Representing Himself–Why Are We (sort of) Okay With Ken Cuccinelli’s Witchhunt?

by Nick on October 15, 2010

Ken Cuccinelli might run the 2013 Governor’s seat in Virginia, one year before his tenure as Attorney General would have run its course. As we ponder the bizarre discrepancy between voters’ articulated demand for transparency and surging support for disingenuous, pandering candidates for public office, we would be wise to avoid making firm predictions about the political ramifications of Cuccinelli’s climate-scientist witchhunt. Will it interfere with his (obviously grand) political ambitions? Maybe. Will it propel him to the state’s highest chair and eventually to the U.S. Congress? Maybe (I’ll venture a guess: Advantage: Cuccinelli). I am, by no stretch, an expert in U.S. politics, but from my position as a voter with a ticket to the circus, musing on the ridiculous has had an inoculating effect on a young bout of cynicism towards our political culture.

So, what’s the story? (Oh, just to clarify, this isn’t Cuccinelli’s lawsuit against the EPA’s GHG Endangerment Finding. It’s his subpoena of a climate scientist’s correspondence with colleagues. Yes, he’s done both…) Here’s my take:

(1) Cuccinelli doesn’t like the prevailing scientific consensus on anthropogenic warming because [insert reason here—and don’t forget to include the possibility (cough!) that he doesn’t like government regulation of industry, or that lobbyists can hold sway with AG’s].

(2) Cuccinelli can’t produce science that provides a serious challenge to the consensus and related policy imperatives (he does, predictably, hold up the much-disparaged non peer-reviewed Wegman Report, commissioned by Reps. Joe Barton—yes, “I apologize [to you, BP]” Joe Barton—and Ed Whitfield. Ironically, Dr. Wegman is now being investigated (shall we say, legitimately?) by his university for plagiarism and misconduct).

(3) Cuccinelli sees how much damage hacking thirteen years of personal emails has done to the reputation of climate scientists (not because the hack revealed “fraud”, but rather moments of frustration—some accompanied by, GASP!!, profanity—and easily-misrepresented scientific discussions, all of which is damning to a very useful extent).

(4) Cuccinelli takes a deep breath and either (a) flatly ignores the five independent investigations that exonerated the “Climategate” climate scientists of any wrongdoing, or (b) stands on the lazy conclusion that the investigations must be biased in favor of climate scientists (i.e., that the investigations, like climate science, are not rigorous pursuits of the truth, but rather…yada yada yada…). He uses this position as his launching pad…

(5) Cuccinelli issues a subpoena seeking the emails and other forms of correspondence of Professor Michael Mann, a particularly famous climate scientist (think “Hockey Stick”), while Dr. Mann was employed at UVa. The purpose of the subpoena is to investigate “fraud” (essentially, that climate scientists have consistently manipulated data), based on…wait for it…NO evidence. According to Cuccinelli, “The point is to SEE if there was fraud.”

(6) Outrage in the scientific community ensues, and a judge strikes down the original subpoena, stating that, “The nature of the conduct is not stated so that any reasonable person could glean what Dr. Mann did to violate the statute.” Cuccinelli cheerily vows to return with “a new civil investigative demand to get the information necessary to continue our investigation into whether or not fraud has been committed against the commonwealth [of Virginia].”

(7) Cuccinelli returns on cue, making good on his promise by issuing another subpoena, filling it with “head-asploding” logic (hat tip to CP) related to imperfect statistical analysis (he seems to be grappling with the arrow of time and/or omnisciency, and the rightful place of these concepts in modern-day legal theory and physical science) and secret scientist-languages. In the grand finale of the filing, Cuccinelli brings down the hammer:

“Mann’s reference to “the community” when writing to Hulme in the first e-mail quoted above appears to be Post Normal jargon. As recently as September 16, 2009, Mann posted this remark to his blog RealClimate: “More than anything else, the book attempts to show us what the community is doing wrong in our efforts to communicate our science to the public.” (emphasis added). This is also probably Post Normal jargon.

Academics are free to follow any philosophy of science they wish. Nonetheless, Post-Normal Science has produced jargon which might be misleading / fraudulent in the context of a grant application if its specialized meaning is not disclosed or otherwise known to the grant-maker.”

Yeah, you’ll have to ask Cuccinelli for a translation. In Professor Mann’s words, Cuccinelli “wants to prosecute people based on the words they choose to use.” (Of course, this is a literal interpretation of Cuccinelli’s argument: Dr. Mann knows, as do most people following the soap opera, that Cuccinelli doesn’t really want to prosecute based on word-choice, but, hell, he can’t seem to build a more credible strategy!)

Take a minute to put this scenario into any other context. Amazing, isn’t it? If Cuccinelli feels within his rights to do all of this, I’m feeling within my rights to issue a new civil investigative demand to understand how many tax-payer dollars Cuccinelli is wasting on his own (dare I say, liberal?) interpretation of his oath of office (“Your state’s Attorney General is your last line of defense in protecting the Constitution against the federal government…I will uphold the oath I swore…”). In fact, can we see his emails? How about a trade?

I know that legal jargon can discourage people from stepping into this story. I know that climate science is complex. I know that climate-related policy actions appear daunting. What I don’t understand (or accept) is that while voters condemn politicians for being untrustworthy, we trust politicians’ broad depictions of scientists as dishonest people. How did this happen?

The sad reality is that The Union of Concerned Scientists, and many, many other engaged stakeholders, can object to this kind of behavior as much as they want—but until the big media outlets step up to take on this highly corrosive trend in American politics, we’re going to get, on average, public ambivalence towards witchhunts. In a time when environmental reporters are being shed from news-media heavyweights, we’re going to get, on average, public ambivalence towards witchhunts. When the American public demands what we demand from Big Media [insert your example here], we’re going to get, on average, public ambivalence towards witchhunts. And witchhunts maintain ambivalence towards climate change. Cuccinelli’s subpoenas are seeds of doubt—and if “Climategate” has taught us (and Cuccinelli) anything, it’s that those who wish to obscure the urgency of the climate problem need only a few well-placed seeds to feed the kind of ambivalence that will send an energy bill to the mat without even a whimper.

So, what to do? At the very least, we need to question whether people like Ken Cuccinelli have the credibility to condemn an entire professional network of scientists. If you’re feeling a little ticked off, tell Cuccinelli that his position as Attorney General does not grant him the authority to take on a widely criticized, largely personal battle. And when you’re done with that, shout out for some leadership in Big Media.

News media hosts a perpetual shouting match, and I am among the first to say that it doesn’t feel right to shout into that ether, contributing to the ruckus. But when those who wish to misinform do so by such indirect, tactful means, shouldn’t our reaction be to shout them down, articulating (1) our disgust towards the abuse of the legal system; (2) our respect for scientific pursuits and the people who devote their lives to uncovering truths through empirical investigations; (3) our demands that public representatives employ common-sense, risk-based strategies to defining paths of economic innovation; and (4) our desire to limit the influence that special interests have in deliberations about public welfare? Will issuing another National Academies report touting the soundness of existing climate science do anything to unearth the seeds planted by Cuccinelli et al.? Not a chance. Individual Americans need to step up. Big Media needs to step up. If you haven’t heard, climate change is a time-sensitive problem.

Excitingly, Bill McKibben and many others are on the move:

“So now we know what we didn’t before: making nice doesn’t work. It was worth a try, and I’m completely serious when I say I’m grateful they made the effort, but it didn’t even come close to working. So we better try something else.”


I, for one, am joining them. Keep an eye out for a polar bear with a megaphone on East Main Street in Richmond…

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