Opinion: A scientist's sting goes awry

Gleick

Peter H. Gleick, founder of the California-based Pacific Institute, speaks at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2009. Gleick admitted Monday that he fraudulently obtained internal documents from the Heartland Institute in a bid to expose corporate influence on climate science and politics. Photo courtesy World Economic Forum/flickr.

Feb. 21, 2012

Peter Gleick's misbegotten attempt to vice-squad his antagonists doesn't make the case for climate science any stronger.

By Peter Dykstra

The Daily Climate

I went to bed early last night, unaware that Peter Gleick, a scientist, writer and author, had admitted he grabbed the embarrassing Heartland Institute documents by fraud.

You don't have to be a scientist – rocket, climate, or otherwise – to know that obtaining documents by fraud is a major breach of ethics.

Condemnation of Gleick rocketed around the web overnight, but he had his defenders, too. If the Heartland documents, as the Los Angeles Times said, had been karma for the climate scientists whose emails were hacked, stolen, and wildly misinterpreted a few years ago in "Climategate," this may be karma's sequel.

Indignant journalists tweeted that Gleick had committed "fraud," and had "crossed the line." DeSmogBlog, the site that made much hay from the leaked documents, said Gleick "deserves our gratitude and applause."

As for me, there's nothing that settles the issue like an apology and confession. Gleick called his own actions "a serious lapse of my own professional judgment and ethics."

A criminal act

I've met Peter Gleick. He's a nice, smart guy who's passionate about our future – particularly water and climate issues. He's a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a pretty good writer who often posts on the Forbes.com website. He's also been published on this site. I'm sure he's still a nice guy. He just isn't a hero for a criminal act like this.

You don't have to be a scientist – rocket, climate, or otherwise – to know that obtaining documents by fraud is a major breach of ethics. If you consider Gleick, as a book author and blogger, to be a journalist, this is a particular breach of journalism ethics. Those who applaud his actions can only do so if ethics no longer matter. It's a mirror image of the climate deniers who saw nothing wrong with stealing climate scientists' emails back in 2009. Heartland attributed that theft to the work of an "enterprising individual." 

Advocates for climate action have gained durable talking points. Now the denialists have, too.

Karma, indeed.

In the steel-cage death match that is climate politics, this one plays to a draw. Heartland insists one of the documents is a forgery and has yet to confirm the authenticity of the rest. Other media outlets have verified that the corrupt strategies and brazen payouts exposed in the purloined documents are real. Advocates for climate action have gained durable talking points. Now the denialists have, too. 

Doubt, science and propaganda

Already, political operatives like Marc Morano and Anthony Watts are portraying the climate science communities as the moral equivalent of New York's five Mafia families. Their following is already well-prepared to believe that coldblooded climate scientists and nonprofits are in it for the money, and oil and coal companies aren't.

The debate over climate science plays out on a battlefield of hard-bitten ideology, propaganda and cold cash. It's a venue comically ill-suited to climate scientists.

Back to reality for just a moment, though: The torrent of scientific data doesn't leave much room for debate. Sure, there's enough doubt for deniers to cherry-pick facts in the fashion of a criminal defense attorney. It's even easier to add some "facts" that aren't facts at all. The debate over climate science plays out on a battlefield of hard-bitten ideology, propaganda and cold cash. It's a venue where climate scientists are comically ill-suited to thrive, and where the crumbling infrastructure of journalism can no longer be counted on to protect truth and integrity. One scientist's misbegotten attempt to vice-squad his antagonists doesn't make this situation any better.

Peter Gleick's no hero, but one final notion deserves thought: Heartland has promised to pursue legal charges against Gleick, charges that might just stick. It would seem odd if Gleick became the nation's second Fossil Felon.

Climate politics plays out on a vast tableau of pollution, corruption, corporate influence, email theft and intrigue. Yet the only other felon doing hard time in the United States for a climate crime is Tim DeChristopher, serving a two-year stretch at a federal prison for subverting a federal oil and gas lease sale by submitting fake bids.

So much for karma.

Peter Dykstra is the publisher of DailyClimate.org and its sister publication, EnvironmentalHealthNews.org. DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. Opinions expressed are those of the author and not DailyClimate.org. 

 
 

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