Allegations of plagiarism, bias, misinformation surround Barton climate report
George Mason University continues to scrutinize charges of plagiarism against a 2006 congressional panel commissioned by U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), then-chair of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, that questioned scientific evidence of climate change.
But paleoclimatology researcher Michael Mann said the authors of “Ad Hoc Committee Report on the ‘Hockey Stick’ Global Climate Reconstruction,” commonly known as the Wegman report (PDF), could soon face more serious allegations, including of political bias and misleading Congress.
The Wegman report, written by a three-member panel including George Mason University (GMU) statistics professor Edward Wegman, criticized Mann’s work in reconstructing temperature records and his extensive connections to other scientists in his field.
In a parallel assessment, the National Research Council (NRC) largely substantiated Mann’s work.
“My understanding is that plagiarism is the least of the problems with the report, it was just the easiest to document,” wrote Mann in an e-mail. He said there is “solid evidence” that the Wegman report was highly influenced by Barton’s office.
Mann cited an independent analysis done by an anonymous Canadian blogger and a private-sector computer analyst. The independent report lays out a series of more-serious allegations, potentially arising to felony-level misrepresentation of information to Congress.
Barton — who fell short in his bid against U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) to chair the House Energy committee in the new Congress — repeatedly declined to comment on the allegations. But he says on his website that researchers have failed to reach consensus on man-made climate change, with work reaching “a wide range of conflicting conclusions.” And he’s known among the scientific community for “strong arm” tactics toward academics whose work affirms climate change.
Mann and others concluded in 1998 and 1999 papers that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere in the late 20th century have increased to a level not found in the past 1,000 years.
The paleoclimatologists based their conclusion on tree rings and other data that indicate past temperatures. The shape of the temperature graph, plotted over time, earned it the “hockey stick” name.
But the Wegman report criticizes the conclusions reached by Mann’s team, saying the hockey stick-like pattern, of long and relative stability followed by significant warming, resulted from flawed statistical methods. The report also accuses Mann of unprofessional behavior, based on a social network analysis.
“Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface,” according to the Wegman report.
On the issue of methodology, a NRC report, “Surface Temperature Reconstructions for the Past 2,000 Years,” largely substantiated Mann’s work. The NRC report was commissioned for the same hearing as the Wegman report. It was requested by retired U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), then-chairman of the Committee on Science, rather than Barton.
The Texas researcher who led the NRC panel criticized Wegman’s failure to adhere to scientific standards.
“They actually had much more time, actually nine months, to pull their report together, which makes it even more surprising that they were sloppy,” said Gerald North, an atmospheric science professor at Texas A&M University.
The NRC found that separate evidence, both modeled and directly observed, has affirmed the warming trend documented by Mann and others, despite also finding some uncertainties with Mann’s statistical methods.
“We probably wouldn’t have used exactly the method that Mann used,” said North, but said it had a minimal impact on the overall conclusions.
“It can be said with a high level of confidence that global mean surface temperature was higher during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period during the preceding four centuries,” according to the report by the NRC, a division of the National Academies.
But the Wegman report also criticized Mann for conspiratorial-like behavior with other researchers.
Based on an analysis of the network of researchers publishing work on temperature reconstruction, the Wegman-led panel found fault with Mann for co-authoring papers with many others in his field.
“Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface,” the Wegman report said.
But Camille Parmesan, a biology professor at the University of Texas and a lead author of the Third Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says this academic network is simply a function of a scientific career.
“It’s very clear that of course Mann is well-connected,” said Parmesan, who has not co-authored with Mann. “I mean, he’s a top researcher in the field.”
Parmesan also described the Wegman report’s aggressive criticism of the scientist Mann as “bizarre.”
“The first thing I thought of is it’s very clear that the report isn’t trying to ask why the science of climate change isn’t being done appropriately,” she said. “It’s really an attack of Michael Mann, which is a really weird thing for a congressional committee to do.”
The Wegman report stirred up controversy over the validity of climate-change science at the time, and has since been cited in policy discussions and research work. But discussion largely died down until earlier this year, when two outside observers concluded that the Wegman report had plagiarized and distorted the work of climate researchers, prompting the investigation at GMU.
Deep Climate, an anonymous Canadian blogger, found 10 pages of the Wegman report plagiarized from the work of Mann co-author Raymond Bradley and others. And further research by Deep Climate and John Mashey, a computer scientist, resulted in a report by Mashey, which lays out the more-serious allegations of bias and intentional misrepresentation.
The charges were recently reignited in the media by a USA Today investigation featuring third-party experts that affirmed extensive word-for-word plagiarism, as well as “thinly disguised paraphrasing” in the Wegman report.
But Mashey’s original analysis, titled “Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report,” goes beyond plagiarism charges, saying the Wegman Report could contain materially false statements about the Barton-commissioned report and climate science.
The report says the Wegman report lacks any “serious peer-review-quality statistical analysis” of the 1998/1999 papers by Mann, Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes, despite the Wegman report being presented as similar to an NRC paper, which follows stringent peer review guidelines.
And Mashey charged that Wegman’s panel took the valid field of social network analysis and misapplied it to Mann’s network of co-authors, a group Mashey says is inappropriately small and centered on Mann.
Mann agreed with Mashey’s conclusions.
“Their ‘Social Network Analysis’ was deeply flawed and gamed to try to make me appear some sort of scientific ring leader,” said Mann. “And their statistical claims and even the graphs that Wegman claimed to have produced himself were actually taken directly from the unpublished claims of an amateur climate change denier.”
Mashey said the flaws amount to a “serious problem, including repeated efforts to present the [Wegman report] to Congress as being like an NRC effort,” according to “Strange Scholarship.” He said that Barton and U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) — then-chair of the Energy Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations — turned down the NRC’s initial offer to conduct a scientific report before Boehlert requested the one completed by North’s panel.
In order to delineate between the allegedly biased Wegman report and the scientific review process of NRC, the Mashey report lays out a series of communications with think tanks and others -– events preceding Barton’s commission of the Wegman panel — that Mashey claims demonstrate active political interference in the findings.
The Mashey report says that the Wegman findings, which criticized evidence for climate change, could amount to materially false information presented in a report commissioned by a congressional committee, an act prohibited by federal law.
“I think these questions need asking, although it is not my role to judge the results, and some questions would likely only ever get answered by congressional or [Department of Justice (DOJ)] investigations,” Mashey said in the report.
In an interview with The Texas Independent, Mashey said he doesn’t know of anyone who has formally referred the issue to the DOJ, but that current House Energy Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, have been notified. Neither lawmaker responded to a request for comment on the Wegman report.
He said the Wegman report contains two types of falsification, both in its presentation to Congress as an unbiased scientific assessment and in false content.
“There are errors and changes of meaning and bias, and some of those may well become fabrication or falsification as well,” said Mashey.
The relevant oversight committees, including both majority and minority offices of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, also did not respond to requests for comment. And the DOJ does not confirm or discuss specific referrals for investigations.
Bradley said the allegations are likely to go without federal scrutiny, due to the topic’s politically controversial nature and the recent GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in the November elections.
“There’s no conceivable way that the Justice Department under the Obama administration is going to pursue this,” Bradley said, despite agreeing with Mashey that either Wegman, his panel, or other facilitators might have purposefully misrepresented the science to Congress.
“I suppose, strictly speaking, he may have committed a crime, but I can’t see anyone prosecuting that,” Bradley said, adding that he only wants to have the Wegman report retracted.
“I do not feel that that report should be part of the congressional record, and I would like it to be withdrawn,” he said.
Parmesan and Bradley said the Wegman report fits in with a broader pattern of Barton’s “strong arm” tactics toward climate scientists and bias against science. They cited a 2005 attempt by Barton and Whitfield to force Bradley to send the committee a comprehensive history of his work, including data archives and grant information.
“It was a ridiculous, open-ended request that I couldn’t possibly respond to, and I didn’t,” said Bradley. He added that the request amounted to an intimidation tactic, and was characterized as such by U.S. Rep. Boehlert at the time.
North couldn’t comment on the role of Barton or his staff in the Wegman report, but he said that an investigation would likely find Wegman and the other two panel members innocent of the more-serious charges.
“If they did copy some things verbatim, I suppose they thought that it was not really like a scientific publication, but just a report,” said North.
GMU spokesperson Daniel Walsch said the university is reviewing the allegations against Wegman. But he was not authorized to say whether that review is narrowly tailored to the allegations of plagiarism or is examining the more-serious allegations of bias and intentional misinformation.
(Image by: Matt Mahurin)