The Morality of Unmasking Heartland

By Stephan Lewandowsky,  posted at The Conversation, used with permission. This article is in the Creative Commons under an attribution – no derivatives license.

Philosophers talk about the “dirty hands” problem: are lies OK in the pursuit of truth?

“Truth is so precious that she should be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Winston Churchill’s famous words were uttered during the war against the Nazis and referred to Operation Bodyguard, a deception that was intended to mislead the German high command about the date and location of the invasion of Normandy. Given the context, few would criticise Churchill’s statement.

Now imagine Bernie Madoff uttering the same words in defense of his acrobatic Ponzi schemes. Few would accept such glaring sophistry.

Where does Dr Peter Gleick’s revelation that he lied to a conservative think tank to access climate change documents fit on this spectrum?

This question gets us right to the heart of a central issue in moral cognition and philosophy: Are there immutable moral rules — such as “thou shall not lie” — or does morality legitimately involve a trade-off between competing ethical imperatives that includes consideration of the ultimate outcomes of one’s actions?

If there are immutable moral rules then there is little daylight between Churchill and the hypothetical Madoff — both violated a moral axiom by admitting the possibility that lying may be justifiable.

By contrast, if morality involves a balancing of ethical costs and benefits, then Churchill’s deception of the German high command quite plausibly was a moral act that quickened the pace of battle, thus hastening the defeat of the Nazis and the liberation of Dachau.

The Allies’ deception paled in comparison to the lives saved.

History is full of such moral balancing acts.

When Daniel Ellsberg released the classified Pentagon Papers in 1971 he undoubtedly broke the law. However, when the papers revealed that four consecutive Presidents, from Truman to Johnson, had consistently misled the American public about their actions in Vietnam, the illegality of Ellsberg’s action paled in comparison to the good that arose from informing the public of their leaders’ deceptions.

Ultimately, all charges against Ellsberg were dismissed, and the Pentagon Papers arguably helped accelerate the move towards peace in Vietnam.

What are we to make of the latest moral balancing act involving the leaked Heartland documents?

On Valentine’s Day an anonymous source emailed documents to various journalists that were leaked from the Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank.

According to its 2010 Prospectus, Heartland opposes “… junk science and the use of scare tactics in the areas of environmental protection and public health”.

Opposition to “junk science”? What junk science?

According to the Heartland Institute, “junk science” is the research that has linked tobacco to lung cancer and junk food to obesity. It is also, of course, the “junk science” known as climate research.

The leaked documents put names and dollar figures to Heartland’s opposition to “junk science” and revealed that it funded climate denial in at least three countries — the US, New Zealand and Australia. Well-known so-called “sceptics” were found to have been pay-rolled by the Institute, often contrary to those individuals’ earlier denials of funding by vested interests.

George Monbiot summed up the implications of the leaked information succinctly: “This is plutocracy, pure and simple.”

Then yesterday, another revelation.

Climate scientist Dr Peter Gleick wrote on the Huffington Post that he obtained the documents from Heartland by using someone else’s name, and then passed them on to journalists, thereby triggering an avalanche of exposure of the Heartland denial machine.

Is Gleick another Churchill or Ellsberg?

Legal issues aside, how does his subterfuge compare to the potential public good that has resulted from the documents’ release?

Many philosophers who study ethics agree that it is important to consider the consequences of one’s actions in a moral dilemma to come to an acceptable judgment. Rather than relying on moral strictures, this “consequentialist” approach argues that the morality of an action is evaluated by whether it brings about the greatest total well-being.

This reasoning is mirrored in the cognitive laboratory, where people’s responses are also often informed by the consequences associated with competing paths of action (the data are quite complex but it seems safe to conclude that most people are sensitive to weighting the outcomes of competing actions rather than being exclusively entrenched in immutable moral rules).

Does this mean there is an ethical imperative to consider Gleick to be another Daniel Ellsberg?

No. But it does mean that one’s ethical concerns should consider competing actions and outcomes rather than focusing on an individual’s chosen action in isolation.

Gleick has apologised for his use of subterfuge. His actions have violated the confidentiality of a think tank but they have also given the public a glimpse into the inner workings of the climate denial machine.

Had he not done so, no one’s confidentiality would have been violated, but then the public would have been kept guessing about the internal workings of one of the world’s most notorious serial impersonators of science. The Heartland Institute takes pride in its chimerical pseudo-“scientific” conferences and it is allied with “scientific” work that denies that mercury is poisonous.

In the real world, mercury is poisonous. In the real world, the number of weather-related natural disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, and the World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are already dying annually from the effects of climate change. In reality, many of the IPCC’s 2007 predictions have been found to be overly conservative rather than alarmist. And the latest IPCC report has reiterated the risks we are facing in the all-too-near future if we delay action on climate change.

Revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial that seeks to delay action against climate change likely constitutes a classic public good.

It is a matter of personal moral judgment whether that public good justifies Gleick’s sting operation to obtain those revelations.

(borehole items)


  1. For those of you with any uncertainty over the correct answer to this question, the damage Gleick's transgressions will cause to his 'cause' over the next few months and even years will perhaps settle any doubts.

    When the Climategate emails were released, I co-authored a book about them with Steve Mosher. We said then and I'll say again that the emails did not affect the science. But it sure affected the debate, didn't it?

    This is worse.

    • Is that what you predict, or is it what you propose?

      The outcome is somewhat up to people like you and me, Tom.

      Where should our focus be? On Gleick impersonating a board member on a couple of occasions? Or (as Naomi Klein put it in a tweet) on the Heartland Institute impersonating a scientific organization every day?

      Which is really the important aspect of the situation? The ethical ball is back in our court now.

    • Tommy, you need to learn to separate the noise from the signal. The recent course of the "debate" has been shaped mainly by the culture war, the roots of which are rather older (the '60s, obviously, but ultimately slavery). "Climategate"? Sorry, little or no lasting impact.

      Given the usual cycle in such things, I expect a reversal of direction rather soon. Doubtless all good liberals will celebrate when that happens.

    • Steve Bloom +1. The popularity of Rick Santorum and "Jersey Shore" is no doubt Phil Jones's fault as well.

      Amusing how the side which continually upbraids mainstream science as being based in post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning is so quick to assume that it's their crowing which causes the sun to rise.

      Projection is a hell of a drug.

  2. As I see it the problem is that this is not enough of a black and white situation as presented by the author.
    There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty in climate science, and while most climate scientists and many others understand this and operate rationally with this understanding, it is a huge political issue.
    Also while I believe most "contrarians" or "deniers" (C/D's), ( I think there are few skeptics among the most vocal in this camp) are only interested in undermining ACC, many of their general questions, and some of their specific objections have merit. Also the polarization has left to the likelihood that there is some degree of defensiveness among climate scientists that biases their view of the science. It is human nature when one is attacked, lied about, and misrepresented consistently there will be a stronger emotional attachment to the view one holds. This is true of course in spades with the C/D's since the ones I have encountered have a powerful ideological perspective that is an integral part of their worldview. And makes their views almost impervious to any facts that contradict their beliefs.
    Because of the rise of the blogosphere there are many well educated and intellectually capable C/D's, and when they raise valid points they should not be dismissed. At the same time the anti scientific nature of the attacks on ACC need to be opposed as strongly as possible.
    Which leads to this particular ethics breach. As far as I can see there is nothing illegal regarding Heartland shown by the released documents, and this does not come close to the level of "The Pentagon Papers". There was nothing so unexpected and of such social importance that not releasing the files would cause great public harm. At worst, and this is not trivial but not earthshaking either, they could indicate a breach of rules for non profits as far as lobbying goes. But I understand that John Mashey had already filed much of the same information obtained through completely legitimate ethical means to the IRS. I also understand that this was NOT an illegal hacking or criminal trespass, He just asked for the info and misrepresented himself. Not sure if that is criminal. If there were really confidential and important papers, then just asking for them should not be enough to override security precautions. If however he falsified the one document and the material in it is wrong and totally misrepresents Heartland, then there is a much more serious ethical matter.
    So, barring that one caveat, ethically I don't see either the crime or the value of exposure to be very relevant. It is really all about the propaganda value. As can be seen both "sides" are declaring a huge victory. The C/D's are saying this proves the moral bankruptcy of the CAGW crowed and climate scientists themselves, and is more proof that the entire fraudulent edifice of ACAGW is falling apart and they are about to win the war. Whereas the ACC advocates are waving the documents as proof that the Deniers are engaged in a wide-scale fraudulent plan to confuse the issues and support efforts to propagandize youth, and misinform the public.
    At worst this episode shows ONE scientist willing to resort to fraud to undermine an "enemy", which is totally against the ethical parameters of a scientist, especially one who holds exalted positions relating to ethics. If he did forge that document it is a great propaganda victory for the C/D side. If not they will still use it as a rallying cry and pretend that Heartlands actions are not only above Board but noble in the face of the crusade by the CAGW extremists.
    What is NOT being acknowledged is that unlike Climate gate, the perpetrator has confessed and acknowledged the unethical behavior and asked for forgiveness. Of course this could be taken with a grain of salt because a number of people had already considered him the prime suspect, so he could have just been trying to cut his loses and actually has no ethical qualms. On the other hand his explanation of events is consistent and if true has plausibility, and makes even his modest transgression even less serious.
    But the propaganda war will continue unabated. Even this author makes simplistic and arguably inaccurate arguments about the severity of climate change, without caveats (which, I admit, is hard to do in a short article).
    Since I have seen no substantive scientific evidence that ACC theory is wildly off base, even from established C/D scientists like Lindzen, Spencer, etc, I am fairly confident that ACC will become more and more accepted over the next ten years, assuming warming does not stay static or decrease during that time. if that warming does continue, I imagine the debate will become more similar to the current debate over Evolution. One which large numbers of people still do not believe, but which is not impacting the science of biology or policies relating to science.
    I do see a potential fallout for the C/D's if major climate effects become unambiguously pronounced during this period, with drastic consequences for actors, such as the Republican party in that event.

    • Tony Duncan, that was a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

      Not to mention all the Schrödinger's cats, like saying "there is nothing illegal regarding Heartland shown by the released documents", right before saying that the documents "could indicate a breach of rules for non profits as far as lobbying goes".

      -- frank

    • frank,

      I am no expert in tax law, but you seem to be misunderstanding what I wrote. by "legal" I meant some criminal act such as bribing a congressman to vote a certain way, or illegally wiretapping Michael Mann's office, or something of a truly major nature.
      This as compared to actions like "lobbying" as a non profit., which I have not heard anyone suggest would lead to criminal prosecution.
      I also think you might be misunderstanding Schrodinger's Cat, though that is hard to tell from your usage.
      And I am sorry you consider my thoughtful and brilliant analysis sound and fury. At least you tacitly acknowledge that there is nothing inaccurate, since I have pointed out your one point was incorrect.

  3. This is perhaps a trivial comparison, but police are allowed to lie to suspects about what evidence they've found or what other suspects have said.

    More directly relevant, lying and/or misleading people is a pillar of investigative journalism. Posing as a customer to see if someone's sales pitch or other practices break the law... Applying for a job with a fake resume to see if employment practices, workplace safety, etc. are legal ... the list of legitimate uses of a false identity for investigative purposes is a long one.

  4. It strikes me that worrying about the ethics of Gleik's decisions is more or less irrelevant at this time. Isn't the question: how is the denial echo chamber going to use it? What, if anything, can be done to take the wind out of their sails?

    Satisfying oneself that there's some ethical justification for what he did will have zero impact on that one way or another. I'm not saying that's in any way a satisfactory situation, but it's spending mental energy on thoughtful self-examination while the denial machine makes hay. In fact, it's helping by keeping the message on "naughty scientists".

    One might respond we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard, and I agree. But there's timing: thoughtful reflection later? Is there anything useful to be done in the meantime - i.e. pushing further on the stuff that Peter Sinclair hightlights here? Tying recent events with Heartland to the UCS report mentioned in that Guardian article? Reflecting on what the hell has happened to the republicans and what that means for the future of democracy in the US? Or maybe the Orwellian 'protocols' the Canadian governnment is using to silence the free speech of scientists. I mean, is that even legal?? Note the comparison to vague denier tales of a government/scientist nexus working together to feather their own pockets or whatever: in Canada we have a concrete, specific example of government control of scientists' voice - and it's not in the direction you'd expect if you listened only to the denial machine. Why is that?

    Otherwise what we have is - for both the CRU leak *and* this stuff - a consistent message: "scientists are a shady bunch and not to be trusted." It's a narrative, however nonsensical. Nina Fedoroff is right to be scared.

    I'm reminded of two similar things I saw recently. One was a post on the front page for a therapy centre: the guy running it was under investigation for taking advantage of patients. In the front page post for his website, he bawled: "all the accusations against me are false!" Of course, anyone going to the site who doesn't know about the story immediately asks: what accusations?

    A B&B I stayed in did the same thing: a front page post, "those comments on x website are rubbish, our B&B is entirely clean and lovely..."

    Stephen helped write a guide at SkepticalScience looking at exactly this framing problem. So should we be going, "we think THE BAD THING HE DID is probably ethical!" or writing about the Heartland Institute and the UCS' report, "How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public's Expense?"

    Sorry if that was a bit shrill, I didn't even realise I had an opinion until I started writing...

    • danolner, I think what you write is a symptom of a more general problem. Time and time again I see pro-science types willingly get diverted into off-topic discussions and Gish Gallops -- and this even though the term "Gish Gallop" has been around since, um, 1994?

      It's good to think about questions, but I like to occasionally sit back and think, 'hey, why on earth am I being led to think about this question, while that other more important question is being ignored wholesale?' By doing so, I can keep control over my own framing, instead of repeatedly being suckered into my interlocutor's framing.

      Heck, I think I'll recommend this approach.

      And anyway... I think MT might welcome the idea of you writing a guest post here about Heartland's shenanigans. :) Me, I think I'll just blog on my own blog for now (if at all).

      -- frank

  5. Both the original HI release and Gleick confession ever made it to the top new stories on any of the major news media that I saw (NYT, WP, WSJ, CNN, Fox, etc.), it has ended up being pretty much blog fodder for the most part. Net effect is zero. Given

    Long term impacts?
    * HI will be seen as a propaganda arm for the right / libertarian viewpoint. Anyone who didn't already know that raise your hand.
    * The skeptics were handed a propaganda gift when a leading scientist and chairman of the AGU's task force on ethics admitted to lying for political purposes. Anyone who really thought Gleick would do this, please raise your hand.

    A year from now which one do you think will be more quoted in the culture wars?

    Look, we all know the score here, this was clearly a bone headed maneuver by a really smart guy that caused more pain for the cause than they got benefit. That's why this article even exists, it is farming talking points for future blog debates.

    If you are getting your vital news from the HI or Media Matters, then you probably also believe everything Romm or Morano have to say. I don't need an expose on to understand who their funders likely are, or to imagine what they talk about in their board meetings. I also believe, that they believe they are not evil, and they are fighting the good and ethical fight for their own perceived noble purposes. I simply don't agree with their viewpoint.

    It is the failure of Gleick and some of the more extreme to see, or even attempt to see that the other side has some valid issues. Dehumanizing the opposition makes it much easier to cross the ethical boundary, and to further justify it yourself.

    • Tom Scharf, so what you're saying is that it's more important to look good than to be good? Great that you cleared that up.

      -- frank

  6. Now that some of the dust is settling, I'm saddened by the loss of a platform for Peter Gleick's terrific voice. His loss of standing for the service he was performing has to be considered a negative. Personally and abstractly, I find his actions ethical, but on balance this is not good.

    I have no doubt whatsoever that Heartland is a repeat offender in the climate wars on the scale of, say Bernie Madoff, while Gleick, if what he says is true (and I have no doubt it is, but time will tell) is largely innocent of anything except a desire to increase the weight of truth in an asymmetrical discussion. The blowback is largely irrelevant, as it gets shriller and more dishonest in the face of real world developments and never stops - events don't make a dent there.

    Then there are the Andy Revkins and Tom Yulsmans of the world who are overly concerned about finding balance (and perhaps Obama as well, though he seems to be waking up) and give too much weight to abstract as opposed to practical ethics.

    In addition, I feel empathy for Dr. Gleick; it is difficult to have a life implode based on what seems, based on his "confession" to have been bigger than he realized.

  7. I agree that a somewhat reasonable case can be made that Gleick’s impersonating a HI board member, while likely illegal, can be morally justified as you state.

    What seems totally unjustified to me is his sending out a completely unverified document along with the real documents. As far as I know, he made no distinction between the potentially fake document and the real documents. By doing this, he lent his credibility to all the documents. Since the potentially fake document is the source of most of the recent outrage about HI, this is not a small point. His position goes from spreading truth to potentially spreading lies.

    Can you morally justify that?

    • the potentially fake document is the source of most of the recent outrage about HI

      No it's not. So you're effectively asking a loaded question.

      -- frank

    • What seems totally unjustified to me is his sending out a completely unverified document along with the real documents.

      That depends if he had any reason to believe the document was not genuine (which hasn't actually been established).

  8. "No it’s not."

    Other than identifying specific donors and recipients (not part of HI) and the amount of money (probably less than most people thought), what is significant that was not already known about HI in the real documents?

    • Remember that the so-called "fake" is the one Peter received. The documents he obtained directly confirmed its contents. Given that, thinking it was real was only natural.

      In any event, all the "fake" adds are a couple of importunous phrasings. It does read differently from the others and contains a few non-substantive errors, but the straightforward explanation for that is that it was a draft. It would be an odd document to either fake or use as bait.

      Broadly, I don't think there's anything terribly surprising in the docs, although some of the details may add up to big trouble for HI. They do help flesh out JM's work, which material is probably where the rubber is really going to hit the road for Heartland, and maybe for a few recipients (Indur Goklany; possibly Wojick because of the misrepresentation of his role with DoE). I expect the AD and other donors will be extremely unhappy about the breach of security, and that has potential for damage second only to their 501c3 status problem (the big revelation, relating mainly to the overtly political "Operation Angry Badger" but also to the questionable educational status of spreading lies; so that's your direct answer I suppose). It's also possible that the AD himself may be in trouble, as HI is damned close to acting as his agent.

      An impression I've had that's been bolstered somewhat by the docs is that way in which some of the point work on climate denialism seems to have shifted away from the relatively respectable nexus of Cato/CEI/AEI to Heartland. I suspect it has something to do with the discomfort of general corporate donors with climate denialism, especially as it's become part of the "culture wars," and the desire of fossil fuel companies to cease being seen as the main support for denialism. People like the AD are primarily about the culture wars, and only became interested in climate change as an issue when it could be seen to be a vehicle for promoting their broader social agenda.

  9. My problem with Gleick's actions is not that it was wrong in itself to obtain the documents in the way he did and for them to be made public - I think there was a real public interest in publishing the documents and although the contents were not surprising to those of us who follow the subject closely, the wider public is now likely to be more aware of Heartland's agenda than previously. Heartland are certainly very upset and, assuming that one can take seriously anything said by that absurd blowhard Joe Bast, feel their reputation has been damaged.

    But even if one believes such actions are justified in principle I don't think it is appropriate for someone in Gleick's position to do what he did because if scientists are seen to do anything which undermines their personal integrity then it can cast doubt in the public's eye about their scientific work and that of their colleagues and makes it harder for them to counter the anti-scientific antics of the fake skeptics, although I would hope that the stinking hypocrisy of the latter would also be apparent to the public.

    Gleick would have been better to forward the strategy document to the Desmog guys and left it to them to do any necessary digging.

  10. Gleick has lost all credibility as a scientists to comunicate with the public on this issue. Its a very tough ask to go to the public and tell them your results show they need to change their lifestyles. There can be no questions about methods or trust over people who do this.

    But beyond that then fair Gleicks methods were pretty uncontroversial. People like Bob Carter have the claim he recieves nothing from special interest groups on his blog and has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. It may not be a big fish in America but in Australia is a strong confirmation tying 'contrarian' 'scientists' with the manufactured dissent of PR lobbyists.

    When all the handwaving and 'look over there'is finished we will have a solid audit trail leading from 'contrarian' bloggers and websites to tobacco supporting merchants of doubt. Hard evidence to back the meme.

    A tactical defeat but a very firm strategic victory.

    • When all the handwaving and 'look over there' is finished

      They won't be finished. That's the problem.

      The campaign of bull will continue as long as there's money to be made from bull.

      So what exactly are we waiting for? Should we wait for the campaign of bull to be "finished" so that whatever audit trail emerges will be irrelevant by then anyway?

      -- frank

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