The Sixth Fallacy – Questions Never Asked Are Never Answered – a comment on McIntyre and a 6th fallacy for Curry

The question never asked is a faint shadow of itself.  –  [© phi studios]

Steve McIntyre has a new post up at his blog Climate Audit, The Questions That Were Never Asked, detailing recent revelations in his ongoing examinations on the lack or proper investigations into the whole sordid Climategate Affair.  In this update we learn that Andrew Montford’s [aka Bishop Hill] FOI request for emails between the University of East Anglia and Outside Organisation has produced “A Trickle of Further Information”, in the form of a “remarkable” list of questions, questions that were prepared [or “collated”] by  Alan Preece of the UEA in February of 2010 for the purpose of preparing UEA Climate Research Unit professors Phil Jones and Edward Acton for a March 1, 2010 appearance before the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee formed to investigate the matter – and apparently never used.

For those who may need some extra background, or a memory jog, on the various investigations of the Climategate Affair Professor Ross McKitrick of the University of Guelph has produced an excellent report as thing stood as of late 2010, available by .PDF download or by QuickView online.

McIntyre writes:

Bishop Hill reader TerryS has collated the questions from the pdf. Had these questions been asked and answered, this affair would have been over long ago. Some of the most obvious and important questions have never been asked or answered.

The list of questions also shows that UEA administration clearly understood the sort of questions that needed to be asked. They accordingly know that Muir Russell didn’t ask those questions. Perhaps that was their strategy – sort of like hiring a Inspector Clouseau confident that he would never stumble across the real plot. Or perhaps it was a serendipitous result from administrators wanting to whitewash the situation.

(Dig here: the correspondence was to and from the notorious Neil Wallis of the phone hacking scandal. Wallis had been working as a PR consultant less than a year when retained by UEA. During Wallis’ consultancy for UEA, he was being concurrently paid by the police and by the News of the World. See here.)

My comment was:

I’m [sarcastically] surprised that the UEA chose not to run with these [softball] questions. If I were under investigation myself, these are precisely the types of questions I would hope to be asked – that is unless I felt I could get away with answering no questions at all.

In general all of the questions are so non-specific that the respondent is allowed to define the scope of the question with his answer.  None of the questions directly reference a single demonstrable fact or behavior, or incident.  Also, questions such as those that begin with “Would you agree..?” are asked that way so that they can be answered with a ‘No’.  Unfortunately all of these questions can function as open-ended invitations to fairytale telling.

Call me skeptical, but hiring a tainted, shyster PR hack such as Neil Wallis, one who is known is his business as “The Wolfman”, does not indicate an institution’s intention to deal directly or honestly with an issue. It is usually an indication of the opposite.  People like Mr. Wallis, who have been under investigation for several serious ‘ethical lapses‘ and have been employed by scandal ridden organizations such News of the World, are not retained despite their past misdemeanors, [or felonies as the case may be] but because of them.  The people who hire them [for significant sums of money] are hoping for just such effectiveness in his dealings with their own situation.

In this matter what we seem to have is a tangled web of institutional [co]dependencies where no one institution seems willing to deal strongly with the situation at hand because of the potential for embarrassment [or worse] for their own institution caused by the wrong doing of the other institutions in their network.

All of this should lead to larger questions about how institutions can and should be investigated, and where and who draws the line in determining the independence of investigations.

It should be apparent to all by now that no institution can be trusted to investigate itself.  Question is in the post-post-modern age, where does one institution end and the other begin?

Not a bad comment, as far as my comments go, which is to say not testing the boundaries of hysterical realism.  It remains unknown at this point if any of the readers of Climate Audit would agree with that statement.  [they are of course welcome to log their comments below]  The readers of CA, or at least the vast majority, will never know how incredibly restrained I actually was, because what I eventually wrote in my comment was not the thought that was originally triggered by reading the CA post under discussion.

What originally struck me in terms of my own thinking on the subject was something that  Judith Curry wrote on her blog Climate Etc. back on July 9th.  In her article Judy proposed “Five Logical Fallacies That Make You More Wrong Than You Think.” This is Judy’s Fallacy No.5

#2.  We’re hard-wired to have a double standard

[T]he fundamental attribution error . . . is a universal thought process that says when other people screw up, it’s because they’re stupid or evil. But when we screw up, it’s totally circumstantial.

The process feels so obvious when explained — we simply lack information about the context in which the other person screwed up, and so we fill it in with our own.

The reality is, of course, that you were on completely different roads. The assumption that everyone’s circumstances are identical is so plainly wrong as to be borderline insane, but everyone does it.

JC comments:  Skeptics, pay attention to this one.  Accusing scientists of fraud and malfeasance with every mistake that is identified is not useful.

Yes, this is correct probably more often than not, and is certainly something to be guarded against in one’s own thinking [“universal” seems vague and totalistic to me] however, there is another attribution error that runs contrary to this one, and is nearly as common.

The fallacy that Judy forgot.

In addition to the ‘fundamental attribution error’ there is also cognitive egocentrism the delusion that we believe that the other shares our own value system and thought processes – a potentially serious error.

From Boston University history professor Richard Landes who blogs at TheAugeanStables:


The projection of one’s own mentality or “way of seeing the world” onto others, e.g., the teenager who is obsessed with sex, and assumes the same about everyone else. In the current situation of globalization, cognitive egocentrism has its greatest impact in the political relationships between people coming from civil societies and those raised in prime divider societies. Since the basic political principle of Prime divider societies is “rule or be ruled,” “do onto others before they do onto you,” political actors from those cultures assume the same zero-sum, domineering intentions in their opponents (the “enemy”). Since the basic political principles of civil societies is “I’ll give up trying to dominate and trust you to give it up as well,” “if I’m nice to you, you will be nice in return,” assume positive-sum attitudes in their opponents (the “other”). The current situation testifies to a dangerous mis-apprehension that works to the distinct disadvantage to civil society. The media, in particular, as the representative of civil society, emphasizes its role as empathizer, often failing to defend civil society, even exposing it to danger.

While it is true that, particularly as individuals, we are prone to the negative polarity of the attribution bias, unfairly assuming malice on the part of the other; it has to be recognized that there is also a danger in the positive polarity of the attribution bias, namely, that it is possible [and potentially dangerous] to wrongly assume that other people operate in good faith and with good intentions in all circumstances.  Our desire to treat people fairly, or our desire to be thought of as someone who treats people fairly, can blind us to the reality of persistent patterns of negative behavior and the types of pressures that exist in institutional settings that allow or enforce bad or self-serving behavior.

People and institutions, even ones who normally prefer positive-sum interactions, when under threat, easily revert to more benighted forms of behavior.  Otherwise seeming decent, principled people and institutions, ones with the right kind of published guidelines and procedures in place – all goes out the window as soon as the flying monkeys appear.

It is a sad irony that ‘game playing’ strategies in civil society can be very much like a war, individuals’ and institutions’ behaviors tends to descend to the lowest common denominator.  It seems to be more difficult for institutions, even more so than for individuals, to maintain their own ethical principles when under perceived or actual institutional threat.

Group and institutional behavior seems to be some kind of mathematical average [I don’t think it even the RMS of the function] of the ethical forté of its members.  It is rare that an institution handles scandal well.  Risks from the consequences of institutional embarrassment and the rewards of maintainting ethical behavior are distributed too irregularly, or can be redistributed easily enough that real leadership is required, a level of leadership that is rare in this world.  You can contrast Johnson & Johnson’s handling of the 1982 Tylenol poisonings case and how Union Carbide Chairman & CEO Warren Anderson handled the 1984 Bhopal Disaster, both have become textbook cases of what to do – and what not to do.

Traditionally we in civil societies have been forced to rely upon the independence of investigators and the checks and balances of a certain slopish intra-institutional competitiveness to help insure that matters get dealt with instead of swept immediately under the rug.  This no longer seems to work – it never worked well – but it used to sort of work.  I’m sure I’m not saying anything new, and you are probably well aware of the situation.

Regarding the Climategate Affair, there were no fewer than four separate, “independent” investigations, one in the US conducted internally by Penn State University into Professor Michael Mann’s behavior, as well as three separate inquiries in the UK [I am reluctant to use the term ‘investigation’] conducted by Lord Oxburgh and Muir Russell [ICCER], and finally another investigation by the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to check on the checks by Muir Russell.

The first question is exactly how separate and independent were these investigations?  As we have seen, as the information comes forth about who the investigators were, how they were selected, and who got to set their terms of reference there were all connected in strange ways.  As the Climategate emails themselves reveal this was a very small world individually and institutionally, none of the investigators or the investigatees were more than one or two degrees of separation away from some significant professional connection.  Of course three of the four institutions had a great deal at stake in showing that there was nothing wrong in their affairs, and all four institutions also had a deep institutional vested interest in making sure their or the others’ institutions got gored in the process.  All were connected directly by a need to preserve integrity of the academic edifice of climate science, everyone’s paychecks were directly dependent on public faith in that hyper-edifice.

In each case these four investigations were all carefully contrived to be whitewashes, in great measure by very carefully choosing what questions not to ask.  Any questions that might be revealing of the actual problems at hand were placed off limits and instead questions that dealt with manageable side issues were admitted.  The other common tools in the systematic biasing of these inquiries included [but were not limited to] refusing to talk to the relevant antagonists, particularly those in the blogosphere such as Steve McIntyre who were directly involved to the matter, then taking at face value the self-serving answers given by the culprits.  Do we see cognitive egocentrism at work here?  these are respected academics and gentlemen, they couldn’t possibly be snowing us could they?  The investigators also didn’t seem to put in many real hours actually investigating or asking live people questions for all of the money that flowed into their expense accounts.

Institutions simply cannot be allowed to investigate themselves or they will engineer a whitewash every time.  Why we should treat academic institutions any differently – is a very good question.

Trying to bring this all back around to some kind of a point.

I’ve been wondering though, is all of this really a perverse application of a positive-sum strategy?  only here it is a whitewash-whitewash solution instead of a win-win solutionif we all whitewash together we all preserve our grant structures – just like the price fixing conspiracy of the corner gas stations.  Works great until that one guy at the mini-mart across the way starts a price war.

What I am curious about in this whole affair, what in my present thinking that seems new to me, is how interconnected the self-interests of these institutions appear to be.  When everyone seems to have their hands in the same pie, when everyone sets their own rules and, as in academia, when everyone assumes complete independence from the rest of civil society, how do you determine where, and by whom, the lines of independence of investigations get drawn?

If nothing else you have ask the question.


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