A Litigious Climate Threatens Scientific Norms

Michael Mann testifies before Congress.

An energy researcher sues another over a critical paper. It’s the wrong way to resolve such disputes.

I’ve worked alongside climate researchers for decades. Almost all of them are ethical, dedicated to science and not particularly political. But some leading figures and organizations in this community are weakening the norms that make science robust. A lawsuit filed in September and recently made public is a case in point.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford, is suing fellow renewable-energy researcher Christopher Clack, CEO of Vibrant Clean Energy LLC, for critiquing his work.

Also named as a defendant is the National Academy of Sciences, which published Mr. Clack’s paper in its flagship journal. Mr. Jacobson alleges that Mr. Clack’s paper contains reputation-damaging “fabrication and falsification.”

Mr. Jacobson argues that the world can obtain all its energy from 100% renewable technologies, a claim endorsed by celebrities, advocacy groups, and politicians. Mr. Clack’s paper, with 20 accomplished co-authors, takes issue with Mr. Jacobson’s claims.

Based on my experience reading and reviewing thousands of scientific papers over more than 25 years, Mr. Clack’s critique is utterly typical scientific discourse, regardless of whose arguments ultimately prevail. Even if Mr. Jacobson turns out to be right on the merits, he is wrong to seek to resolve the matter in court.

In a 1942 essay, sociologist Robert K. Merton articulated a set of norms that underlie modern science. Among them is “organized skepticism.” Scientific understandings are built upon an edifice of claims and counterclaims, evidence and counterevidence.

Over time, robust ideas survive, while weaker ones are left behind but are nonetheless valued because they help to make those that endure even stronger.

Mr. Jacobson’s lawsuit is only the latest example of deviance from Mertonian norms in climate and energy research.

Consider Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. In 2012, he sued a fellow scientist and several journalists for defamation over their mean-spirited and crude characterizations of his work.

Another of Merton’s norms is “universalism”—that the substance of scientific claims is what matters, not the characteristics of the people advancing them. A layman has as much right to challenge a scientific claim as a scientist does.

But Mr. Mann’s case illustrates an important asymmetry: Scientists are bound by Mertonian norms, but nonscientists are not. Mr. Mann’s critics [can be] unfair, obnoxious, and wrong, but adherence to Mertonian norms means that Mr. Mann does not respond in kind, much less go to court.

It may seem unfair, but what makes science different from ordinary political discourse is also essential to making science strong. That’s especially important for situations in which public trust in science is at stake.

The Washington Post and two dozen other news organizations oppose Mr. Mann’s lawsuit, explaining: “While Mann essentially claims that he can silence critics because he is ‘right,’ the judicial system should not be the arbiter of either scientific truth or correct public policy.”

The lawsuit, they argue, will “chill the expression of opinion on a wide range of important scientific and public policy issues.”

But Mr. Mann’s departure from scientific norms has met with no sanctions from his peers. To the contrary, since he filed his lawsuits, he has earned more than 20 professional “honors and awards.” He is celebrated as a champion in climate scientists’ war against “deniers.”

Similarly, in rationalizing his own lawsuit, Mr. Jacobson has labeled his critics as industry shills, warning that Mr. Clack’s paper is not only wrong but “dangerous.”

Leading scientific organizations have been silent. Perhaps they see the dissonance in supporting Mr. Mann but criticizing Mr. Jacobson, or perhaps they haven’t had time yet to give Mr. Jacobson awards.

With long-held norms being flouted in settings as diverse as the White House and the National Football League, perhaps it is naive to expect more from science. Still, climate science and policy are too important to allow the erosion of norms to continue.

The world is struggling with how to develop climate policies that are politically palatable and practically achievable. Climate and climate policies are fundamental not just to the global economy, but life on earth. If there ever was a topic that would benefit from more debate, it is this one.

As Merton observed, norms are a reflection of what is “right and good.” We should expect researchers to uphold behaviors and practices that have made science one of the most widely trusted institutions among the public for many decades—even, perhaps especially, if their opponents do not.

The scientific community should strongly oppose the use of lawsuits to settle scientific debates. But this alone won’t be enough. It is time for leading voices and institutions to look beyond the politics of climate and articulate a full-throated defense of the longstanding professional norms that make science the single best approach to securing knowledge useful for navigating an uncertain future.

Mr. Pielke is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of “The Edge” (Roaring Forties, 2016) and “The Climate Fix” (Basic, 2011).

Read more at The Wall Street Journal

Comments (9)

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    Spurwing Plover


    That’s the trouble with liberals and greens they cant take the truth that Global Warming/Climate Change is a fake and one of the biggest hoaxes in the history of humanity

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    Professor Pielke could easily silence and make fools of
    ALL so-called skeptics by simply citing the bona fide scientific method proof that there is a
    as proposed and as functional as the alarmists claim.

    That’s ALL he would have to do to conclude the argument.

    He doesn’t because
    He can’t and he can’t because


    Yet, he will wail on anyway
    the scientific method
    Yet claiming his ravings are science !

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    Science can’t be decided in the legal system. Supreme Court justices are appointed by politicians. Global Warming is a political movement.
    However, libel is legal issue. How to choose apolitical scientists to testify in a libel case?

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    The volatility of climatic conditions caused a number of disputes about its consequences. This also influenced the course of many studies aimed at determining the norm.

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    R Johnson


    Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.

  • Avatar

    Spurwing Plover


    R. Johnson Very very true the deception is being carried out by the Mass Control Media the Buricrats and Politicoans the Uselesss Nations and the various Eco-Wacko groups

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    So let me see…Dr. Michael Mann and other Legitimate Scientists are expected to TAKE the ORGANIZED ABUSE and LIES and THREATS OF VIOLENCE screamed out by mouth pieces of the FOSSIL FUEL BILLIONAIRES..
    ….but they are never ever supposed to fight back!

    EVEN though YOUR ALLIES, the Fossil Fuel Industry, sue them, commit libel….etc.
    “A Climate Skeptic With a Bully Pulpit in Virginia
    Finds an Ear in Congress

    Continue reading the main story
    Share This Page 1

    RICHMOND, Va. — For nearly a year, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, Virginia’s crusading Republican attorney general, has waged a one-man war on the theory of man-made global warming.
    . (politicians USING the courts for their political agenda)
    Invoking his subpoena powers,
    he has sought to force the University of Virginia to turn over the files of a prominent climatology professor, asserting that his research may be marred by fraud.

    The university is battling the move in the courts.

    (You can tell this is a headline Hunting Attorney General because
    ALL of Dr. Mann’s research was already published on Line and in respected Scientific Journals… months and months before !)

    At the same time,
    Mr. Cuccinelli is suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its ruling that carbon dioxide and other global warming gases pose a threat to human health and welfare, describing the science behind the agency’s decision as “unreliable, unverifiable and doctored.”

    (Despite centuries of Deaths from CO2, An Attorney General calls that evidence as “unreliable, unverifiable and doctored”)

    Now his allegations of manipulated data and scientific fraud are resonating….”
    “Police: Carbon dioxide led to death in McDonald’s bathroom
    September 14, 2011 1:38 p.m. EDT
    The carbon dioxide built up to toxic levels in the bathroom
    An 80-year-old woman died after the incident September 7
    lethal dose of carbon dioxide, authorities said Wednesday….”

    “One person, recounting the fate of eight men and one woman who walked into a basement area where the gas had accumulated, said they “fell down dead as if they had been shot.”
    Keep saying that CO2 is the GAS OF LIFE….that is why every municipality has regulations regulating levels of CO2….cause it is SO SAFE and HEALTHY.

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      The CO2 in the McDonald’s incident came from a cylinder, used to carbonate beverages. It would have displaced the Oxygen in the bathroom.

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    “centuries of death from CO2” ? WTF Drewski? It’s not the carbon dioxide, it’s the lack of oxygen that kills. CO2 is not toxic. What do random incidents involving confined spaces and poor ventilation have to do with atmospheric CO2? Nothing.
    If research is funded by taxpayers,even partially, recipients of those government grants must be open to enquiry and accountable .
    Taxpayers should encourage government to root out fraud.

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