By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Michael Mann

How a 2016 ruling defined the issues in climate scientist Michael Mann’s libel suit

Michael Mann. Photo (cc) 2020 by Oregon State University.

Media coverage of climate scientist Michael Mann’s victory in a libel case against two right-wing commentators might lead you to believe he won at least in part because those commentators, Rand Simberg and Mark Steyn, compared him to a convicted child molester. For instance, here’s The Washington Post’s lead:

Michael Mann, a prominent climate scientist, won his long-standing legal battle against two right-wing bloggers who claimed that he manipulated data in his research and compared him to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky, a major victory for the outspoken researcher.

And here’s a paragraph from The New York Times’ account:

In 2012, Mr. Simberg and Mr. Steyn drew parallels between controversy over Dr. Mann’s research and the scandal around Jerry Sandusky, the former football coach at Pennsylvania State University who was convicted of sexually assaulting children. Dr. Mann was a professor at Penn State at the time.

I was alarmed because the statement at the heart of the Sandusky comparison, written by Simberg in a blog post for the Competitive Enterprise Institute and repeated by Steyn (with reservations) in National Review, speaks of Mann’s alleged “abuse” of data, comparing him to Sandusky only tangentially. Here’s what Simberg wrote:

Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except for 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.

This is pretty rough stuff; even Steyn 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 it does not actually compare Mann to a child molester. I was taken aback when I read accounts of the verdict because, on the face of it, it didn’t strike me as libelous to reach for an admittedly horrendous metaphor in describing what you regard as someone’s scientific misconduct.

Fortunately, I discovered that a 2016 ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which allowed Mann’s suit to move forward, made clear that the case hinged on a straightforward distinction between assertions labeled as fact versus opinion. (Both the Simberg and Steyn pieces are reproduced in full in that ruling.) In that regard, Thursday’s verdict did no damage to the protections that the press enjoys against meritless libel suits.

Michael Mann, Mark Steyn and the court of public opinion


Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is one of my least favorite pundits. But I also don’t like it when people use libel to settle disputes. It seems to me that the climate scientist Michael Mann has the public platform he needs to fight back against Steyn’s smears without having to resort to a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I think U.S. Judge Frederick Weisberg, who’s presiding over the matter of Mann v. Steyn, probably got it right in deciding that the case can move forward, as Mariah Blake reports for Mother Jones. Ignore the hyperbole over Steyn’s loathsome comparison of Mann to Jerry Sandusky; the key is that Steyn wrote Mann had trafficked in scientifically “fraudulent” data. Steyn claims that’s a matter of opinion, but the question of whether someone committed fraud is something that is either true or not. And if it’s not true, then Steyn may well be found to have libeled Mann. The standard was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990).

I should note that Jonathan Adler, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, believes that Steyn’s statements amount to “hyperbolic expressions of opinion, not statements of fact,” and should therefore be considered protected speech. My response is that it’s a close enough call that a jury should be allowed to decide.

In any event, Steyn has gotten himself into a significant mess with his prose and with his mouth. He’s reportedly had a falling-out with one of his co-defendants, the conservative journal National Review, and he currently lacks legal representation as well. I can’t say I’m sympathetic. This is a guy who once called former senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, “a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars.”

But is this how we wish to decide public controversies? In court? There are any number of public forums available to Mann for him to defend himself against Steyn’s accusations, and those forums would probably provide Mann with greater satisfaction than a libel suit that could drag on for years. My advice to Professor Mann: Drop the suit and go on the attack.

Photo via Wikipedia.

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