I have been away for a while, but now that I’m back, I notice that there’s a lot of noise about the lawsuit that Michael Mann has filed against Mark Steyn. I’ve written about this before, but with new developments being what they are, it seemed prudent for me to revisit the subject. After thinking the recent developments, I think that my initial impression was wrong. I tend to think that Mann is going to win his suit. At first I thought that, given the bungling of the initial filing, (including a failure to get right who wrote what, and Mann’s bizarre claim to be a Nobel laureate, and also to sue for “defamation of a Nobel laureate”), I thought this case was dead in the water. Indeed, the bulk of the original filing was thrown out. However, the new filing is simply on the question of whether or not the comments are defamatory. They are. As the recent ruling observes:
“The statement “he has molested and tortured data” could easily be interpreted to mean that the plaintiff distorted, manipulated, or misrepresented his data. Certainly the statement is capable of a defamatory meaning, which means the questions of whether it was false and made with “actual malice” are questions of fact for the jury. A reasonable reader, both within and outside the scientific community, would understand that a scientist who molests or tortures his data is acting far outside the bounds of any acceptable scientific method. In context, it would not be unreasonable for a reader to interpret the comment, and the republication in National Review, as an allegation that Dr. Mann had committed scientific fraud, which Penn State University then covered up, just as some had accused the University of covering up the Sandusky scandal. For many of the reasons discussed in Judge Combs Greene’s July 19 orders, to state as a fact that a scientist dishonestly molests or tortures data to serve a political agenda would have a strong likelihood of damaging his reputation within his profession, which is the very essence of defamation.”
That’s correct. The issue isn’t at all whether you like the Sandusky comparison, the issue is whether or not Mann consciously falsified his work. To phrase it another way, this court case could uncover evidence that man made global warming is completely false (don’t hold your breath), and it wouldn’t make any difference unless it could be shown that Mann deliberately falsified to the contrary. Steyn is painting this as a free speech case, like the one that he won in Canada. Unfortunately, that comparison does not stack up. Simply looking no further than the testimony of his co-defendant in that case, Ezra Levant, who agreed that freedom of speech didn’t cover defamation. If you accuse me of, say, being a Holocaust denier, and I’ve written extensively to the contrary, I can sue you over that. The Hitch famously had to do this in the case of Henry Kissinger. I would say that the claim that a scientist committed fraud is at least as bad as that.
On the other hand… In normal circumstances I would cheered by this finding. I freely confess that I have some affection for Steyn – his previous victory for free speech is one of the few cases where Islamic imperialism has been successfully rolled back, and he is generally a likeable guy. However, that is neither here nor there: science and scientific ethics take precedence over all else. Here’s why the above leaves me glum: Michael Mann is not above slinging that mud himself. And in his case it is a lot worse because Steyn is just a journalist, and Mann is a scientist and therefore should know better. In this article, for example, he accuses both Bjorn Lomborg and Judith Curry of fraud and also of being denialists. Never mind that Lomborg has never denied global warming, and closely bases his work on the IPCC, and Curry’s collaboration on papers with title’s like “Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment” suggests likewise. Oh, and there’s also the matter of Mann trying to stitch up a scientific journal for publishing one paper that he disagreed with, and complaining about the journal’s “activism”. I’d like to see some evidence advanced for that, and, it should also be noted, that Mann has been calling for scientists to be more activist. If I’m reading some of the CRU emails correctly, Mann is also not above slaggin off scientists he disagrees with to scientific journals and trying to stitch them up this way. If, say, Lomborg were to sue Mann over his comments, or, for that matter, Newsweek, which made far worse defamatory accusations against Lomborg than anything Mann is currently complaining about, you may be sure that Mann would be screaming blue murder about “McCarthyism” and “the Koch Brothers” and the rest of his poorly developed invective. So for this reason I cannot be happy with the way things developed. Yes, two wrongs do not make a right, but given Mann’s willingness to dish that kind of garbage out, it’d be nice if he could be made to take it occasionally.
Tidying up some things
– How things could still go the other way – reading through the judge’s recent ruling, I get the impression that this hinges also on whether Steyn could reasonable be expected to think that Mann was on the level with his hockey stick. That might be a sticking point; given Mann’s general tone.
– At Quark Soup, David Appell is shocked, shocked that ” apparently comparing someone to a pedophile is now just a part of the “political debate”. Now there’s an innocent. The “denalist” meme is intended to call up comparisons with Holocaust deniers, global warming activists are happy to say that democracy needs to be suspended ‘temporarily’ – oh, and green politics also has a record of getting a lot of people, especially in the poorer parts of the world, killed. So, sorry, you may not like that phrasing, but that’s the sort of world we live in.
– Steyn still doesn’t get it. “I’m being sued by Michael Mann, the creator of the global warming hockey stick, which purports to demonstrate that temperatures today are warmer than they’ve ever been since the year 900. I believe that is not the case.” That’s beside the point. If you want to argue, as for that matter, I am willing to do, that that isn’t the case, you just need to point to papers like, e.g., this one. “according to our reconstruction, high temperatures—similar to those observed in the twentieth century before 1990—occurred around ad 1000 to 1100, and minimum temperatures that are about 0.7 K below the average of 1961–90 occurred around ad 1600.” The issue isn’t that specific scientific claim, but whether Mann has committed fraud in making it.
– I will freely grant that shelling out six figures to just get back to square one is ludicrous, and that other people have to pay for Mann’s delusions of Nobel grandeur. That doesn’t change this basic issue.
– And, yes, let the record show that falsifying credentials is pretty bad practice in science.
EDIT: Welcome Mark Steyn readers! Please feel free to stick around, I hope you find the décor to your liking. Welcome to the site of that rare birds, an intransigent defender of capitalism who accepts that man made global warming is happening. Couple of points:
1. First of all a request. My legal knowledge is pretty shaky, so could someone answer this? If Steyn could show that he has probable cause to think that Mann is phoney, is that a justification under US law?
2. A more general point, about scientific integrity. I could make a strong case against Mann’s original hockey stick, but even if he was proven 100% wrong that would not be nearly the same thing as calling him a fraud. A scientist may well be wrong for most of his career and still win honour as long as he is honest. Richard Dawkins tells the story of an old professor who thought that the Golgi apparatus (a central part of the cell) was not real, was an illusion.
Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an american cell biologist who presented completely compelling evidence that the Golgi apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said – with passion- “My dear fellow, i wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years”. We clapped our hands red. No fundamentalist would ever say that. In practice, not all scientists would. But all scientists pay lip-service to the idea, [and] the memory of the incident still brings a lump to my throat.
That’s the reason for my writing this. This isn’t a popularity contest; I like Steyn and I’ve given reasons why I do not like Mann. But I am not going to charge Mann with scientific fraud, the worst scientific crime, without good evidence. Of course, this means that if some of the scientists traduced by Mann were to repay him with their own lawsuits, I would certainly enjoy it. But I don’t get to choose when I apply the standards of scientific ethics. 3. On the subject of global warming, could I please ask you draw a distinction between the science of global warming, and the politics of warming? The science is sound – to take it simply, it just isn’t credible that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon could be added to the atmosphere with no effect. We have a lot of disagreement about how much warmer it will get, how fast it will change, and what the effects will be, but there is really not much debate that it is happening.
The problem is that sound science is being married to at best misguided and at worst utterly wicked and evil politics. I am second to none in my loathing over what the “Green” movement has been responsible for, let alone what it wants.
But please do not insult honest scientists and the scientific method because of this nonsense. And stick around for my upcoming post: “Global warming: the ultimate argument for small government.”