It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, March 25, 2011

FOIA and Fishing Expeditions Revisited


I have only mentioned William Cronon on this blog once, but I've been a strong admirer of his since his amazing book about the intricate relationship between city and countryside, Nature's Metropolis, came out. It is therefore horrifying to see him get the full Phil Jones treatment.

As always, I will preface my discussion of these matters with a protestation that I favor radical openness and strict reproducibility to the maximum feasible extent in publicly funded research products, with a couple of caveats. The relevant caveat here is that we are talking about research products. Email exchanges are not research products.

Academic life (despite some recent number-fudging that shows unrealistically low hours and high pay for "earth scientists", which might just possibly be distorted by petroleum geologists, don't you think...) generally doesn't pay very well. Its main reward is the blurring of the boundary between work and play. If you want to have any academics at all, you will need to reward them by letting them think for a living, and be wary of slicing their lives into "work time" and "off duty" time. A good professor is a professor in every waking hour. The distinction between funded research, speculative investigation, and goofing off is something that doesn't enter into the academic life. Some of us should just be whole people. That makes up for the hassles and the reduction in earnings.

And so, a professor writing opinions (short of blatant electoral advocacy, which is widely known to be illegal) more or less relevant to his professional interests is, well, par for the course. The question, here as in Phil Jones' case and those of other victims of anti-climate-science FOIA persecution, is whether this is a reasonable use of FOIA at all. Is a professor responding to a student email or chatting with a colleague acting as a government functionary?

If this is the case it is a disastrously bad law, as it allows anyone with a gripe against a faculty member of any sort to make a profound nuisance of himself or herself for no legitimate reason. Now, perhaps those who want to shrink government enough to drown it in a bathtub feel the same way about academia. If so, they should say so, and not hide behind a law intended to protect the public from official abuse.

FOI was never intended as a weapon to allow random members of the public to abuse people with hassles. In geek-speak, a "denial-of-service" attack: make so many demands that the normal services are disrupted for ordinary users of the service.

If the law can be so interpreted, it must be changed. And openness aside, once an intrusive request comes in a FOIA envelope the victim should oppose it with every available means. The fabric of academic life is at stake.

Fortunately, the victim chosen in this instance has a very high profile, as the propagator of the nuisance (who did not even spell Cronon's name correctly) must have been unaware. Cronon is the current president of the American Historical Association.

For anyone just picking up on the story:

The 'offending' blog post, the Times oped and Cronon's response. Josh Marshall at TPM, James Fallows at the Atlantic, Krugman, etc. etc., but so far the only person I've seen tie it back into climate is Alex Steffen.
"Wisconsin GOP tries using FOIA demands for chilling effect at WI universities: http://goo.gl/ehnxY (shades of "ClimateGate" fake scandal)"
So, somebody please tell the movers and shakers on this story that this is not without precedent.

Update: The New York Times follow-up editorial mentions the climate connection.
The latest technique used by conservatives to silence liberal academics is to demand copies of e-mails and other documents. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia tried it last year with a climate-change scientist, and now the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing it to a distinguished historian who dared to criticize the state’s new union-busting law. These demands not only abuse academic freedom, but make the instigators look like petty and medieval inquisitors.
Update: See also comment #57 on Krugman's piece for further precedent.

4 comments:

JohnMashey said...

A year ago, I wrote Crescendo to Climategate Cacophony, which included a study of the ways that the Kochs, Richard Mellon Scaife, etc funded climate anti-sciencie through a network of thinktanks and fronts. These include ALEC, and also the Koch-funded FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, which were the two key starters for the Tea Party.

ALEC is listed, with a few URLs on p.52, including pointers to their 990 form, since it is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
p.93 starts 3 pages of funding matrix of funders vs organizations, with the 3 pages sorted roughly by relevance to climate anti-science. ALEC makes the first page.
As can be seen, of the $3393K identified from 990s and MMAN database:
$1,200K from ExxonMobil.
$1,645K from Allegheny (Scaife)
$0,050 from Scaife family
$0,273 from Charles G. Koch
$0,195 from Lambe (Koch brothers)
$0,450 from Castle Rock
In addition, the T at the top shows tobacco connection, as ALEC is oft-mentioned in the archives”, such as :
Philip Morris sends money,
ALEC and Heartland.

ALEC has been a big help to tobacco companies in their mission to addict children to tobacco. See The Importance of Younger Adults, 1984, which means 12-18-year-olds. Cigarette companies have known for decades that lifelong customers are created only getting them young.
ALEC has helped that also. It is hard to see tobacco help as a legitimate conservative issue, but it pays well.

Jim Bouldin said...

"The latest technique used by conservatives to silence liberal academics is to demand copies of e-mails and other documents. Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli of Virginia tried it last year with a climate-change scientist, and now the Wisconsin Republican Party is doing it to a distinguished historian who dared to criticize the state’s new union-busting law."
__________________

Well, except that Cronon avowedly does not consider himself a "liberal" and there is no basis for calling Mike one either. All that matters is that these two stand for something that the right wing cannot stand--therefore...they must be liberals!

JohnMashey said...

Note that this technique regarding climate scientists dates back at least to mid-2005, with Reps. Barton and Whitfield demanding all sorts of info from Mann, Bradley, Hughes. The pushback from Rep. Boehlert (R-NY) and the NAS stopped that, but eventually, the Wegman report in 2006 was the replacement.

Holly Stick said...

Some discussion at History News Network about this. Usually I think Chris Bray's comments are pretty bright, but he has the wrong end of the stick here. He may not be aware of "climategate":

http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/137891.html

http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/137919.html

(wv = imperato !!?!)