The battle over climate-change science is heating up, so to speak, and it has moved to the courts. The defamation lawsuit brought by climatologist Dr. Michael E. Mann — one of the creators of the famed “hockey-stick graph” that shows a recent spike in world temperatures — has now moved to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the equivalent of a state supreme court for the district. Mann alleges that a blog post by Rand Simberg on the blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and subsequently quoted by Mark Steyn atNational Review Online, was libelous. The Cato Institute, joined by the Reason Foundation, the Goldwater Institute, and the Individual Rights Foundation, has filed an amicus brief supporting the defendants, arguing that courts should not be called upon to referee scientific disputes.
Because the climate-change debate is one of the most important and lively public policy debates of our time, stifling that debate with lawsuits will not only diminish our ability to have an open and honest discussion about climate change, it will hurt future discussions about anything controversial. Whatever you believe about climate change, you should hope that the D.C. Court of Appeals dismisses the case as soon as possible.
Specifically, Mann alleged that four phrases in Simberg’s post were defamatory: “data manipulation,” “academic and scientific misconduct,” “posterboy of the corrupt and disgraced climate science echo chamber,” and accusing the Penn State professor of molesting his data and thus being the “Jerry Sandusky of climate science.” He also cited a subsequent CEI press release that called his research “intellectually bogus.”
While some of these phrases might be impolitic and unprofessional, they are not defamatory. Pugnacious rhetoric is still protected by the First Amendment, especially in matters of public debate. Words like “fraud,” “corrupt,” “misconduct,” and “manipulation” could feasibly be defamatory if they were alleging actual criminal misconduct, but, in this context, it is well-understood that those phrases are not alleging technical law-breaking. Instead, they are used to raise the rhetorical punch of a phrase.
The entire situation is silly. If this were a playground, Dr. Mann would be a tattle-tale who complains to the teacher that someone said mean things about him. After spending years arguing that climate-change skeptics are shills for big oil, Mann has apparently decided that the government should shut them up instead.