Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself
That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.
Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.
And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.
At this point, GMU has no appealing options.
Under normal circumstances, faced with multiple instances of plagiarism from a senior academic with a previously distinguished record, GMU would probably arrange for Wegman to take responsibility and early retirement, retract the papers and the report, give his co-authors (mostly Wegman’s current and former graduate students) a stern warning, then move on.
But circumstances aren’t normal. A report to Congress can’t be retracted as easily as a journal article, and this one is a cause celebre for climate denialists in their attacks on climate science. A particularly embarrassing case is that of GMU graduate and Virginia Attorney-General Cuccinelli, who’s relying on the Wegman report as part of his (so far fruitless) attempts to dig dirt on hockey stick lead author Michael Mann. But Cuccinelli’s reaction, if Wegman is forced to retract, will be mild compared to that of the delusional blogospheric right, and their allies among the faculty and financial backers of GMU.
It’s unsurprising that GMU has chosen delay, but time has now run out.
fn1. I stopped using this term, in favor of “delusionist” a while ago. But the fact that the political right is engaged in denialist practices on a whole range of issues, is something which even the most “balanced” of mainstream media outlets like USA Today and the Washington Post are now pointing out, and so I’ll use whichever term seems more appropriate from now on.