Posted by: Barry Bickmore | May 7, 2010

A Vision of Utah’s Future?

I started this blog because I believe the state of Utah is being run by some people who have tried to manipulate science to fit their extreme political views.  Am I overreacting?  Just how bad could it become?

A couple weeks ago the Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, launched an investigation of Michael Mann, the paleoclimatologist who first produced the famous “Hockey Stick” graph of the temperature record for the last 1000 years or so.  Of course, Mann’s work has been investigated multiple times, and nobody has found any wrongdoing.  Cuccinelli has no evidence of wrongdoing, so he is going on a fishing expedition at the University of Virginia, where Mann used to work.  Even climate skeptics who question Mann’s work are calling it a “witch hunt”.  Get all the details from this article in Slate.

Is Utah on a road that leads to witch hunting scientists for political purposes?  Consider what happened when Mike Noel had climate skeptic and scientist Roy Spencer come to town.  The Salt Lake Tribune asked Utah State University climate scientist Robert Davies how Spencer’s scientific views are viewed in the climate science community.  Here’s how the Tribune reported Davies’s comments:

Spencer’s computer models have been discredited in the scientific community and his analysis deemed “completely fringe,” Davies said. None of the established scientific societies has echoed the Alabama scientist’s findings.

“The only conclusion I can discern,” Davies said, “is that they [lawmakers] are looking for cover to make decisions that go against what the scientific community has recommended.”

When Mike Noel heard that, he was ticked.  So what did Noel do?  Did he call up Davies and complain?  Did he complain to the media?  No, he called up Davies’s boss, USU president Stan Albrecht, to complain.  Noel swore up and down that he never called for Davies to be fired, but how is anyone supposed to take it when a state legislator calls up the president of a state-supported institution to complain about an individual faculty member?  And yes, Noel did admit mentioning during the conversation that he was “disappointed” that a faculty member at a “state-supported” institution would launch such a “personal attack” against Roy Spencer.  The implied threat was clear.  (And I should add that Davies’s comments were a completely factual rendition of the standing Roy Spencer’s views have in the climate science community.  Viewpoints that are far from the mainstream are “fringe” by definition, and Davies never said anything “personal” about Spencer.)

Paul Rolly wrote a column after this incident in which he listed a number of incidents where Republicans in the Utah Legislature have used more or less veiled threats to get their way.  If we keep electing political extremists to a large majority of the seats in the Legislature, we can expect more political bullying and, I expect, political witch hunts against scientists at state-supported institutions.

Shades of Pol Pot.



  1. Wow great. It seems the politicians now don’t even bother to find alternative legal pretexts to conduct their witch hunts. Instead of saying ‘hey, she’s an undergraduate and she’s not supposed to teach classes, and no, it has nothing to do with her being a Democrat’, it’s now ‘I don’t like what this guy is saying, so I’ll sort of threaten to fire him’.

    There’s no doubt in my mind: The extremist politicians will just keep becoming more and more shameless. Unless people — including university administrators and researchers — start hitting back for real.

  2. Dr. Bickmore,

    On a scale of 1 to 10 (1=horrible), how would you rate the “hockey stick” as an example of representative and valid climate science?

    Would you have featured it in several IPCC reports and advised Al Gore to use it in his film?

    Have you read the Wegman report, referred to in your Slate link?

    Pol Pot… seriously.

    • Daniel:

      how would you rate the “hockey stick” as an example of representative and valid climate science?

      You’re moving your goalposts. The AG isn’t going after Mann because his work isn’t ‘an example of representative and valid climate science’. He’s going after Mann because — according to him, in his own words —

      In light of the Climategate e-mails, there does seem to at least be an argument to be made that a course was undertaken by some of the individuals involved, including potentially Michael Mann, where they were steering a course to reach a conclusion.

      He’s accusing Mann of outright fraud. And he has zero concrete evidence whatsoever to back up his charge. What he’s doing is a witch hunt, plain and simple.

    • Hi Daniel,

      I would give it an 8, and I would have no problem with the IPCC or Gore using it. I have not read the Wegman Report. Have you? It’s 91 pages, I’m not a statistician, and I’ve never done Principal Components Analysis, so I don’t think I could make much of it.

      However, I have followed the controversy, and a few things stick out in my mind.

      1) The controversy is all about whether Michael Mann used inadequate statistical techniques on the tree ring data. Some groups who have analyzed the method say that it’s pre-determined to produce a “hockey stick” shape, while others say there were statistical mistakes in the method, but they don’t affect the data much. Like I said, I don’t have the expertise to sort that out for myself, but if groups convened by the NRC and NAS both come to the conclusion that the mistakes don’t make much difference, I have to conclude that there’s a very good chance that any mistakes were minor and unintentional.

      2) About a dozen studies by various groups, using different proxy temperature data types (boreholes, tree rings, corals) and different statistical methods have come up with about the same curve shape. So no matter what the statistical flaws in the initial study were, it’s hard to explain away all these others. (Unless it is a vast conspiracy. Then it’s incredibly easy to explain anything.)

      3) From the start, Mann said there were significant uncertainties involved, and that more data was needed. Now we have more data, and the uncertainties are quantified better. The IPCC AR4 says that there is a 66-90% chance that the last 50 years is the warmest 50-year period in at least the last 1300 years, or something like that. This indicates to me a real effort to make clear exactly what conclusions can and cannot be extracted from the data with any confidence. This is good science.

      This whole thing has been mulled over and over and over, and I don’t see that anyone has ever come up with anything that would even vaguely point to scientific fraud. So if there’s no evidence of fraud to begin with, why target Mann for this probe? The only reasons I can think of are 1) to score a few political points, or 2) Cuccinelli is a zealot who doesn’t need evidence to have someone convicted of fraud in his mind.

      Since the whole thing is unlikely to produce any “E-mails of Mass Destruction,” I conclude that #1 is also unlikely. You don’t score political points for going on a witch hunt and not finding any witches. That leaves #2, which is, incidentally, how I would interpret the actions of some Utah legislators.

      Is that as bad as Pol Pot? No, but you have to start somewhere if you want to become a really successful crusading fanatic.

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