Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 6, 2017

Lawsuits in science: the Jacobson vs. Clack case

Recently, Mark Jacobson, researcher at Stanford University in California, filed a libel lawsuit against the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and Christopher Clack who published a study in the academy's journal that criticized Jacobson's work. Was it a good idea? Well, I think not. Let me tell you a little story about that

Several years ago, in 2003, I published my first book on crude oil (in Italian). Not long after, I found on the Web that the president of a well known Italian organization of professional economists had written on their website that, "I bought Ugo Bardi's book and I found that it was written by an incompetent in order to cheat the public and make some money" (something like that, in Italian).

What made me really angry about that was not so much being defined "incompetent" by an economist; that may be seen as an honor under some respects. It was that I knew that he had not bought my book. I had given a copy to him as a gift once that we had met during a public debate on an Italian TV channel. And now he whined about having spent money that he never spent. It truly made me see red.

So, I went to see a lawyer and he told me that, yes, this was a clear case of slander and I had all the rights to sue the guy and ask for a compensation from him for having besmirched my good name of a professional. And that was what I did - I sued him.

In life, everything you do is always an experience and this lawsuit was not an exception. It seemed to me crystal clear that I was right and he was wrong: apart from not even having paid for a copy of the book he was criticizing, his criticism was just gratuitous slander.

Yet, I discovered with this lawsuit that whatever the law says can be interpreted in various ways and that's after all why lawyers exist. In theory, I had a strong case against my opponent but, in practice, I soon discovered that he had much more clout than me and that his lawyers could muddle the waters quite effectively.

I'll spare you the various details of the story. The main point is that my opponent's lawyer endeavoured to demonstrate that his client was right in defining me an incompetent because that was what I was. How could he demonstrate that? Well, it was all about the TV interview when I had given a copy of my book to his client. Apparently, my incompetence had been so glaring on that occasion that everyone had noticed it. So, the lawyer requested a record of the interview and also asked everyone who had been present what had been said. Specifically, whether I had been able to answer the questions I had been asked.

You may not believe that, but at some moment the lawsuit turned into a discussion about whether the day of the interview I could exactly quote how many barrels of oil were buried in some remote place of Central Asia. Since I had said that I didn't know that, it was clear proof that I knew nothing about crude oil and how was it that I had written a book on that subject? It could only have been a scam in order to cheat the public and make some money.

For a scientist, it is unbelievable that decisions about someone's competence can be taken on the basis of such flimsy factors such as what someone said in a particular occasion, but it is what politics is about. It is the way the political debate works and if you are a scientist and you don't know that, well, tough luck for you.

Eventually, this story exhausted everybody and we found an agreement in which my opponent agreed to pay for the legal expenses and a trifle more as compensation - an amount that didn't even remotely repay me for the time I had lost. And that was the end of it, fortunately.

So, there are a few things that I learned from this story. The first is that you never, never, never say in public "I don't know" about something you might be supposed to know, even if it is a marginal detail. It is one of the oldest tricks of the arsenal of propaganda: someone asks you a question, you say you don't know the answer, which you think is the honest thing to say, and that immediately becomes proof that you are incompetent in everything. Never fall into this trap! If they ask you something you don't know, change the subject, answer another question, invent something, insult somebody else. But never, ever say "I don't know". Think about that, do politicians ever do that? (*)

The second thing I learned is that you never, never, never sue someone unless there is some specific reason that goes well beyond revenge. It is a lot of lost time, it is expensive, there is a huge risk of losing plenty of money and even if you win, it won't be a big gain. Then, why in the world should you embark on such a silly enterprise?

Think about the story I just told you: I had seriously risked being officially declared an incompetent by a tribunal! And not just that; you know that the press and the social media don't need proof to brand someone an incompetent. That Ugo Bardi was an incompetent could have gone viral and become part of the common knowledge about me. But the worst thing could have been for me of being accused of having tried to silence the people who didn't think like me because I was in it just for the money. Or maybe just because I was evil, or a subversive, or a terrorist.

Fortunately, these events took place well before social media had become what they are nowadays. The fact that it was all in Italian also helped. The noise died out quietly and now this story is basically forgotten.

Now, let's return to the present time and about Mark Jacobson having sued NAS and the authors of an article criticizing his work. Was it a good idea? Honestly, I think not. I have read some of the material related to the lawsuit: it seems to me that Jacobson may have some good reasons for suing but also that his case is far less clear-cut than it was for my case, when I had sued the economist I was telling you about.

But the point is another one: it is clear that this story will go political. It is already going political as you can read here, here, and here. Jacobson is taking a lot of flak from an array of sources engaged in denying current climate science and disparaging renewable energy. He is being accused of trying to intimidate his opponents, of lying, of being intolerant of other people's opinions; the usual stuff.

When the debate goes political, nearly everything becomes legitimate and we live in an age when everything can become the obvious truth when it is amplified by the social media. And so, independently of how the actual lawsuit will end for Jacobson, I think this story is not going to end well for science.

(*) I have another example of the damage that comes when you say in public that you don't know something. It happened to me when I made the mistake of engaging in a discussion with a climate troll. He asked me a series of abstruse questions about the temperature of the atmosphere and I told him that he should have asked a specialist in atmospheric science. That led to a brief viral burst of messages on the Web stating, "Professor Bardi really doesn't understand much about climate science." It was all in Italian and, fortunately, it disappeared rapidly. 


  1. Potrebbe interessare sviluppare ancora di piĆ¹ l'argomento: come vincere un dibattito e/o avere sempre ragione. Aggiungo quindi un post che da qualche dritta:

    1. Salve Pietro,

      Another way of always being right (always key) and also avoid getting sued (also pretty important) is to fully keep up to date with the current approved party line by reading the NYT:

      The author states that....according to the IEA, a key OECD statistic... “puts a big question mark over the strategies deployed around the world to replace fossil energy. In a nutshell: Perhaps renewables are not the answer” ? !

      But then again PERHAPS THEY ARE. (so, can’t go wrong with that one)

      Mr. Porter faithfully concludes his article by saying : “I would suggest that the challenge is not just to raise more money” (though that of course always helps). Building a zero-carbon energy system requires “broader thinking” about the technological mix.

      Can’t be wrong on that either and with the added bonus of NO lawsuits.
      Who could possibly take offense at “broader thinking”?

      Max Iacono

  2. Sounds like your lawyer gave you the right advice as far as he could see: you should sue, make him a pile of money and nothing for yourself except wasted time. There are probably proverbs about that.

    1. Charles Dickes, "Bleak House" -- Mr Bumble: "The law is a ass, a idiot." The quote covers your point, along with covering more sins than a Motel 6 bed sheet.

  3. I totally agree.

    Never sue, unless they accuse you, on the main news on TV, of eating live children.

    The real defense is quite simple: people forget everything, as times accelerate, memories become shorter and shorter. We don't even remember things that happened a few weeks ago.

    Lynchings today are horrible, planet-wide, but if you can escape the noose for two days, you are ok.

    Which doesn't mean you don't have a right to revenge, but alas everybody being on Facebook (except me) makes real, clean revenge impossible: they are watching us all the time.

  4. So we learn to not tell the truth. We become a tribe who hears lies told as truths and judge a politician by how well he manipulates others. I learned to not tell the truth and not to trust my government by the damage they did to my family. Guess that makes me an incompetent. I am not competent at lieing, stealing, or taking advantage of. Which is ok. What in not ok is my complying with this evil.

  5. Agreed, lawsuits in this case are a bad idea. It looks like this controversy is being exploited by the climate deniers or pro-industry groups, which is unfortunate. Clack et al. are not climate deniers; they just want nuclear power included in the discussion. Thus, Clack et al. raises questions about hydropower (did Jacboson exaggerate its potential?) and intermittency and storage (did Jacobson underestimate costs?). I do NOT find comments in Clack et al. about feasibility of an all-electric economy, along the lines of that in the "Hirsch Report" of 2005. Doubts about electric trucks, expansion of the grid, etc., would apply both to renewable energy and nuclear energy. Obviously there are objections to nuclear power as well, to which Clack et al. try to pre-emptively respond.

    While this dispute is being exploited by climate deniers, at its core it is not about climate denial. It is about the feasibility of low-carbon energy which excludes nuclear power.

  6. Quite some time ago, a former colleague of mine sued another (both were VPs at the same small company) who had publicly called him incompetent. Since both were subject to mandatory professional registration in an area where perceived competence and reputation was important, the first sued for defamation. Since there was no dispute that the remarks had been made and since the second was unable to show clear proof of incompetence, the court found for the plaintiff and awarded a fairly large sum as damages, on the order of €150 000.

    But it was a slow process that I would have hesitated to undertake without substantial resources.

  7. I didn't read Jacobson and Clack paper, but I wouldn't be surprised that indeed Jacobson paper is highly questionable (for me the best work in this domain remains the one of late David Mackay (for the UK). Now the reverse (Clack using false quote or exagerations) is probably also true, in any case 10 millions $ is quite ridiculous.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)