The libel case filed by renowned climatologist Michael E. Mann against a right-wing think tank, a politically conservative magazine, and authors who accused him in print of committing research fraud is nearing oral argument before a Washington, DC appeals court.
Mann is the lead author of a 1998 paper that examined average surface temperatures on Earth back to the year 1400. He and his co-authors, using statistical methods, concluded that the planet’s average surface temperature was hotter than it had been at any time since 1400 and that a rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the culprit.
Mann and his colleagues graphed the pattern in the rising temperatures – a pattern that was later compared to the shaft and blade of a hockey stick.
This graph, showing changes in Earth’s average surface temperature since the year 1000 A.D., appeared in a 1999 paper published by climatologist Michael E. Mann and colleagues.
A 1999 paper by Mann and two other climate scientists extended the statistical reconstruction of past temperatures back to 1000 and pointed the finger of responsibility for rising CO2 emissions at humans.
Mann’s basic conclusions have since been confirmed in at least 28 subsequent papers by other scientists. A 2006 report by the National Academies of Sciences assessed the state of the science:
“The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) . . . that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years . . . has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence. . . Based on the analyses presented in the original papers by Mann et al. and this newer supporting evidence, the committee finds it plausible that the Northern Hemisphere was warmer during the last few decades of the 20th century than during any comparable period over the preceding millennium.”
The consensus that Mann and co-authors on the 1998 paper correctly identified the basic trend of the planet’s atmospheric warming has not dissuaded ideological opponents of the knowledge that anthropogenic causes of Earth’s climate change is occurring from attacking Mann.
Two papers that criticized Mann’s statistical methods followed. Both were rebutted by other scientists.
Then came a failed effort by two Republican congressmen to discredit his work through a George Mason University statistician later found to have committed plagiarism in the effort to do so and the theft of scientists’ email messages, which climate change skeptics used in an attempt to convince the public that Mann and other climatologists had somehow falsified data.
That accusation was debunked by each of six in a series of investigations. Two of them were conducted by the University of East Anglia, while a committee of the United Kingdom’s House of Commons, The Pennsylvania State University, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s inspector general, and the National Science Foundation also looked into the “Climate-gate” kerfuffle.
Nevertheless, climate change skeptics at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and National Review magazine turned to the blogosphere to accuse Mann of fraud and to compare him to a convicted child molester.
On July 13, 2012, Competitive Enterprise Institute blogger Rand Simberg wrote:
“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.”
Simberg’s post was later edited to remove the reference to Sandusky.
Then, two days later, Mark Steyn wrote this in the pages of National Review:
“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. Michael Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change “hockey-stick” graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus. And, when the East Anglia emails came out, Penn State felt obliged to “investigate” Professor Mann. Graham Spanier, the Penn State president forced to resign over Sandusky, was the same cove who investigated Mann. And, as with Sandusky and Paterno, the college declined to find one of its star names guilty of any wrongdoing. If an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up? Whether or not he’s “the Jerry Sandusky of climate change”, he remains the Michael Mann of climate change, in part because his “investigation” by a deeply corrupt administration was a joke.”
Mann filed a libel lawsuit in October 2012.
Two different judges on the District of Columbia Superior Court refused to dismiss the case and the defendants appealed that decision to the local appeals court.
In his brief, which was filed on Sept. 3, Mann argues that there is not actually any dispute about the facts at the core of a successful defamation of character case.
“As in any defamation case, the issues are limited: were the statements true or false; did the defendants make a defamatory claim of fact concerning the plaintiff; and did the defendant act with the requisite degree of fault? Those are the essential questions in this case as well – and they do not involve a search for “scientific truth,” as Defendants claim.
“Here, there is no question that Defendants’ assertions were false, and Defendants do not even attempt to argue that their statements about Dr. Mann were true.”
Under a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases that have interpreted the Constitution’s First Amendment, civil liability for libel (the type of defamation Mann alleges) cannot be imposed unless a statement is false and, where a famous person is involved, the publisher knew or should have known it was false.
Thus, the major questions now before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals are whether accusations that a scientist committed research fraud is a statement that can be proven true or false and, if so and if it is a false statement, whether the Competitive Enterprise Institute, National Review, and/or Rand Simberg knew or should have known that statement was false when it was published.
Steyn is not participating in the appeal of the trial court’s decision not to dismiss Mann’s lawsuit, but the other defendants have argued that they merely expressed an opinion and that the statements were exaggerations.
The case is not yet set for oral argument. The defendants will have the chance to file reply briefs before the judges on the appellate court consider it. If Mann prevails in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the case will be returned to the lower court for a decision on its merits.