Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cato and Pat Michaels bouncing on the edge of defamation

If you consider climatologist Michael Mann to be a private figure rather than a public one, Cato and Pat Michaels have probably violated defamation law by misattributing a quote to Mann which they consider an indication of Mann's unfitness to conduct science. I disagree with Joe at the link in calling it a lie - it appears to be an honest mistake, if also an indicator of Pat Michaels' work quality. The quote, a suggestion to exclude two poor-quality denialist papers from the IPCC process, was written by climatologist Phil Jones in an email to Mann (the papers weren't excluded).

People mess up "To" and "From" attribution in normal conversation, but I'd say a reasonable person writing a strong attack on someone for major media publication would read a short email carefully, so this mistake is a negligent one. That's enough fault when defaming a private individual, but attacks on public figures require a reckless disregard for the truth, which would be difficult to show here. I think Mann is a public figure on climate issues in the US, although he might have a shot of claiming otherwise in the UK.

An interesting twist on whether the quote actually made by Jones indicates that the speaker is an unfit scientist. I'm sure Jones would disagree. Trying to exclude bad work may have been a mistake, but I don't think it sinks to a level of indicating unfitness. However, Pat Michaels clearly thinks otherwise, and estoppel might prevent him from arguing in court differently from how he argued to the world.

Final aspect of the case is damages. Pat Michaels is a never-important and long-discredited figure in climatology, so his defense would be something like "no one in climatology takes seriously what I have to say, and it doesn't really harm the plaintiff that I misinformed the general public." Cato could point to its own plunging reputation as well (some Cato hack repeated the mistake on the Cato website). These are pretty good defenses.

All in all, it's what lawyers call a colorable, non-frivolous case, but not one I'd bring. Instead, I'd send a letter to Michaels and everyone who published his mistake, telling them that they're not going to get sued but requesting a published correction. Then I'd publish the letter and get some credit for being the better man, even if that's not a difficult achievement in this case.


  1. Phil Jones's career is probably toast due to the "tell everybody to delete emails" thing, but Mann's might well survive as he is excellent at office politics and blame-shifting. Regarding the two papers that you say "weren't excluded", there's a ClimateAudit post that pieces together the full history; McIntyre notes that the two papers made it into the final version but were in fact excluded from all prior draft versions, so reviewers were denied the opportunity to address or respond to the tendentious spin that got applied to their eventual mention.

    In other news, your post-a-comment feature still needs work. I couldn't figure out how to get my Google profile to login so I use the name/url option, but it seems like the post always fails the first time; posting a comment requires multiple attempts. My workflow (I'm using IE/Vista) is:
    (1) write a comment in the text filed
    (2) select and fill out a form from the "Comment as" popup
    (3) click "Post Comment"
    => "Your request could not be processed. Please try again."
    (4) click "Preview"
    => a preview appears.
    (5) click "Post" a second time.
    => The comment is actually posted. Sometimes.

  2. Also, I miss being able to tell (before clicking the link) whether there are any comments/how many there are.

    (Oh, Hey! my google ID is working now. strange.)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. It looks like that error might be specific to that particular "comment as" mode.

  5. Well, Glen just made Mann's case

  6. Sorry that posting comments is such a pain. I'm not satisfied with the new non-system and will have to try and figure it out.

  7. The most damaging-to-Mann stuff in the emails is stuff said *about* him or about McIntyre by other members of the Team. There are several cases where:

    (1) McIntyre attacks some paper's defense of the Hockey Stick

    (2) Mann immediately denounces McIntyre's views as mistaken and ill-informed

    (3) We now can read emails in which other Team members behind the scenes are saying "McIntyre's right, it's too bad we made that mistake." or "McIntyre's got a point, we should deal with that criticism better." or "I wish Mann hadn't jumped to conclusions and made that faulty response; now the waters are muddied and it'll be harder to establish clearly what's really going on than if we had taken more time to make sure what we said in our response was correct." or "Mann sure is thin-skinned; I hope he doesn't overreact to this."

    But these are things being said by Kaufman or Briffa or whoever, not by Mann himself.

  8. Got any links for #1 through 3, Glen?

  9. Another thing I miss with your new comment format is the "subscribe to comments" feature - without it, conversations like this depend on me randomly choosing to peek back at an old post and see if anything's been added. Anyway, in response to your query, sure. Here's one example of #1 through #3:


    Next to last paragraph, McIntyre notes in a PNAS comment that The Team has accidentally used some sediments "upside-down". Quote: "Their non-dendro network uses some data with the axes upside down, e.g., Korttajarvi sediments, which are also compromised by agricultural impact (M. Tiljander, personal communication)". (This error affected at least two recent Team studies.)

    That the data was "upside-down" isn't as big a problem as some of the other problems and it doesn't make a big impact on the results to fix it. This is, however, the most blatantly *obvious* error Steve pointed out and one that you don't need statistical expertise to verify. The error is that Mann's algorithm took some data with a huge end movement and assumed this movement indicated warming, making the overall calculated warming trend seem a little stronger. Whereas if you read the source study it tells you that if this upswing at the end weren't the result of construction (the "compromised by" part) it would indicate *cooling* and thus if anything it ought *decrease* one's estimate of the modern warming trend.


    Here, Mann replies in PNAS that M&M raised "no valid issues" and says "The claim that 'upside down' data were used is bizarre." Gavin and others posting at or commenting in RC and publically use this to support their belief that McIntyre was just being an idiot and Mann was right all along.


    In the emails we discover that Kaufman doesn't think the claim is bizarre. He says it's not a big deal to fix, that "it's unfortunate that I flipped the Korttajarvi data" and "not acknowledging an error might come back to bite us."

    This was in response to Nick McKay who looked at it first and said
    "The Korttajarvi record was oriented in the reconstruction in the way that McIntyre said."

  10. Another example of #3 is here:

    The #1-#2 context is an argument over whether Mann made his data available and whether the data he did make available supports the paper. Michael Mann does his usual schtick - stonewalling, refuses to admit to having ever made any errors and makes a bunch of wild, easily-disproven accusations about McIntyre having made errors.

    Behind the scenes, Keith Briffa says (in the above-linked email):

    "I do wish Mike had not rushed around sending out preliminary and incorrect early responses - the waters are really muddied now. He would have done better to have taken things slowly and worked out a final response before publicising this stuff."

  11. The underlying situation Briffa was responding to was that Mann sent out a hasty and ill-thought-out reply to McIntyre/McKitrick 2003. Mann apparently felt it was more important to accuse M&M of fraud and dishonesty and significant errors than to figure out exactly what, if any, errors might have been made and what impact they might have had.

    So here's another #3 email on approximately the same subject as the last one I linked:

    Mann says here he "took the liberty of forwarding the previous draft to a handfull of our closet colleagues"(sp)

    The last ref I gave showed Briffa's reaction to Mann's account; this email shows (quoted within Mann's reply to it) Tim Osborne's reaction. Scroll down to the text "f055 wrote:" to see it. Tim takes issue with
    many of Mann's specific criticisms of MM03. Mann claims M&M were just plain dishonest and incompetent and encourages others to think the same but Tim (in this private email) seems to think M&M really did do what they claimed to do, that the "audit" procedure was appropriate and based on the then-available data, that to the degree that mistakes may have been made they were probably more subtle, more nuanced than Mann is claiming. Tim thinks it's worth carefully investigating the differing results to figure out exactly what's going on and thinks they shouldn't make statements about the matter that they can't prove or that come across as partisan or self-interested bickering. In short, Tim Osborne - like Keith Briffa - advises answering the new study with actual science rather than bluster and politics. And perhaps trying to come to a common understanding.

    Mann's response to this is political - he likes the idea of appearing to "take the high road" while tactitly encouraging other people to accuse MM of fraud and dishonesty - he doesn't seem interested in whether that's what actually took place. And he wants this reply to "push the broader case against MM"; he seems to see this as a war, not a scientific discussion.

  12. So first, Kaufman says it's not a big deal to fix, and my understanding is that it doesn't really matter, which is why Mann said the claim is bizarre.

    Osborn (not Briffa, you just made Michaels' mistake) is criticizing Mann for responding to McIntyre too soon and with what Osborn thinks is incorrect info. That's not stonewalling.

    Osborn's second email had problems with aspects of what appears to be an unsent, first draft of Mann's response, and then says "a quick glance
    shows the figure to be much more convincing than the one Mike circulated
    earlier, indeed it seems to be utterly convincing!"

    No, I'm not buying your argument yet, Glen. I do think MBH were slow at first in sharing data with MM, but not nearly as slow as skeptics claim. That's about as much as I'll concede at this point.

  13. "Osborn (not Briffa...)"

    Doh! You're right, my mistake. There do exist a couple letters from Briffa expressing similar sentiment and I was searching on "Briffa" to find this one but skimmed past the name trying to find the content. (I'll look for the Briffa letter I meant to reference when I'm home and can grep through the mails directly - this web interface is driving me nuts.)

    Right, Osborne is *not* saying Mann's original conclusions are invalid or irreparable. He's only saying that the criticisms Mann wants to make - and did make, and at this point has already sent out to people like Gavin and Revkin - aren't valid. When Mann says he sent out a preliminary note full of incorrect accusations "to give people a heads-up", the name for that is "poisoning the well".

    On the upside-down issue, you must not have read the Mann PNAS response - the sentence right after the "bizarre" comment (regarding "scale invariance") makes it clear he really doesn't believe - or isn't willing to admit - that the orientation is incorrect. He's wrong; it is an actual mistake. It's easy to fix and fixing it doesn't significantly change the overall results, so good science would be to say, "thanks for pointing out this mistake, I've fixed it and the results are basically unchanged." Mann doesn't do that because he doesn't want to admit having made a mistake, even a minor one.

    Kaufman agrees with McIntyre that doing the right thing here is appropriate. McIntyre is all about correct process. Papers should actually do what they say they do; processes and data should be documented, mistakes should be fixed. If even trivial, easily understood mistakes get stonewalled instead of acknowledged and fixed, what hope is there to resolve more complex and obscure issues?

    I blame Mann's combativeness for the relative lack of agreement between ClimateAudit and RealClimate and for the general impression among "skeptics" that the science is being fudged. It's conceivable Mann's science is sound, but he acts like somebody with something to hide. He would get a lot more respect if when challenged were ever just willing to admit, as Nick McKay did in that first message: "it looks to me like we got it wrong". And then just fix it.

  14. I browsed the mail from Briffa, and the most common #3 issue there is that in the private emails Briffa says many times in many ways that he thinks "recent warming" was probably matched a thousand years earlier during the MWP. He thinks Mann's methods as applied to the proxies the Team is using tend to suppress the long-term trends and show much less variance in the past than was actually there. His concerns in this regard (in emails going back as far as 1999) overlap a bit with those expressed in Craig Loehle's recent papers but Briffa also has other, independent concerns that the proxies we've got are only showing us a small part of the overall story.

    In short, Briffa's privately-voiced concerns about the hockey stick almost perfectly mirror McIntyre's publically-stated ones. And Briffa sounds annoyed at Mann's profession of certainty and at the impression that there is "pressure" being applied to present a united front and minimize the impression of uncertainty. (Briffa actually comes across as so darned reasonable - from a skeptic's perspective - that some skeptics have theorized Briffa himself was the one who leaked the emails.)

  15. sample Briffa email:
    Popular quotes from that email include:
    "I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1000 years ago. I do not believe that global mean annual temperatures have simply cooled progressively over thousands of years as Mike appears to"

    "I know Mike thinks his series is the 'best' and he might be right - but he may also be too dismissive of other data and possibly over confident in his..."

    "I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards 'apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data' but in reality the situation is not quite so simple."

    Here's an typical example of a skeptical blogger speculating on whether Briffa is the mole:

  16. Glen at 9:33 - I don't know the upside-down issue well, but I believe Connolley and Annan both think it's not even a mistake in the sense of figuring out how to normalize the data, that it doesn't matter which way you orient the info. I think that's what Mann should've said, more clearly. I think that Mann doesn't need to issue a correction for non-substantive issues.

    I don't worry that much about Mann sending out preliminary, incorrect responses. We humans get things wrong often, so it's the final that's most important. I don't consider it poisoning the well.

    I'd say that Pielke Jr's faux pleasantness is a better political strategy than Mann's honest expression of anger at baseless attacks on him by mostly unqualified people like McKitrick (mostly unqualified, on rare occasion M gets something right), so maybe I agree with you on combativeness.

    Again Kaufmann isn't disagreeing with Mann's result or even the vast majority of his work, which reduces McKitrick to nitpicking. Nitpicking has non-negligible uses, but doesn't discredit AGW.

    Glen at 12:02 and 12:26 - I read Briffa's email and it sounds like it's from within the accepted consensus about warming. For example:

    "For the record, I do believe that the proxy data do show unusually warm conditions in recent decades."


    "I do believe , that it should not be taken as read that Mike's series (or Jone's et al. for that matter) is THE CORRECT ONE. I prefer a Figure that shows a multitude of reconstructions (e.g similar to that in my Science piece)."

    That's what happened as I recall. And I don't think the IPCC 4AR showed anything like the certainty about the MWP as it did about humans causing most of the warming in the last 50 years.

  17. Sure, it "doesn't matter which way you orient the info" when you feed it into the Mannomatic because when you toss all these curves into the blender they gets automatically reoriented during the normalization step with an appropriate magnitude and orientation...which in this case happens to be WRONG. Connolley was inclined to give Mann the benefit of the doubt, made no effort to understand the underlying criticism beyond reading what was said in the two PNAS comments, and got it wrong. He half-admits as much in the comments on his blog here after bender finally explains it in a way he understands. One problem is that PNAS had a strict 250-word limit on the size of the comment they would allow and Steve tried to cram in *all* his issues, so it was a little terse. Either Mann or Connolley could have read the relevant ClimateAudit post or asked Steve "hey, what did you mean by that upside-down thing?" if they were confused, but that would have involved assuming Steve might be right about something. Can't have that! So they leapt to the wrong conclusion. (Annan didn't backpedal on this until recently after someone pointed out Kaufmann's email.)

    FWIW, I was talking about McIntyre and you switched to McKitrick. :-) I happen to think McIntyre gets quite a lot right, but you'd have to read ClimateAudit to notice this.

    So far as Mann is concerned (or Gavin, or WMC and his pals editing wikipedia), the view that modern temps are not demonstrably "unprecedented in the last 2000 years" is heresy. As is the view that the proxy reconstructions can be assumed to underestimate past variability.


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