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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

As Science is Politicized, One Scientist Thinks Politically

As shocking revelations go, it wasn't much of one; leaked documents showed that a rightwing thinktank had a detailed PR strategy to get everyone to believe that global warming is a hoax. Among other things, the Heartland Institute would produce "modules for Grades 7-9 on environmental impact," with the goal of teaching the controversy, not the science.

"The scientific debate remains open," one memo reads. "Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate, and defer to scientists and other experts in the field."

It's a strategy pioneered by creationists, which really ought to tell you all you need to know about its educational and scientific value. At first, the climate deniers claimed that the documents were forgeries. But then environmental scientist and writer Peter Gleick came out as the leaker and put that lie to bed. Gleick says he first received a document in the mail from an anonymous source, then requested more documents from Heartland using a fake name. He got them.

Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.


I will not comment on the substance or implications of the materials; others have and are doing so. I only note that the scientific understanding of the reality and risks of climate change is strong, compelling, and increasingly disturbing, and a rational public debate is desperately needed. 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.

This is obviously the worst thing ever!

Of course, informed readers will remember the ginned up "Climategate," where hackers illegally broke into servers at the University of East Anglia, and stole a bunch of emails -- emails they then released them piecemeal and out of context. Science writer PZ Myers does.

I don't get it. First there was Climategate, in which hackers illegally broke into a server at the University of East Anglia and stole a pile of emails from climate researchers. The denialists seemed to be fine with that, and quote-mined the heck out of the documents to find damning statements, lying and claiming that they showed that the scientists faked their data (they did no such thing, of course). All the sturm and drang at that time was over the contents of the emails, not the illegal method of their acquisition.

Now the shoe is on the other foot...

But then he gets perplexed. "And [here's] Peter Gleick beating himself up for exposing the Heartland Institute's mendacity," he writes. "I really don't get that. He's a scientist. Scientists gather data to make informed decisions. Gleick got the data the Heartland Institute tried to hide. You can't on one hand condemn Gleick for asking for the information and getting it handed to him, while praising hackers for breaking into a server and illegally taking data."

I'm surprised that Meyers doesn't see what's happening here. Gleick's goal in "beating himself up" isn't to confess to some perceived professional lapse -- although that's exactly how he casts it -- but to verify the authenticity of the documents. The documents are unquestionably real and we know that because Peter Gleick just confessed to what the right are hyperbolically and hypocritically referring to as "theft." He's put his personal and professional reputation on the line -- or, at least, he seems to have. In truth, he did what any good investigative journalist might have done. There is no actual ethical breach here and Gleick knows it.

Peter Gleick has a PR strategy of his own. Turnabout is, after all, fair play.


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