An important libel lawsuit in Washington D.C Superior Court, which has received little public attention, is sure to heat up soon. At issue is a contentious clash involving global warming, scientific research, and freedom of speech.
The plaintiff, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, authored the familiar “hockey stick” graph, which depicts global temperatures over centuries. The graph demonstrates a dramatic temperature increase during the late 20th Century. This happened at the same time as atmospheric carbon dioxide elevations, the result of increased manmade fossil fuel consumption. While the hockey stick graph is not the primary basis for global warming theory, it is a widely published image meant to familiarize the public with the issue.
Some commentators and scientists have openly questioned the hockey stick and Mann’s research methods in establishing it. A policy analyst for the libertarian think-tank the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Rand Simberg, referred in writing to Mann as “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science” because he “molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science”, a reference to the Penn State coach convicted of child molestation.
CEI editors removed Simberg’s most inflammatory passages but right-wing columnist Mark Steyn alluded to them in the online blog of the conservative National Review. Steyn allowed how he might not have “extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr. Simberg does, but he has a point.” Steyn has consistently mocked Mann, accusing him of manipulating data to produce the hockey stick graph.
Mann subsequently went on the offensive by suing Simberg, Steyn, CEI and National Review for defamation. When the defendants tried to have the lawsuit dismissed by claiming they had a First Amendment right to criticize Mann publicly, a Washington superior court judge allowed the suit to go forward. The judge wrote, “accusing a scientist of conducting his research fraudulently, manipulating his data to achieve a predetermined or political outcome, or purposefully distorting the scientific truth are factual allegations. They go to the heart of scientific integrity. They can be proven true or false. If false, they are defamatory. If made with actual malice, they are actionable.”
So Mann’s lawsuit now proceeds and unless a settlement is reached, pre-trial discovery will make public both the critics’ motivations and the details of Mann’s research. (In a related development, Steyn launched a countersuit against Mann accusing him of violation of freedom of speech).
But by pursuing a lawsuit, Michael Mann is wrong. As are the judge and prestigious scientists who support him. Not necessarily about global warming, but that is not the issue at stake.
Is the earth warming? The average global temperature has increased since the end of the last Ice Age by 7 to 9 °F. This change began over 15,000 years ago, with periodic variations throughout the centuries, and most computer models suggest the trend has accelerated coincident with increased burning of fossil fuels releasing carbon dioxide in the last 50 years.
Unfortunately, both global warming skeptics and those who believe it an established fact have reduced an extremely complex topic to grade school slogans. Many extremely complicated questions about climate change remain unknown. If warming is based on atmospheric carbon dioxide, how rapidly would future projected temperatures rise? What is the precise contribution of carbon dioxide versus the Earth’s natural feedback loops and other atmospheric gases like methane? Can unanticipated events (e.g. new energy technologies, volcanic eruptions) render the models obsolete?
Likewise, economic and political uncertainties abound. Can the United States take effective measures unilaterally? Would these measures irreparably damage the international economy? Would worldwide measures to curtail fossil fuel use consign billions of people to grinding poverty? Does the cost-benefit of taking action favor addressing the long-term effects of global warming rather than the ostensible causes?
Daunting questions all, any of which is beyond the ken of any single specialist –or the courtroom. But the issue in Michael Mann’s lawsuit is not whether his science is right. Nor is it whether the criticisms of him are in error. It is whether public criticism of Mann’s science represents a legitimate form of expression.
And it must.
Lawsuits to suppress criticism of science are misguided for two reasons. First, the authority of the courtroom is not where scientific evidence should be judged. At the 1964 Galileo Symposium, the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynmann said, “Authority may be a hint as to what the truth is, but is not the source of information.” Coincidentally, The Galileo Symposium was a celebration of Galileo, the greatest scientific heretic in history, who was forced to recant his findings after a public trial, only to be eventually proven correct.
Second, lawsuits attacking scientific criticism have a chilling effect. The fear of lawsuits may discourage doubters, especially younger, less experienced scientists. And doubt is an absolutely essential element of science. In the Galileo Symposium, Feynmann also said, “We must absolutely leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt.”
That’s why if Michael Mann’s methods, results, and conclusions are valid, they will withstand all the criticisms leveled at them - without the courtroom, which in this particular case is a counterproductive forum. That is simply the nature of science.
Another Nobel laureate of some renown, Albert Einstein, once observed, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
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