‘Everyone is in favor of free speech,” Winston Churchill once wrote. “Hardly a day passes without its being extolled.” And yet, he added dryly, “some people’s idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.”
This aphorism, generally applicable as it is, could easily have been issued to describe the attitude of one Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist and opponent of free inquiry who is currently suing National Review for libel.
Mann, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, rose to prominence for his “hockey stick,” a graph that purports to depict global temperature trends between the years a.d. 1000 and 2000. The graph takes its name from its shape, which shows a mostly flat line of temperature data from the year 1000 until about 1900 (the handle of the hockey stick), followed by a sharp uptick over the 20th century (the blade). Based on this graph and related research, Mann has built a noisy public career sounding the alarm over global warming — a plague, he argues, that has been visited upon the Earth as a result of mankind’s sinful penchant for fossil fuels.
In the course of his evangelizing, Mann has shown little tolerance for heretics. A recent op-ed he penned for the New York Times is illustrative. “If You See Something, Say Something,” the headline blares, mimicking New York subway warnings and suggesting a not-so-subtle parallel between the dangers of global-warming “denial” and the murderous terrorism that brought down the Twin Towers. In the opening paragraph of the piece, Mann castigates his critics as “a fringe minority of our populace” who “cling to an irrational rejection of well-established science.” These aristarchs, Mann contends, represent a “virulent strain of anti-science [that] infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.” Alas, such comparisons are commonplace. In the rough and tumble of debate, climate-change skeptics are routinely recast as climate-change deniers, an insidious echo of the phrase “Holocaust deniers” and one that has been contrived with no purpose other than to exclude the speaker from polite society.
Secure as he appears to be in his convictions, Mann has nonetheless taken it upon himself to try to suppress debate and to silence some of the “irrational” and “virulent” critics, who he claims have nothing of substance to say. To this end, Mann has filed a lawsuit against National Review. Our offense? Daring to publish commentary critical of his hockey-stick graph and disapproving of his hectoring mien.
Ostensibly, Mann’s litigation against National Review is the product of a blog post written by Mark Steyn back in 2012, in which Steyn provided commentary on a separate article (written by Rand Simberg and published on the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s blog) that had drawn a crude analogy between Mann and Jerry Sandusky, the convicted child molester and former assistant football coach at Mann’s employer, Penn State. Steyn quoted a passage in which Simberg had stated, “Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, 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.” Distancing himself from the Sandusky analogy, Steyn averred that he was “not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr. Simberg does.” “But,” Steyn continued, “he has a point.” After all, “Michael Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.” (This “tree-ring” remark refers to Mann’s reliance on controversial “proxy” data to gauge historical temperatures — about which more below.)
Shortly after the publication of Steyn’s post, Mann’s lawyer sent National Review a letter, demanding a public apology and a retraction. National Review responded to the missive with the reminder that the blog post was “fully protected under the First Amendment” and, later, National Review’s editor, Richard Lowry, invited Mann to “get lost” and to “go away and bother someone else.” In Lowry’s view, Mann’s threat to submit Steyn’s commentary to judicial resolution under the libel laws was nothing short of preposterous. Steyn’s disagreement, Lowry argued, was with the validity of Mann’s scientific work — his words serving as a contribution to the question of whether Mann’s statistical methods and his reliance on “proxy” data give a valid picture of historical temperature trends, or instead his work is flawed, false, and misleading. As Lowry put it, “In common polemical usage, ‘fraudulent’ doesn’t mean honest-to-goodness criminal fraud. It means intellectually bogus and wrong.” In a free and open society, the correct way to respond to the accusation that one’s work is “intellectually bogus and wrong” is to attempt a rebuttal, not to file a lawsuit. National Review stands on the side of free and open society.