Michael Mann
Michael Mann
Greg Rico / Penn State

In 2012, the National Review and the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute compared climate scientist Michael Mann to convicted child molester and football Jerry Sandusky (in addition to calling Mann a scientific fraud). The article managed to trivialize both pedophilia and the climate crisis on the slim grounds that both Mann and football coach Sandusky were products of a corrupt Penn State. 

Understandably, Mann (who helped coin the term “hockey stick” to describe the sudden rise of temperatures) did not appreciate the connection, and he sued for libel. He argues that doing so would help protect the environmental movement from similar such nonsense. And last week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward, denying a motion to dismiss. Here’s Al Jazeera with the details:

Mann sued the parties for defamation in 2012, after CEI published, and the National Review republished, statements accusing Mann of academic fraud and comparing him to convicted child molester and former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky 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.”

Judge Frederick H. Weisberg found that while “opinions and rhetorical hyperbole” are protected speech under the First Amendment, statements that call into question a scientist’s work could be understood as factual assertions that go to the “heart of scientific integrity.”

“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,” he said.

And here is more from Mother Jones:

Weisberg’s order is just the latest in a string of setbacks that have left the climate change skeptics’ case in disarray. Earlier this month, Steptoe & Johnson, the law firm representing National Review and its writer, Mark Steyn, withdrew as Steyn’s counsel. According to two sources with inside knowledge, it also plans to drop National Review as a client.

The lawyers’ withdrawal came shortly after Steyn — a prominent conservative pundit who regularly fills in as host of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — publicly attacked the former judge in the case, Natalia Combs Greene, accusing her of “stupidity” and “staggering” incompetence. Mann’s attorney, John B. Williams, suspects this is no coincidence. “Any lawyer would be taken aback if their client said such things about the judge,” he says. “That may well be why Steptoe withdrew.”

Defending scientific consensus in climate findings against baseless denier attacks devolved into a dirty game long ago. But skeptics could learn that trying to bruise the reputation of a climate scientist when you can’t upend his findings is a losing strategy.