A genius caught between theft and heroism

Posted on | February 21, 2012 | 8 Comments

Source: NASA. Click on the graphic to be taken to the space agency's climate change pages.

Peter Gleick did not have sexual relations with that woman. The president of the Pacific Institute did not leak the identity of Valerie Plame then order an investigation to discover who did it. He’s not a cynic. However, California’s leading advocate for realpolitik treatment of climate science stands accused by the libertarian Heartland Institute of “stealing” documents outlining Heartland’s 2012 strategy to undermine popular American acceptance of the clearly established and internationally recognized fact that human activity is driving climate change.

While not calling it theft, Gleick did confess Monday in his Huffington Post blog to having assumed a false identity — apparently that of a Heartland board member — to solicit documents from Heartland.

He sought them, he wrote, because a board package containing either similar or identical documents had been leaked to him by an anonymous source and he wanted to see if they were forgeries.

Satisfied about their authenticity, Gleick then leaked the documents, which led to a February 16 New York Times article tying Heartland to plans to sow doubt about climate change among children in schools.

Four days later, it was Gleick under attack in the New York Times, where shortly after his confession, he was described by reporter Andrew Revkin as having “destroyed his credibility and harmed others.”

“That is [Gleick’s] personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family),” Revkin added.

Before anyone else dresses for a funeral, it merits remembering that Gleick, a former recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship, is innocent until proven guilty. He is not only one of the smartest men in California, but also one of the more honest, the kind prone to confession.

What Gleick did was wrong. In a movie, if a good institute tricked a bad one into into sending it confidential documents containing plans to fill the heads of schoolchildren with lethal hokum, the act might seem heroic. In real life, it might indeed be theft. But “destroyed”? “harmed”? “tragedy”? “devastating”? Shouldn’t those words be reserved for the effects of climate change? And what does it make Peter Gleick for having risked his career in an attempt to spare us destruction, harm, tragedy and devastation?

Update: 2/27/2012: The Pacific Institute today announced that its board has accepted Gleick’s offer to take leave of absence while it brings in independent investigators to review the Heartland affair.



8 Responses to “A genius caught between theft and heroism”

  1. Jessica Hall
    February 21st, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    Well said. He did what wikileaks has been doing. Yes it was deceitful, ironically for transparency, hopefully exposing how opaque and unaccountable and truly deceitful the interests avoiding global warming (we could also say, undermining democracy) are.

    By coincidence, I recently watched an old movie set in DC (circa 1990s) which had global warming as part of the story line, and I thought how peculiar it was that no one in the movie questioned the reality of it. We have sunk that low. And how that has happened needs to be aired.

  2. Jennifer of SmallWaterSupply.org
    February 21st, 2012 @ 9:41 am

    Jessica – I saw that same movie and thought the very same thing! I kept thinking “what happened since then?”

  3. OtPR
    February 21st, 2012 @ 11:57 am

    Honestly! Destroyed his credibility?! Dr. Gleick has a track record of decades, built on showing his work, deriving results, and speaking carefully about the data and the process that leads him to conclusions. I don’t always agree with him about conclusions, but when I don’t, I can look at his work and identify where we diverged.

    I’ll read his work with the same substantial respect I’ve held for him for decades. Even if I weren’t inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, his rigorous approach would lead me to the same place of listening closely and evaluating his conclusions.

    The quality of his work has never stood on his personal identity, and I have the same faith in both that I did before reading about this.

  4. EmilyGreen
    February 21st, 2012 @ 12:07 pm

    From Facebook comments on this posting, from two journalists:

    1. “I assume the same people who cheered the release of the East Anglia emails and James O’Keefe are incensed about Gleick. And maybe I have an integrity deficit, but I’m not seeing what he did as so wrong. If they released the documents to his false identity they should have made the documents available to him. Or me, or you.”

    2. “it just seems like what any journalist would do on a tuesday.”

  5. Ilsa Setziol
    February 21st, 2012 @ 1:42 pm

    This is so sad.
    I respect Revkin, but don’t understand why he’s making Gleick’s ill-advised action almost single-handedly responsible for future failures in climate change policy.

  6. Gleick’s deception
    February 21st, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

    […] reaction has been fascinating. Some are defending Gleick, saying essentially that the ends justify the means as information is revealed about Heartland’s agenda. Others say Gleick went way too far, […]

  7. Judith Mernit
    February 22nd, 2012 @ 11:32 am

    I am just beside myself with worry and distraction over this. I can’t understand journalists piling on, as if we’re all some sacrosanct, ethically perfect sect — or even that we should be. Heartland has engaged in a deliberate campaign to misinform the public and discredit scientists — scientists! People who devote their lives to discovery and skepticism of those discoveries, who try to prove themselves wrong until they can’t anymore! And Heartland tries to discredit them to protect the economic interests of the polluting industries that will have to be reined in if we ever as a nation decide to take climate change seriously. Journalists ought to be going after them with their claws bared, and using every intellectual weapon for discovery at our disposal. I just don’t get it.

    I hope we can bring the debate back soon to what those Heartland documents actually contain, and forget the pillorying of Peter Gleick, who was only in pursuit of the hard-to-get-at-truth.

  8. Leigh Adams
    February 22nd, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

    If Gleick had withheld this information THAT would be criminal! A plot to undermine the education of children is the worst kind of “bad guy” behavior. What Peter Gleick did is an act of heroism. His work has inspired us all and will continue to do so. Seems to me, the scathing commentary should be directed at Heartland!

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