Professor Files Lawsuit Against Academic Critic : Why You Should Care

By: Matthew Herald

In 2015, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson published a paper claiming the United States can transition to 100% renewable energy by the year 2050. This can be achieved, he argues, by increasing generation and storage of wind, water, and solar while simultaneously cutting coal, natural gas, and nuclear. At the time of publishing, the paper received little attention, but after receiving professional criticism Jacobson responded with an unorthodox defense: lawsuits.

After its original publishing the scholarly journal, Joule, Jacobson’s paper went largely unnoticed for nearly two years. In 2017, a group of researchers in the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) noticed technical issues with the paper. Looming questions about how hydro and flexible load were modeled, the validity of the underlying assumptions supporting Jacobson’s arguments, and the the maturity of technologies he claimed were “deployable today” were unresolved. As more questions began to arise, they reached out to Jacobson for clarification. When they decided Jacobson’s explanations were unsatisfactory, they decided to make their findings public. Led by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) researcher Christopher Clack, the group published an evaluation of Jacobson’s study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). This was the first major criticism of Jacobson’s paper, and it brought the issues to a wider audience.

Their evaluation states, “we find [Jacobson’s] analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions”. Clack further critiques Jacobson’s study, stating that “many previous studies of decarbonization of electric power illustrate the difficulty of complete decarbonization… this study’s shortcomings and errors render it an unreliable guide”.

Disputes in academia are usually welcomed. They provide opportunities for open debate and discussion that results in more precise science and stronger conclusions. However, instead of meeting criticism of his paper with a technical rebuttal or justification of his model’s assumptions, Jacobson sued his critics for $10 million for damages to his reputation and called for the removal of the PNAS paper. Instead of revisiting his assumptions in response to just criticism, Jacobson chose to use litigation as a means to silence his critics.

Defamation suits like this erode the foundation on which science exists, and regardless of who wins, both sides will incur significant legal costs. Both Clack and Jacobson must hire lawyers, pay legal fees, and lose a considerable amount of valuable research time defending themselves in court.

If the Jacobson suit is allowed to proceed, it opens the doors for others to use litigation as a means to combat valid academic criticisms, instead of refuting them scientifically or re-assessing their research. A future in which facts are determined by the scientist with the best lawyers should scare anyone who cares about science. Any further progression of Jacobson’s litigation sets a dangerous precedent for the integrity of scientific inquiry.

 

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