One of the issues that comes up frequently when we’re moderating comments here on Retraction Watch is the distinction between “I think these images look strange” and “this researcher committed fraud.” That’s a pretty important distinction, because potentially actionable cases of libel live somewhere in between, probably closer to the latter — as Paul Brookes found out the hard way last year when Science-Fraud.org was shuttered by legal threats.
We may have some new legal precedent to follow on the matter soon, it turns out. Climate scientist Michael Mann sued The National Review in 2012 after the conservative magazine published a Competitive Enterprise Institute statement as follows:
Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.
Opinions and rhetorical hyperbole are protected speech under the First Amendment. Arguably, several of defendants’ statements fall into these protected categories. Some of defendants’ statements, however, contain what could reasonably be understood as assertions of fact. Accusing a scientist of conducting his research fraudulently, manipulating his data to achieve a predetermined or political outcome, or purposefully distorting the scientific truth are factual allegations. They go to the heart of scientific integrity. They can be proven true or false. If false, they are defamatory. If made with actual malice, they are actionable.
We’ll be keeping an eye on this case.
Hat tip: LabRigger