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Prof. Pielke Jr. on Michael Mann’s ‘departure from scientific norms’

Mr. Pielke is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is author of “The Edge” (Roaring Forties, 2016) and “The Climate Fix” (Basic, 2011).

Mr. Jacobson’s lawsuit is only the latest example of deviance from Mertonian norms in climate and energy research. Consider Michael E. Mann, director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. In 2012 he sued a fellow scientist and several journalists for defamation over their mean-spirited and crude characterizations of his work.

Another of Merton’s norms is “universalism”—that the substance of scientific claims is what matters, not the characteristics of the people advancing them. A layman has as much right to challenge a scientific claim as a scientist does. But Mr. Mann’s case illustrates an important asymmetry: Scientists are bound by Mertonian norms, but nonscientists are not. Mr. Mann’s critics were unfair, obnoxious and wrong, but adherence to Mertonian norms means that Mr. Mann not respond in kind, much less go to court. It may seem unfair, but what makes science different from ordinary political discourse is also essential to making science strong.

That’s especially important for situations in which public trust in science is at stake. The Washington Post and two dozen other news organizations oppose Mr. Mann’s lawsuit, explaining: “While Mann essentially claims that he can silence critics because he is ‘right,’ the judicial system should not be the arbiter of either scientific truth or correct public policy.” The lawsuit, they argue, will “chill the expression of opinion on a wide range of important scientific and public policy issues.”

But Mr. Mann’s departure from scientific norms has met with no sanctions from his peers. To the contrary, since he filed his lawsuits, he has earned more than 20 professional “honors and awards.” He is celebrated as a champion in climate scientists’ war against “deniers.”

Similarly, in rationalizing his own lawsuit, Mr. Jacobson has labeled his critics as industry shills, warning that Mr. Clack’s paper is not only wrong but “dangerous.” Leading scientific organizations have been silent. Perhaps they see the dissonance in supporting Mr. Mann but criticizing Mr. Jacobson, or perhaps they haven’t had time yet to give Mr. Jacobson awards.