A small victory in the battle against denialism

Last week a Washington DC jury awarded over $1 million to a prominent climate scientist for damages inflicted on him by a couple of conservative writers who likened his work to child molestation. It was a reckoning 25 years in the making.

In 1998, the eminent science journal Nature published a paper by three US-based scientists including a young physicist, Michael Mann, titled “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries”.

The paper sought to establish global temperatures going back over 1000 years, using proxy data from tree-rings, ice cores, coral and other records, and found that after a steady natural cooling over centuries, since 1920 the world has warmed dramatically. A graph in the paper took the shape of an ice-hockey stick, with the blade representing those rapidly warming years.

In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised the quality of science behind that paper in its third report. Over the next few years Mann became famous, along with Raymond Bradley from the University of Massachusetts, Malcolm Hughes from the University of Arizona, and their hockey stick graph.

They were right to be proud of their work. Along with a number of others including Phil Jones from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit, they were breaking new ground in developing statistical techniques able to provide robust answers to the most fundamental climate question, how hot is the world, really?

Some people chose to disagree, among them a pair of Canadians: an economist named Ross McKitrick and a mining engineer, Stephen McIntyre. In a couple of papers published in 2003 and 2004, the pair disputed the methodology of Mann, Bradley and Hughes.

In the face of growing evidence from the wider science community that Mann, Jones and the others had got it right – that 20th century warming was a serious break-out from a natural cooling trend – McKitrick and McIntyre were lead actors in a noisy attack on science that brought us the 2009 “scandal” dubbed Climategate.

Flush with what seemed to be a win over the scientists (Climategate was later found in multiple jurisdictions to be without foundation or merit), conservative Virginia attorney-general Ken Cuccinelli took Mann and the University of Virginia to court in 2010 alleging that they had committed fraud to secure research funding. The case was thrown out.

In 2012, undeterred by all those failures to discredit evidence of 20th century warming, a blogger at Washington’s Competitive Enterprise Institute named Rand Simberg likened Mann’s work at Pennsylvania State University to the misdeeds of a Penn State football coach for molesting children. 

Then National Review columnist Mark Steyn quoted Simberg’s post, commenting without any supporting evidence that Mann’s work was “almost laughably fraudulent”. Neither Simberg nor Stein has any scientific expertise.

The journal where it all started, Nature, reported that last week’s decision comes “at a time of increasing political polarization that has left many scientists in the United States and beyond vulnerable to verbal abuse and harassment, both online and in person.”

It went on to  repeat findings of a global survey last year indicating that scientists are suffering both physically and emotionally – an impact also felt by biologists and public-health scientists since Covid struck in 2020.

Truth is nowhere more important than in the three professions caught up in the Mann defamation case: the law, journalism and science. All have systems and protocols to counter errors and falsehoods, but successes against interests wanting to cast doubt on well-founded science – in many cases proposing their own counter-narrative – have so far had been few and far between.

These ideological fantasies are aided and abetted by modern economic orthodoxy based on a thing called a market. Economists have won Nobel prizes on the ludicrous basis that this system can flow in its own circle regardless of the ecosphere in which it exists. The idea survives and thrives because it suits the rich, powerful, and anyone else wanting to amass a fortune. It’s no accident that Ross McKitrick is an economist.

Mann hopes that the verdict “sends a message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech”. But while it may give pause for thought to the odd opinion writer, a million dollars is loose change to the multinational interests that have profited from the many years denial, delay, and disinformation about climate change.

“We would like to live in a world in which the facts speak for themselves, but unfortunately that’s not always the case,” Lauren Kurtz, the executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, said after the verdict. That has to be the understatement of the year.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.