"Freedom is always the freedom of the dissident to express himself", said the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, emphasizing the freedom of speech. But how factual does the "speech" have to be? What's the definition of a scientific fact at a given time, especially during a process of knowledge gain as in climate research? Is it legitimate to personally attack people, who publicly interpret facts differently or even get it completely wrong? And what about the freedom of a scientist to publicly defend his field's reputation against seemingly unconvinceable sceptics including scientists and journalists?
An instructive arena for such questions opened in April last year with an article (not online anymore) in the Frankfurter Rundschau. Cologne-based freelance science journalist Irene Meichsner (a slightly different version here, at the Kölner Stadtanzeiger) wrote about an alleged weak point of the IPCC's report on climate change. Though he wasn't even mentioned in the article, German climate researcher Stefan Rahmstorf accused Meichsner in his blog of such journalistic sloppiness and ethical shortcuts as not reading the IPCC report properly and copy-pasting portions of a Sunday Times article. Rahmstorf told the editorial board of the Frankfurter Rundschau about what he saw as flaws in the news story, demanding a correction. The Frankfurter Rundschau not only withdrew the article, it printed a different one with a contrary point of view. In return it asked Rahmstorf to delete Meichsner's name from his blog. It did all this without telling Meichsner what was going on. Seeing her reputation at stake, she took the case to the court and won (at least 2/3, ruling here), including an order that Rahmstorf shall not repeat the allegations against her.
But, naturally, this was not the end of the public story. A detailed recounting and analysis of the affair by Markus Lehmkuhl (English version here), a communication scientist at the Free University of Berlin (and now at the Forschungszentrum Jülich), discussed the case for the Quarterly of the science journalism association Wissenschaftspressekonferenz (wpk.org). Next came a reaction from Rahmstorf's employer, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, plus a SpiegelOnline article. Then, others picked up the news: Die Welt (Dirk Maxeiner & Michael Miersch) had a short, but aggressive comment in their Maxeiner&Miersch-column, judging Rahmstorf's behavior as "agitation". (One should know that Maxeiner - and a couple of other journalists - has his own history of conflict with Rahmstorf, who is long known to publicly square off with journalists critical of the IPCC.) The Potsdamer Neue Nachrichten wrote a short note here, and numerous blogs expressed their views of the case, like Klimazwiebel (here) or wissenschaftkommuniziert, the new blog of the former chief editor of bild der wissenschaft, Reiner Korbmann, who calls Rahmstorf a "missionary" who is convinced he knows the truth and who feels compelled to silence opponents for the "greater good".
Rahmstorf and Meichsner have high reputations in their fields of expertise. Rahmstorf's science sticks to high standards, his scientific reputation is bolstered by his citation index, and he is often quoted by media when climate change is in question. Meichsner did not only receive a couple of important science journalism awards (the Holtzbrinck-Award, e.g.), but is also known as one of the few journalists trying to dig deeper and to scrutinize so called scientific "truth" or "common-sense".
From an outside view (and in terms of climate science, I'm far from being able to judge the facts of this case) it is hard to fully assess the arguments of Rahmstorf and Meichsner. But is this case just about climate theory and facts? It also addresses whether journalists, bloggers, and citizens in general should have to defend their right to report their interpretation of facts, even if the interpretation is wrong from the expert's perspective. Of course, experts like Rahmstorf have the right to criticize and publicly correct such interpretations, but not via personal attacks and allegations. SpiegelOnline wrote, some years ago, that it is Rahmstorf's inquisitorial behavior that boosts the profile of climates sceptics and gives them the role of defenders of the freedom of speech - even though their allegations do not fundamentally challenge the IPCC's conclusions. The case is also an example of forces injecting an unwanted note into climate discussion and the culture of the public debate. Some bloggers, journalists and scientists use more and more polemic or aggressive language. This is true for Meichsner's article as well as Rahmstorf's reaction.
Rosa Luxemburg, by the way, justified her view of the importance of the freedom of speech with the thought that the "impact [of political freedom] fails, if freedom becomes a privilege." Neither scientists, nor bloggers, nor journalists have a stronger right to free speech. This means, in part, that while factual accuracy is still the most important criterion of merit for any form of publication (and it is important to recognize Rahmstorf's right to criticize weak quality control in editorial boards), it should not be the sole criterion. It should be possible for bloggers, journalists and citizens to challenge scientific hypothesis and theories even with a lack of background knowledge without being attacked personally or becoming the object of agitation from scientists - and vice versa, of course.