Over a decade later, climate scientist prevails in libel case

Enlarge / Climatologist Michael Mann.

It’s a story that I sporadically wondered if I would ever get the chance to write. More than a decade ago, I covered a lawsuit filed by climate scientist Michael Mann, who finally grew tired of being dragged through the mud online. When two authors accused him of fraud and compared his academic position to that of a convicted child molester, he sued for defamation.

Mann was considered a public figure, making it extremely difficult to win defamation suits. But his argument rested on the fact that several institutions on two different continents had examined his work and found no trace of poor scientific practice. Thus, according to him, anyone who accused him of fraud was acting with reckless disregard for the truth.

Over the ensuing decade, the case was narrowed, decisions were appealed, and long periods passed without any apparent movement. But recently, surprisingly, the case finally went to trial and a jury returned a verdict yesterday: Mann is entitled to damages from the writers. Even if you're not interested in the case, it's worth thinking about how much has changed since it was first filed.

The suit

The article that started this whole mess was published on the blog of a free market think tank called Competitive Enterprise Institute. In it, Rand Simberg accused Mann of data manipulation and compared investigations at Penn State (where he was a professor at the time) to the university's lack of interest in continuing investigations into one of his football coaches who was convicted of child molestation. A few days later, a second author, Mark Steyn, echoed these accusations in the National Review publication.

Mann's case was based on the accusations of fraud contained in these exhibits. He had been a target for years after publishing work showing that recent warming was unprecedented in the last few thousand years. This graph, known as a “hockey stick” because of its abrupt upward deviation, was later featured on the cover of an IPCC climate report. The articles were also published just a few years after a large number of climate scientists' emails were illegally obtained from a research institute's servers, leading to widespread accusations of misconduct against the climate scientists.

Many of the investigations were conducted out of public view, both by the schools involved and by the governments that funded the researchers, all of whom exonerated those involved, including Mann. But Simberg and Steyn were part of a large group of writers and bloggers convinced that Mann (and by extension, all modern climate science) had to be wrong. So they assumed – and in the case of Simberg and Steyn, wrote – that the investigations were just whitewashing.

Mann's complaint alleged exactly the opposite: by accusing him of fraud despite these investigations, both authors showed a reckless disregard for the truth. This would be enough to hold them liable for defamation despite the fact that Mann was a public figure. The authors' defense largely focused on the fact that they sincerely believed their own views and therefore should be free to express them under the First Amendment.

Essentially, the case came down to whether people who seem incapable of incorporating evidence into their opinions should always be able to express those opinions without consequences, even if doing so has consequences for others.

Victory at last

In the end, the jury decided no. And their damages suggest they understood the current circumstances very well. To begin with, the compensatory damages awarded to Mann for the defamation itself were minimal: one dollar each for Simberg and Steyn. While Mann claimed to have lost grants and suffered public scorn because of his columns, he has since become a best-selling book author and earned a tenured professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he now directs his Center for Science, Sustainability and Media.

But the suit also sought punitive damages to deter future behavior of this type. Here there was a dramatic break. Simberg, who now tends to write about politics rather than science and presents himself as an expert on space policy, was fined just $1,000. Steyn, who is still actively waging the climate war and mounting an ongoing attack on Mann on his website, was asked to pay Mann $1 million.

That said, the trial is not yet over. Steyn suggested there were grounds to appeal the monetary award, while Mann indicated he would appeal the decision that ended his lawsuit against the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Review. So come back in another decade and maybe we'll make another decision.

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