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. 


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)