When Scientists Get Sued

AGU image

A panel of researchers at the AGU meeting recall legal threats and harassment they’re received for doing their job in science, and offer advice.


SAN FRANCISCO, CA., DEC. 12, 2013 — A panel of climate researchers spoke at the AGU meeting on the legal attacks they have faced for doing their jobs — being sued, harassed, and the subject of Freedom of Information Act requests they say are fishing expeditions looking to manufacture controversy.

Young scientists should expect such travails, several of them said, and realize that help is available and that there is strength in numbers. And that one’s laboratory or academic management is not always of much help.

“The most important thing you can do is talk to people who have been in the same situation,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science now at Harvard University. Science magazine was threatened with a lawsuit in 2004 after publishing an article by Oreskes, and, she said, she felt threatened by extension.

“It wasn’t about me and my work personally, but it was political,” she said. “It’s about a much bigger political issue that you’re caught in the crosshairs of.”

The threat never did materialize as a lawsuit, and in the long run her career was actually strengthened, she said. She became friends with Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy, wrote a book that sold well, and got invitations to publish elsewhere.

“But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said of the experience.

Climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of NCAR described the 19 pages of “extremely nasty” e-mails he received, after an e-mail message of his own was leaked in the so-called “ClimateGate” controversy of 2009. In that message he bemoaned science’s inability to close the planet’s energy budget, which he then described as a “travesty,” a remark that was widely misconstrued by climate contrarians.

Trenberth was bombarded with e-mails containing “filthy language” and suggestions he go back to his native New Zealand. A small protest was held at the entrance to his NCAR lab, and the lab increased security.

But NCAR management wasn’t supportive of him, Trenberth said. “Their attitude was it would calm down and go away.” But the harassment lasted, “and I think I was proven right.”

Trenberth noted silver lining in these clouds of harassment. “This is telling you that what you’re doing is important.”

“I don’t think appeasement works,” he said. “We have to push back, and encourage management to do it in a way that is reasonable, because there are real facts behind what is going on behind climate change.”

The University of East Anglia hacked e-mail controversy was a “dark time for our media as well,” said Oreskes. “I don’t think they did due diligence in asking if there was any merit” to the accusations and insinuations then spreading rapidly. And journalists themselves are dealing with cutbacks in their profession, as in-depth reporting from science journalists is often replaced by less knowledgeable beat reporters or, for a controversy like “ClimateGate,” political reporters who see just “another he-said/she-said episode” and are less resistant to biases not supported by science.

“If you’re a journalist, it’s about doing your homework to understand the facts,” Oreskes concluded.

Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University also lamented the lack of institutional support he received when subjected to FOIA requests from the American Tradition Institute, saying his university “gets FOIA requests all the time.”

“Know your state laws,” he advised.

Michael Mann, whose “hockey stick” graph has been a touchstone in the community of those resistant to climate science, joked that he might be “the most attacked and vilified scientists alive.”

It was, he thinks, because the hockey stick told a simple story; “you didn’t need a lot of physics to understand it,” and it was a threat to “vested interests.” His most serious challenge, he said, was a 2005 request by Congressional representative Joe Barton (R-TX), who made an extremely broad request of Mann and his co-authors for their data, details of their methods, and personal information.

“It’s in the first few hours, and the first few days, where you can easily make mistakes,” Mann recalled of that experience.

Largely as a result of Mann’s travails, there now exist support networks and legal resources that scientists can turn to when facing threats and actions for doing their job. The Union of Concerned Scientists has been very helpful, several people on the panel said, and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund now exists to offer assistance.

For scientists who work for government or federal labs, the Washington, D.C. organization Protecting Our Employees Who Protect Our Environment (PEER) offers free legal counsel and support. Their Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who spoke from the AGU panel, said that when threatened, “many scientists act as antelope do, scattering from the lion in different directions.”

But threatening scientists for their science “is a bully strategy,” said Ruch, and “bullies don’t like to be pushed back at.”

“Organized opposition can be effective as well as psychologically rewarding.”

David Appell

David Appell is a science writer living in Oregon and a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: david@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @davidappell)
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12 Responses to When Scientists Get Sued

  1. John Garrett says:

    A scientist who is threatened by a request for his data is not a scientist.

    • David Appell says:

      John: By and large the requests are for emails and other personal information, not data. Andrew Dessler told of how he was invited to appear on Frontline after publicity from a FOIA request for his emails came from Chris Horner at the American Tradition Institute. Dessler said that after Horner saw that Dessler was on Frontine, Horner filed a second FOIA looking for emails between Dessler and Frontine.

      It is difficult to see how that those would be of any relevance to any of Dessler’s science.

      • Nullius in Verba says:

        “It is difficult to see how that those would be of any relevance to any of Dessler’s science.”

        That’s exactly the point. The FOIA request stated the purpose as:

        “ATI seeks these records to determine certain uses of taxpayer-funded resources by Professor Dessler including to what extent (if any) they are used in the performance or pursuit of certain “global warming” related activism, combining political or policy advocacy with dedicated taxpayer funded resources.”

        The answer that ought to come back is that there are no such records because no scientist would use tax-payer funded facilities to conduct their own personal political business.

        It has nothing to do with the conduct of his science, so he shouldn’t be doing it on a workplace account. If he’s not doing it, he’s got nothing to worry about.

        • David Appell says:

          Communicating their science, and about their field, is part of any scientist’s job, and that includes appearances on Frontline.

          Dessler’s interview with Frontline, where he describes the first FOIA request and calls it a “fishing expedition,” is here:

          http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/environment/climate-of-doubt/andrew-dessler-science-and-the-politics-of-climate-change/

          • Nullius in Verba says:

            Ah. So now suddenly it is something to do with Dessler’s science?

            Strange how it flips back and forth from one to the other… Is it like one of those optical illusions, do you think? :-)

            Thanks for the link to the interview. I can certainly see why it could be classed as “global warming activism” rather than “communicating his science”! A matter of perspective, I suppose.

            I would tend to agree with him that it could be classed as a “fishing expedition”. But they’re legitimate fish to be looking for, and experience has shown that such fish are not uncommon, and in the normal run of things would never normally get caught. It’s one of the more unfortunate consequences of past behavior.

            It’s necessary for trust in the science for there to be no ‘fish’. Checks to that end are therefore a positive thing.

          • David Appell says:

            How is anything Dessler said “activism?”

            It is not activist to say that the science shows the world will warm significantly if humans keep on their present energy path, and that that will create significant changes in many ecosystems.

            If you let me go fishing through your emails, I guarantee I can find something that looks suspicious. Cardinal Richelieu:
            “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.”

          • Nullius in Verba says:

            It wasn’t that bit I considered ‘activism’. On the science, he said that the outcome was uncertain, ranging from not very much to severe, and that the most likely outcome was not catastrophic. I’d regard that as a fair summary of the mainstream science, and a reasonable position to hold.

            But then he goes on to argue for argument from authority, describes sceptics and sceptical scientists in rather inaccurate terms, grossly underestimates their number, fudges an answer on the poor quality surface stations, presents a straw man argument on the ‘pause’, and while giving rather more of an acknowledgement that ClimateGate looked bad than is usual, got several bits wrong, which suggests he’d not fully checked it for himself. There was evidence that scientists had made things up, and it wasn’t about just one temperature series. (I’m guessing he probably meant the MBH98 Hockeystick, which was a comparatively minor element in ClimateGate, and he seemingly doesn’t know that a lot of the other paleo reconstructions *do* have similar issues, like the use of bristlecones and poor cross-validation statistics.)

            A lot of the anti-sceptic nonsense is the same stuff the activists come out with, but I think it’s more a case of him reading what the activists say and taking their word for it than that he is an activist himself. Nevertheless, I can see why it would attract the attention of somebody looking for activism-masquerading-as-science. Overall, the interview gives a misleading impression of the debate; the couple of paragraphs that contain any science are brief and leave no lasting impression. However, it doesn’t look to me like it was deliberate. And he did at least try to be fair about Fred Singer.

            As Tom Wigley said in a related context, “No scientist who wishes to maintain respect in the community should ever endorse any statement unless they have examined the issue fully themselves.” I think this is his sin, rather than ‘global warming activism’ as such.

        • Andrew Alden says:

          “The answer that ought to come back is that there are no such records because no scientist would use tax-payer funded facilities to conduct their own personal political business.”

          And the next response in that dialog, just as it is from the tax people, is “I’ll be the judge of that.”

  2. Martin Lack says:

    To go fishing in the UK, you need a Licence from the Environment Agency.

    To go fishing in the deniosphere, you just need to be a conspiracy theorist.

    • John Garrett says:

      …or consider the ambiguous and equivocal nature of the evidence and data advanced in support of the catastrophic anthropogenic global warming conjecture.

  3. John Garrett says:

    A larger question is, “What in hell is Yale doing in the proselytizing business?”

    If climatology is a science, the science will speak for itself. That is Dr. Tamsin Edwards’ attitude and it is the proper attitude for anyone involved in true scientific inquiry.

    • Jeremy Kemp says:

      Tamsin Edwards is only one scientist among many.

      She is of course completely entitled to her opinion, which has become quite well known recently (see her opinion piece in The Guardian newspaper, at http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/jul/31/climate-scientists-policies).

      It’s also the case that others are completely entitled to disagree with her, and to act accordingly.

      It’s unfortunate, and I would hope counter to Edwards’ intention, that her opinion is used by some to try to provide a fig leaf of some kind, when they tell climate scientists to shut up.

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