Comment at Kloor’s

Heh. You say I should be distressed, but I am practically giddy.

Look, a lot of people think of me as “that guy who used the F-word eleven times in one posting”. But I don’t do that very often. Once in a while a dramatic gesture is called for.

Nobody is saying that scientists should hack into right wing circles on a regular basis! (Although some people are trying to establish a charming precedent that every scientist’s every email should be published, retroactively. Too bad I have used up my lifetime quota of F-words.)

Gandhi and MLK, and I may say Nuremberg, taught us that on some occasions ethics is more important than law. The case for transgression is purely utilitarian: whether the transgression acted against a greater evil, or not. So far, there is a case that there is a positive balance of utility to Gleick’s transgression.

To be sure, Gleick’s shenanigans revealed relatively little that was not already know about Heartland, and they pretty much ended his career. So what possible reason is there for my feeling more optimistic about the situation than I have been in decades? And my attributing it directly to Gleick’s peculiar behavior?

Well, the people who actually understand science are aware that there is organized disinformation that is at the root of the failure of the political process to even begin to come to grips with the problem. We have been demanding of the press for decades that they pay some attention to what forces and strategies create and promote the confusion. We have written lots of books and articles about it, and the press continues to ignore it.

But the press cannot ignore the spectacular flame-out of Peter Gleick’s career. And every time the press or the public thinks about Gleick, they have to also think about think tanks.

So far these events have arguably been a net win for the forces of honesty and decency. To be specific, I count seven very positive outcomes to date:

1) Huge reinforcement for the Doonesbury series on myFACTS and the whole liar-for-hire industry
2) The internet community at large, which was split on AGW, was almost unanimously horrified by Heartland for their SLAPP threats, which received a lot of attention on geek sites
3) The press, even the New York Times, even Revkin, are finally talking about Heartland. FINALLY.
4) The whole issue of 501c3s and the Whitney Ball phenomenon are on the table
5) An opportunity to point people at Mashey’s fastidious research with some understanding of the real-world implications of the networks he documents
6) Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) pressed the Heartland Institute Friday for original copies of internal strategy and budget documents
7) The wonderful gift of the monniker “fakegate”, which we should adopt with a vengeance

Against this must be put the embarrassment of various institutions, and the bruises on various chins from jaws hitting the floor. As I say in the linked article, there is little sign that Peter sought to cover his tracks at all. This can be taken as a very spectacular way to announce retirement. Presumably his nest is feathered and his kids can take care of themselves.

Of course, the anticipated flood of venom ensued. But the venom keeps flowing regardless. So that can’t be counted as a negative.

Everything coming out of the American anti-science crowd for the last couple of weeks had had an aura of panic. They are off-balance and making mistakes. And people are finally thinking about, who they are, why they do what they do, and such questions as why the leader in putting on the “skeptics'” conference also is in the business of PR in favour of the tobacco industry.

Of course, they will try mightily to turn this around.

If Keith’s mournful jeremiad is any indication, apparently the press, rather than taking the opportunity of investigating the disinformation industry, their dubious tax status, and their dubious fundraising mechanisms, will chose to mourn the tragic end of a moderately successful scientist’s career and the extremism of those who persist in being angry at the organized purveyors of disinformation.

Pity. As I said a couple of years ago, if the press persist in not doing their job, we’ll have to do it for them.



  1. Pingback: The Rotting Away of a Hero: Andrew Revkin on Peter Gleick

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