Failed witch hunts reveal political ambition at its most repugnant and most ridiculous. Consider the unhappy situation in which Virginia State Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II now finds himself. Like every other politician on the make, his career has been a search for issues to capture public attention and garner campaign contributions. When he launched his crusade against climatologist Michael E. Mann, the Virginia Republican probably thought he’d caught the scent of an issue that would elevate him above the herd of conservatives who also staunchly oppose universal health care, abortion, same sex marriage, gun control and undocumented workers. Unfortunately that recognition has come at a rather steep price: the unmistakable, unshakable odor of the aggressive crackpot.
The embarrassingly thin legal authority to punish scientific conclusions with which the Virginia State Attorney General disagrees is Article 19.1 of the Code of Virginia, as amended, a.k.a, the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayer’s Act (FATA), a law that was passed in 2002 to prosecute state employees who fiddled their expense vouchers. Mann worked at the University of Virginia from 1999 to 2005 and got research grants from the state. FATA is not much to go on but the Virginia State Legislature has yet to pass legislation that explicitly authorizes ideological purges of scholars at the state’s public universities. In any event, Mann had already escaped north of the Mason-Dixon Line to work for some Yankee school called Penn State.
Rather than cost free posturing that leads a breakout into national political exposure, Cuccinelli Junior ran up against serious obstacles. Much of the Virginia professoriate rallied to the defense of academic freedom. Democrats in the State Senate voted to deprive the Attorney General of authority to investigate suspected academic fraud and require the Attorney General to keep detailed accounts of his investigations. Virginia state court Judge Paul M. Peatross was clearly unimpressed by the legal argument the Attorney General need only state a subjective reason to believe that some fraud involving state monies occurred to permit demands for records from the University of Virginia. Seems the law isn’t a license to go fishing in the e-mails of university faculty who received state support for their research. Most damaging of all for the aspiring little inquisitor, most of the Congressional Republican delegation appears reluctant to directly challenge climate science, preferring instead to oppose carbon reduction legislation as a ‘jobs’ issue.
Although Cuccinelli Junior might not grasp it, any attempt by political decision-makers to dictate the content of scientific findings is a dangerous step beyond merely debating the public policy implications of scientific findings. It is more dangerous than permitting former U.S. Senators and future Governors to lobby for Big Tobacco or establishing a public forum for theocons to pontificate on biomedical research. It is more dangerous than allowing Christian Right majorities on school boards to require that Creationism be given equal billing with Darwinian Evolution in high school biology classes. It is more dangerous than allowing non-scientist Republican political appointees to edit the conclusions in scientific reports used in making decisions about endangered species.
Punishing scientists because their findings contradict what ideologues demand is fundamentally authoritarian. Climate skepticism has never been very credible. With his prosecutorial bullying, however, the Commonwealth’s current Attorney General has managed to establish its kinship with geocentric astronomy under the early 17th century Roman Inquisition, Lysenkoist biology in the Soviet Union, and both Aryan Physics and Racial Science in Nazi Germany. Although checked for the time being, Cuccinelli Junior or others like him will be tempted to try again. Ambition drives tyranny. George Orwell captured the essence of the threat in the lecture delivered by the character O’Brien in his novel 1984. “When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science… But always — do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler.”