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.