Law v. Science: The Continuing Misuse of Litigation Against Scientists

A familiar tactic known to legal academics, students, and practitioners alike is the harassment suit. Although it violates a lawyer’s ethical duties, it is common in many circumstances to file suit without an intention to do anything more than silence or discredit an opponent. Such behavior is sadly commonplace. It now threatens academics with little or no connection to the law. Sometimes, however, the scientists fight back.

Michael Mann is a prominent climate scientist and professor at Penn State. Mann was one of the first scientists to chart historical variations in global temperature in the early 1990s. As a result, organizations that do not agree with the prevailing scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change have regularly targeted him. He has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, including one seeking many of Mann’s emails by the conservative Attorney General of Virginia, which the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected because the the AG was unable to identify the reason for seeking the documents.

Mann has now filed a libel suit against the conservative National Review. The National Review, repeating comments from an online blog, grouped Mann together with convicted child-molester Jerry Sandusky because of the “fraud” that they allege underlies his climate data. As shocking as this comparison is, perhaps more shocking is the use and abuse of the legal system in the dispute. After Mann demanded that the journal remove the peace, The National Review threatened to use discovery to uncover evidence of his alleged fraud.  Mann then filed suit against the online journal.

The legal system is not intended to resolve disputes about scientific evidence. The use of the discovery process to engage in a war of words has a tenuous connection to the courts at best. Potential free speech and ethical issues abound. None of them need be resolved by the courts—they should be resolved with reasoned debate and a semblance of professionalism. The case is actually a proxy war over the issue of climate change, something that is generally accepted as a fact in the scientific community. The courts should not allow themselves to be dragged needlessly into such debates. Use of litigation for ends other than the redress of legal wrongs is already a serious problem impacting the credibility of the legal profession. The courts should tread carefully to avoid entertaining conflicts on well-settled scientific principles.


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