All in the space of a scant 270 words, conservative columnist Mark Steyn managed to put a litigious bee in a climate scientist’s bonnet.
As the defamation lawsuit brought by Dr. Michael Mann, of climate “hockey stick” infamy, against Steyn et al goes into a second year, it is well to remember that such an important case is just that for dual reasons: not just for the ramifications regarding free speech or expression–which are serious enough– but, just as importantly, for the effect it will have on any scrutiny or skepticism of scientific research.
A scan of the post in question reveals the points of contention that purportedly justify a defamation suit on the grounds they cause “an intentional infliction of emotional distress”:
- A quoted metaphor–not of Steyn’s creation, and one in which he promptly states he wouldn’t have drawn himself;
- “Michael Mann was the man behind the fraudulent climate-change “hockey-stick” graph…
- “…the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”
Regardless one’s feelings about Steyn’s clear use of rhetorical hyperbole, the important questions are whether it rises to the level of “intentional infliction of emotional distress”, how exactly one defends themselves against accusations they’ve inflicted such distress, and whether legally adjudicating every supposed case of such is injurious to a presumptively “free” society that–use to– prize free thought.
“Intentionally” causing distress would seem to suggest that the purpose of the piece was to single Mann out for “distressing” criticism, then make sure he was aware of it. After all, there’s little point in hoping to injure someone if they’re unaware of it. Did that occur here? Was Mann the intended audience for the post? Given his alignment with newly-elected liberal VA governor Terry McAulifee–suggesting he is liberal himself–and given that National Review Online is a conservative publication, I kinda-sorta doubt it.
Additionally, how does one defend themselves against the accusation they’ve inflicted emotional distress? In other words, how does a third party discriminate between “genuine” distress, and mere retaliation against speech the aggrieved party simply didn’t appreciate? If I took umbrage every time I was called a “right-wing nut job”–many, many tears have been shed–and sued, who is to demonstrate my claimed “distress” is legitimate? Is the litmus test an inability to sleep? Talk to others? Conduct one’s scientific research? An inability to urinate in public conveyances? How do you quantify an intangible, and then sue based off an injury to it? What an impossibly vague benchmark.
Ultimately, however, the injurious effect on free speech is the operative aspect in this case, and not just in a general sense. While it’s not as sexy a public endeavor as the intrepid business of studying why snails get it on, climate change–or “global warming”, I get confused–has important implications not just in scientific literature, but in public policy as well. As such, we cannot afford to hamstring–as Dr. Mann threatens–a robust public debate into the nature of whatever climate “change” there’s purported to be.
If the science ends up influencing what could potentially be very costly legislative proposals, and Dr. Mann manages to freeze out an important part of the debate–skepticism that climate “change” is a recent phenomena, and thereby may not warrant action–the public is done a disservice.
Let’s face it, there is nothing “settled” about any science. Those wishing to do justice to the scientific method could never make such a claim, as theories are constantly modified or discarded as the evidence warrants. Healthy skepticism is a way of keeping such disciplines honest, and if climate change indeed is not a modern phenomenon–a reasonable position–and doesn’t require pervasive societal action, then squelching the type of dissent that Steyn and others posit could turn out to have rather dire consequences: financially for the public, and a handicapped discourse in the science community. We can afford neither.
Regardless whether one likes Steyn and Co. or not, and regardless one’s bent in the climate debate, this lawsuit matters. If Steyn wins, free speech and unpopular, though necessary, skepticism may continue precisely where it needs to: in the open. For all to see. If Mann wins, the Thin Skin Guild wins. Free thought becomes regulated thought. People litigating any perceived slight will be emboldened to continue. Scientific scrutiny goes underground–Galileo all over again.
Sorry, given the choice between Steyn speaking his mind, or Mann minding his speech for him, I’ll take the witty foreigner over the easily bruised native. For me, it’s less distressing.