact include a part that can be interpreted as one scientific team making the public accusation that another team acted fraudulently. Not just stupidly, not just wrongly as in getting it wrong, but feloniously, or something close to that.

And, the same can be said, potentially of the journal PNSAS, also named in the suit.

The following two things can be true at once: 1) When academics sue over reaction to their work, there will be all sorts of trouble, perhaps unrelated to the suit, and it really is generally not a good way of settling differences; and 2) after you try to settle all the differences the usual way, it may sometimes be appropriate to sue.

I have exactly two opinions about the Jacobson vs. Clack dust up. 1) Almost everyone who has expressed an opinion about it is embarrassingly full of it. The first round of opinions were clearly made by folks who never read the suit. The second round of comments is mostly being made by people chagrined into doing their homework, but are stuck in List 2:1 mode. They said things before they seem to want to defend even with new information that they might want to change their minds.

My second opinion about the suit is this: I have no idea if this suit is appropriate. It is not, to me, a clear case like the Mann vs. NR/Steyn suit is. that may be in part because it is between teams of researchers and a real journal, while the Mann suit is an entity within academics defending science generally from outside politically motivated nefarious forces funded by big petroleum. But even that may not be so simple if, for example, the Clack team had something going on along these lines (I do not know this to be the case but some have suggested it, that they are somewhat anti-energy-transition for some reason).

Science vs. the Barbarians at the Gate

And, of course, these things are all tied together.

It all comes down to Arminius and his duplicitous betrayal of Publius Quinctilius Varus. I’m sure you know what I mean, but I’ll expand just in case.

Arminius, also known these days as Herman the German, was a subaltern to Varus, the Roman general who controlled much of what is now known as Germany and environs. Arminius used his inside status and knowledge to turn the Germans successfully against Varus in one of the most stunningly unexpected and thorough defeats in known military history. The Romans were driven out of the region never to return.

It is easy to see the enemies of science, across the trenches, lobbing mortars, sniping, being a general nuisance but, since science is powerful, only making the occasional gain during their long slogging retreat.

The real danger is when one’s own betray. Not a scientific difference, or a difference in approach, or a difference, well meaning, in interpretation between researchers. Rather, someone or some group who could be regarded as part of the scientific community, using that credibility to advance an anti scientific agenda. Those are the people who get called to testify before Republican-run “science” committees in the US Congress, tossing their false pearls before real swine, giving credibility to manufactured dissent bought and paid for by a small number of wealthy individuals who’s hands rest firmly on the levers of economic power.

The the war on science is waged on these two fronts, the overt and the internal, and it is the latter that is the most dangerous. The Mann vs. NR/Steyn case is an example of the former. These other two situations could, but hopefully will not, develop into examples of the latter.

Those waging the open and conventional war are now using the Jacobson vs. Clack case as an example of a frivolous or improper action, and using that, in turn, to try to devalue the very appropriate Mann vs NR/Steyn suit. And, in an awful twist, Roger is piling on that bandwagon. Part of me wants to see Jacobson vs. Clack validated and developed and fully legitimized, or alternately, quickly settled so it goes away fast, not because of the merits of the suit one way or the other, but because we don’t need to give Steyn and his accolades, or the hapless Roger, this mound of mud to sling about, like they do.

Documents related to Jacobson vs. Clack:
Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes, by Jacobson et al

Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar, by Clack et al.

Line-by-Line Response by M.Z. Jacobson, M.A. Delucchi to Evaluation of a proposal for reliable low-cost grid power with 100% wind, water, and solar

The law suit itself was formerly available as a PDF file but permission to access that file has been withdrawn. But that’s OK, I have a copy of it: LARGE FILE: Download Jacobson vs Clack Law Suit Here (32 MB PDF file)

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On – 16 Nov, 2017 By Greg Laden

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