Peter Gleick, the Heartland Institute, and Scientific Ethics

 

Peter Gleick

The Heartland Institute is a climate denial shop well-funded by fossil fuel interests and standard right-wing extremist foundations, which has underwritten attacks on climate scientists and has plans to disrupt authentic climate science education in K-12 classrooms.  Peter Gleick is one of the most respected scientific researchers in the world, who has done extremely important work in climate and water research.

So it is frustrating, to put it mildly, to find that Gleick acquired internal Heartland documents by masquerading as a Heartland boardmember.  That is shockingly unethical practice, which in our business probably would get someone disbarred.  Gleick has already resigned several important posts, been denied blogging privileges in many high-profile sites, and seen his reputation — previously sterling — severely degraded, if not in tatters.

It is also important to keep it in perspective.  My view tracks that of Dale Jamieson, an expert on ethics who heads the environmental studies program at NYU, who commented:

What Peter Gleick did was unethical. He acknowledges that from a point of view of professional ethics there is no defending those actions.  But relative to what has been going on on the climate denial side this is a fairly small breach of ethics.

Spot on.  Those who trumped up the malicious and libelous “Climategate” scandal also stole confidential e-mails, then took them out of context, and then lied about what they had found.  Still waiting for apologies from the climate denialists.

In any event, we’ll learn more soon enough.  Heartland says that it is considering legal action, but I have my doubts.  As soon as its directors understand what they will have to disclose in discovery, they will figure out a way to let the legal matter drop and spend more of their time complaining on Pravda Fox News.

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Reader Comments

30 Replies to “Peter Gleick, the Heartland Institute, and Scientific Ethics”

  1. Feh. Its about as unethical as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”. Some might even call it journalism.

    Dr. Gleick has nothing to apologize for. The only apologies we should be seeing are from the Heartland Institute, their funders, and the Media-Industrial Complex that enable them.

  2. Feh. Its about as unethical as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”. Some might even call it journalism.

    Dr. Gleick has nothing to apologize for. The only apologies we should be seeing are from the Heartland Institute, their funders, and the Media-Industrial Complex that enable them.

  3. Your point is well-taken, but I suppose the difference is that Gleick isn’t a journalist: he’s a scientist. Scientists aren’t supposed to do this because their stock-in-trade is credibility. That may seem artificial, but different social actors have to have different social roles for these purposes. If a lawyer were to hire someone to masquerade as someone to get information from an opponent, we would call that unethical. Prosecutors can sometimes do this with confidential informants, but they need to get a warrant first IIRC.

  4. Your point is well-taken, but I suppose the difference is that Gleick isn’t a journalist: he’s a scientist. Scientists aren’t supposed to do this because their stock-in-trade is credibility. That may seem artificial, but different social actors have to have different social roles for these purposes. If a lawyer were to hire someone to masquerade as someone to get information from an opponent, we would call that unethical. Prosecutors can sometimes do this with confidential informants, but they need to get a warrant first IIRC.

  5. Yes, we all play different social roles, but there are times when we plan * multiple* roles depending on the situations life presents us. To deny this self-evident fact is to subscribe to an artificial division of labor that negates our own humanity.

    In terms of his work as a scientist, he’s not being accused of falsifying data, having conflicts of interest, or any of the basic things that we should expect scientist to refrain from doing.

    But Gleick isn’t just a scientist testing theories disembodied from day to day existence, but an activist scientist who uses his talents to advance a political point of view (one that happens to validated by data, but still…). He is fully engaged in the public debate.

    And in this instance he obtained information showing that public actors were engaging in a wholesale deception intended to advance a political position that is not only fallacious on its own merits but will also cause undue harm to untold millions of people. I thing many (I included) would argue that it would have been unethical to sit on this information and let the deception continue.

  6. Yes, we all play different social roles, but there are times when we plan * multiple* roles depending on the situations life presents us. To deny this self-evident fact is to subscribe to an artificial division of labor that negates our own humanity.

    In terms of his work as a scientist, he’s not being accused of falsifying data, having conflicts of interest, or any of the basic things that we should expect scientist to refrain from doing.

    But Gleick isn’t just a scientist testing theories disembodied from day to day existence, but an activist scientist who uses his talents to advance a political point of view (one that happens to validated by data, but still…). He is fully engaged in the public debate.

    And in this instance he obtained information showing that public actors were engaging in a wholesale deception intended to advance a political position that is not only fallacious on its own merits but will also cause undue harm to untold millions of people. I thing many (I included) would argue that it would have been unethical to sit on this information and let the deception continue.

  7. But that is where we disagree. There is a risk to playing these sorts of multiple social roles. If you are a scientist, then you cannot impersonate someone else, so to play both the undercover journalist and the scientist he does have a conflict of interest. And that is what arose here: there is a summary of HI’s work that HI claims has been falsified, and Gleick says he received anonymously as an e-mail. Whom are we to believe? We’ve just seen that Gleick claimed something that wasn’t true. That’s why there is a tension between being a scientist and an activist, or even an academic and an activist. We all have to live with that tension, but Gleick went over the line. Here’s another example: there’s nothing wrong with me asking someone out on a date. There is something wrong with me asking someone out on a date who is my student. (Actually, I’m married so there is ALWAYS something wrong with that, but you get the idea). Once you take on a particular role, even if it is in conjunction with other ones, you are constrained by it if you want to get the benefits of that role. Gleick wants the benefits of being a scientist (and deserves them), but then he has to play by science’s rules, and that means operating with the requisite amount of transparency in all his dealings.

  8. But that is where we disagree. There is a risk to playing these sorts of multiple social roles. If you are a scientist, then you cannot impersonate someone else, so to play both the undercover journalist and the scientist he does have a conflict of interest. And that is what arose here: there is a summary of HI’s work that HI claims has been falsified, and Gleick says he received anonymously as an e-mail. Whom are we to believe? We’ve just seen that Gleick claimed something that wasn’t true. That’s why there is a tension between being a scientist and an activist, or even an academic and an activist. We all have to live with that tension, but Gleick went over the line. Here’s another example: there’s nothing wrong with me asking someone out on a date. There is something wrong with me asking someone out on a date who is my student. (Actually, I’m married so there is ALWAYS something wrong with that, but you get the idea). Once you take on a particular role, even if it is in conjunction with other ones, you are constrained by it if you want to get the benefits of that role. Gleick wants the benefits of being a scientist (and deserves them), but then he has to play by science’s rules, and that means operating with the requisite amount of transparency in all his dealings.

  9. Glieck is only a very small part of a much larger problem. The major credibility problems pertaining to climate change are shoddy science, premature deaths, solar radiation, water vapor, natural cycles, cap&trade, taxes, the EPA, carbon dioxide “pollutant,” the California Environmental Bar, and much much more.

    Lost credibility will never be restored because the climate movement displayed a fundamental contempt for truth and accuracy which cannot be forgotten nor forgiven. We all know by now that the glory days of climate change are gone forever and will never return. This forum has become a metaphor for weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Pity the fools.

  10. Glieck is only a very small part of a much larger problem. The major credibility problems pertaining to climate change are shoddy science, premature deaths, solar radiation, water vapor, natural cycles, cap&trade, taxes, the EPA, carbon dioxide “pollutant,” the California Environmental Bar, and much much more.

    Lost credibility will never be restored because the climate movement displayed a fundamental contempt for truth and accuracy which cannot be forgotten nor forgiven. We all know by now that the glory days of climate change are gone forever and will never return. This forum has become a metaphor for weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Pity the fools.

  11. The information revealed in the authenticated documents did not show deception. It showed that a committed climate skeptic group spends money promoting its message. They are wrong (and some of the stuff Heartland promotes is spectacularly wrong), but they believe it. They’re fundamentalists, not deceivers. Further, the documents were not all that revealing. As Gavin Schmidt of RealClimate commented, the content of the authenticated documents was “interesting (if unsurprising).” Indeed, As WonkBlog noted, one of the few surprises is how relatively little oil money Heartland gets. (Even the little Koch money they get is not climate-related, but devoted to health care reform.)

    The only document that contains anything nefarious is the “Climate Strategy” memo Gleick claims magically showed up in his mailbox one day because (he claims) some “insider” obtained it and thought Gleick (and, apparently, Gleick alone) should have it. This is fantastical. It’s in Michael Bellesiles/John Lott territory.

    As for Gleick, he impersonated a specific Heartland board member to surreptitiously obtain confidential documents. This is a potential crime and not the sort of thing journalists do. (Undercover journalism typically involves not disclosing one is a journalist but rarely involves specifically identifying onself as another live person.). Gleick also released personal information about the Heartland staff — salaries, personally identifying info, personnel info and the like for even administrative persons. Not only is this also unethical, it also means Heartland has much less reason to avoid discovery now.

    As for the “ClimateGate” files, we still don’t know the source of those documents. One possibility is a hacker. If so the act was illegal and unethical, and the perpetrator (if caught) should be prosecuted. Another is that the files were initially collected for a FOI release (which would explain the relative lack of personal stuff and some of the other info accompanying the releases) and released by a whistleblower. This speculation is consistent with the comments in the released e-mails about how to avoid having to release info in response to FOI requests. We don’t know. While the ClimateGate e-mails did nothing to undermine the case for anthropogenic warming, it did show unethical and improper conduct by some of the folks involved (e.g. recommending files be destroyed to avoid FOI, refusal to release data pursuant to FOI requests, manipulation of peer review process, etc.). In fact, the UK information commissioner’s office stated that the only reason no one was prosecuted was because of the statute of limitations in the UK FOI statute.

  12. The information revealed in the authenticated documents did not show deception. It showed that a committed climate skeptic group spends money promoting its message. They are wrong (and some of the stuff Heartland promotes is spectacularly wrong), but they believe it. They’re fundamentalists, not deceivers. Further, the documents were not all that revealing. As Gavin Schmidt of RealClimate commented, the content of the authenticated documents was “interesting (if unsurprising).” Indeed, As WonkBlog noted, one of the few surprises is how relatively little oil money Heartland gets. (Even the little Koch money they get is not climate-related, but devoted to health care reform.)

    The only document that contains anything nefarious is the “Climate Strategy” memo Gleick claims magically showed up in his mailbox one day because (he claims) some “insider” obtained it and thought Gleick (and, apparently, Gleick alone) should have it. This is fantastical. It’s in Michael Bellesiles/John Lott territory.

    As for Gleick, he impersonated a specific Heartland board member to surreptitiously obtain confidential documents. This is a potential crime and not the sort of thing journalists do. (Undercover journalism typically involves not disclosing one is a journalist but rarely involves specifically identifying onself as another live person.). Gleick also released personal information about the Heartland staff — salaries, personally identifying info, personnel info and the like for even administrative persons. Not only is this also unethical, it also means Heartland has much less reason to avoid discovery now.

    As for the “ClimateGate” files, we still don’t know the source of those documents. One possibility is a hacker. If so the act was illegal and unethical, and the perpetrator (if caught) should be prosecuted. Another is that the files were initially collected for a FOI release (which would explain the relative lack of personal stuff and some of the other info accompanying the releases) and released by a whistleblower. This speculation is consistent with the comments in the released e-mails about how to avoid having to release info in response to FOI requests. We don’t know. While the ClimateGate e-mails did nothing to undermine the case for anthropogenic warming, it did show unethical and improper conduct by some of the folks involved (e.g. recommending files be destroyed to avoid FOI, refusal to release data pursuant to FOI requests, manipulation of peer review process, etc.). In fact, the UK information commissioner’s office stated that the only reason no one was prosecuted was because of the statute of limitations in the UK FOI statute.

  13. Echoing what jhadler said, one of the surprises from the leaked documents was how little of Heartland’s money comes from coal or oil interests, at least as far as we can tell.

    I am no fan of Heartland, but I do believe in accuracy and fairness.

    What’s the evidence for your claim that Heartland is “well-funded by fossil fuel interests?”

    Some documentation, please.

  14. Echoing what jhadler said, one of the surprises from the leaked documents was how little of Heartland’s money comes from coal or oil interests, at least as far as we can tell.

    I am no fan of Heartland, but I do believe in accuracy and fairness.

    What’s the evidence for your claim that Heartland is “well-funded by fossil fuel interests?”

    Some documentation, please.

  15. You have a point, but in the very same Wonkblog post, we see $675,000 from Exxon through 2006. That’s not chump change. I can think of a lot of fledgling think tanks who would be overjoyed at a contribution of nearly $700,000. Besides, then they can go to other sources. When we get a full accounting of Heartland’s budget (if we do), then we will see further.

  16. You have a point, but in the very same Wonkblog post, we see $675,000 from Exxon through 2006. That’s not chump change. I can think of a lot of fledgling think tanks who would be overjoyed at a contribution of nearly $700,000. Besides, then they can go to other sources. When we get a full accounting of Heartland’s budget (if we do), then we will see further.

  17. $675,000 over how many years? And how many millions was the Sierra Club getting from tne nautral gas folks per year? The idea that Heartland (or any other skeptic group) is lavishly funded compared to major environmental groups is just false.

  18. $675,000 over how many years? And how many millions was the Sierra Club getting from tne nautral gas folks per year? The idea that Heartland (or any other skeptic group) is lavishly funded compared to major environmental groups is just false.

  19. Good post. My minor point is that I don’t see much of an opening for discovery should HI bring a lawsuit, especially if they limit the suit to the effect of documents that they and Gleick acknowledged was taken from them, and ignore the confidential strategy document. There are other reasons why HI might not litigate (no damages because everyone already knew them to be liars and tools) but I’m not clear yet why they would have to produce much anything for discovery.

  20. Good post. My minor point is that I don’t see much of an opening for discovery should HI bring a lawsuit, especially if they limit the suit to the effect of documents that they and Gleick acknowledged was taken from them, and ignore the confidential strategy document. There are other reasons why HI might not litigate (no damages because everyone already knew them to be liars and tools) but I’m not clear yet why they would have to produce much anything for discovery.

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Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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