This is a big ethics story, with general ethics lessons and serious public policy repercussions in an area already muddled with ethical misconduct on all sides. I’m going to restrict Ethics Alarms to the purely ethical analysis. and, at the end, point out some of the excellent articles that the incident has inspired regarding the policy implications of it all.
Last week, leaked documents prepared for a board meeting of the libertarian think tank, the Heartland Institute, were published on various blogs and websites. The Institute is a major player in the effort to disprove, debunk or discredit scientific studies showing man-made climate change, and block the adoption of anti-climate change policies while undermining public support for them. One of the most provocative documents was a “Climate Strategy” memorandum laying out Heartland’s secret efforts in sinister terms. The source of the documents, and the one who made them available to global-warming promoting bloggers, was a mysterious individual calling himself “Heartland Insider.”
Now the source has revealed himself, and it is a prominent climatologist on the front lines of the climate change battle, scientist Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute. Gleick explained what occurred in a column at the Huffington Post:
“At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it. 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.”
Heartland denies the authenticity of the original “Strategy” memorandum, and says it is a forgery. Gleick denies that he wrote it. I am not especially interested in that part of the controversy; I presume we will find out the truth eventually. What troubles me is this: Gleick until recently had been the chair of the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics. He has written extensively on scientific integrity. Yet he chose to lie, and to use a fake name, to illicitly gain possession of materials he had no right to acquire.
The supporters of climate change are overwhelmingly flocking to a “they did it first!” rationalization, arguing that Gleick’s fraud was no worse than 2010′s “Cimategate,” when the server of East Anglia University was hacked revealing thousands of e-mails containing unprofessional and arguably unethical banter among climate change scientists, some of whom seemed more interested in suppressing minority scientific studies than finding the truth. Indeed, Gleick’s defenders say, his act was far better, because—well, Gleick is right. One global warming warrior wrote, “For his courage, his honor, and for performing a selfless act of public service, he deserves our gratitude and applause.”
Astounding. This is the purest “ends justify the means” reasoning, and it is frankly shocking. Gleick’s fraud is worse than that of the anonymous hackers at East Anglia. They were political operatives and zealots—also criminals. He is not only a scientist, but one who was regarded as a paragon of ethics in his field. If he is willing to lie to defeat his critics and foes, then what else is he willing to lie to accomplish? Gleick is not a “whistleblower”—the blogger, Richard Littlemore, betrays his own dishonesty by designating him so, I suppose because “whistleblower” has a positive, heroic connotation, while “lying thief” does not. Gleick dishonestly posed as a whistleblower when he called himself “Heartland Insider.” Whistleblowers are members of an organization that “blow the whistle” on corruption where they work. What Gleick did is corruption.
Other defenders, including some journalists, argue that his deception was justified because some of the documents thus obtained , as Gleick wrote, “confirmed many of the facts in the original document.” And if they didn’t? Then would Gleick be just a lying thief? This is the fallacy of consequentialism–supposing an unethical act becomes more ethical because of what happens subsequent to it. No. That is nothing but moral luck. We assess the ethical nature of what Gleick did—relying on an anonymous, possibly forged document that had credibility for Gleick because of confirmation bias only, to justify his using dishonest means to acquire proprietary documents and then making sure that they were published for all to see—based on its nature when he did it. Whether he uncovered smoking guns or not doesn’t change the ethics verdict: dishonest, unfair, irresponsible. Unethical.
His actions show that he, at very least, is willing to lie to make sure that climate science “wins,” and thus he has destroyed both his own credibility and seriously damaged that of his colleagues—especially those who continue to defend him.
As Megan McArdle writes at the Atlantic—in one of the best pieces about the scandal:
“After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.“
Exactly. And that is why in science, which is the quest for the truth, honesty and integrity are indispensable. Without them, there can be no trust, and trust is what Peter Gleick has destroyed.