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

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Climate Paper At Center Of Scientist-Versus-Scientist Legal Dispute
Climate Paper At Center Of Scientist-Versus-Scientist Legal Dispute GUEST: Nicholas Bagley, professor, University of Michigan Law School

Scientists are encouraged to challenge themselves and each other over their theories and assumptions but according to a university professor this time the challenge has gone too far. Mark Jacobson published a paper outlining how 100% renewable energy could power the U.S. by midcentury. Then this group of scientists published their own analysis which found his conclusions were wrong. The professor is now suing the lead author which published a paper for $10 million. He says the rebuttal defamed his reputation. Joining me is Nicholas Bagley, professor, University of Michigan Law School. You have examined other lawsuits that have been brought against the findings of a scientific paper. What is the background of these suits ? Is it when a business doesn't like critical findings?These things tend to arise when a private country with a financial stake is unhappy with -- they turn to the courts to force a retraction or get damages or to send a message to the community that if they want to look into the practices, they better watch out.Does that lawsuit happen often?It doesn't happen every day but it does happen regularly. It's important to notice that even if a lawsuit is never filed the threat of litigation which can be made in a private letter or dash cam send shivers down the next of young researchers. It can be extremely damaging even if no lawsuit was filed.Here we have a different scenario where a scientist is being sued by a fellow scientist. Is that unusual question markIt does happen but it is rare. The courtroom is a place where we try to get at the truth. But so is the scientific laboratory. Courts and scientific labs don't mix well. Typically we rely on scientists to work out the disputes through further repeated experiments, letters to the editor. We don't expect them to sue. The blunt instrument of the law is not an ideal way for scientific disputes to get hashed out.From what you have said, it sounds as if the aim in the goal of some of these suits is not even to win, but do plaintiffs win these suits question rightThey rarely win but the win loss percentage should not distract from how damaging they can be. The lawsuits can yield discovery into your emails, scientific notebooks into all of your past practices in connection with research. That can be deeply distressing, hard on your family, hard on you, risky for your reputation. These are nightmares.They actually seem to have a chilling effect across the board in the scientific world.I think not only do they have one, they are meant to have a chilling effect. The recent lawsuit filed against researchers by a corporation that is going after scientists were discovered something that the corporation does it like, in both cases they are sending a message that if you mess with me, I will take you to court and you are going to have to hire a lawyer, facing that threat what would any scientist do? I think they would be tempted to pick another line of inquiry.The plaintiff in this case says that this case does not involve scientific theories. He claims the article published by the opposition was a critique of his research not research itself so it should of been published as an opinion piece not science. Is a that a question that could be answered in court?Potentially, yes. Should be hashed out in the scientific domain. This is not the kind of case that the courts are to get involved in or the case in which the courts have any expertise in judging historical facts. This is simply the kind of dispute that arises every day. It's a key to dispute. I'm sure it's one that the professor feel strongly enough but that is enough justifying a case like this to proceed.There are scientists will have committed fraud. How should courts distinguish between those cases and the ones that you looked at?The reason that they are tricky is they are rare and cases of scientific fraud where perhaps recourse to the courts. The courts want to leave the door open for those lawsuits. I think it's important to caution the courts to be sure that when they are thinking about which cases they are allowed to proceed to trial and cases that allowed to proceed in discovery that they insist on some evidence of -- in the background. Not just wild allegations but genuine concrete reason to think that maybe there's something other than a scientific dispute. Maybe there's something that comes closer to fraud. They are rare enough and the risk is great enough that courts are to exercise real caution.I've been speaking with Nicholas Bagley, professor, University of Michigan Law School. Thank you very much.Very happy to be here. Thank you.

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.