Can’t Take the Heat: Climate Scientist Sues Publication Over Hurt Feelings

Michael GrossmanNovember 17, 2017 4 minutes

Like many people, I don't have a lot of respect for anyone who smugly insists he's right and then gets deeply, viscerally offended if anyone disagrees. The minute some pundit reproaches someone for citing data that pokes holes in his argument, I just see red. I don't think it's asking too much to have one's subjective opinion respected, but when a disagreement is rooted in actual facts it's not right to punish a contrasting viewpoint. A recent lawsuit we came across in the scientific community illustrates this point all too well.

Global Warming Scientist Can't Take the Heat

Stanford professor and climate scientist Mark Z. Jacobson recently got his lab coat in a twist when the National Academy of Sciences, publishers of the well-respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), released an article rebutting some of his findings in a paper he had published through the Academy. That's right: An educator--who is also a degreed engineer and a climate scientist--was unable to handle peer review, a cornerstone of academic publishing.

Jacobson's work, a paper about the feasibility of 100% renewable energy sources, was considered by some other scientists in the field to be pretty off-base with respect to its estimates of available hydroelectric power. In fact, 21 of those scientists got together and published an evaluation and rebuttal of his paper in PNAS. Led by clean-energy grid researcher Chris Clack, the authors' language noted that Jacobson's work involves "errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions" that render his proposition unrealistic. "The scenarios of [the Jacobson study] can at best be described," they continue, "as a poorly executed exploration of an interesting hypothesis." That seems a tad spicy for an academic publication, but I guess they felt strongly enough about the paper's issues that they were willing to throw down a gauntlet (a rubber glove?). Regardless of the reaction they provoked from Jacobson, they used appropriate channels--the pages of a peer-reviewed publication--to make their arguments.

The professor was offered a chance to respond to the critique; the journal isn't required to provide such an opportunity, but it's a customary courtesy. Instead of taking them up on it, though, Jacobson filed suit against the NAS, demanding that they not publish the dissenting article:

In case that gag order isn't enough, the terms of the suit also demand elsewhere that the NAS and Clack pay Jacobson damages to the tune of ten million dollars each.

Does The Lawsuit Make Sense?

Not really. The meat of Jacobson's argument is that his peers' critique of his work constitutes libel, a form of written defamation and a cause of civil action. The professor believes that this rebuttal paper affects his credibility and authority in his field. With diminished trust in his work, he might find it more difficult to publish any further work in reputable journals. Moreover, he posits that the defendants lied to or misled readers no less than 35 times in their critique.

To prove a libel accusation a plaintiff must show that the defendant's defamatory statement was a) published, b) false, c) injurious, and d) unprivileged (meaning they aren't immune to lawsuits somehow). The review published by Clack et al seemingly meets a couple of these requirements; it was accessible (if a little abstruse) to public readers and the group of scientists weren't protected against legal response, as the current case demonstrates.

On the other side of that, though, the paper is simply a textbook example of academic peer review. Critics made no personal claims about Jacobson; they only pointed out (maybe with a bit of sass) that his conclusions were not logically consistent and his argument was therefore flawed. Perhaps he equated that with being called a liar, and while that might be considered "injurious," it's still not a basis for the courts to come crashing down on his fellow climate scientists or the NAS. Anyone suing for defamation must be able to prove that the defendants' statements caused demonstrable damage to his or her income, opportunities, and relationships. Jacobson's friends and family may be sick of hearing about hydroelectric dams and the end of fossil fuels, but finding out he got ahead of himself in an academic paper probably won't drive them away forever, and the lawsuit itself is more likely to have negative effects on his work life than his original paper on green energy would have.

To successfully pursue a claim Jacobson would also have to show that Clack et al made statements that are genuinely false or misleading. This point is the crux of the lawsuit, but without objective evidence to prove his initial findings are correct (which would actually be impossible), he's basically just saying "nuh-UH" at the scholars who say his work is spurious. He's digging in his heels against 21 other respected minds in his field and categorically denying that their collective findings supersede his own. That behavior isn't winning him many friends in the scientific community, and Clack's well-constructed takedown is receiving a great deal of support. Between the difficulty of proving the "egregious false statements" in the rebuttal and showing that it was injurious in a legal sense, it really doesn't seem like the suit has merit. I expect Jacobson will either drop it or lose spectacularly in court.

What's the Takeaway?

I can understand why Mark Jacobson was and is upset; it never feels good to have one's passions or expertise second-guessed. However, in this situation Jacobson appears to have bought a little too far into his own hype. When his methods and data were questioned in a fairly standard way by other scholars in his field, he threw a hissy fit and demanded a retraction of their work and an absurd amount of cash to mend his wounded pride. I doubt very strongly that the National Academy of Sciences has any intention of complying with either of those demands; it's likely that the defense attorneys will move for summary judgment on their client's behalf, which likely will be granted unless some truly startling new information comes to light.

Genuine libel charges require a lot more than simple hurt feelings. To make it stick, the plaintiff would have to show that the damaging content fundamentally and negatively changed how the public views him. The content would have to create lost earning potential or demonstrably damaged relationships before there's any chance of collecting, and except for cases where huge corporations undermine one another in ad campaigns, it's almost impossible that any defendant could owe a ten million dollar tab on a defamation claim.