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Friday, August 24, 2012

UVa, GMU, Wegman, Sullivan, Mann: MUST READ!!! "Why Thomas Jefferson's university is killing off climate science"


by Das Krapital, August 23, 2012

The state of American higher education is a lot scarier than global warming. Americans accept as a veritable law of physics that if academics are fighting bitterly about something, it’s because the stakes are so low. But earlier this summer when the board of trustees of the University of Virginia suddenly and inexplicably fired the school’s president Teresa Sullivan, the community correctly sensed something big was at stake.

What exactly that was is still unknown; within weeks of the ouster the coup’s architects got so sick of being asked what the president had done to cross the university's shadow masters that they simply reinstated her. But in lieu of an explanation that might reveal the nature of the stakes in question, the media has deployed an amusing series of memes to cast the coup as the product of a simple clash of cultures or possibly dress sizes that had turned the board against her.
The latest concerns “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender, and Identity”, a section of the required freshman writing seminar conceived and taught last year by a poetry MFA student that was mentioned in a December 2011 blog post on the Heritage Foundation website bemoaning the supposed abandonment of “Western civilization” classes in service of the supposed “Lady Gaga-fication of Higher Ed.”
Not four hours after the post went live, property developer and coup conspirator Rector Helen Dragas had sent a snippy email about it to Sullivan and the school’s provost, cc-ing her co-conspirator and former vice rector Mark Kington, an Alexandria money manager. Dutifully the provost explained that the course was just one of over a hundred sections of the required writing seminar the university offers each year, but this only seemed to goad her.
“I appreciate that the course subject—writing—“can be defended,” she replied, “but the title of the course and the headline of the article probably aren't helping us justify funding requests from parents, taxpayers and legislators.”
Lady Gaga Studies was hardly the only department Dragas and the coup masterminds felt Sullivan “lacked the mettle” to shut down, as the Washington Post reported in the wake of the ouster; they also wanted to eliminate “obscure academic departments in classics and German.” They had plenty of experience deep-sixing studies in the form of billionaire board member Randal Kirk, who had given nine underperforming departments two weeks to justify their continued existence when he chaired the board of nearby Radford University; chemistry, physics and math were three of them.
But the sorest subject of all for UVA is climate science. UVA is the former employer of the paleoclimatologist Michael Mann, the lead scientist in the team that produced the so-called “hockey stick” graph of historical temperatures depicting a decisive warming effect starting in the twentieth century. No doubt in some part because “Mann-made global warming” is such an irresistible pun, Mann has also been the unlucky target of the single most vicious fossil fuel-funded personal and professional smear campaign in his endlessly abused field.
The War on Mann began three years after the hockey stick first appeared as part of what Mann describes in his recent bookas the “least scientifically interesting” section of a paper he and two colleagues published in the journal Nature, when Mann was working at UVA and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change reprinted the graph in its 2001 assessment report. Since then he has been stalked, hacked, spied on by a weird dude who claims to be a CIA veteran and subject to constant formal and informal accusations of scientific misconduct, fraud, treason and so forth. The most recent spate of allegations stems from some deliberately decontextualized comments he made in listserv emails that were hacked from the the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in the Climategate saga of 2009. Numerous investigations have thoroughly exonerated Mann; all have been pronounced whitewashes and/or coverups by the Denial lobby. In a nod to his current employer Penn State, the Competitive Enterprise Institute recently bestowed upon him a new nickname, the “Jerry Sandusky of climate change.” 
In the weeks before Sullivan’s ouster, the UVA environmental sciences faculty voted to bring Mann back to Thomas Jefferson's University in a prestigious professorship endowed by vice rector Mark Kington, one of the coup’s main conspirators. Sullivan vociferously endorsed the hire, according to a UVA alumnus active in Charlottesville political ciricles. But it was nixed without explanation by Margaret Woo, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a strident supporter of the Sullivan’s ouster.
At least one professor quit in part over the episode; in his August 15 resignation letter climate scientist Amato Evan referenced an apparent decision by the department  to give up “even attempting to make a senior hire in the area of climate change.”
To fully appreciate what it means for an institution of UVA’s academic stature to abandon such a field, it helps to think of climate science as something more like “rocket science.” Which is to say, “way beyond the ken of you and me and probably even most property developers”, but also in the more direct sense that its development relies on the same funding streams. Mann’s most famous predecessors in the field work incited the ire and harrassment of the denial lobby from jobs at NASAand Lawrence Livermore. Like rocket science, climate science not an automatic cash cow guaranteed to reel in donations or produces marketable patents, and its graduates do not usually go on to grace billionaires lists or Fortune 500 boards. During the Cold War we sustained its study anyway because civilization as we knew it was theoretically at stake; today we sustain it because civilization is literally at stake.

Gaga for FOIA

Helpfully, there is a dubious seminar we can scapegoat for western civilization’s very literal abandonment by the Virginia higher education establishment on offer a couple hours north at George Mason University, the former northern Virginia extension campus of UVA and the embodiment of corporatized university governance. It’s called Law 276 or “Federalism Litigation Practice”, and its syllabus bills itself as an “introduction on how to sue the government when it does what it should not do.” And yes, Virginia: “the government” includes your universities.
The instructor of the most recent section of Law 276 is David Schnare, a GMU law alumnus who sued both UVA and Texas Tech last year for alleged failure to fully comply with incredibly broad Freedom of Information Act requests he had filed on climate scientists. Last year Schnare and his regular collaborator, Competitive Enterprise Institute litigation director Chris Horner, launched a nonprofit legal clinic based at Schnare’s house called the George Mason Environmental Law Clinic with the goal of recruiting GMU law students to pursue similar cases against, inter alia, the University of Arizona, the National Science Foundation, and a think tank affiliated with Harvard University; this summer Schnare and Horner also opened a new FOIA campaign against Texas A&M University under the imprimatur of their other think tank the American Tradition Institute. (The clinic has since changed its name to the Free Market Environmental Law Clinic but explains on itswebsite that it “remains in close cooperation with GMU Law” its does not currently offer externships to students at any other school.)
The idea behind the onslaught of FOIA demands is threefold. They waste time and resources, especially on the part of climate scientists. Over the years they have successfully driven environmental scientists out of the field entirely, and with UVA it looks as though they might have started to drive an entire educational institution away. And the more personal email they get their hands on, the more likely they are to find something that seems, to the science skeptical segment of the population anyway, somehow incriminating. The so-called “Climategate” hack into the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in 2009 yielded 1,043 emails; Schnare seeks more than 12,000 of Mann’s emails from UVA alone.
What Schnare’s case against UVA lacks in merit it makes up for in highly placed ideological allies. Most famous is Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, a fellow GMU Law alumnus who spent two years in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to subpoena the documents he seeks under a state fraud statute. But in a legal brief filed last week Schnare also claimed a potentially more important ally: the UVA Board of Visitors. In the wake of official exonerations of Mann on Climategate-related charges in independent investigations conducted by both Penn State and the National Science Foundation, the UVA Board “suggested the school get to the bottom of what transpired” with its own investigation:
Now, I can't do much to illuminate the motives behind the UVA Board's desire to shut down German or the classics—as I have pointed out it seems downright irrational for a pharmaceutical billionaire to downsize the chemistry department, but it happened—but climate science is different.   As I've pointed out, UVA shares two board members and a former rector with the coal-heavy utility Dominion Resources—and those board members are Dragas and Kington. Another Visitor just made a fortune on the sale of his family coal mining business to a guy who told the New York Times he believes climate scientists to be “clinically insane.”
That said, I don't want to suggest the coup was some sort of straightforward coal-fired petrodollar conspiracy, because I am certain there is more nuance to it than that, which is why UVA's old sister school GMU is so important here. In many ways GMU functions as a state-subsidized clearinghouse for corporate lobbying interests, and while Koch Industries is chief (on the GMU campus and the GOP caucus) among them, it's much bigger than that, and it couldn't have gotten that way without a halfway coherent and semi-consistent institutional philosophy behind it. This philosophy is most striking to encounter at the university's law school, because it is so inherently hostile to the law itself and most institutions charged with upholding and enforcing it, as a GMU Law student described his education to me in an email last year:
My torts professor teaches products liability; he opens discussion about by wondering whether liability law is truly necessary. My contracts professor ended his year-long course lamenting the presence of unions as infringements on the longstanding tradition of “liberty of contract.” I took an environmental law course and the professor must have asked us a dozen or twenty times whether the laws are too draconian.  The professors…frequently justify disturbing legal outcomes through “market decisions.”  
You might think such an anarchic ideology might conflict with the ostensible mission of turning out graduates who can, you know, practice the law. But you'd be wrong, because GMU is actually a hugely influential force within the legal profession, and it's not least because of the kinds of laws you learn about in classes like Schnare’s Law 276 seminar, whose syllabus promises a guided tour of obscure laws and legal tactics deployed by corporate lobbyists, at least three of which—the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1979, the Regulatory Flexibility Act of 1980 and the Data Quality Act of 2001—were designed and/or drafted by one particularly resourceful practitioner of the art, Jim Tozzi.
In general Tozzi’s laws serve to prevent government regulators from regulating. During Tozzi’s heyday in the Reagan Office of Management and Budget he was nicknamed “Stealth” and subject to a slew of awestruck newspaper profiles for playing the role the Wall Street Journal described as “an informal court of last resort for people—usually representatives of big companies—who see themselves threatened by the prospect of a new federal regulation.” More often than not Tozzi sabotaged new rules simply by producing a cost benefit analysis “proving” that the costs of said regulation would outweigh its benefits; “paralysis by analysis” was the point. Beyond his staff of eighty Tozzi’s efforts were assisted by the growing community of deregulatory think tanks, most of which were either formally or informally affiliated with George Mason University.
No well-intentioned regulator is safe from the Tozzi method: in his (awesome) new book Bailout former TARP Inspector General Neil Barofsky describes a surreal phone call from a taciturn OMB staffer advising him that his plan to subpoena the banks for information on what they’d done with their bailout money violates the Paperwork Reduction Act; earlier this summer a toy retailer invoked the statute to dispute a new Consumer Product Safety Commission rule on crib purchases. But more often than not the regulation in the crosshairs of the George Mason paralysis analysis crowd involves environmental protection, which is why its most elaborate sabotage efforts—for which Tozzi earned his own chapter in Chris Mooney's 2005 book The Republican War On Science—have been reserved for climate scientists.

Denial U

In Mann’s case the campaign has involved the labors of as many PhD holders as it has lawyers. There too you’ll find no shortage of GMU professors. physicist S. Fred Singer, whom Rolling Stone in 2010 named the “granddaddy of fake ‘science’”, was a GMU professor for almost 20 years. Environmental scientist Patrick J. Michaels of the Cato Institute, another very prolific longtime climate change skeptic, taught a graduate class in 2010 with the Data Quality Act featured prominently on the syllabus. Prominent “lukewarmer” James Trefil is a GMU physics professor.*  
After the first major academic rebuttal of the hockey stick study was determined to be so flawed—it would later also turn out to be partially funded by the American Petroleum Institute—that five of editors of the journal Climate Research resigned in protest to its publication, a pair of “amateur” skeptics based in Canada claimed to have discovered a massive new flaw in Mann’s paper pertaining to its statistical methodology. In 2005 Jerry Coffey, a Tozzi associate charged with recruiting a professional statistician to produce a paper validating the new critique, tapped GMU statistics professor Edward J. Wegman for the job.
Which brings us to what may be the most disturbing chapter in this higher education saga. Wegman’s ensuing paper, which was submitted into the Congressional Record in 2006 and published in the academic journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis in 2008, not only rehashed the Canadians’ (discredited) argument that the “hockey stick” pattern was solely generated by his statistical methodology, it added a section purporting to deploy social networking analysis to dismiss the entire field of paleoclimatology as too incestuous to trust the usual “peer review” process that had vindicated Mann’s work so many times. But Wegman was neither a professional climate scientist nor a professional denialist, and since he lacked the tenacity of the hockey stick’s innumerable other foes, even some climate skeptics—namely Hans von Storch, who testified at a hearing with Wegman and Mann that Wegman’s critique was “irrelevant”—wrote it off as a wash.
But in the wake of Climategate, the anonymously authored blog Deep Climate began revisiting some of the field’s previous skirmishes with the denial lobby in hopes of contextualizing the hack for readers, and almost immediately realized it had been an epic work of amalgamated plagiarism. The social networking section had been copied virtually verbatim from the Wikipedia entry for “social networking analysis” and a classic sociology text it references liberally. The explanation of paleoclimatology shared huge chunks with a book supposedly written by the professional skeptic Donald Rapp. Perhaps most shamelessly, other passages had been duplicated with minimal edits from a textbook written by Mann’s longtime collaborator Raymond Bradley, the second name on the hockey stick papers. In March 2010, about two weeks before Cuccinelli served UVA with his first civil investigative demand into Mann, Bradley filed a formal complaint with GMU. It took more than a year for the administration to get back to him with an initial request for an interview—by which pointCSDA had officially retracted the paper for containing “portions of other authors’ writings on the same topic in other publications, without sufficient attribution” and Nature had published an editorial admonishing the GMU administration for its glacial response.

Lies, Statisticians, and…well, mostly lies

Tellingly, a USA Today story on the retraction quoted Wegman’s lawyer Milton Johns unequivocally denying that either Wegman or his protege and co-author Yasmin Said had “ever engaged in plagiarism.” Johns, another GMU Law alumnus, is Ken Cuccinelli’s former law partner. By that point bloggers and professors had alerted the GMU administration to multiple incidences of obvious plagiarism dating back to 1996 throughout the (in many cases federally funded) thought output of Wegman and his graduate students. Five pages of Said’s doctoral dissertation, awarded “Best of Year” by the GMU statistics department, appear to have been copy-pasted-very-slightly-modified from a website about ethanol kept by a University of Wisconsin professor. But when GMU finally announced the results of its own investigation of Wegman in February of this year, it absolved the professors of academic misconduct outside the previously acknowledged plagiarism in the CDSA paper—even exonerating the pair of any misconduct in the original report to Congress from which that paper had been adapted, despite the fact that that version contained more than 30 additional pages of obvious (see below) plagiarism than the journal article—much of which was then subsequently re-plagiarized into the dissertations of two of Wegman's graduate students. 
In a letter to professors announcing the findings, Provost Peter Stearns apologized mostly for the negative publicity the case had attracted:
While University actions to this point have been confidential, as our policy properly stipulates, the case has received wide publicity from other sources, however inappropriately.
But the fact was that with the rule-proving exception of USA Today, the Wegman case had gotten virtually no mainstream publicity. The Washington Post ran 44 stories about Cuccinelli’s fishing expedition into the files of “climate warrior” Michael Mann, but never touched the Wegman saga. It’s doubtful Wegman would have been reprimanded at all if not for the tireless pro bono investigative services of John Mashey, a retired Silicon Valley computer scientist who has devoted the better part of three years to examining Climategate and the Wegman case in the context of what he calls the “money and meme-laundering” activities of the larger climate science denial lobby and synthesizing his findings into long, heroically comprehensive reports like “See No Evil, Speak Little Truth, Break Rules, Blame Others,” released Monday on the denial watchdog site DeSmogBlog.
Mashey’s portrait of GMU is not simply damning, it is—to use a word that appears nine times in the otherwise restrained report—absurd. Stearns’ letter had claimed that the report to Congress and the CDSA paper had been investigated by two separate committees; a subsequent FOIA request filed by USA Today reporter Dan Vergano revealed that to be a lie. The administrator who responded to the FOIA request claimed Bradley had “refused” an interview with the committee; that also was a lie. Wegman had blamed the Naval Surface Warfare Center, where some of his graduate students had worked, for blocking disclosure of the statistics code he had used in the report—yet another lie.
But in Virginia this culture of mendacity simply marks GMU as a model of institutional harmony. Alan Merten, who retired last year after a 15-year tenure as GMU president, even took the opportunity of the botched UVA coup to wax nostalgic about his cozy relationship with longtime GMU rector Edwin Meese (yes that one) in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
"Ed called me in midst of the U.Va. issue and said, 'You know, Alan, I don't think that could have happened to us because we were constantly talking to each other,'" Merten said. "We didn't agree on a lot of stuff, but we were always talking."
In lieu of a conclusion, I'll leave you with an observation plagiarized from a 2009 Times of London interview with a prominent performance artist and cultural critic:
We as a society are taught politically and religiously that the Apocalypse is coming, it's on its way. But what I'm saying is, ‘We're there right now: this is the Apocalypse.' The fact that we're surrounded by cement and we've already killed everything means the Apocalypse has happened.
Words to live by, Teresa Sullivan.
*The denial contingent in GMU’s economics department and law school is too big to bother quantifying; I will save the related story of how its entire economics department has operated as a de facto Republican lobbying shop since the 1980s for another time.


dbostrom said...

...Competitive Enterprise Institute recently bestowed upon [Mann] a new nickname, the “Jerry Sandusky of climate change.”

Those are some pretty filthy people at CEI. That foul allusion is also a fine indicator of just how far extremists like CEI have warped our tolerance; in any normal discussion Mann would instantly be dropped as a topic of discussion, to be replaced by CEI itself. Remarkable.

When outfits like Heartland draw a line between the Unabomber and scientists and push our boundaries of tolerance, after Heartland's shaming the public mind does not elastically resume its former position; each time the verbal boundary of propriety is stretched, it's also strained in the technical sense, permanently changed. CEI grabbed the bar at the point it was left by Heartland and has bent it a little bit more.

Legwork, the task of making the opposition seem monstrous that must be performed before the public will accept a purge.

Tenney Naumer said...

Doug, I couldn't agree more.