In defense of Peter Gleick, Muckraker

Andy Revkin was extremely harsh on Peter Gleick, and folks of authority in the science community have little choice, in defending their institutional integrity, but to line up behind him.

But those of us on the fringes can afford to see another side to the story, and to my knowledge some of us have said so in the comments at Dot Earth. Or tried to, anyway.

But for whatever reason, those comments (and presumably many others) are not going through. At this moment, the only visible comments are those from a few people with pre-authorized posting status on the NYT blogs.

So, for the record, here’s what I fired off in the first five minutes after reading Revkin’s piece:

What, no journalist ever misrepresented their identity in search of facts? Is there an accredited J-school way of doing this?

See, you all (I mean the journalistic community) never managed to uncover what Heartland is (basically, a fee-for-service mouthpiece for hire for oligarchs with various axes to grind) and explain it to the world. We’ve been asking you (collectively, I mean; your profession) to investigate and report on these groups for decades, and you never managed it. Peter (and, according to his version of events, his anonymous informer) did.

Peter didn’t manage to cover his tracks very well, possibly leading to trouble for him, which is unfortunate. (I don’t want to speculate on the details and their legal implications. This will presumably be soap opera fodder for some time.)

But to suggest that this sets the rational public debate back…? I fail to see it.

Let’s talk about how ill-informed but self-important super-wealthy people with pet obsessions distort the public conversation, and to add insult to injury, deduct the expenses from their taxable income.

If Peter’s acts stimulate that awareness, they will have served the greater good and moved the possibility of rational debate uncolored by oligarchs and their paid minions forward. In my opinion, you should be defending him for taking personal risks in the pursuit of what, in the end, was a journalistic endeavor.

If anybody else has a comment stuck in the queue at Dot Earth and would like to make it public, feel free to add it in comments below or provide a link.


There are several followups on this site. I’m especially fond of this one.



Woot, lots of really silly borehole items suddenly coming in on this one. I’m Morano’ed! See said items here.



  1. I left a comment, but foolishly did not keep a copy. General gist was:
    - If Gleick's reputation is "in ruins," what about Heartland's, inasmuch as they have engaged in very elaborate, systematic, long-running misrepresentation?
    - I'll be waiting for them to similarly own up.
    - I won't be holding my breath.

  2. It is just really strange. In cases like these, always-always-always, there is discussion of the utility of the action and the ethics. Instead, every journalist is running around denouncing, then establishing that everyone else must denounce or be subjected the usual media marginalization. How hard is it to call a respected scientific organization and ask "Is lying good?" That's pretty much what the conversation has been today. How sad. How boring. How pathetic. All this under the guise that if all this changed, the DEBATE would be RATIONAL. How clueless and naive.

  3. Revkin is totally ridiculous! I don't see how anybody should line up behind him.

    This Revkin piece is the final drop for me. He's now in the box where I keep Lomborg's skeleton etc., never to be clicked again.

  4. Yea, Tobis, we made several unsuccessful attempts at Revkin's piece, so here it is:

    At first blush, we believe that Peter Gleick's courageous decision to risk his life, his fortune, & his honor to expose this well-oiled Heartland cog in the anti-science denial machine will go down in American history as another in our long line of courageous, patriotic acts.

    "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary ... we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

    Now is the time to bring it all -- including Heartland's anonymous multi-million dollar contributor -- to light & account before the American people in our public square, in our news media, in our congressional investigations, & in our criminal trials by jury.

    To paraphrase John Hancock, "Bring it on!"

    [ You were in our spam filter as well, and might have easily been missed yesterday as we had a spam flood. Perhaps you might want to use a name other than "siriusmoney" -mt ]

  5. Yes, the part about how Gleick has set back possibilities for a rational debate was pretty amazing, too (I know, I know, we were right on the verge ... ), but I elected to go with the straight comparison of him and Heartland instead.

  6. Pingback: Electronic civil disobedience: Peter Gleick, brave whistleblower or unethical scoundrel? « Watching the Deniers

  7. In all honesty, I didn't care about the journalistic ethics involved here because what Gleick did was done as an individual, as an activist, and a citizen. But after reading up on this, it turns out to be an incredibly bizarre set of "rules". Bryan walsh says:

    (And just so we’re clear, this is deception — no reputable investigative reporter would be permitted to do what Gleick did. It’s almost certainly a firing offense.)

    but Greg Laden reports

    When Alice gets up to the reception desk, she simply puts out her hand, the receptionist figures she’s supposed to get a packet, and hands it to her. Alice takes the package back to the newsroom, writes up a revealing front page story on the nefarious activities of Acme Inc, and eventually gets a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent investigative reporting.

    I figured that must be wrong, then I saw a comment from Revkin:

    Impersonation involving lying (as opposed to dressing a certain way, or the like) is forbidden by the rules of most reputable journalism outfits, as noted by Bryan Walsh of Time Magazine today.

    So you can lead people to believe something, as long as you don't lie verbally? Is that not a lie in itself to make someone else believe something that isn't true try by any means? Am I getting something wrong? Are my ethics not elastic enough to fit a better definition of what it is to lie in wondering why all this pearl clutching about what Gleick did is strange?

    Look, Gleick made a decision and he'll pay the consequences and we'll see whether his acts as a citizen were worth it or not. He lied. He took. Of course that only works out if the journalists ever get to the bottom of what happened. Not holding my breath.

    I suppose if someone else does the lying it's okay tho. Chris Hansen? "So what brings you down here tonight?"

    [ +1 "pearl-clutching" -mt ]

  8. " If Gleick’s reputation is “in ruins,” what about Heartland’s, inasmuch as they have engaged in very elaborate, systematic, long-running misrepresentation?"

    Did Heartland have a reputation? More seriously that is exactly the problem. Scientists are held to an impossibly high standard, while Heartland and others are able to get away with murder (figuratively speaking of course).

  9. Ha, I believe pearl-clutching is Eli's. And what I mean by that is the over-editorializing. Yes he has been damaged by this and time will tell. Has the "movement" been set back ten years by one person's ethical overreach? Is the debate any less or more rational then it was 2 weeks ago? Will Gleick's reputation be in "tatters" a year from now? Well, we have no idea, but of course, a bunch readers believe it now! Editorializing with zero evidence is a bigger journalistic problem than lying with the wrong color blouse.

    Let's also consider that while the inforamtion gleamed from Gleick episode may not surprise us, many people who had no idea what Heartland is - will now know. When school principals get called by Dr. Wojick, government employee and epidemiology expert, offering some material to supplant science classes, let's hope the principal remembers where that info came from and who paid for it.

  10. Pingback: Double standards | Planet3.0

  11. Revkin kinda walks back a bit:

    I’ve known Gleick as a source and acquaintance since I first quoted him in 1988, which made it very hard to write the piece on Monday. I will acknowledge that certain phrases, written in haste, were overstated. Gleick’s reputation and credibility are seriously damaged, not necessarily in ruins or destroyed.

  12. Doesn't seem all that self-aware, does he?

    The original piece was written in a big hurry to try to spin the rest of the media and only now, having failed in achieving any such thing, he reconsiders its tone. Meh.

  13. Good point, and I don't disagree. However, the ethical difference between pretexting and astroturfing (e.g., setting up an industry front group like Americans For Prosperity) is not immediately apparent to me. Could you comment on that?

  14. Sure, but other than personal remarks that can be taken out of context, the scientific community has nothing to hide. The light of day, OTOH, is a very bad thing for the denialist network. It makes their funders uncomfortable and, in this instance at least, leads to questions about their tax status.

  15. First of all, whether we think misbehavior is absolute or situational has no effect on the core of miscreants and rabble-rousers.

    Of course, they can spin this for their innocent followers. That's more of a problem. And they are doing rheir worst. But they can't spin it very hard, since it's exactly the argument they took the other side of in the CRU hacking!

    I think the ethical argument in leaks is utilitarian. Was what was revealed worse than the sin (and teh crime if there was one)? If not, you should just sit on it and forget it happened, as the CRU hackers should have done.

    If so, you have a harder problem.

    What was revealed, as far as I am concerned, is the existence of the great Anonymous Donor. That means HI is basically a bunch of flunkies promoting the obsessions of their benefactor. This supports the increasing evidence of America congealing into an oligarchy. It's not the sort of thing I thought about much until the events in Wisconsin last year. But Occupy has bad press it doesn't deserve. They have a very important point and the Heartland docs support it.

    Is that worth it? Probably not for Peter personally. This will cost him.

    And people are saying "we knew that much already". Well we did, but we didn't have an internal glimpse into the M.O. of the flunky class. This is getting people thinking. And should.

    But the ethics don't seem to be a slam dunk as far as I am concerned. If we keep an eye on what Heartland really is and what it is a part of, this is even bigger even than the climate question, because it is about how our capacity to deal with that problem and others was subverted by a small group of people with too much money and a bunch of half-baked self-serving ideas.

  16. Well, Anonymous pledged a million for this year, which is by far the biggest single donation. But Bartley Madden, William Dunn, the Kochs, and Pfizer match that just themselves, and with $6,448,385 coming from non-Anonymous sources it's hard to see Heartland as just the catspaw of, um, whatsisname.

    Still, if the activities that seem well far afield of what a tax-exempt foundation should be doing (Angry Badger e.g.) do lead to greater scrutiny, then I'd say the utilitarian argument may suffice.

    It could all be for naught, though, if Gleick ends up having done a Killian in this case: drawing so much attention away from the wrongdoing that it gets forgotten. The dramatization of this would have to be a Greek tragedy, then.

  17. Grypo,

    While your navel gazing about Herr Gleick's having "lied" or "deceived" is probably interesting, the really interesting point is a legal one: Did Gleick commit a crime?

    Just a little bit of using Al Gore's amazing internet brings you a lot of information:

    "Wire Fraud
    18 U.S.C. § 1343 provides:
    Whoever, having devised or intending to devise any scheme or artifice to defraud, or for obtaining money or property by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises, transmits or causes to be transmitted by means of wire, radio, or television communication in interstate or foreign commerce, any writings, signs, signals, pictures, or sounds for the purpose of executing such scheme or artifice, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both. If the violation affects a financial institution, such person shall be fined not more than $1,000,000 or imprisoned not more than 30 years, or both.[3].."

    "There are three elements to mail and wire fraud:
    2.A "scheme or artifice to defraud" or the obtaining of property by fraud; and,
    3.A mail or wire communication.[5]

    To be fraudulent, a misrepresentation must be material.[6]"

    Hmmmm....sure sounds like Dr Gleick's little scam had all three elements. At least from the details made public so far.

    So, keep up the "ethics" seminar (I don't know. How many angels can dance on one molecule of CO2?). In the meantime, you might want to start fund-raising to pay Gleick's legal fees. Or maybe you can hire a PR firm to lobby for a nice federal prison cell.

    Good luck.


  18. @ Kent

    Is it wire fraud? I am not sure. The act of pretending to be someone you are not in order to obtain information you are not privy to is called pretexting.

    And in most cases pretexting is not illegal (the exceptions seem to be if you are pretexting a financial institution or a telco).

    Pretexting laws are more recent than wire fraud laws. 1999 for financial institutions, and 2007 for telcos.

    Why were those laws needed if wirefraud laws were already on the books?

    I am not a lawyer and I don't have an answer, but I think the legal situation is complex enough that you can't figure it out with a quick google search.

    As I have said elsewhere if Heartland brings a suit forward the lawyers will get to charge plenty of billable hours figuring this stuff out.

  19. Kent,

    Your Nazi reference and misuse of the phrase ‘navel-gazing’ aside, the lawlessness of Gleick’s actions are yet to be determined. We still don’t know the whole story. Even your law is about defrauding and ‘money and property’. We know he didn’t sell this information, so I doubt it would be actionable in court. There are likely civil liabilities, or identity theft (but I believe there also needs to be monetary loss), but in reality, I don’t know any law that prevents you from lying to get someone to tell you their secrets. It’s possibly there and usable, I don’t really know. Is that considered defrauding, even if no monetary or property gain is established? I guess a lawyer could answer that question.

    “So, keep up the “ethics” seminar (I don’t know. How many angels can dance on one molecule of CO2?). In the meantime, you might want to start fund-raising to pay Gleick’s legal fees. Or maybe you can hire a PR firm to lobby for a nice federal prison cell.”

    Well, this is what it all about. For instance, Gleick could have researched the law and decided his ethical priority was to tell the truth, knowing how influential the network of oligarchic think thanks that Heartland swims in can be in certain voting groups. Being an admirer of those who do this type of disobedience or hacktivism, I can’t criticize the decision to do so without due process. Although - being an admirer of controversial practices puts me in a position where I must criticize the method. If you do it, you’ve got to do to it right. For one thing, Gleick needed to prevent all collateral damage, meaning redactions of names that did not matter. He failed this test. Gleick also must choose laws that aren’t worse than the utility of the act. Given his position, versus what was found, this is debatable. But we won’t until this is all over, and history usually decides these things anyway, even if every tone-trolling journalist thinks they have all the answers. If one of them can be exposed, they all can.

  20. After years of declaring "the debate is over," Gleick and his cohorts now excuse his unethical (and possibly criminal) actions by insisting it was in the interest of "rational public debate." Incredible!

    [ Seriously? What an obvious fail on the constructive engagement axis. We should not debate established facts. We shouldn't even "debate" uncertain quantites for policy purposes. We should debate rational policy in the light of known facts, known uncertainty ranges, and plausible risks. You know, like grownups? -mt ]

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  22. Pingback: Where Do Gleick’s Apologists Draw the Line? « NoFrakkingConsensus

  23. re: "If Peter’s acts stimulate that awareness, they will have served the greater good"

    Any "scientist" who defends these actions on this basis should have the public assume that the "scientist" may therefore have falsified their data "for the greater good" in any papers on the topic they published. Their credibility should be immediately thrown out the window and none of their papers taken seriously unless confirmed by others.

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