Prof who just dropped $10M suit against PNAS: “I was expecting them to settle”

Mark Jacobson

Yesterday, Mark Jacobson, a researcher at Stanford University who studies the future of renewable energy, announced he would drop a $10 million defamation suit over a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that was critical of his work. As we reported, the announcement came just two days after the District of Columbia Superior Court heard oral arguments about the case because the defendants — the National Academy of Sciences and Christopher Clack, who runs a data analysis company called Vibrant Clean Energy — had asked the court to dismiss the case.

When the suit became public knowledge in November 2017, Jacobson’s decision drew criticism from both scientists and lawyers. We talked with him today about how he feels now that it’s over.

Retraction Watch: At what moment did you decide to drop the suit? Did you consider dropping the suit prior to the hearing?

Mark Jacobson: Every day I had to make a decision to keep going or not keep going. I was continuously evaluating the situation and I finally, obviously, decided to drop the suit when I dropped the suit. It was mostly when my attorney said they’ll definitely appeal, regardless of whether I win or lose the request to dismiss….I thought, have I made my point already. It’s very costly to keep going. I can be as right as I want, but if the cost goes up and up, you have to evaluate if it’s really worth it. I made the decision no, it’s not worth it anymore now that there’s a citable public record.

RW: How much would it have cost to keep going?

MJ: It was definitely going to be more than a million dollars.To really go through the process of the motion to dismiss, appeal, depositions, discovery, trial preparation, expert witnesses, trial, and potential appeal of that and any other negotiations, it could easily be upward of $1million to take it out through the whole process.

RW: How much have you spent on this case?

MJ: I decline to comment.

RW: Your case has drawn many comparisons to the defamation filed in 2012 by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann’s in the same court. Mann’s case has been going on for almost six years. How long did you think yours would take?

MJ: When I first set out, I figured it would take on the order of a year. It should never have gone to court in the first place.

I was expecting them to settle. What I found was not one bit of interest in settling. It surprised me a bit that their attorneys made no effort to settle, they were only interested in dragging it out.

RW: Some people have argued that Clack et al’s criticisms were part of an academic debate, which should take place between scientists, not lawyers. Why do you believe this was something that should be legally challenged?

MJ: To try to claim this is an issue of science is just insulting. Anybody who makes that claim is intentionally attempting to falsify what happened. People misrepresented what we did in our paper, we complained about that, then eventually filed a lawsuit about misrepresentation of data. On top of that, people lied about what we were complaining about. It’s really disgraceful for whoever keeps propagating this. The fact people are still spreading this lie that it was about a scientific issue. If anybody does it, they’re doing it intentionally.

It’s factually false to say this is an issue, that the legal case is anything about science. That’s a false statement propagated by people with different motivations for saying that. Michael Shellenberger, a nuclear [energy] advocate, who has been dogging me for years, put out a press release [saying that]. He has the motivation to lie to the public and to state that this is a scientific issue. [Article co-author] Ken Caldeira fanned the flames by saying several times that it’s a lawsuit over science. Other articles were written on the same claim. It’s just factually false. It’s not true that it was over the scientific issues.

RW: There are lots of people who think that science and the court system should stay as separate as possible and that any attempt bring science into the courts is wrong. What would you say to them?

MJ: A scientific issue is whether or not it’s possible to build as many hydropower turbines as we proposed. I agree that’s not something that should be resolved by any court. Any fool can see that’s not what we’re doing. We’re not asking to rule whether Clack said something mean about the possibility that we can add a lot of hydropower turbines. The issue in the case was, what was our assumption? Clack knew what our assumption was, and then lied about it.

That is subject to the court if it results in defamation. It did, he damaged my reputation. I do computer modeling, that’s my profession. He says I made modeling errors when I don’t.

RW: At what moment did you decide to sue?

MJ: After sending letters to the Editor in Chief of PNAS requesting corrections or retraction for the umpteenth time. We went through a process of trying to solve the problem and trying to avoid it. We even sent them a draft of the lawsuit ahead of time saying, “Do you want to try to resolve this?”

It’s just ludicrous that they don’t want to correct the record. What I’m shocked about the most is that there isn’t more criticism of PNAS and these authors. I don’t know why I’m being criticized when PNAS admits in their own pleadings they have no responsibility to follow their own publication guidelines.

I see a complete moral vacuum in society when a journal can try to get away with stating they don’t have any obligation to correct falsification or follow their guidelines.

RW: In a statement, you said you offered a settlement. Did you expect the other side to settle?

MJ: I was offering to drop the lawsuit if all they did was print a correction. How easy of a settlement offer is that? They should correct it. Why wouldn’t they want to correct it? I offered to drop the lawsuit and they refused. They’re claiming I’m the one being aggressive here, but they weren’t even interested in settling the problem…They weren’t interested in correcting the record. That justifies about everything I did.

RW: How many times did you offer to settle and what were the exact terms of your settlement request?

MJ: Before we filed the lawsuit, I made several requests for them to correct the statements. It must have been four or five times I asked them to make corrections. Then, during the lawsuit, I don’t know exactly how many times my lawyer talked to them. I think I recall him asking at one point, in general. He had a conversation with the two lawyers and at the time they said they were open to some kind of discussion, but when it came down to it and we offered them something very basic, they both declined.

The settlement offer was for them to print that correction and I’d drop the case, period. I would walk away if PNAS published that correction. I actually submitted a correction to PNAS about the things [in my own paper] that weren’t clear. There were not modeling errors, but some things were not clear. PNAS took that and said they’d get back to me and they never did. In the meantime, I just published it on my website.

RW: Was the lawsuit a gambit to try and force a correction?

MJ: [Laughs] It wasn’t a gambit, That was a stated objective, to correct the record… That’s a purpose of the lawsuit. It’s not a gambit, it’s a direct, unequivocal goal. What was printed was defamatory, of course the stated purpose was to correct scientific record.

RW: One of our commenters suggested that this suit has harmed your reputation. How do you respond?

MJ: The people I’ve seen who have made those types of comments and been the most critical, 90 percent of them are supporters of nuclear [energy] and fossil fuels. It’s hard to gauge if it has damaged my reputation to the public. I don’t think it has helped; I’m not trying to say it has helped my reputation. But 90 percent of the criticism comes from people with self-interest in the result.

I agree there has been poisoning of the public’s mind to some degree. That’s definitely true. But on the other hand, it hasn’t affected one bit my ability to get papers published… In my department, my field, I’ve felt support… There are always people that try to cut you down when they don’t like what your results are.

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2 thoughts on “Prof who just dropped $10M suit against PNAS: “I was expecting them to settle””

  1. PNAS comes out of this with a lot of egg on their face. I wish editors would have a bit more common sense, take their time when evaluating submissions (particularly those that are sensitive in nature and make claims of errors of previously published work), and stick to their own guidelines.

  2. The title of this article misleadingly combines two unrelated facts (that the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and the statement, “I was expecting them to settle”) to incorrectly imply that a reason the lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed was because the defendants did not agree to settle.

    In fact, the interview itself is clear that the quote about settling was in response to the question, “Mann’s case has been going on for almost six years. How long did you think yours would take?” thus had nothing to do with a separate question about dismissing the lawsuit, the answer to which was, “I made the decision no, it’s not worth it anymore now that there’s a citable public record.”

    Finally, the response about settling refers to correcting false facts in the scientific record (“It should never have gone to court in the first place”) not to paying money. These are the factual corrections to the commentary paper requested:

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