Conflict of Interest #1

One of the important issues raised in the House Committee Letters was the potential conflict of iinterest between individuals in their capacity as IPCC authors reviewing (and even promoting) their own research. Kevin Vranes, Roger Pielke and Hans von Storch in different ways at Prometheus have all discussed the problem, with a surprising degree of acknowledgement of the problem. I will re-cap some recent discussions on the issue in this post. In a follow-up post, I will illustrate the problem discussed here in general terms by examining the IPCC discussion of MBH98-MBH99 itself, which proves to be a highly interesting exercise, and illustrates exactly why conflicts of interest should be avoided. I note in passing that Vranes, Pielke and von Storch, in different ways, have acknowledged the legitimacy of the House Committee letters to institutions (IPCC, NSF), with von Storch even suggesting that the House Committee expand its institutional scope to include Nature. All three commentators contest the legitimacy of the letters to the three individual scientists. However, all three frame their objections in the context of asking information of an author who was merely publishing his views in a journal, rather than framing their analysis in the specific context of letters to (say) Mann in his capacity as an IPCC author in a conflict of interest situation and none of them inquire as to the effect of the agreed conflict of interest on such legitimacy. I’ll visit this topic in a future post. We’ll try to tidy up the formating below; the formatting was updated today. Obviously, I’m pleased with the fact that this issue is on the table. In February 2005, I wrote the following in a National Post op-ed:

For example, Michael Mann had published an academic article announcing that the 1990s were the warmest decade in human history. He then became IPCC section author for the critical section surveying climate history of the last millennium, adopting the very graph used in his own paper on behalf of IPCC. For someone used to processes where prospectuses require qualifying reports from independent geologists, the lack of independence is simply breathtaking and a recipe for problems, regardless of the reasons initially prompting this strange arrangement.

Roger Pielke wrote favorably in a February column about these policy comments:

McIntyre also comments on the incestuous structure of the IPCC, “The inattentiveness of IPCC to verification is exacerbated by the lack of independence between authors with strong vested interests in previously published intellectual positions and IPCC section authors… For someone used to processes where prospectuses require qualifying reports from independent geologists, the lack of independence is simply breathtaking and a recipe for problems, regardless of the reasons initially prompting this strange arrangement.” McIntyre concludes by observing, “Businesses developed checks and balances because other peoples’ money was involved, not because businessmen are more virtuous than academics. Back when paleoclimate research had little implication outside academic seminar rooms, the lack of any adequate control procedures probably didn’t matter much. However, now that huge public policy decisions are based, at least in part, on such studies, sophisticated procedural controls need to be developed and imposed.” Of course, some scientists will reply to this in exactly opposite fashion, by saying that academics are more virtuous than business people so such checks are unnecessary. But whatever one thinks about the debate over the hockey stick, McIntyre’s views on climate science policy make good sense and are good for the community as a whole.

The House Committee Letters have picked up on this issue:

For example, one concern relates to whether IPCC review has been sufficiently robust and independent. We understand that Dr. Michael Mann, the lead author of the studies in question, was also a lead author of the IPCC chapter that assessed and reported this very same work, and that two co-authors of the studies were also contributing authors to the same chapter. Given the prominence these studies were accorded in the IPCC TAR, we seek to learn more about the facts and circumstances that led to acceptance and prominent use of this work in the IPCC TAR and to understand what this controversy indicates about the data quality of key IPCC studies.

In the first of the three recent Prometheus comments on the House Committee letters, Kevin Vranes quoted the above paragraph noting:

Third, the letters raise the issue of conflict of interest (without calling it that)… Whatever climatology scientists think of this concern, and whatever IPCC insiders know about its legitimacy, this is absolutely an appropriate concern of Congress, which should be doing a lot more oversight into conflict of interest (especially in writing of Executive Branch regulations and recommendations, but that’s a different story). The ultimate consumer of IPCC information is Congress and other major decision-making bodies. If Congress hears that there are questions about the information that they have been given, especially concerning such a politically touchy issue, it is their prerogative to investigate.

In hte second Prometheus comment, Roger Pielke says:

You have a conflict of interest problem (real or perceptual) as well, given that M of MBH was involved with reviewing his own work as an IPCC lead author. Again, this may be acceptable given the norms of the climate science community, but those are not the norms at play in the larger political world of climate science. Consider getting some good advice on institutional design and public relations. And above all, avoid the hubris that too often characterizes climate scientists in their interactions. What works in the academy often does not in the broader world.

In the third (guest) comment, Von Storch pretty much agree with this, although in different language.

The IPCC has failed to ensure that the assessment reports, which shall review the existing published knowledge and knowledge claims, should have been prepared by scientists not significantly involved in the research themselves. Instead, the IPCC has chosen to invite scientists, who dominate the debate about the considered issues, to participate in the assessment. This was already in the Second Assessment Report a contested problem, and the IPCC would have done better in inviting other, considerably more independent scientists for this task. Instead, the IPCC has asked scientists like Professor Mann to review his own work. This does not represent an "independent" review.

These are very strong statements from respected scientists, who have elsewhere disagreed with the House Committee. Conflicts of interest create big problems in prospectuses and securities commissions (who have oversight of prospectuses) pay attention to them. I’ll discuss the implications of conflicts of interest for IPCC Assessment Reports (which I regard as a form of scientific prospectus) in later posts.

12 Comments

  1. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 12, 2005 at 2:21 AM | Permalink

    Steve and others: I have a simple and serious question.

    When Michael Mann was one of the 10 Lead Authors of Chapter 2 of the IPCC TAR (which also had 143 contributing authors) and that same chapter quoted the results from 11 papers which bear his name (among a total of 701 references), it is called “conflict of interest”.

    However, when a businessman “in mineral exploration projects” who was President of Northwest Exploration Company Limited and also Strategic Advisor to CGX Energy Inc (companies which both have major fossil fuel interests) writes a paper in GRL which criticises one element of climate science, any mention of his business background is met with howls of “ad-hominem!” and “genetic fallacy!” from the greenhouse contrarians.

    Isn’t there just a little bit of double standard operating here?

    Steve: I often mention how I feel like an anthropologist in seeing how little scientists understand about the process of a prospectus e.g. a scientific prospectus like IPCC TAR. “Conflict of interest” has a specific and technical meaning in securities legislation. One can objectively report the existence of “conflict of interest” in a prospectus – it’s not an ad hominem, it’s just simply a reporting of a situation that exists with respect to the prospectus. In making offerings of securities to the public, some conflicts of interest are permitted (but have to be closed) e.g. shareholdings by a director/ officer in the company offering securities, interests in competing businesses; but others are simply forbidded e.g. a director/officer doing the qualifying report or audit. The existence or non-existence of a conflict of interest situation can be discussed objectively.

    As a matter of fact, neither company that you mention has “major fossil fuel interests”. CGX is simply an exploration company; it has exploration permits (that I think have tremendous potential) but it has no fossil fuel reserves at all and no corporate interest in Kyoto, nor does Northwest Exploration. Doing this stuff costs me money and probably quite a lot of money. I don’t get a salary from either company; I don’t get paid to do climate research.

    Where this goes into “ad hominem” is the argument that my criticisms of Mann should not be considered because of my business background. My background does not affect Mann’s R2 statistic or lack of robustmess to bristlecone pines. These matters can be discussed quite independently. Of course, some people would rather not discuss these matters and therefore try to focus on my personal history either to suggest that I’m qualified to make these observations or that the observations are tainted by who’s making them.

    The practical connection of my background to my analysis (in my shoes) is quite different than people think. Exploration geologists are familiar with the earth’s history and the large range of natural variation and tend to be quite skeptical of the “unprecedented”-ness of recent warming (see Nature editorial) and of how climate modelers claim to be able to attribute recent warming to human activities. The other practical aspect is that I’m conscious of how promotions work. As I’ve often mentioned, I got interested in this merely in how the promotion worked. (I use “promotion” here in the technical sense that I use – which does not imply that the substance is true or false, merely that it is being distributed to the public.)

  2. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 12, 2005 at 7:25 PM | Permalink

    Steve: I have never suggested that your “criticisms of Mann should not be considered because of” your “business background”. That is far too extreme a view, as indeed is the view that Michael Mann should not have been a lead author of an IPCC chapter in which his papers were referenced. There is a middle ground. Also, as I’ve said before, to divorce the message from the messenger is naive in the extreme. The background and interests of the messenger is, of course, one of the things that we have weigh up when we listen to the message. On the other hand, there are science and business ethics which allow us to put some faith in what somebody says even where there is a perceived conflict of interest.

    In your own case, this site is a mixture of statistical discussions and a lot of value judgements concerning the importance of the “hockeystick” in issues relating to policy. As regards the statistics, I expect I could learn enough in a week or two to make some valid contributions to the Mann/McIntyre debate. But why should I spend that time when there are other important things to do?

    Steve: You’ve been hanging around this site for a long time. If you can learn enough in a week to contribute, then why don’t you do so?

    I would have to be convinced that your points are important and not just nit-picking — which is why it would be useful to know where you are coming from. I’ll give you an example: a week or so, I wanted to find out about the technique of uranium dating so looked it up on Google, only to find that around half the hits had words like “creation” in the URL — i.e. they were fundamentalism dressed up as science to support the creationist credo. I ignored all these sites and concentrated on sites run by science organisations, which did not have such clear non-science agendas. Are you suggesting that I should have initially looked at all the sites as having equal credibility? I believe that, to survive in a world where we can now hear almost anybody’s opinion online, we need a good front-end bull*** filter — which requires knowledge of the messenger.

    Now, as regards the “policy”-related discussions on this site, I have often criticised some of the more extreme statements (e.g. the fiction that the paleo temperature record made a quantum leap between the 1990 and 2001 IPCC reports). These discussions are far more value-laden than the statistics (another example would be the relative prominence of the hockeystick in events following the publication of the IPCC TAR) — which makes me interested in the backgrounds and intent of the messengers. I actually thought that you were pretty straightforward and, when I asked for your CV in another thread, expected it would just appear (given that you had already offered it). However, subsequent events have made me much more interested in your background, which continues to be obscure. It is part of normal scientific disclosure for authors to indicate their affiliation on papers (i.e. the institutions who supported the research) — your GRL paper indicates your affiliation to Northwest Exploration Company, which presumably supported your research, or at least had some stake in it. Now you tell me that you “don’t get salary” from them, which presumably means you have never received any money from them (or are we going to quibble about tense here?). To me, these mysteries just makes your background more interesting.

    If you complain that “the practical connection of my background to my analysis (in my shoes) is quite different than people think”, there is a simple remedy — be more open about where you’ve come from and convince us that you really do not have a conflict of interest.

  3. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 13, 2005 at 5:35 AM | Permalink

    Steve:

    You say:

    > You’ve been hanging around this site for a long time.
    > If you can learn enough in a week to contribute, then
    > why don’t you do so?

    (a) I didn’t say “a week”, I said “a week or two” (two can play at nitpicking)

    (b) The sentence following your comment gave you your answer:

    > I would have to be convinced that your points are
    > important and not just nit-picking “¢’‚¬? which is why
    > it would be useful to know where you are coming from.

    — so far, you have not convinced me that it would be worth my time.

    (snip)

  4. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 14, 2005 at 7:58 AM | Permalink

    Steve: This thread is entitled “Conflict of Interest”. It is one that you (not I) started.
    I am giving you the opportunity to convince me and others that you do not have a conflict of interest concerning the very public commentary you are making about the conduct of climate science.

    In Australia, and in many other places, the affiliation given along with the authorship
    of a paper generally indicates the umberalla under which the work was done — i.e. that this is the organisation which gave both moral and funding support to the work and also
    approved of its findings (in my own organisation, papers have to undergo a quite
    strict internal refereeing procedure prior to being submitted to a journal). Now, your GRL paper recorded your affiliation as “Northwest Exploration Company”, a company of which you have been President. I find this rather strange, as you continually state that your “climate” work is entirely self-funded. Can you please clarify the situation and indicate exactly what support you have had from Northwest Exploration Company over the past few years — after all, they are apparently the organisation responsible for your GRL paper.

    Steve: It’s a private company and has no employees. A few posts ago you accused this company of having substantial fossil fuel interests – another example of you throwing around innuendo when you had no basis for making any assertions at all in the matter. It has some assets from business that I’ve done in the past. When you file with GRL, there’s a compulsory field for institution, which I couldn’t leave blank. So I used the company. If I’m doing climate research, I’m not doing business. That’s why this costs me money and since the market for exploration stocks has been pretty good, my inactivity has cost me quite a lot of money in opportunity cost. If I didn’t have any assets, I obviously wouldn’t be able to do this. It irritates me like crazy for some guy like Mann who’s inhaling public funds to send scurrilous and untrue statements about funding to try to stop publication of our articles. I wish that you would demonstrate any substantive interest in any of the issues raised here or showed any inclination to correct blatant misrepresentations at realclimate. I’m not averse to making money and if someone wanted to pay me to do this, I’d be happy. I’d still do things the same way.

    Also you have failed to attend or criticize the proven conflict of interest that was the topic of this post.

  5. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 15, 2005 at 12:26 AM | Permalink

    (snip)
    Steve: I’ve snipped some observations by John Hunter about Northwest Exploration, a private company, which are either incorrect, pertain to irrelevant companies or do not contradict anything that I’ve said. Hunter’s been foraging around the internet trying to show that this company has major fossil fuel interests, which it doesn’t, nor does CGX Energy. CGX Energy has exploration licences offshore Guyana, which I think are really excellent exploration prospects, but they are prospects only and not reserves or in production. There’s no mystery to any of this.
    I’ve snipped Hunter’s comments themselves because untrue statements on the internet have a habit of taking on a life of their own. I obviously can’t stop this elsewhere, but I took the decision not to fuel it here. Hunter has shown no interest in any statistical issue raised in our articles and has focussed entirely on personal issues.

  6. Michael Jankowski
    Posted Jul 15, 2005 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

    “As regards the statistics, I expect I could learn enough in a week or two to make some valid contributions to the Mann/McIntyre debate. But why should I spend that time when there are other important things to do?”

    I seem to recall you practically demanding for Steve to perform Monte Carlo simulations, produce a CV, etc, as part of recent discussions here. Do you think that maybe he had “other important things to do,” too?

    I think you’d benefit much more from a statistical education (not only to “make some valid contributions to the Mann/McIntyre debate” but in your professional endeavors, too), rather than spending so much time googling Steve’s background.

  7. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 16, 2005 at 4:17 AM | Permalink

    (snip)
    Hunter has made a long diatribe against me in relation to my C.V. accusing me of reticence. I have explicitly said that I am not reticent and that I will post up info in a reasonable period of time, but I’m trying to finish off some other things as well that presently have priority and this is also vacation time in Canada. Hunter has said that he is recording his taunts. Hunter also said that he has demonstrated interest in statistical issues, but I think that the more pertinent statement on this is that he did feel it worthwhile to spend the week/two weeks in order to learn enough statistics to contribute to the statistical issues.

  8. Hans Erren
    Posted Jul 17, 2005 at 5:13 PM | Permalink

    The new blog format makes it unclear what is a comment and what a comment to a comment, may I suggest to distinguish them using different fonts?

  9. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 17, 2005 at 6:51 PM | Permalink

    (snip of various taunts by Hunter)
    Finally, since I have had no response from you indicating anything in my previous posting (15 July) was untrue, I am assuming the facts were correct, even though you claimed on this site that “some observations …..are ….. incorrect” — another misrepresentation.

    Steve: Can anyone explain to me the logic of someone who can simultaneously write that I had written that observations were “incorrect” and then claim that I had made no response indicating that anything was “untrue”. So that there is no doubt, I will re-iterate that your taunts contained untrue observations. We all eagerly wait for Hunter to spend the week/two that he says that he will require to understand the statistical issues involved in our articles. Maybe Hunter will be able to confirm to us soon that he has done so.

  10. Michael Mayson
    Posted Jul 17, 2005 at 9:10 PM | Permalink

    “We all eagerly wait for Hunter to spend the week/two that he says that he will require to understand the statistical issues involved in our articles. Maybe Hunter will be able to confirm to us soon that he has done so.”

    I doubt that, even if capable, he really wants to understand the statistical issues – too threatening to a closed mind.

  11. John Hunter
    Posted Jul 17, 2005 at 9:29 PM | Permalink

    Steve, you said:

    > So that there is no doubt, I will re-iterate that your taunts contained untrue
    > observations.

    What then were these “untrue observations”?

    John Hunter

  12. TCO
    Posted Sep 20, 2005 at 10:41 PM | Permalink

    Hunter’s tendentious attacks on Steve are silly. He still hasn’t shown one place where Steve lied in the service of his Exxon masters. And I wish Steve were getting paid. Or were getting the 8mil of Federal funds that one of his opponents got. Instead he has to dick around fixing messed up paragraphs from the blogging software. Hunter’s got some nerve.

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