Canadian writer Mark Steyn ordered to pay climate scientist $1M US after defamation trial

A jury on Thursday awarded $1 million US to climate scientist Michael Mann, who sued a pair of conservative writers 12 years ago after they compared his depictions of global warming to a convicted child molester.

Mann, a professor of climate science at the University of Pennsylvania, rose to fame for a graph first published in 1998 in the journal Nature that was dubbed the “hockey stick” for its dramatic illustration of a warming planet.

The work brought Mann wide exposure but also many skeptics, including the two writers Mann took to court for comments that he said affected his career and reputation in the U.S. and internationally.

“It feels great,” Mann said Thursday after the six-person jury delivered its verdict. “It’s a good day for us, it’s a good day for science.”

In 2012, a libertarian think-tank named the Competitive Enterprise Institute published a blog post by Rand Simberg, then a fellow at the organization, that compared investigations into Mann’s work to the case of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State University who was convicted of sexually assaulting multiple children. At the time, Mann also worked at Penn State.

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Mann’s research was investigated after his and other scientists’ emails were leaked in 2009 in an incident that brought further scrutiny of the “hockey stick” graph, with skeptics claiming Mann manipulated data. Investigations by Penn State and others found no misuse of data by Mann, but his work continued to draw attacks, particularly from conservatives.

“Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except for instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data,” Simberg wrote.

Canadian writer Mark Steyn later referenced Simberg’s article in his own piece in National Review, where he referred to Mann as “the man behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus.”

“Not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr. Simberg does, but he has a point,” Steyn wrote.

Huge disparity in compensatory, punitive awards

The jury in Superior Court of the District of Columbia found that Simberg and Steyn made false statements, awarding Mann $1 in compensatory damages from each writer. It awarded punitive damages of $1,000 from Simberg and $1 million from Steyn, after finding that the pair made their statements with “maliciousness, spite, ill will, vengeance or deliberate intent to harm.”

During the trial, Steyn represented himself, but said through his manager Melissa Howes that he would be appealing the $1-million award in punitive damages, saying it would have to face “due process scrutiny.”

A balding, bearded man in a blazer and collared shirt is seen standing on a stage holding a microphone.
Scientist Michael Mann is shown on June 21, 2016, attending a screening of the HBO documentary How to Let Go of the World and All the Things Climate Can’t Change. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)

Mann argued that he had lost grant funding as a result of the blog posts — an assertion for which both defendants said Mann did not provide sufficient evidence. The writers countered during the trial that Mann instead became one of the world’s most well-known climate scientists in the years after their comments.

“We always said that Mann never suffered any actual injury from the statement at issue,” Steyn said on Thursday through his manager. “And today, after 12 years, the jury awarded him one dollar in compensatory damages.”

Simberg’s attorney Mark DeLaquil said his client was “disappointed in the verdict” and would appeal the jury’s decision.

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Jury given specific instructions

Steyn, who has authored several books and written columns for the National Post and Maclean’s, has provoked strong reactions with his writing before. The Canadian Islamic Congress launched complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission and B.C. Human Rights Tribunal over a series of articles wrote for Maclean’s about Islam, though the complaints were dismissed.

In the Mann case, both writers argued that they were merely stating opinions.

Lyrissa Lidsky, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida, said it was clear the jurors found that Steyn and Simberg had “recklessly disregarded the falsity of their statements.”

Lidsky added that the discrepancy between what the jury awarded in compensatory and punitive damages could result in the judge reducing the punitive damages.

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Many scientists have followed Mann’s case for years as misinformation about climate change has grown on some social media platforms.

“I hope people think twice before they lie and defame scientists,” said Kate Cell of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We are so far outside the bounds of a civil conversation about facts that I hope this verdict can help us find our way back.”

In 2021, the D.C. Superior Court held that the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute were not liable for defamation in the matter. Mann said Thursday he still plans to appeal that ruling.

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