Michael Mann Should Not Be Investigated by Penn State

According to press reports, Penn State University is conducting an inquiry to determine whether it should institute a formal ethical investigation of Michael Mann, the Penn State professor who was the lead author of the paper that invented the “Hockey Stick.” At issue are CRU emails and his role in ClimateGate.

Frankly, I am not a big fan of academic investigations.

First, academic investigations are not how science – or social science – is supposed to operate. They are a hard type of official coercion, which ought to be reserved for only the most egregious cases.

Second, sometimes the investigations are half-hearted, conducted by colleagues who understandably would much rather see no evil.

Third, even when the investigators are diligent and unbiased, academic investigations are often conducted in secret, which makes it easy for the researcher to mislead the investigators with specious arguments that would be unlikely to hold up in the light of day.

For one or more of these reasons, I fully expect Penn State not to bring formal charges against Professor Mann – and if it does, I expect him to be cleared by his colleagues. Though I have read only a few dozen CRU emails, in my opinion Mann’s errors should be corrected in the usual way, not by organized groups telling people what to think.

But if I were Professor Mann’s dean at Penn State, I would try to determine whether he has fully shared his data, metadata, and computer code. To the extent that he hasn’t already, I would try to make him do so – at least for his most important or most controversial articles in recent years. And, for reason #3 above, I wouldn’t take Mann’s word for it. I’d call his critics and ask them to name the few most important Mann papers for which the data and computer code are needed for replication.

If Mann is still withholding the data and code necessary for replication, I’d ask him to replicate his most important or most controversial recent work (certainly not everything) and to release the data and code so that others might do so. If Mann couldn’t replicate his own work, I would ask him to announce that fact to the scientific community, so that serious scientists would know whether his work is replicable.

Thus, if I were Professor Mann’s dean, probably the only power I’d use would be to further the scientific enterprise. And even that would not be necessary if ethical standards were higher in the subfield of paleoclimatology.

(For those who might be wondering, I did not call for a formal investigation of Michael Bellesiles back in 2000-2002. It was Bellesiles’s supporters who most frequently called for an investigation, though some of his critics did as well. Emory’s investigation was triggered by prominent members of its faculty pushing privately for a formal inquiry. Apparently, Bellesiles’s public supporters, being too lazy or too biased to bother checking the evidence that could be found in an hour or two in any major academic research library, miscalculated that Bellesiles would be vindicated. He wasn’t.)

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