"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Mark Jacobson Abandons Science, Takes Up Barratry

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has sued a prominent energy researcher and the National Academy of Sciences for defamation over a sharply-worded rebuttal of his work, shifting a heated scientific debate over renewable energy out of the journals and into the courts. 
The suit, filed September 29 in a Washington, D.C., superior court, demands a retraction of a June paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jacobson seeks more than $10 million in damages from both the paper's publisher and its lead author, Christopher Clack, who is chief executive of Vibrant Clean Energy and a former NOAA researcher. 
Jacobson was the lead author of a 2015 paper in the same journal that concluded wind, solar, and hydroelectric sources alone could supply 100 percent of the U.S. grid's needs, all at low cost. 
Many other energy researchers have long argued that additional technologies, such as nuclear energy, carbon capture, and advanced storage options, will be required to decarbonize the electricity sector, particularly in a cost-competitive manner. 
Earlier this year, Clack and 20 other researchers published a response arguing that, as MIT Technology Review previously reported, Jacobson's paper "contained modeling errors and implausible assumptions that could distort public policy and spending decisions." (For more details on the researchers' critiques, check out our earlier article on the Clack paper: "Sustainable Energy Scientists Sharply Rebut Influential Renewable-Energy Plan.")
Jacobson wrote (what seemed to me at the time) a very bad paper. At least the climate modeling makes no sense, which caused me to doubt the rest of it.

It got into PNAS without peer review. (That journal has a publication mechanism that allows some non-peer-reviewed articles.)

If I and many others are right that his work is poor, that doesn't mean his conclusion is wrong, just that the paper shouldn't be relied upon as evidence that his conclusion is right.

Normally, bad work is quietly ignored, but this was getting enough publicity that a multidisciplinary team of highly regarded authors hastened to put together a rebuttal, and ran it through peer review. Rather than correcting, amending, or defending his work, Jacobson chose to treat the challenge as libelous. This is inexcusable, even if the paper somewhat misrepresented Jacobson as he claims.

(It is difficult to correctly represent incoherent argument, of course. If one criticizes one part of the argument it may be inconsistent with another part of the argument. )

The context is that Jacobson is telling people what they want to hear, specifically that 100% renewable energy is possible with little cost or effort. That doesn't make him one of the good guys.

This is not a schism within science. It's an attack on science from someone who doesn't accept the norms of science.

Attacks on science can't be tolerated, whether they come from people who tell you what you want to hear or people who tell your opponents what they want to hear.

By taking this dispute outside the norms of science and into the courts, Jacobson essentially is rejecting and subverting science. His actions should not be seen as reflecting on the scientific community. Without science, we are flying blind. Jacobson's behaviour is ridiculous, and the scientific community is having none of it. I hope the activist community, which claims to be such a strong supporter of science, backs us up.


David B Benson said...

MT --- Write a Friend of Court brief and submit to the judge. She should dismiss this out of hand.

Michael Tobis said...

Oh I think this is utterly futile and crazy. PNAS and the 20 coauthors hardly need my help.

Tom said...

You said much the same when I passed around an open letter opposing Ken Cuccinelli's witch hunt of Michael Mann--what difference would my signature make, IIRC.

It makes a difference.

David B Benson said...

I agree with Tom. It makes a difference, coming from a disinterested and knowledgeable third party.