The scientific method is designed around the belief that skepticism is good. Results should be subjected to the utmost scrutiny through the peer review process, followed by close examination and replication by others in the scientific community. But sometimes, those whose ideas do not live up to the standards of rigorous science have instead chosen to litigate. Climate scientists in particular have been subjected to legal challenges launched by ideologically motivated groups trying to distract, discredit, and intimidate. Scientists then must legally defend their work, correspondence, and public statements.

Attacks on scientists via the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

One common legal attack on scientists has been via the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or state equivalents, which promote government transparency by allowing citizens to request copies of administrative records. But FOIA has also become a tool to harass scientists, and FOIA requests for reams of documents, including private emails, have been made regarding scientists employed by the government or public universities, or who otherwise receive public funding. Scientists must then potentially review and produce thousands of documents – sometimes in a matter of days, depending on the applicable FOIA requirements – or mount a legal response explaining why the requests are invalid. Scientists have been subjected to enormous time and financial drains as a result of broad FOIA requests made by partisan groups. Such FOIA requests may claim to unmask bad science (which is why there is a scientific peer review process), but in reality, they instead seek to slow the scientific endeavor and dissuade scientists from publicly communicating their research for fear of being “FOIAed.”

Invasive FOIA requests and Dr. Michael Mann

The most prominent example is Dr. Michael Mann, a climate scientist currently at Pennsylvania State University. In 2011, Dr. Mann received an enormous FOIA request for virtually everything he had written or received during his years of previous employment at the University of Virginia. As explained in more detail here, UVA and Dr. Mann engaged in protracted litigation to withhold emails and other documents protected under Virginia’s FOIA exemptions. The Virginia Supreme Court ultimately agreed that Virginia’s FOIA protections included protecting research and academic “free thought and expression.”

Invasive FOIA requests have also been made on many other publicly funded scientists, from government researchers to public university professors, sometimes leading to similarly extensive litigation.

More attempts to discredit climate science

Dr. Mann’s experiences illustrate the extent to which scientists can become embroiled in legal conflicts arising from their research. In addition to his FOIA battles, Dr. Mann was one of many climate scientists whose emails were hacked in 2009 in the so-called “Climategate” incident. Snippets from scientists’ emails were taken out of context to suggest misconduct; multiple review boards ultimately exonerated Dr. Mann and other scientists.

However, that did not prevent Ken Cuccinelli, the then-attorney general of Virginia and a vocal critic of established climate science, from using the hacked emails as a springboard to launch a civil investigation into Dr. Mann’s use of taxpayer funds while at UVA. In another lengthy legal battle, UVA argued that the attorney general had no authority for such an investigation, and the Virginia Supreme Court agreed. Dr. Mann and other scientists’ research into historical temperature records also led to a rambling investigation in House of Representatives, led by Tea Partier Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who believes scientific evidence of climate change is “absolute nonsense.” This congressional investigation was criticized by many, including Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), who stated that it seemed “a transparent effort to bully and harass climate change experts who have reached conclusions with which [the investigators] disagree.”

As part of his attempts to discredit climate science, Rep. Barton also commissioned a congressional report disputing prevailing scientific evidence on climate change. Years later, this report was found to be the product of academic misconduct, including plagiarism and falsification of data – and the report’s authors retaliated by suing Dr. John Mashey, a climate science blogger and computer scientist who had worked to expose the malfeasance. The plaintiffs claimed that because their employer had terminated them upon learning of the academic fraud exposed by Dr. Mashey, he was guilty of “tortious interference” and “conspiracy.” This lawsuit was ultimately dropped in 2015 without explanation, but not before costing thousands of dollars in legal bills (which perhaps was the goal). CSLDF is helping Dr. Mashey pay these legal fees.

Press under attack

In addition to legal challenges made directly against researchers, attackers have also sought to censure publication of research they do not support. For example, Science magazine was threatened with a lawsuit after publishing a study by Dr. Naomi Oreskes in 2004 on the scientific consensus regarding climate change. That lawsuit never materialized, but in 2014, threats of a defamation suit prompted the journal Frontiers in Psychology to retract a peer-reviewed paper analyzing the psychology of those who reject the consensus on climate change. In its retraction, the journal stated that it did not have “any issues with the academic and ethical aspects of the study” but it was retracting the study because “the legal context is insufficiently clear,” and it noted that the study’s authors “stand by their article and regret the limitations on academic freedom which can be caused by legal factors.”

Our work continues

Unfortunately, ideologically based legal attacks continue to be made on the scientific community. CSLDF is committed to fighting back and helping climate scientists defend against such legal harassment. The best science needs scientists who can do their work without such harassment.

Get more information on what documents scientists must keep and disclose.