Climate Scientist’s Defamation Lawsuit (Wait for It …) Heats Up

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 24 2013 7:45 AM

The Price of Defame

Climate scientist Michael Mann
Climate scientist Michael Mann

Photo by Penn State University

Michael Mann is a climate scientist who was flung into the spotlight when he and his colleagues published a graph several years ago showing the explosive growth of global warming over the past century or so. The original work has been updated and extended many times, by many different scientists, and each time the pattern of results has been supported and strengthened. Additional data going back 11,000 years show that we are experiencing an unprecedentedly rapid rise in temperatures.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

This, of course, has made Mann a big target of climate-change deniers. While most of them attack the graph—failing in their attempts, I’ll note—some have taken a more personal tack. Two groups, the far-right National Review Online and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, have made this personal indeed. In a frankly disgusting article by Mark Steyn, the NRO accused Mann of academic fraud. It even compares him to the ex-Penn State University coach Jerry Sandusky, a convicted serial child molester. Steyn got this comparison from an article by Rand Simberg in the CEI’s blog, who called Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science … [who] molested and tortured data.”

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Nice, huh? So Mann sued for defamation.

Unsurprisingly, both the NRO and CEI were unhappy with this and tried to block the lawsuit using SLAPP laws—rules used to stop lawsuits that try to censor criticism. However, a District of Columbia Superior Court judge has ruled that SLAPP doesn’t apply. Mann’s lawsuit can move forward.

This is great news. The judge, Natalia Combs Greene, was pretty clear that the NRO and CEI don’t have a leg to stand on to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that their SLAPP claims are not credible. She further says that “to call [Mann’s] work a sham or to question his intellect and reasoning is tantamount to an accusation of fraud.” She also notes that while proving malice on the part of NRO and CEI may be difficult, “there is … sufficient evidence to demonstrate some malice or the knowledge that the statements were false.” Therefore, Mann may continue to pursue his defamation lawsuit.

The beauty of this, as Christopher Round points out in an article for PolicyMic, is that Mann has been the target of numerous investigations into his work and has been cleared of any wrongdoing every time. Since some of these investigations were prompted by NRO and CEI, they had to know he was cleared of academic fraud, yet they continued to accuse him of it.

Oops.

As a scientist, I find these attacks on Mann distasteful. In scientific circles you attack the research, not the researcher; that’s how science works.

As a human being, I find these attacks outrageous. There can be a place for ad hominem arguments; when the focus of those arguments shows a history of hyperbolic or distorted claims, for example. But Mann has no such history, and in fact quite the opposite is true. He has been impugned by United States congressmen, the Virginia attorney general and Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli—who has wasted huge amounts of taxpayer money investigating Mann for wasting taxpayer money, if you can believe it—and, of course, global-warming deniers of all stripes. Mann has done very well surviving these attacks. Of course, that’s partly because, duh, he’s right.

In the arena of scientific investigation, being right is usually enough. But in the sometimes savage and merciless court of political and public opinion, it clearly is not. Even if Mann wins his defamation lawsuit, there will always be other deniers to step in, willing and able (and generally sufficiently funded) to fling whatever nonsense they can at him and other climate scientists in the hopes that something will stick.

It’s astonishing just how mean-spirited and vitriolic these attacks on reality can be. But perhaps it shouldn't be unexpected. When you don’t have facts, evidence, or science on your side, what’s left?

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