It’s hardly notable when a climate scientist’s findings come under attack from right wing pundits, but it definitely turns heads if they compare that scientist to a child molester. Even more unusual is if that scientist—in this case, Penn State climatologist Michael Mann—retaliates by suing for libel.
But that’s exactly what happened in 2012, when Mann sued the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and conservative news magazine National Review for publishing statements that accused Mann of scientific fraud and compared him to former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, a convicted child molester. The statement was originally posted by CEI’s Rand Simberg and then re-posted on National Review’s blog by Mark Steyn, both of whom are included in the lawsuit.
In the statement, Simberg calls Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.” Stern then writes: “Not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr Simberg does, but he has a point.”
On Jan. 23, U.S. Superior Court Judge Frederick H. Weisberg denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit, and ruled the case can move forward. According to Al Jazeera America, “Weisberg found that while ‘opinions and rhetorical hyperbole’ are protected speech under the First Amendment, statements that call into question a scientist’s work could be understood as factual assertions that go to the ‘heart of scientific integrity.’
“‘To state as a fact that a scientist dishonestly molests or tortures data to serve a political agenda would have a strong likelihood of damaging his reputation within his profession, which is the very essence of defamation,’ he said.”
Al Jazeera spoke with Mann a few days after the ruling:
“Mann told Al Jazeera that accusations made by his detractors had already been roundly rejected by the scientific community, stemmed largely from groups with a vested interest with the fossil-fuel industry and were part of a larger, ongoing effort to discredit climate-change research.”
“‘The tactics climate-change deniers employ is based on the idea that if they can discredit one prominent scientist, they can discredit the entire environmental movement. They’re also trying to serve notice to other scientists who think about speaking out,’ he said.”
Scientists, whose worked is regularly reviewed by their peers, are used to having every assertion subjected to intense scrutiny. Political pundits, not so much, but for Mann to win his case, his lawyers must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the statement was published maliciously, and with knowledge of its falsity.