Stanford professor retracts $10 million libel suit against scientific critic, academic journal

March 2, 2018, 12:10 a.m.

Civil and environmental engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson has voluntarily withdrawn a $10 million libel lawsuit against an academic critic and the National Academy of Sciences’ (NAS) official journal for publishing a report disputing his research on renewable energy sources in the U.S. Jacobson, who also directs Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy program, initially sued the journal for libel in November 2017.

Jacobson maintained that the opposing paper — which he asserted contained factual inaccuracies — and subsequent media fallout caused undue damage to his and his coauthors’ reputations.

The litigation began when Jacobson sued NAS and Vibrant Clean Energy CEO Christopher Clack, the lead author of a paper refuting Jacobson’s research on the future of renewable energy. Jacobson’s original scientific paper asserted that it is “technically and economically feasible with little downside” for the transition to 100 percent renewable energy sources in the U.S. by 2050.

The controversy surrounding Jacobson’s research has garnered significant attention from the popular media. His studies have been used as the premise for multiple state-level clean energy legislations and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders’ 100 percent renewable energy economy bill.

NAS’ flagship journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), published Jacobson’s original report in December 2015. A year and a half later, PNAS published the critique of Jacobson’s research written by Clack and 20 other coauthors. Clack’s paper claimed that the report authored by Jacobson and his colleagues “used invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.”

On Feb. 22, Jacobson published a 28-page document preemptively responding to questions concerning the dropped lawsuit. In his statement, Jacobson said he filed the lawsuit because Clack and his co-authors “knowingly and/or recklessly published false statements of fact” in their paper.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Clack responded, “It is unfortunate that Dr. Jacobson has now chosen to reargue his points in a court of law, rather than in academic literature, where they belong.”

Jacobson’s critics condemned the lawsuit as an attack on free speech and scientific inquiry. According to Jacobson, the ensuing backlash from media and critics disparaged his and his coauthors’ reputations.

Jacobson’s decision to drop the suit occurred shortly after a case hearing in Washington, D.C. Superior Court on Feb. 20. The court heard oral arguments from the defending party, who contended that the lawsuit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) and urged dismissal of the case by the District’s anti-SLAPP statute.

In his public statement, he wrote that the suit was never intended to stifle academic debate; rather, Jacobson said he aimed to correct the scientific record.

“While I have not succeeded in having the scientific record in the [Clack] article corrected, I have brought the false claims to light so that at least some people reading [the Clack paper] will be aware of the factually inaccurate statements,” Jacobson wrote.

In a written statement to The Daily, Jacobson elaborated on the correspondence between himself, Clack and PNAS. Jacobson wrote that he requested that Clack et al. make a list of factual corrections to the paper both “prior to and after publication” to rectify the scientific record. Clack et al. refused to publish the corrections.

“He consciously chose not to correct factual errors and to maximize the damage to the reputations of two Stanford University students on our paper, myself and a U.C. Berkeley researcher by disseminating his paper widely,” Jacobson wrote.

Further, Jacobson also requested that PNAS investigate claims of factual mistakes in Clack’s paper.

“The PNAS editor-in-chief, who has since been removed from his post, refused, and the PNAS lawyers claimed the reason was because PNAS is not ‘bound by editorial guidelines’ that are published on their own website,” Jacobson said.

The Daily reached out to a spokesperson for NAS, who said the Academy had no further comment at the time of publication.

Clack did not respond to The Daily’s request for comment.

Jacobson has since published a new article responding to the claims of the Clack paper and reiterating the feasibility of using 100 percent clean energy for a stable electric power grid.

In his public statement, Jacobson also conceded that future litigation would be time-consuming and expensive. As such, Jacobson said, he withdrew the lawsuit because he foresees that further pursuing the case would be unproductive.

“It is possible there could be no end to this case for years,” Jacobson said. “After weighing the pros and cons, I find that I have no more reason to fight this battle. I believe it is better use of my time continuing to help solving pressing climate and air pollution problems.”


Contact Alex Tsai at aotsai ‘at’

Alex Tsai ’21 is a senior staff writer for The Daily. Previous roles at The Daily include news desk editor and mobile app developer. Alex is majoring in Computer Science and is a member of the varsity lacrosse team.

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