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Feb 22, 2012

Climate scientists debate: is Heartland leaker a hero or villain?

Is a scientist who adopts a fake identity in order to get information from a group that actively works to discredit the science a hero or a villain? The Heartland leak poses interesting questions.

Amber Jamieson — Freelance journalist in New York

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

Is a scientist who adopts a fake identity in order to get information from a group that actively works to discredit the science a hero or a villain? That’s the question facing the scientific community, after the Heartland Institute leaked documents scandal took a surprising turn when well-known climate scientist Peter H Gleick admitted he passed the documents to journalists.

While Australian scientists want him seen as acting alone, one told Crikey today his actions demonstrate the frustration around the mainstream media’s failure to prosecute the case on climate science.

Gleick revealed his surprising story yesterday. He was anonymously sent a Heartland climate strategy memo a few weeks ago. In order to authenticate the document, he set up a fake email address pretending to be someone who works at Heartland and convinced the institute to send him a number of confidential documents outlining major donors and scientists on the payroll. Gleick then anonymously forwarded those documents and the climate strategy memo to journalists.

The scientist called his actions “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics”: “My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.”

Heartland President Joseph Bast responded in a statement: “A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage.”

In his confession, Gleick also confirmed that apart from the climate strategy memo — which Heartland declared a fake from the start, and questions remain over who wrote the document and sent it to Gleick — the rest of the documents republished by DeSmogBlog and others were in exactly the form that he received them from Heartland.

Heartland began pursuing legal action against bloggers and journalists who had reported on the documents earlier this week, claiming it had been unable to verify the authenticity of all the documents.

Repercussions for Gleick’s actions came swiftly from the scientific and environment journalist community. Andrew Revkin, the Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, wrote a scathing article on Gleick’s announcement, saying: “One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others.

At The Guardian, Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences and the founder of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, hailed Gleick’s actions: “Heartland has been subverting well-understood science for years. Peter Gleick, a scientist who is also a journalist just used the same tricks that any investigative reporter uses to uncover the truth. He is the hero and Heartland remains the villain. He will have many people lining up to support him.”

A Grist article captured the question: “Peter Gleick: hero or moral moron?

Reactions were mixed in Australia. Ken Baldwin, deputy director of the Climate Change Institute, was quick to differentiate Gleick’s actions from the science.

“Certainly he needs to be seen as having acted as an individual rather than as a scientist,” Baldwin told Crikey. “The rest of the scientific community would view his actions in that way and not in any sense as representing the broader scientific community.”

But the University of Western Australia’s Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist that studies how people process climate-related information, views Gleick’s actions as “something akin to a whistleblower”. Lewandowsky says many scientists have taken on a more journalistic role in recent years as the mainstream media’s investigative journalism departments have shrunk.

“By and large owing to cutbacks and the funding crisis there just isn’t investigative journalism and in many ways scientists are now doing that,” he said. “Some people will agree that Peter went too far, others will say ‘who cares?’ I don’t have a firm opinion either way. Certainly when it comes to the Pentagon papers, most people will view Ellsberg as a hero rather than a villain.”

Lewandowsky says the impact on the broader climate science community remains unclear. But he expects it will intensify the “war” between climate scientists and various ideologues and think tanks.

Rumours abounded before his confession that Gleick may have been the Heartland leaker. He’d been notably absent from his Twitter account and his Huffington Post blog. Jim Lakely, the communications director at Heartland, tweeted accusations about Gleick on Sunday:

“I emailed invite to @PeterGleick to Heartland climate debate. He indignantly refused. Why? Disclose ur donors, he said. Hmm. #fakegate”

“1st debate invite to @petergleick from me 1/13. Last “no,” disclose donors email 1/28. Email fraud to Heartland began 2/3. Hmm. #fakegate”

Crikey asked Lakely if he knew before Gleick’s confession whether he had been the leaker and whether Heartland had put any pressure on him to come forward. He replied: “Interesting questions … But you’ve seen our statement. Go with that. And may I suggest it’s time for Peter Gleick to answer some questions. Have you reached out to him? Can I expect some exclusive interview at your site in the near future? I’m sure he agrees with the ideological bent of your site, so he can trust you to be fair, right?”

Gleick has been contacted by Crikey but is yet to respond.

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44 comments

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44 thoughts on “Climate scientists debate: is Heartland leaker a hero or villain?

  1. PeterY

    Hmm. Hero or villain? If you unmask a conspiracy by telling a lie does that make you bad? Do I care? No, not really.

    We’re on the brink of some godawful bad global karma here guys and we’re asking if he was bad for teasing out proof of an organised attack on the evidence. Phht.

    Verdict: Hero.

  2. Hegemaniac

    There is no debate. Hero.

    This is double standards of the highest order from the Media, when the University of Bumcrack was hacked the sole focus was on the conduct of the scientists rather than the hackers. Have those hackers come out and apologised for unethical behaviour? Don’t think so.

    So, why focus on the leaker now instead of the story?

    I’ll re-iterate.

    Hero.

  3. 2dogs

    Yes it is amusing when phrases taken out of context from thousands of hacked emails to discredit the science make global news and are dissected for months on end as “proof” to a scam, yet “the rest of the documents republished by DeSmogBlog and others were in exactly the form that he received them from Heartland.” are viewed as the work of villainy.

    Hero!

  4. Merve

    The none too humble Bob Carter, in reference to himself. ”The idea that a professional scientist – and a particularly distinguished scientist, if I may say – gives an opinion which has been paid for, is offensive.”

    Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/web-leak-shows-trail-of-climate-sceptic-funding-20120217-1tegk.html#ixzz1n4kl7upZ

  5. James K

    If a police officer gets a confession by lying in the interview, and offering up data that is not true… (all part of the clever game to get the confession) – does that make the confession invalid? No.

    If a journalist pretends to be someone else on the phone and gets information that way, is the information wrong? No.

    I dont see this as significantly different.

    I am not sure I like any of the three scenarios I just described. But lets be consistent here. It happens all the time.

    If you have things to hide and they come out… well,… there you go….

  6. Michael James

    @ Petery Hmm. Hero or villain? If you unmask a conspiracy by telling a lie does that make you bad? Do I care? No, not really.

    We’re on the brink of some godawful bad global karma here guys and we’re asking if he was bad for teasing out proof of an organised attack on the evidence. Phht.

    Verdict: Hero.

    Sounds like exactly the same case could be made, using exactly the same words, for whoever exposed the ‘Climategate’ emails, which most people here on Crikey consider wrong.

    Gleick obtained material belonging to another, private organisation using deception and there is a strong care that he faked the supposed ‘Climate Change Strategy’ document.

    Both are not the actions of someone who is acting truthfully, so Gleick can be honesty categorised as a villain.

  7. calyptorhynchus

    Hero, obviously, because he’s on the right side.

  8. Altakoi

    On the Villain side you have the ethics of having lied to a person about his identity to get them to divulge incriminating information – see undercover police, journalists, lobbyists, debt collectors, my local video library and thats just the ones working professionally.

    On the Hero side we have revealing information that would otherwise have remained secret outlining a deliberate strategy of misinformation which could influence decisions that affect the lives of billions of people.

    So minor subterfuge versus deliberate subversion of intellectual content and governmental process for financial gain? Is it even a question?

  9. Hegemaniac

    @Michael James

    Nice job of trying to create a false equivalency and there is also no “strong case” that he faked anything except for the word of the Heartland Institute (who themselves seem very confused).

    I would personally classify Gleick as a whistleblower because he has thrown a light onto the inner workings of an organisation which undermines public safety issues (don’t forget tobacco) based on undisclosed vested interests.

    Whereas the bumcrack hackers were simply out to try to back up their own opinions on what they think is a global conspiracy amongst scientists (which was dissected thoroughly and found not to be the case).

  10. Scott

    He crossed the line from Scientist to Activist. That is a big line to cross. How are people going to take his research seriously after this? He has been now tagged as a fanatic. Most of his professional collegues will be running away from him so their research doesn’t get tarnished by association.

    He was a guy who prided himself on his scientific ethics (indeed, he testified to congress about scientific ethics) and yet has decided to throw it all away to attack an private institute that even if he shut it down, would be replaced in a matter of weeks.

    Do the ends always justify the means? Or should someone on the side of “right” be beyond reproach?

    His career is down the toilet regardless.

    Verdict: Villain

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