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.