01 December 2011

A Journalist Fights Back and Wins

UPDATED 12/6: This post has been updated and PIK has responded.

In Germany, there is news today (here) about a prominent climate scientist who earlier this year saw a court rule against him and in favor of a journalist, Irene Meichsner.  The basis for the lawsuit was what one observer of the German media calls "personal defamation" by Rahmstorf against the journalist.

The case (described in detail in English here) has to do with Meichsner's reporting of errors in the IPCC 2007 report in early 2010 in the Frankfurter Rundschau. The scientist, Stefan Rahmstorf (known in the US as a blogger at Real Climate and whom I've occasionally sparred with) is a German government advisor who strongly attacked Meichsner for her coverage of the IPCC. His attacks prompted the Frankfurter Rundschau to subsequently correct Meichsner's reporting, apparently based solely on Rahmstorf's say so, such was his authority.

Meichsnner, believing that she had done no wrong, sued. The Cologne court then decided in her favor, concluding that Rahmstorf's attacks were unsupported by evidence and even libelous.

Interestingly, in the US, Rahmstorf's efforts to take down the journalist were uncritically celebrated by no less than the New York Times, which helps to illustrate both a bandwagon effect in coverage of climate by journalists who see themselves on the "same side" as the scientists and also the extensive deference than scientists are granted by the media. Given the court outcome, I wonder if the NYT will be correcting its earlier coverage?

A German magazine on science journalism provides a detailed discussion of the case and its significance (translated from German) and summarizes this episode as follows:
This particular case deserves special attention first of all because a freelance journalist has successfully defended herself against the malice a renowned scientist poured on her. It may motivate other journalists not to put up with absolutely everything in disputes over the quality of their work but to defend themselves, even if this involves an enormous effort. . .

[T]he malice, which Rahmstorf shows for the author of the article, seems like personal defamation that has no place in public disputes. Not even – or, should I say, especially not - when it comes to a subject as important as climate change. Much of Rahmstorf's way of behaving in this case is reminiscent of what he has always argued against so eloquently: the facts are polished until they support a predetermined interpretation. This case is only superficially about facts that may be true or false. Rather, it is about the importance which is assigned to specific facts in the reporting on climate change. These interpretations are not sacrosanct. There is no one who can or would want to deny Stefan Rahmstorf and other climate scientists the right to criticise interpretations they consider inappropriate and to counter them with others. But anyone who, like Rahmstorf, fails to distinguish carefully between facts and interpretation and applies the one-dimensional criterion of right and wrong to both, enters the arena of a public battle of opinions. Disguised as a scientific expert, he is really a political agitator. He does not fight against false factual claims, but against unpopular interpretations, and in this case he also employs unfair means, as the verdict of the Cologne court documented. The fact that Rahmstorf has now changed or entirely removed certain passages from his blog post of 26 April 2010 without informing his readers about it, all fits into the picture.

The moral of the story is not very encouraging - because Rahmstorf has had considerable success. The move that led to the article being withdrawn by the FR made it onto the front page of the New York Times, as Rahmstorf, obviously rather gratified, tells his readers in his blog of 25 May. His initiative is mentioned in the New York Times as one of several successful attempts by climate researchers to publicly correct grossly distorted or false reports. In some cases this may be justified. In this particular case, it is nothing less than a demonstration of how to try and suppress unwelcome interpretations using an authoritarian concept of truth and with the help of a media conspiracy theory based solely on isolated cases and thus basically void of empirical substance.
I have seen from the inside many efforts by a small set of prominent climate scientists to bully and suppress -- behaviors which continue even after the release of the UEA emails. Such behavior is seemingly emboldened by the protective shield that many in the media hold up to protect climate scientists from criticism, no matter how legitimate.

If nothing else, the German court case should be taken as a warning by scientists in any field that efforts to slander opponents sometimes backfires. Perhaps some journalists might see virtue in one of their own protecting her reputation from an illegitimate attack.

What of Irene Meichsner?
Irene Meichsner – who had to fight her legal battle for her reputation on her own - has had enough of climate issues for the time being. She no longer writes about this subject.
I know exactly how she feels.


  1. I ask myself whether you and Hans von Storch would have talked about the case, if it had been someone else involved and not Rahmstorf?

  2. Last paragraph of the Spiegel article. My reasonably close translation:

    "Rahmstorf meanwhile seems to have learned little from the judgment. As recently as 29 November he published a new article on his blog, in which he not only attacks media and researcher colleagues, but also bewails that in the classical media one has no control of the end product."

    This seems to be a matter of constant frustration for some climate scientists. In contrast, the advantage of the old scientific media is that, if one is on the right team, one CAN control the end-product.

  3. Roger - maybe since it is more on the topic of this thread, you'll care to comment this time?


    Here's an interesting excerpt from an interview with Nathan Urban on his new paper: “Climate Sensitivity Estimated from Temperature Reconstructions of the Last Glacial Maximum”:


    Q: Any other thoughts on the skeptics’ reception of your paper?

    One blog did surprise me. World Climate Report doctored our paper’s main figure when reporting on our study. This manipulated version of our figure was copied widely on other blogs. They deleted the data and legends for the land and ocean estimates of climate sensitivity, and presented only our combined land+ocean curve:


    Upper: World Climate Report’s manipulated image removing the Land and Ocean data.

    Lower: The actual figure as it appears in Science, with the Land and Ocean curves included.

    They did note that their figure was “adapted from” ours, and linked to our paper containing the real figure. On the other hand, Pat Michaels duplicated this doctored version of our figure again in an article at Forbes, and didn’t mention at all that it had been altered. (A side note with respect to the Forbes article: Science didn’t “throw a tantrum” about posting our manuscript on the web. They never contacted us about that. I took it down myself as a precaution, due to the journal’s embargo policy.)

    I find this data manipulation problematic. When I created the real version of that figure, it occurred to me that it would be reproduced in articles, presentations, or blog posts. Because I find the difference between our land and ocean estimates to be such an important caveat to our work, I made sure to include all three curves in the figure, so that anyone reproducing it would have to acknowledge these caveats. I didn’t anticipate that anyone would simple edit the figure to remove our caveats. I can’t say why they deleted those curves. If you were to ask them, I’d guess they’d say it was to “clarify” the figure by focusing attention on the main result we reported.

    Regardless of their intent, I find the result of their figure manipulation to be very misleading, especially since their blog post strongly implies that our study eliminates the “fat right tail” of the climate sensitivity distribution, and has proven the IPCC’s climate sensitivity range to be incorrect. Our land temperature curve, which they deleted, undermines their implication. They intentionally took our figure out of the context in which it was originally presented, a form of “selective quotation” which hides data that does not support their interpretation.

    In summary, I find World Climate Report’s behavior very disappointing and hardly compatible with true skeptical inquiry. I can only imagine how they would respond if they found a climate scientist intentionally deleting data from a figure, especially if they deleted data that undermined the point of view they were presenting.


    I particularly like Urban's statement about "very disappointing behavior" that is "hardly compatible with true skeptical inquiry."

  4. -4-Joshua

    Not sure what you are asking for .. having not read either the paper or the blog post I don't have much to say. Looks like WCR presented a subset of information from a figure in a paper and an author complained that useful information was lost in the process. Seems like a fair complaint, no?

    This excerpt seems to refer to the "hide the decline" I'd guess:

    "I can only imagine how they would respond if they found a climate scientist intentionally deleting data from a figure, especially if they deleted data that undermined the point of view they were presenting."

    Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander I'd say.

    And no I do not wish to engage in an extended dialogue on this -- I am still awaiting your response on the Russian heat wave paper critique ;-)

  5. By the way, the court awarded Meichsner 511.58 euro (approx. $650, but probably less when the Euro tanks later this month) plus 2/3 costs, plus interest. I've no experience with the German court system, but in most places, it is the costs that would hurt.

  6. Roger -5-

    " I am still awaiting your response on the Russian heat wave paper critique ;-)"

    Posted at the end of October. How could my response have gone up if you hadn't read it?

    FYI - WCR and Pat Michaels on his blog deleted legends and data as they reproduced the graph from the article. Being a student of cherry-picking, I would have thought you'd find it interesting, and actually, I don't buy the sauce for goose sauce for gander response. It's bad sauce either way.

    As for this post - you characterized the NY Times article as uncritical celebration? Really? A little hyperbolic there, I'd say.

    And while you're talking about the "protective shield that many in the media hold up" and the "bandwagon effect" have you looked at "skeptical" attacks against media that have no merit (the recent attack against Rivkin is a nice example: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/journalism-and-the-climategate-emails/), or the constant claims of "fraud" and "hoax" heard nightly on rightwing mainstream media?

  7. -7-Joshua

    Oh yes, I certainly recall your "response";-)

    "bad sauce either way" -- Yes, that is what the idiom means.

    Why don't I attack skeptics like everyone else? Why don't I just look past scientists behaving badly? I am familiar with such a view and have discussed it many times on this blog.

    Simon Kuper has a great piece along these lines from last week's FT:


    Do you object to scientists and scientific institutions being held to basic standards that they themselves profess? If not, then you should welcome such a focus on a few blogs here and there.

    If it is skeptic bashing that you want, well,there are a few outlets in the blogosphere for that as well;-)

    Caveat lector!

  8. Joshua really needs to dial down the hyperbole. Attack? The Commentary piece that concludes "On the whole, I think Revkin has tried to be fair to all sides of the climate change debate. But I still don’t believe he gives fair coverage to the content of the original ClimateGate emails — emails that he personally had a part in."

    That's an attack?

  9. More here:


  10. It highlights an aspect of climate science that I find more than a bit disquieting. Drawing out trends from highly variable data is very difficult (let alone projecting for long periods into the future) and prone to errors. A level of humility and careful judgement is required in analyzing the data. Conclusions will always be tentative and a few new data points will overturn previous results.
    The only certainty is that if you hold that you are right and any one who deviates from, or questions, your position is wrong then you will be at the minimum holding an untenable position.

  11. Kuper's point is valid not just for the AGW debate, but for others, most notably evolution/creationism. I was a happy warrior on the Evo side for many years, exposing creationist prevarications and fabrications with gusto in debates and on the internet. Looking back, if I changed more than about 3 people's minds, I'd be astonished. There are effective ways to ensure that schoolkids are learning scientifically valid biological science, but arguing with creationists is not one of them.

  12. - Roger - 8

    "Oh yes, I certainly recall your "response";-)"

    Then why did you say I hadn't responded?

    ""bad sauce either way" -- Yes, that is what the idiom means."

    My point is different. That expression is generally used to say a type of behavior that's acceptable one way is acceptable the other way. I think that it is acceptable neither way. For Urban to question how skeptics would respond if the shoe were on the other foot misses the point, IMO. If the shoe were on the other foot "skeptics" would have a legitimate gripe. But the deceptive deletion of data and legends from his graph show that WCR and Pat Michaels violate the basic principles of "skepticism." It gives honest skepticism a bad name. Too bad that you don't see fit to be critical.

    "Why don't I attack skeptics like everyone else?"

    Everyone else? How one-sided can you get? All you see is "everyone" criticizing "skeptics?"


    "Why don't I just look past scientists behaving badly?"

    Who said that you should? Certainly not I? I just think that the validity of your criticism of climate scientists is enhanced if you apply the same principles to "skeptics." Moral equivocation doesn't serve anyone on either side very well.

    "I am familiar with such a view and have discussed it many times on this blog."

    You seem to have misconstrued my view, so the question remains whether you have actually discussed my view. If need more explanation, just ask.

    "Do you object to scientists and scientific institutions being held to basic standards that they themselves profess?"

    Of course not. What does that have to do with whether or not "skeptics" should be held to the same standards?

    "If not, then you should welcome such a focus on a few blogs here and there.

    I have absolutely no problem with a balanced focus.

    If it is skeptic bashing that you want, well,there are a few outlets in the blogosphere for that as well;-)

  13. -14-Joshua

    I refer you yo my final comments on #5 above. I am happy for you to have the last word in #14.

    If you'd like to continue commenting on the subject of why this post is focused on one thing and not another that you'd prefer, then I'd ask that you submit them directly to the "rejected comments" thread, where they will be approved and ignored (by me;-).

    Perhaps I'll do a post on Kuper's column and you can air your views there.


  14. Really, it is quite amusing to see the defenders of AGW (as opposed to those with scientific inquiry based understanding of an ongoing warming trend which may or may not be primarily CO2, and probably isn't) trying to mud-sling their way back into being correct.

    The point Roger is making is simple: if you are the consensus, especially one on which massive spending and societal/economic damage is predicated on, you have a higher bar in establishing your rationale for action.

    The sceptics aren't pushing for action, they're simply pushing for a clear rationale. Trying to cherry pick specific sceptic actions is completely pointless since even the most nut-bag sceptics are not advocating for an action, but against a proposed action.

    You cannot justify a very possibly unjustifiable societal and economic cost based on the other side not being perfect - doubly so when your own rationale is highly flawed.

  15. I don't get the criticism of WCR. The main finding of the paper was accurately reported. The graph did not mislead--the combined land-ocean figure is presumptively the actual sensitivity figure. Whereas land alone (expected to be higher) and ocean alone (lower) are details which could be considered extraneous to that central point.

    If the omission of the land data had been done in a way to alter the combined data curve that would be wrong and directly analogous to the Mann-Briffa hide-the-decline maneuver.

    I can sympathize, nevertheless. The fact that Pat Michaels praises a work on climate could make it's author(s) a pariah in a pathetically politicized field of study. Loudly objecting to WCR may help lessen the offense and restate one's allegiance to the forces of light.

  16. Why this is not a clear win for Rahmstorf- for a few hundred dollars in court imposed fines he drove one of the few German journalists willing to question the CO2 paradigm from the fray?
    “(Irene Meichsner) has had enough of climate issues for the time being. She no longer writes about this subject.”

    The supporters of CAGW protect their own- we need to only look at the free leg:al support for Mann and Hansen. The “skeptics”- not so much.
    “Irene Meichsner – who had to fight her legal battle for her reputation on her own”

    I can imagine that most journalist would see this as further reason to not question- there is simply no upside.