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Climate Paper At Center Of Scientist-Versus-Scientist Legal Dispute

Solar panels absorb the sun's rays.

Credit: Capital Public Radio

Above: Solar panels absorb the sun's rays.

Climate Paper At Center Of Scientist-Versus-Scientist Legal Dispute


Nicholas Bagley, professor, University of Michigan Law School


A Stanford University climate scientist has taken the unusual step of suing another scientist, arguing that a rebuttal paper critiquing his work amounted to defamation.

Two years ago, Stanford professor Mark Jacobson published a scientific paper that quickly grabbed national attention: in it he said that a completely renewable energy grid could be possible by 2050, as new ways to store energy would allow the system to keep up with demand even in moments when winds slow down or clouds cover solar panels. The paper was mentioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders and was named one of the best of 2015.

But this June, a group of researchers published its own paper, which said Jacobson ignored important costs, making the type of system Jacobson envisioned theoretically possible, but likely too expensive to be realistic. The lead author was Christopher Clack, a former researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and now CEO of the nonprofit Vibrant Clean Energy. UC San Diego professor David Victor was one of 20 other authors.

Jacobson sued Clack and the National Academy of Sciences, which published the paper, in late September. He said Clack’s work defamed him by calling his work into question even after Jacobson pointed out supposed errors in Clack’s interpretations. He also claimed the National Academy of Sciences improperly published the critique as a research paper, instead of as a letter, which are shorter and less detailed. Jacobson is seeking at least $10 million in damages.

“Baseless allegations of modeling errors can be found throughout the Clack article,” the complaint said. “These allegations are relevant and particularly damaging to Dr. Jacobson, whose main research work is on the development and application of numerical computer models.”

Clack responded in a court filing Monday, saying that the dispute should continue to play out in academic journals under peer-review, a system designed to ferret out inaccurate or misleading work.

“This process breaks down where, as here, scientists with sufficient resources seek to use the courts to intimidate other scientists into silence under the threat of having to defend costly, protracted litigation,” Clack’s lawyers wrote. “Indeed, the contention that a scientist can be liable for defamation because he or she argued that a study contained ‘mistakes’ or faulty assumptions would have a devastating impact on the future of scientific discourse in the United States.”

Scientists suing each other is not common, according to University of Michigan Law School professor Nicholas Bagley, who published an article of his own earlier this month on lawsuits attacking scientific work. Bagley joins KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday with more on the potential effect of these types of suits on the scientific community.

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