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Carbon Brief Staff

Carbon Brief Staff

04.11.2011 | 12:00pm
ScienceMann’s Virginia victory: a win for freedom in science or a blow to openness?
SCIENCE | November 4. 2011. 12:00
Mann’s Virginia victory: a win for freedom in science or a blow to openness?

Tuesday’s court ruling in a dispute between a conservative think tank and the University of Virginia over confidential emails linked to the so-called ‘hockey stick graph‘ highlights the grey area between legitimate attempts to open up the scientific process and cynical efforts to undermine climate science.

At the Prince William County Court in Virginia on Tuesday, Professor Michael Mann gained the right to intervene in a case between US conservative think-tank the American Tradition Institute (ATI) and the University of Virginia.

Mann filed to join the case because he doesn’t believe either the university or ATI will adequately protect his interests when deciding which of his emails are exempt from a US Freedom of Information Act request for his personal emails.

In January, ATI filed the request with the university seeking all “correspondence, messages or emails” between Mann and 40 other people in relation to research that produced the so-called hockey stick graph, which shows that the earth’s surface temperature rose sharply in recent years. Skeptics have hotly contested it since it first appeared. The university proved slow to respond to the request, so ATI and Virginia politician Robert Marshall filed a lawsuit in May to get quicker access.

Judge Gaylord Finch also decided to allow the university to modify an agreement with ATI. The university thinks 12,000 of the emails ATI wants are exempt from FOI requests. But the original agreement allows the think-tank’s lawyers to trawl through the correspondence and submit any they don’t agree should be exempt to the judge for consideration.

The agreement drew fire from other universities and organisations, which argued that the terms gave ATI too much access to sensitive material and threatened scientists’ ability to discuss their findings informally before publishing their final results.

The judge ruled that the university and ATI have to agree on a neutral third party to assess the emails by 20 December. In an editorial, the university board says the ruling is a “game changer” and that the original order “would have undermined the very purpose of such exemptions by furnishing the filer of a FOIA request with material – including student-professor correspondence and unpublished research – that is meant to be kept private.”

According to University of Virginia newspaper The Cavalier Daily,

Mann says: ‘This is a very good day for me, for my fellow scientists across the country who might fear that they could be subject to similar intimidation tactics.’

And here’s ATI’s take on it:

“ATI welcomes Dr. Mann to the case. Now he will have to defend his email content before a neutral court and offer more than slurs and innuendo to support his contention that he can hide his behavior and his emails from the public who paid for them in the first place.”

Are the FOI requests really an attack on scientists, or a legitimate challenge to a scientific ‘closed shop’?

The suit follows Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli’s unsuccessful FOI requests for much of the same material in 2010. Skeptic bloggers tend to characterise these attempts as a part of a movement started by Climate Audit founder Steve McIntyre to create an open forum to analyse and question scientific data.

But others see it more as a movement started by industry-funded lobby groups and other vested interests to discredit climate science and stymie policy initiatives that threaten these industries’ business model. Since ATI launched its attempts to obtain this emails, Michael Mann has turned to public fundraising in order to fund his legal action against their attempts to “harass researchers”.  

According to Facing South, Peter Fontaine, Mann’s lawyer, says by allowing ATI full access to the emails, the information could be “cherry-picked, distorted and mischaracterised”, leading to a “terrible chilling of the rights of scientists to exchange their ideas.”

If the uses the leaked UEA emails are anything to go by, he has a good point. Over the last two years, skeptics have used cherry-picked phrases like ‘hide the decline’ and ‘Mike’s Nature Trick’ to create the false impression that climate scientists are manipulating data. In the ensuing media furore Professor Phil Jones, the subject of much of the subsequent media attention, was hounded to the brink of suicide.

But while skeptics have been able to make hay with misquotes and mischaractarisations, there is a lot to be said for greater scientific openness.

In his investigation of the story behind climategate, Fred Pearce writes that scientists at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit foresaw that the coming of freedom of information legislation in the US and UK would allow access to their data and correspondence, and set out to block skeptics’ requests. Pearce argues that had the scientists been more open in the first place, ‘Climategate’ might never have happened.

Now, interest groups are capitalising on the episode to go fishing. An investigation by the Institute of Southern Studies shows ATI, which was launched in Colorado in 2009, has links to the Koch brothers and other conservative donors as well as other groups with “close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas legislation”.

According to a report by Greenpeace, “at least twenty” Koch-funded organisations repeatedly refer to climategate as proof that climate science is part of a conspiracy by climate scientists to spin data to show proof of man-made global warming.

The five separate investigations into climategate criticised scientists for failing to be open about their data, but found no evidence of scientific malpractice. Despite this, the leak affected public confidence in climate science – although the media has been accused of exaggerating these figures – and the twisted version of the emails is widely cited as evidence that climate change isn’t happening.

There is merit in scientific openness. The question is whether this is what ATI really wants, or if it’s just looking for more ammunition in its fight to stop action on climate change.

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