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Ronald Bailey: Climategate And Freedom Of Information

Last week, the University of Virginia turned over nearly 4,000 pages of data and emails relating to the research of climatologist Michael Mann (who was then at UVA), the lead researcher on the notorious “Hockey Stick” temperature graph. The data underlaying that graph purportedly showed that the 20th century as the hottest century in the last 1,000 years. A couple of skeptical Canadian researchers Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick later attacked the statistical method used to process the raw data. In 2005, Technology Review reported:

McIntyre and McKitrick obtained part of the program that Mann used, and they found serious problems. Not only does the program not do conventional PCA, but it handles data normalization in a way that can only be described as mistaken.

Now comes the real shocker. This improper normalization procedure tends to emphasize any data that do have the hockey stick shape, and to suppress all data that do not. To demonstrate this effect, McIntyre and McKitrick created some meaningless test data that had, on average, no trends. This method of generating random data is called Monte Carlo analysis, after the famous casino, and it is widely used in statistical analysis to test procedures. When McIntyre and McKitrick fed these random data into the Mann procedure, out popped a hockey stick shape!

The Hockey Stick remains controversial, but some more recent research has tended to confirm its general conclusion about the trends in global warming.

Mann was also one of the researchers whose sometimes less-than-objective emails were released in theClimategate scandal. The Climategate emails and data have spurred skeptics to seek further information about how climate science has been conducted and negotiated among researchers. In Virginia, the state Attorney-General Ken Cuccinelli (R) and the market-oriented think tank, theAmerican Tradition Institute (ATI) have been seeking access to Mann’s emails and other research under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (VFOIA). In May, a state judge ordered UVA to release the Mann data and emails under the VFOIA. Last week, ScienceInsider reported:

Months after a request from a Virginia politician and a conservative think tank, the University of Virginia (UVA) has turned over documents related to embattled scientist Michael Mann’s research into the history of Earth’s climate. But what the petitioners really want to see may still be at large…

In a press release this afternoon, ATI said it had received “a 4.3 megabyte disk that contains 3,827 pages” of data. Paul Chesser, ATI’s executive director, said ATI staff members had not had a chance to review the contents. “We think we got a third” of the documents requested, Chesser said. Mann, who says the university is keeping him abreast of the documents it releases, says they consist of routine e-mail messages and similar “boilerplate.” …

“U.Va has not turned over emails related to discussions of research, unpublished manuscripts, private discussions between scientists about science, etc.,–i.e., any of the materials that are exempt from release by state law,” Mann wrote in an e-mail message. “U.Va has simply turned over the non-exempt emails, and many of these were turned over to ATI months ago.”

Interestingly, the National Science Foundation which funded some of Mann’s research issued a research misconduct investigation closeout memorandum concerning Mann. That memo concluded [PDF]:

To recommend a finding of research misconduct, the preponderance of the evidence must show that with culpable intent the Subject committed an act that meets the definition of research misconduct (in this case, data fabrication or data falsification).

The research in question was originally completed over 10 years ago. Although the Subject’s data is still available and still the focus of significant critical examination, no direct evidence has been presented that indicates the Subject fabricated the raw data he used for his research or falsified his results. Much of the current debate focuses on the viability of the statistical procedures he eniployed, the statistics used to confirm the accuracy of the results, and the degree to which one specific set of data impacts the statistical results. These concerns are all appropriate for scientific debate and to assist the research community in directing future research efforts to improve understanding in this field of research. Such scientific debate is ongoing but does not, in itself, constitute evidence of research misconduct.

Lacking any direct evidence of research misconduct, as defined under the NSF Research Misconduct Regulation, we are closing this investigation with no further action. …

Finding no research misconduct or other matter raised by the various regulations and laws discussed above, this case is closed.

It will be interesting to see if ATI actually uncovers anything that suggests witting misconduct, but my suspicion is that the most the institute will find is research confirmation bias, if that.

See also my earlier post on Climate Change FOIA Hypocrisy where I urge:

Instead of engaging in FOIA battles which fuel conspiracy theories, the real solution is for publicly funded researchers to embrace research transparency, putting all their data and methods online for everyone to see.