Categorized | Climate Change

Plagiarism and Politics: The Curious Case of Edward Wegman

Graph displaying variations of the Earth's surface temperature for the past 1000 years from The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report, based on the original Mann et al. graph. Photo: IPCC

Analyses have revealed that one of the centerpieces of the climate change denial platform — a 2006 study criticizing the statistical methodology behind the “hockey stick” graph – contains multiple instances of plagiarism.

In 1999, Michael Mann, Raymond Bradley, and Malcolm Hughes published a paper charting temperature deviation from average over the past 1000 years.  Dubbed for its resemblance to a hockey stick lying on its side with the blade sticking in the air, the graph showed 900 years of moderately fluctuating temperatures with a warming trend spiking upward after 1900. The hockey stick graph sparked numerous efforts to discredit the statistical methods behind it as well as its use of “proxy” data like tree rings to estimate past temperatures.

One of the most influential criticisms was a 2006 report commissioned by then-head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Joe Barton (R-TX). A new analysis of that report finds evidence of plagiarism on 35 of its 91 pages.

Evidence that the report author, Edward Wegman of George Mason University, had engaged in plagiarism first came to light on the Deep Climate website, which is dedicated to “exploring climate science disinformation in Canada.” According to the USA Today, that information caught the attention of Raymond Bradley, one of the original “hockey stick” authors, and whose own book was one of the allegedly plagiarized sources. A year-long analysis of the text concluded that the Wegman report contains multiple sections that “are mostly plagiarized text, but often injected with errors, bias and changes of meaning.”

USA Today followed up by consulting several plagiarism experts, whose verdicts after side-by-side analysis of the plagiarism ranged from “fairly obvious” to “fairly shocking.”

I trolled around a bit on some of websites that specialize in promulgating climate change denial, like “Watts Up With That.” Their reactions to the scandal ranged from silence on the subject, to a reiteration of one sentence in the USA Today report: “The charges of plagiarism don’t negate one of the basic premises of the report—that climate scientists used poor statistics in two widely noted papers.” I guess they missed the part farther down in the article where we are reminded that a “National Research Council report found the Wegman report’s criticism of the type of statistics used in 1998 and 1999 papers reasonable but beside the point, as many subsequent studies had reproduced their finding that the 20th century was likely the warmest one in centuries.”

What will be the fallout from all this? Hard to say, but I have a feeling that the outrage:wrongdoing ratio will be about inverse to last year’s “Climategate.” For one thing, while the USA Today’s article is great, you had better have the direct link. Not only is it not linked from the main page, on the “National News,” I couldn’t find it linked from the “News” page, “Tech” page, or even the “Weather” page. And I don’t expect the revelations to spark much change on the political front, either. The article reports that Joe Barton, the Congressman who commissioned the Wegman report, continues to stand by it. If Joe Barton’s name sounds familiar, it may be that you recall his apology last summer to B.P. Chairman Tony Hayward for the Obama Administration’s stance to B.P. following the Gulf Oil Disaster.  And he’s one of the leading contenders to return to chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the next Congress.

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- who has written 22 posts on dotWild.

Aimee Delach is a Senior Policy Analyst at Defenders of Wildlife. Aimee develops policies to help land managers and decision-makers incorporate climate change threats into efforts to protect wildlife and habitats.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.