Stanford professor drops defamation lawsuit against scientific critics

Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson (Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News)

MICHAEL HILTZIK, LOS ANGELES TIMES

Stanford University environmental professor Mark Z. Jacobson made a big splash in 2015 with a paper predicting that renewable sources could provide 100 percent of the energy needed in the 48 contiguous states by 2050.

But he made an even bigger splash last September, when he responded to a critique of his claim published in a leading scientific journal by filing a $10 million defamation lawsuit.

After taking months of flak for what seemed to be an effort to stifle legitimate scientific debate by bringing it into the courtroom, Jacobson withdrew the lawsuit Thursday.

A quick primer on the case: After Jacobson’s paper appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and got taken up as a rallying cry by climate activists such as Bernie Sanders, the journal published a lengthy critique by environmental scientist Christopher Clack and 20 co-authors. Their paper, which questioned Jacobson’s assumptions and methodology, appeared Feb. 24, 2017. PNAS gave Jacobson and his own co-authors space in the very same issue to rebut the criticism.

Jacobson wanted more. He asserted that the Clack paper was filled with so many errors that it violated the standards of PNAS and should never have been published at all.

He filed his lawsuit against Clack and the national academy on Sept. 29. The action instantly chilled debate over the scientific issues raised between Jacobson and Clack; scientists became reluctant to comment for fear of being hauled into court.

In a statement Thursday that rehashed at length the issues he had raised in his lawsuit, Jacobson attempted to declare victory.

“A main purpose of the lawsuit has been to correct defamation by correcting the scientific record through removing false facts that damaged my co-authors and my reputations,” he said. “While I have not succeeded in having the scientific record . corrected, I have brought the false claims to light so that at least some people reading (the critical article) will be aware of the factually inaccurate statements.”

But he also acknowledged some of the drawbacks of litigating scientific discussions in court - the process is time-consuming, expensive and inconclusive. “It is possible there could be no end to this case for years, and both the time and cost would be enormous,” he said. Appeals could take months, even years, and even if the case reached trial, “the result of the trial would likely be appealed, etc., etc.”

Attorneys for Jacobson’s main target, environmentalist Christopher Clack, asserted that the reason for Jacobson’s withdrawal is simpler: “No doubt Dr. Jacobson based his decision on the high probability that his lawsuit would be dismissed.”

His action came after a hearing on the case Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Superior Court, where Clack and the National Academy of Sciences, which published Jacobson’s paper and Clack’s critique, sought dismissal on anti-SLAPP grounds.

National Academy says Stanford professor is trying to “silence” scientific debate with his $10-million lawsuit

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” and applies to litigation brought chiefly to censor and intimidate participants in a public debate.

Jacobson’s statement Thursday underscored the wastefulness of his approach. Anyone interested in the debate over fossil versus renewable fuels had access to “the scientific record” via the Jacobson and Clack papers and the byplay hosted by PNAS. Had Jacobson not sued, it’s almost certain that PNAS or other respected journals would have hosted further research and discussion.

But that didn’t happen while the lawsuit was pending. What Jacobson glosses over is that the claims raised by Clack already had been “brought to light” by PNAS, and so had been Jacobson’s assertion that they were “false claims.”

But the scientific credibility of his position and Clack’s was no longer the issue being debated; instead, the discussion got sidetracked by the issue of whether research publications or courtrooms were the proper venues to hash out scientific issues. By withdrawing his case, Jacobson has given us an answer.