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Strange Problems in the Wegman Report

Special Report

John R. Mashey

Volume 35.2, March/April 2011

A computer scientist discusses the roles of plagiarism, conspiracies, anti-science memes, and intense beliefs in a global-warming denying report.

The high-profile “Wegman report” (Wegman et al. 2006) strongly criticized the steeply rising “hockey stick” temperature graph that was created by climate scientists Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes and later used in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Third Assessment (IPCC 2001).

The Wegman report was prepared by a team led by statistician Edward Wegman of George Mason University at the request of U.S. Representatives Joe Barton (Republican from Texas) and Ed Whitfield (Republican from Tennessee), both strong opponents of the scientific consensus about climate change.

The Wegman report, presented in 2006 at a hearing of a congressional subcommittee chaired by Whitfield, repeated numerous well-cataloged and long-debunked anti-science assertions, especially those claiming a conspiracy among climate scientists. Although rarely mentioned in peer-reviewed science publications, the report nevertheless immediately became a major source for climate anti-science articles, blogs, op-eds, and books. The report is also a key to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s attack on the University of Virginia and Michael Mann (Russell 2010). That certainly resembles a famous witch hunt (Monty Python 1975).

Discovery of Plagiarism

Canadian blogger “Deep Climate” uncovered plagiarism in the Wegman report in late 2009, accumulating ten pages of near-verbatim material copied from paleoclimatologist and hockey-stick coauthor Bradley and others, such as:

A cross section of most temperate forest trees will show an alternation of lighter and darker bands, each of which is usually continuous around the tree circumference. (Bradley 1999, 398)

A cross section of a temperate forest tree shows variation of lighter and darker bands that are usually continuous around the circumference of the tree. (Wegman et al. 2006, 13)

The term “coral” is generally applied to members of the order Scleractinia, which have hard calcareous skeletons supporting softer tissues. . . . (Bradley 1999, 247)

The term “coral” refers to the biological order Scleractinia, which have hard calcium-based skeletons supporting softer tissues. (Wegman et al. 2006, 15)

Deep Climate (2010a) posted the entire ten pages using colored highlighting that quickly shows the obvious cut-and-paste/edit process.

Based on Deep Climate’s work, Bradley filed a plagiarism complaint in March 2010 but kept it quiet. Bradley’s expert work was not only plagiarized but also often distorted to weaken or even invert his own conclusions by people with zero relevant experience. I then extended Deep Climate’s research and added much more in a comprehensive 250-page analysis of the Wegman report, “Strange Scholarship in the Wegman Report: A Façade for the Climate Anti-Science PR Campaign” (Mashey 2010b). USA Today (Vergano 2010a; Vergano 2010b; Vergano 2010c; Vergano 2010d) reported that George Mason University was investigating. Plagiarism experts called the plagiarisms “obvious” and “shocking.” Some defenders created their own fanciful definitions of the word to deny that plagiarism had taken place. Others contended that even if it was plagiarism, the Wegman report’s conclusions were still true. Then some claimed that Bradley himself was a plagiarizer, blackmailer, or liar. The debate remained intense.

Pseudoscience, Anti-Science, and Intense Beliefs

In pseudoscience, people promote long-debunked ideas as scientific (Mashey 2009). Anti-science obscures real science via the public-relations and propaganda techniques that were well honed in the tobacco wars and are sometimes employed by the same people elsewhere (Oreskes and Conway 2010).

SI readers are familiar with chaotic, amateur, or amusing pseudoscience efforts. Anti-science, in contrast, is well funded, professionally organized, and not amusing: tobacco-industry anti-science has damaged the health of millions. Although the Wegman report contained some pseudoscience, it was really part of a well-organized twenty-year anti-science campaign (Mashey 2010a). That campaign offered much evidence of a real conspiracy, in contrast to the climate-science opponents’ unsupported claims alleging a conspiracy by climate researchers. Not all conspiracies are imaginary—SI readers should assess the evidence before dismissing conspiracy hypotheses.

Pseudoscience beliefs can be strong. Climate anti-science beliefs are intense enough to generate frequent death threats against climate scientists. My analysis documents the Wegman report as filled with serious errors, biases, bad science, and frequent repetition of long-debunked anti-science memes. Its minimal statistics use another’s (incorrect) computer code (Deep Climate 2010b).

The Wegman report was promoted by Congressmen Barton and Whitfield as “independent, impartial, expert” work by a team of “eminent statisticians.” It was none of those things. Deep Climate had unearthed plagiarism (not “expert”) and distortion (not “impartial”), then found that a Barton staffer provided much of the source material to the Wegman team (not “independent”). In my initial investigation I found another twenty-five pages with plagiarism, totaling thirty-five when combined with Deep Climate’s findings (Mashey 2010b). Originally intended to be a short report, my analysis grew to its current 250 pages as interconnected problems in the Wegman report multiplied. My analysis eventually examined all ninety-one Wegman report pages plus related testimony, publications, and actions. “Climategate” started big and shrank, despite strong public-relations efforts. The problems with the Wegman report started small with a few pages of plagiarism, but those problems have grown ever since. Yet Barton still stands behind the Wegman report.

Half of the report’s eighty references were uncited in the text itself, a tactic called “bibliography padding” that is frequently used by undergraduates to create an illusion of expertise. Many references use “grey literature” (not peer-reviewed), including the key source (“MM05x”) of many anti-science memes. “MM05x” quotes an article that appeared not in Science but in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, a favorite publication of pro-fringe-science researchers. It is filled with scholarly looking papers on extrasensory perception (ESP), UFOs, reincarnation, inexplicable weight gain in suffocated sheep, dog astrology, and other fascinating topics. Most of its articles are available online (Society for Scientific Exploration 2010). Occasionally proper skeptical debunking papers do slip into print there.

The Wegman report also referenced a 1987 article, “Magnetics May Hold Key to Ozone Layer Problems” by Tom Valentine. Its inclusion is utterly bizarre, especially in a report criticizing the quality of review elsewhere. A 1987 ozone article was at best irrelevant bibliography padding. The publication in which Valentine’s article appeared, MAGNETS in Your Future, was an obscure fringe-science magazine. Valentine often wrote on fuelless engines, psychic surgery, and conspiracy theories for the tabloid the National Tattler. His bio stated that he was the “Miracle editor.” Later his talk show often promoted “black helicopter” conspiracies. Nevertheless, some people remain unshakeably certain of the Wegman report’s credibility.

A short article cannot convey the pervasiveness and strangeness of problems with the Wegman report. Skeptics should read my long report to assess the claims made here. I expect to update my online report (Mashey 2010b) in a few months and will be glad to be informed of any honest errors.

References

Bradley, Raymond S. 1999. Paleoclimatology—Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary, Second Edition. San Diego, CA: Academic Press/Elsevier.

Deep Climate. 2010a. Wegman report update, part 1: More dubious scholarship in full colour. Available online at http://deepclimate.org/2010/07/29/wegman-report-update-part-1-more-dubious-scholarship-in-full-colour. (Deep Climate has made many posts, but this reference is a good starting point.)

———. 2010b. Replication and due diligence, Wegman style. Available online at http://deepclimate.org/2010/11/16/replication-and-due-diligence-wegman-style.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2001. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis. Contribution of Working Group 1 to the Third IPCC Scientific Assessment. Edited by J.T. Houghton, Y. Ding, D.J. Griggs, et al. Cambridge University Press. Available online at http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/index.htm.

Society for Scientific Exploration. 2010. Journal of Scientific Exploration past research articles. Available online at http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/articles.html.

Mashey, John R. 2009. Science bypass: Anti-science petition to APS from folks with SEPP, George C. Marshall Institute, Heartland, CATO. Available online at http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/2009 science bypass v3 0.pdf.

———. 2010a. Crescendo to Climategate cacophony: Behind the 2006 Wegman report and two decades of climate anti-science. Available online at http://www.desmogblog.com/sites/beta.desmogblog.com/files/crescendo climategate cacophony v1 0.pdf.

———. 2010b. Strange scholarship in the Wegman report: A façade for the climate anti-science PR campaign. Available online at http://deepclimate.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/strange-scholarship-v1-02.pdf.

Monty Python. 1975. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Witch Scene” available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yp_l5ntikaU.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Russell, Wesley. 2010. RE: Civil Investigative Demand No. 3-MM. Available online at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/virginiapolitics/New Mann CID.PDF.

Vergano, Dan. 2010a. University investigating prominent climate science critic. USA Today (October 8). Available online at http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/10/wegman-plagiarism-investigation-/1.

———. 2010b. Experts claim 2006 climate report plagiarized. USA Today (November 22). Available online at http://www.usatoday.com/weather/climate/globalwarming/2010-11-21-climate-report-questioned_N.htm.

———. 2010c. Climate science critic responds to allegations. USA Today (November 23). Available online at http://www.usatoday.com/weather/climate/globalwarming/2010-11-21-climate-report-questioned_N.htm.

———. 2010d. Wegman report round-up. USA Today (November 23). Available online at http://content.usatoday.com/communities/sciencefair/post/2010/11/wegman-report-round-up/1.

Wegman, Edward, David Scott, and Yasmin Said. 2006. Ad hoc committee report on the “hockey stick” global climate reconstruction. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans (July 14). Available online at http://republicans.energycommerce.house.gov/108/home/07142006_Wegman_Report.pdf.

John R. Mashey

John R. Mashey is a computer scientist whose career has extended from Bell Labs to the Silicon Valley. Many of the wide variety of scientists he has worked with have used software or hardware he helped create. For the past few years he has been studying climate science, anti-science, and energy issues.