Elephants Squabble Over Climate Change

A Republican Congressman from Texas has launched an investigation into the research of three climate scientists, notably Michael Mann, arguing–based on an article in the Wall St. Journal–that their representation of a warming climate is fundamentally flawed. The threatening nature of inquiry is apparent in the Congressman’s letter. For example, here’s one passage:

4. Provide the location of all data archives relating to each published study for which you
were an author or co-author and indicate: (a) whether this information contains all the
specific data you used and calculations your performed, including such supporting
documentation as computer source code, validation information, and other ancillary
information, necessary for full evaluation and application of the data, particularly for
another party to replicate your research results; (b) when this information was available to
researchers; (c) where and when you first identified the location of this information; (d)
what modifications, if any, you have made to this information since publication of the
respective study; and (e) if necessary information is not fully available, provide a detailed
narrative description of the steps somebody must take to acquire the necessary information
to replicate your study results or assess the quality of the proxy data you used.

The letter and its demands have created quite a furor, both within the scientific community and within Congress. (Mann has responded to the letter with an avalanche of detail in a letter of his own.) A neutral observer, Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado who has a prominent website on this and other scientific issues called Prometheus, compared Barton’s demand for background study data to being asked to supply the background on a bill:

For those of you who were in Congress let me give what I think is an entirely appropriate analogy: your boss was the main sponsor of a law that passed in 1998. You wrote the original bill starting in 1996 and were the main shepherd all the way through conference committee. Based on an article I just read in the American Prospect, it turns out the premise on which this law is based has been questioned. Please go back and reconstruct the entire bill-writing process, providing your notes of all conversations you had from any stakeholder while you were drafting the bill, all notes from any meetings with lobbyists and constituents, all notes from all meetings with other staffers from the authorizing committee, all conversations that led to the three hearings on your bill, how you chose the witnesses who testified at those hearings, the process that went into the Chairman’s Substitute at markup and how much influence any stakeholder community had in altering that mark, the information you provided to other staffers prior to committee markup, etc…. Even though we realize that it took 2 years and 3 months from initial draft to President’s signature, we expect all this information by July 16th. Thanks!

Interestingly, Pielke looks for "a third way" out of the controversy. He considers the letter from the Texas congressman threatening an investigation a form of grandstanding, and supports the National Academy of Sciences’ offer to investigate the controversy scientifically, outside of the political realm. But at the same time, he argues in his "unbearably long post"  that Mann’s almost-famous "hockey stick" graph (representing warming in the late 20th-century) is an emotion-charged symbol of a much larger political debate, and not necessarily the best representation of the science on the issue. "Rep. Barton and others opposed to action on climate change will continue to gnaw at the hockey stick like a dog on a bone so long as they perceive that it confers some political benefits," Pielke points out. He predicts that the hockey stick as a symbol for the science will soon be left in the dust (if it hasn’t already in the field) by other developments.

The over-the-top emotion of those unwilling to act on climate change can be seen in the back-and-forth of letters between the two Congressman, Barton of Texas, and Sherwood L. Boehlert
of New York, also a Republican, who called Barton’s investigation "misguided and illegitimate." (Congressman Henry Waxman of California, a Democrat, put it even more bluntly, calling it "a transparent effort to bully and harass climate change experts who have reached conclusions with which you disagree.")

"Chairman Barton appreciates heated lectures from Representatives Boehlert and Waxman, two men who share a passion for global warming," committee spokesman Larry Neal said. "We regret that our little request for data has given them a chill. Seeking scientific truth is, indeed, too important to be imperiled by politics, and so we’ll just continue to ask fair questions of honest people and see what they tell us. That’s our job."

Given that Barton has dismissed the offer to investigate from the National Academy of Sciences, it’s pretty evident, despite his protestations, that he’s not interested in the science of the matter. Perhaps his office recalls the last time the NAS was asked to double-check the science of global warming — by the White House  — they resoundingly backed the supposedly controversial IPCC Third Assessment Report of 2001, adding that global "tempeatures are, in fact, rising."

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