Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Giving the Devil His Due -- Then Naming Him Evil

Careful readers of one of my previous blog posts will note that I said nothing about the validity of the complaint of scientific misconduct against the “Arctic scientist muzzled.” I had assumed that better commentators would cover that subject quite well. However, thinking about it, it occurs to me that I have a unique perspective on the specifics of the case. So I’d like to lay out what I think happened – and what I conclude it means.

Setting the Stage

Monnett, the scientist, is an employee of the Mining and Materials Service (recently renamed) in the Interior Dept. As it happened, in the summer of 1969 I was an intern at the Office of the Under Secretary of Interior in Washington, so I got a birds’-eye view of Interior, later supplemented by a senior thesis on its workings.
Back then, Interior had two types of Services: “foxes” (the Army Corps of Engineers and MMS) and “chickens” (Fish and Wildlife Service). In very broad terms, foxes would tend to favor the interest of business, while chickens would tend to favor the interest of environmentalists. At the time, new environmental departments were being formed, and the thought was that placing these in Interior would tilt the department more towards environmentalism, both in the department and in its representation in Congress, so that the overall result was a stronger US environmental policy.

As it happened, Nixon chose to place EPA and NOAA in a separate agency to cut down Interior’s power, because he felt Secretary Hickel was being politically disloyal (Hickel himself confirmed this to me). It appears, therefore, that Interior remains today much the same as it was then – with fox and chicken departments, and MMS being one of the foxes. Monnett, his investigators, and his bosses and co-workers all seem to be employees of the MMS.

Monnett had an odd function at the MMS. As part of an earlier compromise between Alaskan native communities and oil companies seeking permits to drill offshore, he was to monitor animal activities vital to these natives – specifically, the bowhead whale migration – to see if oil drilling had any effect on them. It was important to the oil companies and to MMS that drilling not be interrupted for no reason; it was important to the natives that their means of livelihood not be disrupted, and therefore Monnett’s primary responsibility was supposed to be to determine if it was. At the same time, Monnett as a scientist was supposed to provide and analyze “just the facts”.

The Complaint

What I am saying here is pure conjecture, but is my most positive take as to what the person(s) who generated the complaint against Monnett was thinking.

In the years shortly before Monnett’s paper, oil company engineers and/or geologists were probably making complaints about Monnett. He appeared to be changing the statistics for determining problems with bowhead whale migration in the middle of the game, in favor of finding problems. There was friction with his superiors, who were questioning his conclusions. The engineers and/or geologists were credible complainers, who could be expected to understand his math and his experiments. And then the paper arrived.

To the complainer, looking at the paper, it appeared odd. For one thing, it appeared that most of the data in the paper was not collected as part of a designed survey, but rather as the “other” category in a survey on whale migration. Over the last 10 years Monnett himself collected the majority of the data, and the categories in which the data was typically recorded were unclear. In order to get records from 20-10 years ago, Monnett appeared to simply ask his predecessor what he recalled.

Then there were the “statistics” of the paper. In the current year’s data (the only one that seemed to have independent verification) there were only 4 swimming polar bears in the first day’s survey, and 3 dead polar bears in the second day’s survey. Traditionally, this is usually far too small a sample to draw any statistical conclusions at all.

“Scientific misconduct” to me typically means misrepresenting the real data. Switching to legal terms for a moment, Monnett apparently had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to do so. But to show scientific misconduct, Monnett had to actually misrepresent the data. Was there something in the paper that seemed to show data misrepresentation? Well, yes. It might have seemed to the complainer (as an example) that Monnett was claiming that “death of polar bears caused by their attempts to swim to receding ice” was conclusively proven. In other words, Monnett may or may not have falsified the data; but at least he seemed to be claiming that the data proved something that the clearly valid data he had could not possibly support.

Given this, the complainer may have felt he had the equivalent of a “prima facie” case: a case in which the evidence tended to show misconduct, and the burden was on Monnett to show it was untrue.

The Game

In reading the transcript of the interview, it is helpful to think of it as partially a legal “game.” This is the way it apparently worked. The investigators arrived and were surprised to find that Monnett was represented by legal counsel, and they were being recorded. This meant that all of the actors in the interview had specific aims and tasks. The easiest role was that of the lawyer. As a good lawyer, he could be counted on to be quite aggressive in making claims about his client’s innocence, and noting instances where he could claim the investigators themselves were breaking the law.

Monnett himself was walking a careful line. On the one hand, the best way to put himself in a strong legal position was to overwhelm the investigators with details of the things that he had done right. On the other hand, the more he talked, the more possible mistakes he might reveal. Thus, throughout the interview, Monnett is providing massive amounts of detail, trying on the fly to shore up things that might be used to convict him, and trying to avoid being drawn into conclusions beyond what he had already said in the paper.

Meanwhile, the investigators split their role. Gary went through the details of the complainer’s allegation; thus, he focused on data collection, whether the data or conclusions in the paper had been reviewed adequately, and whether the data justified the conclusions. He was, in effect, trying to build the bricks to solidify and support the prima facie case. Lynn was his protector; when he seemed to be saying things that might expose the investigators or the department to legal attack, she would cut him off. Therefore, the investigators as a whole spent great effort in avoiding laying out what the details of the complaint were: these details might alert Monnett to areas of vulnerability and expose the department to counter-actions.

My Verdict – Not Just Not Proven, Innocent

Having heard the prima facie case, let’s analyze the data and the paper based on the information in the interview. What did it show?

First, let’s assume that the data is valid. Can we draw any statistical conclusions at all from it? Actually, yes. 4 and 3 may seem like small deviations from zero, but they follow a string of 20 zeros. The only plausible model I can see in the real world for a null hypothesis, that more than 3 swimming or dead polar bears is “the luck of the draw,” is a lambda probability function, in which the most probable occurrence is 0, the next most probable 1, and so on. Given 20 years of zeros, the only lambda function that would fit would have a probability of less than 1% of seeing 1 swimming/dead polar bear in year 21, and less than .1% of seeing 3 or more. It seems very clear to me that, if the data are valid, it is overwhelmingly likely that something new has happened to cause the swimming and dead polar bears.

All right, how about the validity of the data? Well, the three dead polar bears are clearly valid: there were attested by several other people besides Monnett. The four swimming polar bears are very likely to be valid, both because no one else in the helicopter, hearing the unusual sighting, found anything wrong, and because the death of the polar bears had to be caused by something, and that something was in the context of things highly likely to have been swimming. That leaves the question of whether Monnett omitted previous sightings of swimming and/or dead polar bears.

Actually, that one’s pretty easy to dispose of without recourse to statistics or the likelihood of personal actions. As Monnett makes clear, this was about the first year in which ice had clearly drawn off from the land. In most if not all previous years, Monnett or his predecessor could not possibly have seen swimming polar bears, since there was no water to swim in, just ice. And as for dead polar bears, again, it is overwhelmingly likely that 2 or 3 would have been noted in previous years in any case, since the researchers were trying to note any anomaly and the natives would care about this one, and no one has advanced a clear alternative cause (in previous years) for three to die.

Did Monnett overclaim based on this data? It appears that he said: (1) The numbers of swimming and dead polar bears was unusual, (2) It appears that the deaths were caused by the polar bears’ need to swim to the ice, (3) The 4 and 3 bears in 11% of his total area can be “extrapolated” to 36 and 27 across his entire area and a 25% survival rate (of bears that swam). We’ve already shown that statistically (whether or not he did the statistics), conclusion (1) is completely sound.

As for (2), this is not an overclaim. Something caused the deaths, and the most obvious explanation is the most obvious new factor that should cause an increase in deaths: withdrawal of ice from the land. That’s the equivalent of what Monnett said.
And then there’s (3). As I noted in my previous blog post, “extrapolation” is not an indication that something is highly likely. It’s an indication that if your sample from a population turns up this result, it’s the most likely frequency in the entire population, but not very likely in and of itself – and the frequency in the population is just as likely to be greater than that number as to be less than that number.

Were I a reviewer of such a paper, I would understand its import to be just as Monnett indicated in the interview: an establishment of a result that cannot be explained by the hypothesis of “just random chance”, a proposed explanation for the result that is a logically and physically appropriate model, and an invitation to other scientists to do work to replicate or propose alternative new explanations for the results. I would regard this as an entirely appropriate use of necessarily limited data.

My verdict: the prima facie case is entirely destroyed. Yes, in an ideal case the experiment could have been done better and better statistical tests might have been applied; but they were not needed. Monnett’s paper shows no scientific misconduct and is entirely appropriate to the data.

Why the Devil is in the Follow-on

Having, as I have said, given the “devil” (the complainer) his due, I maintain that it seems very likely that whoever has suspended Monnett has, in fact, been guilty of legal and scientific misconduct himself (or herself). Why? Because of what happened after the interview.

I have shown, I hope, that Monnett established, at the least, a strong prima facie case during the interview that he did not misrepresent the data. From then until now, there have been no public communications, nor communications with Monnett, about the case.

However, a week ago, Monnett was placed on “administrative leave”, and the stated cause was an investigation by the same investigator of allegations that Monnett had mishandled administration of a contract with U. of Alberta as subcontracted researchers into polar bear migration. Moreover, the same paper trail of permissions for his work is apparently available for the contract administration. That means that (1) investigators failed to investigate Monnett’s allegations of research distortion; (2) Monnett was suspended without even double-checking a “prima facie case”, if there was one – since investigators already knew that he typically had a paper trail; (3) Monnett was never cleared of the original charge by the investigators, although that was supposedly their only concern. What seems very likely is that this suspension is the result of proceedings covered by legal requirements that deliberately failed to follow them, both with regard to the paper and the administration. Whatever the relevant law, that suggests to me misconduct according to the law.

It also suggests scientific misconduct. The lack of contact with Monnett about his paper makes it clear that they failed to follow up with him his allegation that his research report had been distorted. Misrepresenting the data in a research report should also be considered scientific misconduct, whether the report is distributed beyond the department or not. And failure to correct a report that you should have known is distorted means that you share in the scientific misconduct, whether you are a scientist or not.

In the abstract, this type of misconduct seems isolated and unimportant. But it is also clear that these issues matter a great deal to everyone. Had the oil companies had a legitimate complaint, and if additional oil had mattered a great deal to the world’s economy and well-being, a Monnett prevention of drilling would have had major negative effects. If a valid Monnett scientific finding is not weighed and responded to appropriately and fossil fuels are indeed causing a global warming disaster, then this suspension and similar actions are equally if not more damaging to the world.
It appears from the only available evidence that those who suspended Monnett have thereby put themselves beyond excuse. I have tried to give the devil his due – is there any way I can avoid now naming him evil?

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