Annals of Premature Accusations

by Kieran Healy on November 4, 2003

Kevin Drum updates the score in the ongoing debate between Mann, Bradley and Hughes (climate scientists) and McIntyre and McKitrick (a couple of economists). The latter claim to have re-analyzed data from a famous paper of the former’s on global warming and found numerous errors that, when corrected, make the results go away. The climatologists have responded vigorously, saying that their critics have botched the job. Both sides are preparing further responses at the moment, so the issue is on hold.

That, however, hasn’t stopped Iain Murray from writing a quite inflammatory article in the NRO about all of this. The article tries to stamp the whole issue with his preferred spin:

The whole affair bears strong resemblance to the recent Bellesiles controversy. Emory University historian Michael Bellesiles won a Bancroft Prize for his argument that gun ownership in early America was not widespread. It took an amateur historian, Clayton Cramer, to point out that this claim could not be substantiated on the basis of actual gun-ownership records. Eventually, an Emory University investigation strongly criticized Bellesiles, and the Bancroft Prize was withdrawn.

Given what we know about the present case, this is an indefensible comparison.

The work of a number of researchers showed beyond reasonable doubt that Bellesiles had fabricated his data. Murray is saying the same thing is happening here, as hardy amateurs show the professional scientists up as frauds. But nothing of the sort is even on the cards. At the absolute worst, a dataset has been incorrectly analyzed and a finding will need to be withdrawn. (It’s too early to say whether that’s what’s going to happen: probably not, if you ask me, but you never know.) There’s no suggestion from the accusers that data have been fabricated or that other researchers have been deliberately misled. Mann et al made their data available to McIntyre and McKitrick for reanalysis in the first place! This makes the comparison to Bellesiles absurd, even defamatory. Murray almost explains why the comparison is obtuse himself, saying “So far, it looks like the errors in Mann’s data set were accidental,” though he can’t resist putting in that “So far.” You can see what he really wants to have happen.

Well, he should have kept it to himself until he was sure about it. Murray’s desire to see conventional wisdom about climate change proved wrong has led him to excitably jump to conclusions before. He may now be having reservations about knocking out his column so quickly, as he published it before Mann et al released a rebuttal of the charges, which contains a robust defence of their paper. A longer response is forthcoming from them. “The issue is getting very technical at present,” Murray now says, linking to a calmly-worded piece asking that people not “jump to any conclusions” before all the details from both sides are available. Sounds sensible to me. It’s why you shouldn’t be slinging around accusations of the most serious kind of academic fraud, I’d have thought.

{ 8 comments }

1

M.K. Hackensack 11.04.03 at 11:05 pm

How interesting that Mr. Murray did not the far more applicable analogy to John Lott.

Actually, Lott has been accused both of faking data and botching the analysis, so he would have both bases covere.

How peculiar that Lott was not used instead of Bellesiles.

2

Brett Bellmore 11.05.03 at 2:09 am

Lott just doesn’t excite as many people as Bellesiles, and for good reason. For all I know, they’re equally frauds, but Bellesiles was fraudulently telling us that black was white, while Lott was fraudlently telling us that pale ivory was eggshell. Don’t expect people to get exercised when the difference between Lott and his critics is minute compared to major newspapers predicting a bloodbath if concealed carry was enacted.

Regarding global warming, I’m convinced it’s happening, I’m almost willing to accept that it’s manmade, but you guys are really falling short on the “it’s bad” front. Especially given that we’re in an inter-glacial period, overdue for cold spell, and that CO2 might be the only reason glaciers aren’t crushing our cities at this very moment. The costs of “doing something” are evident, and obviously enormous, the benefits are highly speculative.

3

zizka 11.05.03 at 3:57 am

Does anyone care to respond to Mr. Bellmore on the threat of glaciers crushing our cities? Class? Did you read your assignments?

4

Matthew 11.05.03 at 9:54 am

I thought I’d seen a big white mass the other day, out of the corner of my eye… thought it was just a cloud! The glaciers are coming!

Seriously, that’s an interesting new layer of spin. Stage 1 was “not happening”. Stage 2 was “not man-made”. Now it’s Stage 3 “Well I quite fancy a bit of warm weather, thank you very much! With that Ice Age coming and all”

5

Matthew 11.05.03 at 9:56 am

Oh, any guesses for the next stage?
“Didn’t like the ecosystem very much anyway” ?
“Shut up and swim” ?

6

Thomas Dent 11.05.03 at 10:33 am

In any country apart from the US, an action of libel would lie for knowingly suggesting deliberate academic fraud.

However in practice, the result is that anyone who values intellectual honesty will take Murray down a few notches in their estimation, while the ra-ra crowd at NRO will continue to cheer him and smear those on the opposite side.

7

Paul 11.05.03 at 4:09 pm

Julian May warned me that one day we’d have to learn to live with the ice again.

8

John Hackworth 11.06.03 at 8:02 am

Actually, if one digs in, one finds that Belleisles was guilty of rather less than is generally said; he mostly seems to have been a really poor statistician. Cramer’s something of a crank–try reading his usenet stuff if you doubt that–but he did in fact catch Bellesisles out.

As for anthropogenic global climate change, it’s as near to proven as such a thing can be. But that’s not going to stop the political types.

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