Thought Piece





Surely, scientists suing critics and fellow scientists has revealed a huge crack between science and politics. We need to pull back from this new anti-intellectualism surrounding the climate debate.

A Litigious Climate Threatens Scientific Norms

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 were unfair, obnoxious and wrong, but adherence to Mertonian norms means that Mr. Mann 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.