Professor Sues PNAS Over Paper Criticisms

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson is asking for $10 million in damages after the journal published a critique of his work on renewable energy.

By Kerry Grens | November 2, 2017

PIXABAY, FREE-PHOTOSUpdate (February 21): At a hearing yesterday in the District of Columbia Superior Court, a judge heard testimony from National Academy of Sciences lawyers, who were asking her to dismiss the defamation lawsuit. According to Retraction Watch, the attorneys argued that PNAS is protected by a law designed to preserve speech that’s in the public interest. Jacobson’s lawyer disagreed, but the judge has yet to make her decision.

Mark Jacobson, a climate scientist at Stanford University, is suing the National Academy of Sciences and the authors of a paper published in PNAS that criticized his 2015 PNAS study on renewable energy. As The Washington Post reported yesterday (November 1), Jacobson is asking for $10 million and a retraction of the critical report, claiming that the journal and authors knowingly published false statements.

Christopher Clack, the lead author of the 2017 paper that countered Jacobson’s work, tells the Post that “our paper underwent very rigorous peer review, and two further extraordinary editorial reviews by the nation’s most prestigious academic journal, which considered Dr. Jacobson’s criticisms and found them to be without merit. It is unfortunate that Dr. Jacobson has now chosen to reargue his points in a court of law, rather than in the academic literature, where they belong.”

Using computational simulations, Jacobson’s study determined that the energy grid of the lower 48 states could support an energy supply based entirely on wind, water, and solar energy. But when Clack and his colleagues had a look at the Stanford team’s approach, “we find that their analysis involves errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions,” they write in their report.

According to the Post, Jacobson alleges that he read Clack’s paper before it was published and sent his concerns about erroneous arguments to the National Academy of Sciences, but they were never addressed. In June, when Clack’s paper was published, Jacobson told the newspaper: “They’re trying to make it as if it’s a model error. And I have to respond to dozens of reporters who think that because they claim that it’s an error, it’s actually an error. It’s just ridiculous.”

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Avatar of: Salticidologist


Posts: 56

November 3, 2017



Hopefully this lawsuit will be thrown out promptly.  Science works by challenging and disproving assertions, and neither side in a scientific dispute can claim authority to resolve a dispute.  Even a jury of peers or reviewers, or a consensus of polled scientists, has no authority to decide a scientific dispute.  Certainly a court or jury would be out of line if it assumed this authority.  Some scientists are unfair, wrong or self-serving in their criticism of other work.  I've seen this in what I consider to be faulty or erroneous treatment of my own work.  But respect for the critical approach that is required by science is more important than the comfort or well-being of a single scientist.  Today I think that, as the scope of scientific inquiry has expanded, criticism is far too infrequent and mild.  When this happens, science becomes a conspiracy and not a process of inquiry.  Scientists also need to be more critical of their own conclusions than they tend to be.


Avatar of: Howard A. Doughty

Howard A. Doughty

Posts: 10

November 3, 2017

Science has never been exempt from political and religious influence as classic tales from (and before Galileo) attest.

What is distressing today is the combined force of corporate greed and political ideology as "anti-science" activists representing the dominant economic institutions of "late capitalism" combine with religious zealots, so-called "populists" and anti-intellectuals to defame and deform scientific inquiry.

In this case, however (and however much I might be inclined to support Jacobson on the merits of his findings, I worry that litigation in the law courts (or the courts of public opinion) may bring unintended and unhelpful consequences. However much he may feel (with good reason) personally damaged, it seems to me that the proper place to battle over scientific issues is within the academy.

If I am wrong, and scientists must now politicize (or respond politically) to attacks from within or without the scientific community, I will enlist in Jacobson's legions, but I will do so reluctantly and as a matter of last resort in the emerging Trumpistan.

Avatar of: dmarciani


Posts: 56

Replied to a comment from Howard A. Doughty made on November 3, 2017

November 3, 2017

It seems from your response that the US National Academy of Sciences has been highjacked by populist anti-science people, and that for the author of the challenged paper the only recourse available is to sue the journal and the authors that dare to question his paper. I am sorry, but your Galileo example is off target. In the Galileo’s case, he was the one being sued by the Roman Inquisition since his teachings were challenging the accepted but wrong geocentric theory. Indeed, it seems to me that Galileo has more in common with the authors of the second paper, since they are the ones being sued. From the information available, it seems that the new strategy to defend one’s points of view is by first trying censorship and if it does not work sue in a court of law. In my opinion, the scientific community still knows how to distinguish wrong from right; thus, the aggravated author should refute the second article in the scientific not legal circles. While some prestigious journals act as self-appointed censors, there are still many reputable journals that will publish a rebuttal article if reasonable and supported by the facts. While not an admirer of the POTUS, I cannot see what he has to do with a scientific publication that challenges other paper’s conclusions. I am afraid that when you injected politics into a scientific argument you renounced your objectivity and became more like the 17th century believers of the geocentric theory that sued Galileo.

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

November 3, 2017

It appears that Mark Jacobson has a serious character flaw.  Facts are facts, science is science, logic is logic.  It's the assumptions in modeling when things go awry.  Clack's group has some valid points regarding the implausibility of Jacobson's potential vision of the future.  None of this, however, is lawsuit-worthy.  When Jacobson says, "It's just ridiculous.", he should be looking himself in the mirror regarding his own actions.

Avatar of: Manumit1


Posts: 2

November 3, 2017

Note that there is another recourse besides the courts, which is the legislature. I believe it was the Tennessee legislature that once and for all defined PI to be 22/7 exactly, thus eliminating the difficulty dealing with this troublesome 'irrational'  number.

Avatar of: Brent Beach

Brent Beach

Posts: 9

November 3, 2017

Those arguing Jackobson should let the usual scientific process work itself out through the peer review process are perhaps harkening back to a golden age of science in which this was an available and the preferred process (assuming such a golden age ever existed).

Papers on climate change topics are however in the commercial, political, theological and scientific realm. Arguing from fact - the preferred scientific approach - does not work in the commercial, political or thrological realms. 

If the Clark paper arose out of any of the latter realms, challenge through the courts is for now (pending future appointments to the judiciary) a reasonable option. A parallel challenge through the scientific process should of course be undertaken.

Avatar of: drantigmo


Posts: 1

November 8, 2017

Jacobson has done the correct move. The critic of his work was done by those whose institutes are granted & funded by the fossil fuel industry. There was no way they were going to allow his paper & research to stand.

Lawsuits are the next "validation."

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