February 2014 (UCS) – Back in 2012, after the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Review each published pieces that likened climate scientist Michael E. Mann to a child molester and called his work a fraud, Mann fought back with a lawsuit, charging them with libel. Now, in a preliminary ruling, a Superior Court Judge has sided with Mann, paving the way for the case to move forward and potentially setting an important precedent about the limits of disinformation.
The ruling, in essence, reinforces the wise adage attributed to former New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan that, while everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, we are not each entitled to our own facts. […]
Mann’s libel case stems from two particular articles that appeared in 2012. At the time, news had recently surfaced that officials at Penn State University had ignored or concealed evidence that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had allegedly molested children. That July, Rand Simberg, an adjunct scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), wrote a post for the organization's blog likening Mann’s work to the Sandusky case. Simberg called Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.”
Several days later, CEI deleted the passage, acknowledging that its publication was “inappropriate.” But Mark Steyn, a long-time contributor to the National Review magazine, quoted Simberg’s comments on the magazine's blog. Steyn said that, while he might not have made the comparison, “Mr. Simberg does [have] a point. Michael Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph.” […]
The distinction in the ruling is an important one. As a journalist who has written about the intersection of science and politics for three decades, I am a staunch defender of free speech. But libel is a special case. In the United States, the bar is set high—as it should be. A writer or publication can only be found guilty of libel if they knowingly publish false information that damages someone’s reputation.
There’s little question that Mann’s public reputation has been damaged by the many spurious attacks against him. But the problem in this case is bigger than claims about one man’s maligned reputation. Attacks against Mann, after all, are mostly intended to further confuse the public about the importance of Mann’s scientific contribution to our understanding of global warming. Other scientists have faced similar legal attacks and a new Climate Science Legal Defense Fund is helping them respond.
What makes this case so important is that science, like free speech, needs protecting too. Sadly, we have been living in a period during which many parties—often with funding from the fossil fuel industry—have knowingly spread disinformation about climate change. They have sown confusion about scientific facts and damaged our discourse on the topic just as they have—in the personal smears Mann has endured—arguably harmed his reputation. In so doing, there is no question that this disinformation has been used to knowingly and seriously erode the public’s understanding of an issue with immense consequences for our future. [more]