Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann is demanding that National Review retract and apologize for a July 15 post that compared him to Jerry Sandusky, the convicted child molester and former Penn State assistant football coach.

The post in question, by Mark Steyn, accused Mann of academic fraud, dredging up a discredited charge that emerged in 2009 following the leak of emails between Mann and other scientists, which critics claimed were evidence of data manipulation. Despite the fact that almost half a dozen investigations affirmed the integrity of Mann’s research, Steyn quoted a post from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) that referred to Mann’s work as Penn State’s “other scandal,” and read:

Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that 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.

CEI has deleted that and another sentence from its post, which was written by Rand Simberg, one of its “scholars,” calling them “inappropriate” in an editor’s note appended at the end. Steyn’s post remains unaltered, but in it he distanced himself from the Sandusky reference very slightly, writing, “Not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr Simberg does, but he has a point.”

In the minds of Simberg and Steyn, the numerous investigations that supported Mann were “just another cover-up and whitewash.”

In a letter sent Friday to Scott Budd, National Review’s executive publisher, Mann’s attorney, John B. Williams, called Steyn’s allegations defamatory:

“Your allegation of academic fraud is false, and was clearly made with the knowledge that it was false….” Williams wrote. “And further, you draw the insidious comparison between Dr. Mann and Jerry Sandusky, who as you point out, was recently convicted of child molestation. This reference is simply outrageous and clearly subjects your publication to a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

“Needless to say, we intend to pursue all appropriate legal remedies on behalf of Dr. Mann.”

Neither Budd nor National Review editor Rich Lowry returned calls requesting comment on Williams’s letter. Politico, one of the only major outlets to cover the altercation so far, didn’t fare much better, reporting that Lowry and Steyn failed to respond to its requests for comment.

Politico was, however, able to reach CEI’s Simberg. According to its article:

Simberg, in an email to POLITICO, said his Sandusky comparison “was to the fact that the Penn State administration covered up Mann’s behavior in a similar manner, not in the behavior itself,” adding, “neither I or anyone was accusing [Mann] of child molestation.”?

Mann will have a difficult time winning any future lawsuit because he “has already made himself a public figure” and “neither I, nor Mark Steyn or anyone else have written anything actionable or false, as far as I know,” Simberg said.

“I think he’s just blowing smoke in hopes of getting a cheap ‘apology.’ I guess if he does decide to come after me, I’ll crowd source a legal defense fund, or find someone to take it on pro bono. I suspect I’ll have no shortage of support,” Simberg said, stressing that he is speaking for himself and not CEI.

“This is not a bluff,” Williams said when asked about Simberg’s comment. “This is a very strong case. I’ve done a fair amount of libel and defamation work. I vet the cases pretty thoroughly before I take them, and I don’t bluff. We’re going to bring it unless they retract and apologize.”

Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, knows a little something about what Mann is going through. In 2010 he sued Canada’s National Post newspaper for libel, citing four articles that he said sought to damage his reputation. The following year, he launched another suit against Tim Ball, a former geography professor at the University of Winnipeg, over an allegedly libelous article published by the Canada Free.

Both suits are ongoing and Weaver referred questions about them to his lawyer, Roger McConchie, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Weaver did say that scientists “don’t take these suits lightly,” and that they are a last resort when news outlets don’t respond to reasonable requests for retraction.

“You have to realize that when you do science that is societally relevant, you’re going to get people who don’t like your results, and you’re going to get all sorts of people who are angry, but that’s the nature of the beast,” Weaver added. “Criticism is part of science, so you don’t just wantonly go around threatening lawsuits left, right, and center. But at some point, there’s a line that gets crossed…

So, I fully support Michael in his case against National Review. Deliberately enticing hatred of an individual by linking him to a child molester? This is unacceptable in a civil society, whatever your view on what freedom of the press is. I can’t believe that somebody would even write such nonsense.”

Indeed, Mann has had to endure everything from witch hunts to death threats in order to defend his work, a battle that he described in his recently released book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, which was widely reviewed in the media.

Weaver was careful to point out that defamation goes both ways, however. According to blog reviews of the German media, in November, a German court ordered Stefan Rahmstorf, a climatologist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, to cease and desist from making misleading statements about a blogger who was critical of his work.

More often than not, though, it is conservative/libertarian writers harassing climate scientists, and the low to which Simberg and Steyn stooped is certainly deplorable, if not unlawful.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.