Big Win for Climate Scientist
December 24, 2016
A defamation lawsuit filed by a high-profile climate scientist will be allowed to proceed, an appeals court ruled on Thursday.
The case is being brought by Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, who is perhaps best known for helping develop the famous “hockey stick” graph used to illustrate global warming. Mann is suing two bloggers who accused him of scientific and academic misconduct in 2012. On Thursday, the D.C. Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Mann has the right to proceed with the lawsuit.
“Dr. Mann has supplied sufficient evidence for a reasonable jury to find, by a preponderance of the evidence, that statements in the articles written by Mr. Simberg and Mr. Steyn were false, defamatory, and published by appellants to third parties, and, by clear and convincing evidence, that appellants did so with actual malice,” wrote Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz in the court’s opinion.
The decision suggests that, even as the climate-skeptical Trump administration comes into office, a high profile lawsuit could be underway in Washington, D.C., that also partly turns on the evidence for, and against, climate change.
The origins of the lawsuit
Mann and several other colleagues first published the hockey stick graph in the late 1990s, and it has since become one of the most recognizable visual illustrations of human-caused–or anthropogenic–climate change. The graph used temperature data acquired from a variety of sources including tree rings, coral samples and ancient sediments to depicts a sharp uptick in global temperatures in the 20th century in comparison with prior centuries. Scientists attribute the rise to a spike in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations brought on by human industrial activities. (Here’s one depiction presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)
“Tarnishing the personal integrity and reputation of a scientist important to one side may be a tactic to gain advantage in a no-holds-barred debate over global warming,” wrote Senior Judge Vanessa Ruiz in the court’s opinion. “That the challenged statements were made as part of such debate provides important context and requires careful parsing in light of constitutional standards. But if the statements assert or imply false facts that defame the individual, they do not find shelter under the First Amendment simply because they are embedded in a larger policy debate.”
This distinction has been pointed out by other climate scientists following the case as well. In a series of tweets on Thursday, NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt called the ruling “nuanced” and “well argued.”
“Judges make clear that there is a large constitutional gap btw criticism of scientific conclusions or methodology… & allegations of misconduct and fraud,” he tweeted.
That said, the court of appeals has only ruled that the case may proceed to trial. From there, a jury will decide whether the content of the blog posts actually constitutes defamation — and because Mann is considered a “limited public figure” in this case, the decision could hinge on whether the jury finds that the defendants acted with “actual malice.”
In a recent blog post, defendant Mark Steyn expressed his disagreement with the ruling.
“The ‘sufficient evidence’ Dr Mann has supplied are a series of mendacious claims to have been ‘investigated‘ and ‘exonerated‘ by multipleAnglo-American bodies that did, in fact, do neither,” he wrote (his links).
Below, defendant Steyn considers himself a lounge singer as well as a climate expert.
You be the jury.