Runaway litigation is destroying America, to be sure, and ordinarily the last thing anybody should welcome is another lawsuit, especially one that seems to be aimed at silencing criticism of a public figure.
Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann is a public figure and, as we learned in The Morning Call on Monday, he is going after those who published criticism on the Internet that said his work was "fraudulent" and "a hoax."
While it's not easy for a tort reform zealot like me to cheer for litigation, I heartily applaud this lawsuit. That's because the orchestrated and prolonged attempts to discredit Mann and his research are absolutely despicable.
Mann is America's most prominent scientist when it comes to studies into how pollution is affecting our climate, and he found that global warming coincides with the massive burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil, etc. — in modern times.
That did not sit well with those who get rich by filling our air with fumes, and who fear that environmental fretting may force a switch to cleaner energy and tougher regulation of mining and drilling. (My preference is nuclear power, not wind turbines, but that's a topic for another day.)
Monday's story was about the latest developments in a lawsuit Mann filed last year against two online publications. I somehow missed knowing anything about his action until Monday, but Mann, who was part of a group that received the Nobel Peace Price for research on climate change, claimed there is a "witch hunt" against him.
His lawsuit was filed in the local court system of Washington, D.C., where the online publications are based or have offices, and the most recent legal action involved an appeal stemming from a judge's ruling in Mann's favor back in July.
That judge approved the case for trial, rejecting attempts to quash it and finding "sufficient evidence to demonstrate some malice or the knowledge that the statements [attacking Mann] were false." On Friday, another judge put the case on hold with a "stay of discovery proceedings" while appeals of the earlier ruling are pending. Discovery lets each side force the other side to divulge pertinent information.
Mann's lawsuit is against the online publications of National Review, a conservative magazine, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which calls itself a "free market" advocacy organization. CEI is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and other oil, gas and coal interests. Also named in the suit are two Internet writers.
Attempts to discredit Mann go back to at least 2009, when somebody engaged thieves to steal email records between him and other scientists. They discussed how Mann used data derived from tree rings, which reflected year-to-year temperature changes going back many centuries, and then switched to thermometer readings after thermometers were invented. His critics assailed the switch as evidence of fraud.
(I guess Dr. Mann, that rascal, should have found a way to find thermometer readings from 1,000 years ago.)
In any case, Mann produced charts reflecting the temperature changes, which soared around the time industries started burning fossil fuels on a massive scale. The readings resembled a "hockey stick," which the pro-pollution interests ridiculed.
In one 2009 column, I suggested we "consider the source" of the attacks. They originated, for example, with the Washington Times, a newspaper devoted to the Republican Party's lunatic fringe, and relied on the expertise of scientists employed by a GOP functionary or by an organization also funded by Exxon-Mobil.
Meanwhile, the fuss caused Penn State to mobilize other scientists to investigate Mann's work, and they fully supported it and him. That caused the pro-pollution crowd to go ballistic, saying Penn State had a "vested interest" and accusing the university of an evil cover-up to protect its own.
Several other investigations, however, all came up with similar results. They include studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation, and Mann's lawsuit points out they "found the allegations of academic fraud to be baseless" and that "Mann's research and conclusions were properly conducted and fairly presented." The EPA study was initiated by the administration of President George W. Bush, hardly an ultra-liberal tree-hugging establishment.
Mann was merely a messenger whose message was not convenient to those who get rich by fouling our water and air so much that it changes the world's climate.
Attacking the messenger is nothing new for these types of people. When I was a boy, I lived near Lake Erie when it was all but turned into a dead sea, a toxic sewer, by industrialists whose supporters maligned complainers as kooks and commies.
I'm sure there were similar concerns, and similar attacks on anybody who voiced them, when the coal industry turned parts of Pennsylvania into a moonscape and fouled its waterways for many decades.
Now, a scientist has linked global warming trends to fossil fuel pollution trends, so some feel it is essential to discredit him.
There are indeed too many lawsuits being filed these days, and I'd love to see dramatic tort reforms to curb them, but I'm rooting for the plaintiff on this one.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.