The Long Road to the Steyn Verdict

The Long Road to the Steyn Verdict

Climate scientists have been hounding dissenters for years. In a D.C. courtroom, they scored a crowning victory for censorship.

In July 2012, I came within a hair’s breadth of ruining my life. I escaped, but the very talented Canadian writer Mark Steyn did not. My mention of his name will rightly signal to many readers that this is a story about the infamous verdict in a D.C. Superior Court earlier this year. It will signal to others who care about such things that this is also a story about the hollowness of much of what passes as “climate science.” But let me tell the story in my own convoluted way. 

For those for whom the words “infamous verdict” and “Mark Steyn” fail to ring a bell, here is a short course. Steyn was sued by the climate “scientist” Michael Mann, who had taken umbrage twelve years ago when Steyn likened him to convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky. On February 8, a Washington, D.C., jury agreed with Mann and found Steyn and co-defendant Rand Simberg guilty of defaming Michael Mann. It was an extraordinarily odd verdict. The jury assessed “compensatory damages” of one dollar each from Steyn and Simberg—which is to say they found no real harm to Mann in his ability to make money. But the jury didn’t stop there. It added a fine of $1,000 for Simberg and a cool $1 million for Steyn for “punitive damages.” This was retribution for their supposedly making statements with “maliciousness, spite, ill will, vengeance or deliberate intent to harm.”

It took a dozen years for Mann’s defamation suit to reach a trial court. What the case was really about was Mann’s reputation as a liar and a hack who had nonetheless gained wide influence in the political world for his promotion of the idea of runaway man-made global warming.  

Mann had risen to international fame beginning in 1999 by propounding his “hockey stick graph,” which purported to show that global temperatures had risen very little until 1900, then began to rise rapidly. In 2001, the International Panel on Climate Change put Mann’s hockey stick chart in the prominent summary of its Third Assessment Report. This conferred on Mann the science (or pseudo-science) equivalent of rock star status. After that, Mann would throw a tantrum when skeptics—of whom there were many—criticized his work. Rather oddly, he refused to divulge the data out of which his famous graph was constructed. 

Steyn was only one of the many who mocked Mann and his pretensions to scientific rigor. The Jerry Sandusky jibe was just colorful rhetoric, i.e. Sandusky molested children; Mann molested data.

The court case was closely watched and nearly all observers thought that Mann was thoroughly defeated. He was shown indeed to have made numerous false claims and to have suffered no material damage at all from Steyn’s satire. Mann had instead prospered in the years that followed.

But in the closing minutes of the trial, Mann’s lawyer, John Williams, turned the case into a referendum on Donald Trump, who of course had no part in what Steyn had said in 2012 and as far as anyone knows had no opinion at the time on Michael Mann’s career. Williams urged the jury to award punitive damages to send a message to others who might engage in “climate denialism,” which he likened to Trump’s “election denialism.” 

“Denialism” appears to be Williams’ term for disagreeing with the left’s established views. Such denialism has to be obliterated like the dangerously invasive lantern fly wherever it is encountered. And the D.C. jury did what Williams asked. It came back with a crushing punitive judgment against Steyn.

This happened in early February. Since then, we have had several lessons on how juries in unfriendly cities can be relied on to impose preposterous fines on Trump and to use “lawfare” to destroy the lives of innocent people who have some connection to Trump. Even those like Steyn who are not connected to Trump can be targets of this legal maliciousness.  

Let’s go back to the beginning. In July 2012, former FBI director Louis Freeh released a 250-page examination of how Penn State University had handled child molester and former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. What had university officials known? What had they done or failed to do? Freeh had been commissioned in November 2011 by the university’s board of trustees to lead this study, immediately after they fired President Graham Spanier. Freeh’s report blamed Spanier and Penn State’s revered football coach Joe Paterno for concealing what they knew about Sandusky from “the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities.” Freeh blamed them as well for allowing Sandusky to continue to molest children.  Spanier disputed the findings and to this day continues his attempts to claw back his reputation, but it is a stiff climb. In 2017, he was convicted in state court of endangering the welfare of children and spent two months in jail. 

I wasn’t especially interested in the Sandusky scandal, but I had had my eye on Graham Spanier since 2010 when he had orchestrated the Penn State branch of the coverup of the “Climategate” affair of 2009. Professor Mann had been caught red-handed in the suppression of scientific findings that ran counter to his own. Penn State had quickly rallied to Mann’s defense, but public doubt remained intense, and to put it to rest Spanier established a committee to look into the matter. The committee in short order determined that “Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community.”

By 2009, I had begun to follow closely stories that dealt with “climate science” and its overlap with higher education. My interest grew out of finding that the dean of residence life at the University of Delaware had imposed a Stasi-like regime on students in the name of “social justice.” The planning documents for this Delaware dorm-based indoctrination called it a “sustainability program.” As I peeled back the layers, I found that “sustainability” took its intellectual warrant from the supposed crisis of global warming. At the bottom of all this, “climate science” and climate scientists were promoting a vision of impending catastrophe caused by humans recklessly burning fossil fuels. I initiated a project called “How Many Delawares?” aimed at documenting how far this effort by university administrators had penetrated American higher education. 

Global warming hysteria was truly launched way back in 1988, but it was not one of those movements that first poked up on college campuses. It was, rather, a combination of government bureaucrats and grant-hungry scientists who invented it and politicians who marketed it. The International Panel on Climate Change was formed in November 1988. The Rio Summit (“The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development”) was held in 1992. It would take almost two decades before climate hysteria became epidemic in American higher ed.

In time, I caught up with this history, and later I co-wrote a book about it with Rachelle Peterson, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism (2015). Global warming hysteria finally caught on with students when college presidents, rallied by John Kerry, took up the cause, attracted by the potential for vast amounts of new federal funding to support “climate research.” President Spanier was one of the early adopters; Michael Mann joined his faculty in 2005, after leaving the University of Virginia. 

Mann’s sojourn in Virginia bears telling as well. It was there that he developed his “hockey stick.” In the wake of Climategate, in 2010, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli attempted to force the University of Virginia to divulge records of Mann’s research on the grounds that Mann may have committed fraud against the state’s taxpayers. The university refused to cooperate and the press smeared the investigation as a violation of academic freedom. The case had various twists and turns but eventually landed before Virginia’s Supreme Court, which ruled that Cuccinelli had no right to see the records.  

To this day, the actual data that Mann supposedly used to construct the hockey stick remains hidden away. This hasn’t gone unnoticed. Mark Steyn, for one, compiled a 300-page book in 2015, A Disgrace to the Profession, which consists entirely of statements by “The World’s Scientists in Their Own Words on Michael Mann, His Hockey Stick, and Their Damage to Science.” It was an audacious conceit on Steyn’s part to gather so much salt to rub into the wounds in Professor Mann’s sensitive ego. It was possibly not the gentle balm with which to convince the partisan public that he meant no harm to Mann’s career. 

Any sensible person who cares about the integrity of science and good public policy should want to cure the problems presented by Mann’s odd ways of conducting “science.” There is no lack of earnest efforts by well-informed writers to do just that. A. W. Montford’s The Hockey-Stick Illusion: Climategate and the Corruption of Science (2010) is a classic of the genre, but there has been a steady stream of expert deconstruction of Mann-ian science in the last decade. My favorite among recent ventures is Stephen Einhorn’s Climate Change: What They Rarely Teach in College (2023). These are not polemics. They are efforts to synthesize the scientific data that bears on the questions of what has happened and what is happening to the Earth’s temperature. And it just so happens that Michael Mann’s testimony on these matters does not come off well.

Many climate researchers have not been shy in devising more and more terrifying forecasts. Global warming circa 2010 (not yet rebranded “climate change”) was supposedly taking off like a sky rocket or, ahem, a hockey stick.     

Back in 2009, when I was new to the subject, I expected the news of “Climategate” would desolate the field. Here were esteemed researchers emailing one another about ways to bury the findings of other researchers who had discovered deep discrepancies in the warmist narrative. Here were researchers discussing a “trick” they could use to make the existence of warm medieval temperatures disappear. (It was awkward that the Earth had warmed before the invention of the internal combustion engine or indeed the Industrial Revolution.) And at the center of the Climategate scandal stood one redoubtable figure: Michael Mann.  

The scandal, however, failed to dethrone him, thanks in considerable part to Penn State’s determination to prop him up. Mere months after Climategate broke, President Spanier appointed the committee to look into it and early in 2010 the committee came back with its finding that Mann was clean, honest, and reliable—or something like that.

So when Penn State convened another special committee in 2011 in the Sandusky matter, I had trepidations. Was another cover-up in progress? It turned out not, but when the Freeh report was issued I saw an opportunity to remind readers of my weekly columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education that Spanier’s decision to cover up Sandusky’s lewdness and Paterno’s indifference was nothing new. I possessed no first-hand knowledge of either the Sandusky case or the Mann matter, but from a distance the evidence of a look-the-other-way attitude among Penn State administrators with Sandusky and a protect-our-asset attitude towards Mann seemed awfully convincing.

How close could I dare draw the parallel? In my article, “A Culture of Evasion,” I decided to tread lightly:  

Then there was the Michael Mann case, the well-known advocate of the theory of man-made global warming, accused in the wake of the Climategate memos in 2009 of scientific misconduct. Penn State appointed a university panel, headed by the vice president for research, Henry Foley, to investigate Mann. According to ABC News Foley’s committee asked:

whether Mann had 1) suppressed or falsified data; 2) tried to conceal or destroy e-mails or other information; 3) misused confidential information; or 4) did anything that “seriously deviated from accepted practices” in scholarly research.

The committee exonerated Mann on the first three and punted on the fourth. Make of this what you will, but a review by the university’s vice president for research, who oversees grant-funded projects, does not have exactly the same standing as an investigation carried out by the former director of the FBI. Penn State has a history of treading softly with its star players. Paterno wasn’t the only beneficiary.

Even this bland summary raised the ire of the famously thin-skinned Professor Mann. He strikes me as the sort of person who drags a heavy load of guilt through life. The evidence is indirect:  He viciously attacks anyone who impugns his intellectual integrity but utterly refuses to divulge the data and other details that would go far to clear his name. The points that have prompted others to express their doubts about his honesty are matters of fact that simple candor could settle once and for all.  

When I published that passage in 2012, I already knew about and had grazed Michael Mann’s litigious wrath. In August 2011, I published an article, “Climate Thuggery,” in which I cataloged some of Mann’s “nuisance lawsuits,” including one against a Canadian geographer, Tim Ball, who had joked that Mann “should be in the state pen, not Penn State.” Mann had also threatened a Minnesota group for a satiric video, and he had won the allegiance of a handful of admirers who were making it their business to harass his critics. One of these was a fellow named John Mashey who was praised in the pages of Science for “trying to take the offense” against global warming skeptics. Mann praised Mashey for “exploring the underbelly of climate denial.”  

Mashey came after me, and I was told by my editor at the Chronicle that Mann himself did as well, but nothing much came of it. The Chronicle soon dropped its experiment in having a handful of conservative columnists, but I had already been sternly warned off writing about climate change.  

As it happened, I wasn’t the only writer who conjured a connection between the Sandusky and Mann cases. Mann sued Rand Simberg and the Competitive Enterprise Institute for publishing Simberg’s comment that Mann had “molested and tortured data” and sued Mark Steyn and National Review for referencing and expanding upon Simberg’s statement.

I certainly do not want to be sued by Michael Mann or get The American Conservative drawn into such bother. So I will continue to mind my words. It is my personal opinion that Michael Mann’s research, especially on reconstructions of global temperature, is profoundly flawed. It is also my opinion that the theory of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming is a compound of leftist ideology, mass delusion, biased, self-confirming pseudo-science, and over-interpretation of fragmentary and ambiguous data. What relative proportions of these four factors go into the mix depends on the individual and the situation. Millions of people go along with so-called climate science because they don’t know any better. A fair number of scientists are so psychologically invested in the theory that they are literally unable to question it. Others have doubts but make their peace with it because it has become their livelihood. Still others are straight-on radicals intent on “decarbonization” as the shortest route to their anti-capitalist revolution.  

Put all this together, and we have the figure of Michael Mann alongside a few others such as Greta Thunberg, Al Gore, and Bill McKibben as our latter-day Jeremiahs pronouncing world-ending doom as punishment for modern prosperity. They enjoy the backing of most of the world’s governments and a huge number of foundations. 

For all that, they have failed to create the crisis mentality on a mass scale that they hope for. Last year, Pew Research Center reported that only 27 percent of Americans say fighting climate change “should be a top priority for the president and Congress.” Another 34 percent say such a fight is important but not a priority. Among Republicans only 13 percent say it is a “top priority.” That makes it by definition a political issue, which in turn means that the apocalyptos have not prevailed. If a world-ending catastrophe were in the offing and people really believed that, these numbers would look very different.

Where then does Mark Steyn stand? He is a hero to many who, like me, count ourselves among the climate skeptics. There are others, especially many scientists who have risked their reputations and careers by coming out as climate skeptics. There are organizations such as the Heartland Institute and the CO2 Coalition that put real intellectual muscle into gathering and analyzing facts that belie the prevailing climate-change narrative.

All of us need a Mark Steyn who with cussed determination and quick wit has stood up against climate thuggery and its most self-important champion. Steyn will appeal the absurd verdict and the outlandish penalty. May he win. In the meantime, I recommend the excellent day-by-day recreation of the trial by the Irish documentarians Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer. Their podcast, “Climate Change on Trial,” presents the whole debacle.

The post The Long Road to the Steyn Verdict appeared first on The American Conservative.

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