Michael Mann Awarded $1 Million By Jury In Defamation Suit

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Michael Mann, the climate scientist, is the director of the Center for Science, Sustainability & the Media at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, he was at Penn State, where his research, in collaboration with Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. Hughes, resulted in the first eigenvector-based climate field reconstruction. This showed global patterns of annual surface temperature, and included a graph of average hemispheric temperatures back to 1400 with shading that emphasized that uncertainties (to two standard error limits) were much greater in earlier centuries.

Subsequently, another climate scientist, Jerry Mahlmann, characterized the work of Mann, Bradley, and Hughes by referring to it as “hockey stick” graph — a representation that has a long, relatively flat horizontal line followed by an upward trajectory that visually resembles the blade of a hockey stick. The graph created by Mann and his colleague was later incorporated into various reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to illustrate its findings that average global temperatures were rising at an unprecedented rate.

That’s when oil, gas, and coal companies lost their minds. Soon, attacks on climate scientists reached a crescendo, led in part by other scientists who claimed to have discovered flaws in the statistical analysis used to create the graph. The dispute, however, focused primarily on the slope of the graph as it related to prior centuries. The idea was that if there were errors in the data from 1400, then the climate deniers could argue that the current data, showing a dramatic rise in temperatures, was also faulty and could be ignored.

Political disputes led to the formation of a panel of scientists convened by the United States National Research Council. In a report in 2006, the council issued a report that supported Mann’s findings with some qualifications, including agreeing that there were some statistical failings that had little effect on the results.

In 2009, emails between Michael Mann and professor Phil Jones at East Anglia University were purloined. Selected, distorted versions of these emails were then published on the internet in order to undermine UN climate talks due to begin in Copenhagen a few weeks later. These negotiations ended in failure. The use of those emails to kill off the climate talks was “a crime against humanity, a crime against the planet,” said Mann.

“The trouble is that the hockey stick graph become an icon and deniers reckoned if they could smash the icon, the whole concept of global warming would be destroyed with it. Bring down Mike Michael Mann and we can bring down the IPCC, they reckoned. It is a classic technique for the deniers’ movement, I have discovered, and I don’t mean only those who reject the idea of global warming but those who insist that smoking doesn’t cause cancer or that industrial pollution isn’t linked to acid rain,” Mann told The Guardian in 2012

In a book entitled The Hockey Stick And The Climate Wars, Michael Mann warned that “public discourse has been polluted now for decades by corporate-funded disinformation — not just with climate change but with a host of health, environmental and societal threats.” That was before Covid, remember. The implications for the planet are grim, he added.

The groups attacking Mann were privately funded by organizations that included Koch Industries and Scaife Foundations and bore names such as the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Heartland Institute. These groups bombarded Mann with freedom of information requests while the scientist was served with a subpoena by Republican congressman Joe Barton to provide access to his correspondence. The purported aim was to clarify issues but the real aim was to intimidate Mann.

In addition, Mann has been attacked by Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general of Virginia who has campaigned to have the scientist stripped of academic credentials. Several committees of inquiry have investigated Mann’s work. All have exonerated him. Yet all that Mann had done was publish to a study suggesting, in cautious terms, that the Earth had started to heat up unexpectedly in the past few decades.

Michael Mann & Anti-Social Media

Then things got nasty. Thousands of emails were sent to Mann, many deeply unpleasant. “You and your colleagues… ought to be shot, quartered and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families,” said one. “I was hopin [sic] I would see the news and you commited [sic] suicide,” said another.

“On one occasion, I had to call the FBI after I was sent an envelope with a powder in it,” Mann said. “It turned out to be cornmeal but again the aim was intimidation. I ended up with police security tape all over my office doors and windows. That is the life of a climate scientist today in the US.”

Mann insists he will not give up. “I have a six-year-old daughter and she reminds me what we are fighting for.” Indeed, Mann is generally optimistic that climate change deniers and their oil and coal industry backers have overstepped the mark and goaded scientists to take action.

He points to a recent letter, signed by 250 members of the US National Academy of Science, including 11 Nobel laureates, and published in Science. The letter warns about the dangers of the current attacks on climate scientists and calls “for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.” Says Mann, “Words like those give me hope.”

The Lunatic Fringe Weighs In

In 2012, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, published a blog post by Rand Simberg that compared investigations by Penn State University into Mann’s work with the case of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach who was convicted of sexually assaulting multiple children.

The scandal began to emerge publicly in March 2011 and broke in early November 2011 when Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation, stemming from incidents that occurred between 1994 and 2009. Sandusky was ultimately convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse on June 22, 2012, and was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 60 years in prison.

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data,” Simberg wrote. Another writer, Mark Steyn, later referenced Simberg’s article in his own piece in National Review, calling Mann’s research “fraudulent.”

In 2012, Mann sued both men and their publishers. In a post on Facebook at the time, he said, “Despite their knowledge of the results of these many investigations, the defendants have nevertheless accused Dr Mann of academic fraud and have maliciously attacked his personal reputation with the knowingly false comparison to a child molester. The conduct of the defendants is outrageous, and Dr Mann will be seeking judgement for both compensatory and punitive damages.”

Actual Malice

In 2021 a judge dismissed the two outlets as defendants, saying they could not be held liable, but the claims against the individuals remained. Simberg and Steyn argued they were merely expressing their opinion. The controlling legal decision from the US Supreme Court about which attacks on public figures are protected as free speech under the First Amendment is the 1964 case of New York Times Vs. Sullivan.

In that case, the court ruled that if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public official or candidate for public office, then not only must they prove the normal elements of defamation — publication of a false defamatory statement to a third party — they must also prove that the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning the defendant either knew the statement was false or recklessly disregarded whether it might be false.

After a four week trial, the jury found the authors did in fact make their statements about Mann with actual malice They awarded Mann $1000 in compensation from Simberg and $1 million from Steyn. “I hope this verdict sends a message that falsely attacking climate scientists is not protected speech,” Mann said.

The Takeaway

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Michael Mann. He persevered in the face of fierce odds and won. He will never see a dime of the award, of course. Bankruptcy court will protect the defendants. And don’t lose sight of the fact that their defense has been funded for over a decade by many of the same actors who unleashed an onslaught of abuse directed at Mann in the first place.

The lesson here is that a point of principle has been established, but in the meantime, carbon emissions have continued to climb and the Earth has gotten hotter and hotter. The warnings of Michael Mann and others have gone largely unheeded as humanity races to extract every last molecule of fossil fuels before the roof caves in. The takeaway here is the last line of the Don McLean song about Vincent Van Gogh: “They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.”

Civilization is speeding toward a cliff and laughing all the way to the bank. One can only wonder what will happen to the sacred notion of shareholder value when most of those shareholders and virtually all their customers are dead or dying. Sadly, when one’s entire existence is based on the next quarterly earnings report, long term consequences are dismissed as irrelevant.


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

Steve Hanley has 5406 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley