Climate Scientist Mark Jacobson Sues Journal for $10M over Hurt Feelings

By Alex Berezow, PhD — Nov 02, 2017
We have never seen anything like this. Climate scientist Mark Jacobson has sued the National Academy of Sciences for publishing an article that disagrees with him. For his hurt feelings, he wants $10 million.
Credit: Storyblocks

ACSH has been around since 1978 but I doubt we have ever seen anything like this before.

Climate scientist Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford University has sued the National Academy of Sciences, which publishes the prestigious journal PNAS, for publishing an article that disagreed with him. The lawsuit claims that Dr. Jacobson was libeled and slandered. He is suing to get the journal to retract the article.

For his hurt feelings and bruised ego, he also wants a big bag of money, $10 million to be precise.

To say that this is unusual would be an understatement. The lawsuit is completely obscene.

Let's set aside the scientific arguments in this debate, which revolve around the feasibility of 100% renewable energy. Smart people can disagree about whether that is a technologically and economically achievable goal. The way smart (and mature) people handle their disagreements is in the pages of a peer-reviewed scientific journal. But, apparently, that's no longer how things operate in our litigious society.

The back story is rather simple and straightforward. Dr. Jacobson published a paper in PNAS that other scientists found faulty. So, they published a rebuttal, which concluded that Dr. Jacobson's analysis "involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions." While this is considered rather harsh language for the scientific literature, critiquing the work of others occurs as a matter of routine. Indeed, questioning another scientist's conclusions is a healthy and integral part of the pursuit of knowledge.

But that's not how Dr. Jacobson saw it. He believes that scientific disagreements are lies and personal assaults against him. According to the lawsuit, PNAS asked Dr. Jacobson if he wished to respond to the rebuttal. PNAS certainly didn't have to do that, but it is standard practice and a courtesy to the author being critiqued. Dr. Jacobson's response was unhinged: He warned PNAS not to publish the article.

Dr. Jacobson claims to have identified 35 false or misleading statements in the rebuttal. Even if that's true, disagreement -- or even being materially incorrect -- does not constitute libel, as Dr. Jacobson claims. Besides, he was given an opportunity to respond, and there are multiple avenues by which Dr. Jacobson could air his grievances.

The court filing then wanders off into Bizarro World. It alleges, "on information and belief," that most of the 21 co-authors of the rebuttal didn't actually contribute much to the paper, so they shouldn't have been listed. The document then goes on to accuse PNAS of violating its own publication policy. How this is relevant to anything is puzzling, considering that PNAS could publish nothing but cat memes and fruitcake recipes, if it so desired.

Way down at the bottom of the court filing, we finally arrive at why Dr. Jacobson is unhappy. He received a lot of negative press coverage which, in his opinion, made him look "sloppy, incompetent, and clueless." Sorry, but that's the chance you take when you engage in public debate. We take that chance every single day at ACSH, and we've been called far worse.

Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and executive director of the environmental think-tank The Breakthrough Institute, believes the lawsuit will be thrown out. In an email to ACSH, he wrote, "The judge will almost certainly dismiss the suit summarily. I think everyone else has already dismissed Jacobson as a serious scholar and his 100% renewables analysis as a useful guide to reality-based policy-making."

Let's hope he's right. Dr. Jacobson's actions are a blasphemy against free speech, free inquiry, and the scientific method.


Alex Berezow, PhD

Former Vice President of Scientific Communications

Dr. Alex Berezow is a PhD microbiologist, science writer, and public speaker who specializes in the debunking of junk science for the American Council on Science and Health. He is also a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and a featured speaker for The Insight Bureau. Formerly, he was the founding editor of RealClearScience.

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