Given that the only informed and ethical strategy is to leave as much carbon as possible in the ground, it’s obvious that there is a huge economic interest among the holders of the carbon reserve in delaying that understanding and delaying the implementation of that policy. Humans being what they are, some will act dishonestly. What mechanism will they choose?
The Heartland Institute is one of an associated family of institutions formed as 501(c)3 public interest nonprofits which address this issue by taking political positions while claiming to be taking scientific ones. It is difficult to prove this malicious intent, because the legal system is not structured in such a way as to reliably separate bona fide educational activity from propaganda.
How should informed and responsible people respond?
The effective way to respond in cases where there is organized lying not solely to argue on the basis of evidence. Of course, an evidence-based argument has to exist if we are being as responsible as we think, and it’s healthy to accept a challenge now and again, but everyone who has the time and capacity to look at the evidence fairly is already won over to some semblance of a realistic position. Alas, that is such a small minority of the population that it hardly matters.
It’s important to do everything possible to increase the general understanding of the evidence around the controversy, but this amounts to making a small minority somewhat less small. It will help address the problem, in my opinion far more than many people think. But it’s not enough.
Every time you find yourself saying “wait, CO2 is obviously increasing, there’s no doubt about that!” you allow yourself to be cast to the low-attention section of the audience (the real target) as arrogant and dogmatic. Demands for “proof” are far more stringent than in any courtroom; indeed the demands for “proof” are never associated with any example of how anything can be proven. This sort of “debate” is a polemical trick playing on the unwary. Denialists of all stripes use it as their most crucial weapon.
So how do we fight organized, funded, professional bullshit, if telling the truth about the underlying evidence can so easily backfire, and is so demonstrably insufficient?
Ultimately truth is more viable than nonsense. But we (by which I mean we humans, humanity) really need to avoid the Darwinian proof-by-unfitness here. We can’t allow ourselves to test existentially dangerous beliefs by trial and error. We only get to miss once.
One fundamental advantage truth has, other than its triumph in fitness contests, is that real actual scientists are habitually frank, honest and ingenuous. People tend to trust science as an institution and scientists as individuals. The BS artists undermine this trust by concocting fake motivations and fake scandals, trying to cast aspersions on us as honest actors, all the while trying to deflect attention from themselves, their motivations, their methods, and their ethics.
This is the one-year anniversary of a well-known scientist, Peter Gleick, taking advantage of an opportunity to be disingenuous. What’s more, he was even chairman of an ethics panel of a major scientific organization at the time. Was it worth the hit he took to his personal reputation? Was it worth the hit climate science as a whole took?
This is debatable. Gleick himself expresses regret, though it’s hard to know whether that is pro forma or sincere. For myself, I think I would not have had the sangfroid to even consider it. And its peculiar and perhaps unfair to express gratitude for something that the person who did it has expressed regret for. But I can’t entirely let go of the opinion that it has already done some good in the net, and that it may yet do some more.
Most regular readers will remember the story, but let’s recapitulate it.
The Story So Far
1) The Heartland Institute Purveys Bullshit About Climate
The Heartland Institute (aka Heartless Institute) has been known to us as a relentless purveyor of climate bullshit, with just enough masquerade of scientific seriousness as to make it difficult to attack their tax-free status. This may be one of the most contemptible instances of organized lying in human history, because it turns out that the sums of money for which they are putting the entire future of humanity at risk are relatively paltry.
Places like the Heartless Institute thrive in large measure because the press has failed us in matters of “postnormal science” (i.e., places where science impinges on politics) even more than in matters of ordinary politics. They fail us by not calling BS. They fail us by allowing false framings of symmetry of legitimate knowledge versus charlatanry. But most of all they fail us by not investigating who is making the false claims and why.
2) Peter Gleick Does Actual Research and Public Interest Work at a Genuine 501(c)3
Peter Gleick, a year ago, had an enviable career (I know I envied him) as a prominent scientist essentially leading an independent nonprofit, supported by small grants but essentially acting as a free agent in the world of water resources and increasingly at the water availability/climate interface. This brought him face to face with policymakers, and therefore with the increasing tendency of legislators on the right side of the aisle to spout tendentious bullshit about climate and ignore the people presenting actual coherent evidence. Consequently, like many of us, he began to try to track down the sources of what appeared to be an organized campaign of lies.
It wasn’t long before his attentions were focused on Joe Bast (not to be confused with fellow denialist Joe Bastardi – I am not making this part up…) and the more mellifluously named James Taylor (not to be confused with “Sweet Baby” James Taylor the folksinger/songwriter) and their Heartland Institute. Peter demanded that they follow the traditions of nost nonprofits and release their donor list. It is interesting to find a charity whose contributors are ashamed of their contributions, but it turns out that there are a whole bunch of them.
3) John Mashey produces a masterful if rather hard-to-read piece of research
Mashey connects disgruntled right-wing physicists, former tobacco shills, and a shady operation called “Donors’ Trust” which promises rich paranoid old geezers to distribute their contributions discreetly while ensuring that their money “never goes to charities of the left”, which arguably means “never actually benefits anyone who needs the money”. It’s sort of the Silmarillion of denialism, with every fragment of every page implicitly containing a saga. But nobody has chapter and verse on who is funding any of these organizations or how.
4) The disputed incident
4A) An event happens whereby some text ends up in Peter Gleick’s hands that has some text purportedly written by and at Heartland that includes some damning phrases that would never appear in public communications, including the casual assertion that they are “anti-climate”. We will call this the “disputed document”
4B) An event happens wherein Peter Gleick casually misrepresents himself as a member of the Heartless Institute Board and obtains internal documents revealing funding sources. These are the “undisputed documents”.
4C) The text of disputed provenance and the genuine Heartland funding information are anonymously released. Also, in a final email exchange Gleick shows his hand to Heartland, basically with a “you have been trolled” message so remeniscent of his previous demands for funding information as to make it clear that he was the culprit.
Clearly 4C follows both 4A and 4B, but whether 4A precedes or follows 4B is hotly disputed. But before we review the arguments on both sides of this question and the fascinating divergence of worldview that they represent, let’s review the rest of the story,
5) The undisputed documents
The documents reveal that Heartless Institute has basically two lines of business, both antiregulatory in nature.
It was funded by corporations in heavily regulated industries (pharmaceuticals and insurance) to argue against further regulation and for deregulation in those industries.
Its second line of business is to extract money from paranoid old rich people afraid of communists hiding under the mattresses and the like, and get them worked up about some conspiracy theory or other, which in Heartless’s case seems to have more or less by happenstance ended up as us evil climate scientists.
As is true of many of the institutions attacking climate science, the explicit roots of this business in the tobacco industries’ decades-long defense against the medical establishment are evident and striking.
6) The disputed document
The disputed document reveals or purports to reveal profound cynicism at the higher levels of the Heartless Institute, thus threatening their crazy-old-rich-person line of business.
7) The dispute
Heartless disputes the provenance of the disputed document either (theory A) because it is a forgery designed to make them look bad or (theory B) because it is real and makes them look bad. They then make every effort to make the dispute about this alleged forgery. Heartland reveals that they suspect Peter Gleick, which to the world seems a bizarre idea.
8) Peter Gleick confesses
Peter Gleick confesses to the subterfuge used to obtain the documents. Jaws drop everywhere. Institutions duly tut-tut. Peter’s career is in serious jeopardy.
Peter presents his case, which we are calling Theory B: that he was able to perform the subterfuge because enough information was revealed in the disputed document to allow him to represent himself convincingly as a board member.
9) Heartless Institute’s First PR Blunder
In something of a burst of panic, Heartless decides not only to focus on the provenance of the disputed document, but to label the entire event “Fakegate”, a very stupid choice because it weakens their unfortunatley successful “Climategate” meme – it says “fake scandal” to the subconscious more than it says “scandal about a fake”. Did this contribute to the subsequent disappearance of “climategate” from the vocabulary of everyone except the most committed bunkospherians? I think it may have, and I’d like to thank Joe Bast for it.
11) The Unabomber Fiasco
Not done panicking, Heartland releases the Unabomber fiasco on an unsuspecting world. This absurd and grotesque overreach may in some sense mark the turning point for the paranoid right as a whole, the moment they became more ludicrous than threatening. In particular, it gave reasonable people an issue with which to approach corporations asking them to defund Heartland. This was largely successful and most of their corporate backing and insurance/pharmaceutical business lines in ruins.
It is worthy of note that while the Unabomber campaign was one of the most spectacular “own goal” situations on record, had Peter Gleick not gone out on a limb, the corporate sponsors of Heartland would not have been known and could not have been pressured.
12) Doubling down for the fakegate anniversary
Unable or unwilling to go into an honest line of work, Heartless is now doubling down on the “Fakegate” position as a sort of anniversary fundraising and image-enhancing venture among those people who don’t yet find them entirely beyond the pale.
13) Peter is still around
It appears that Peter is still alive and kicking as a scientist and as a pundit! (This amazes me. I wish I had his political skills!)
The two theories
Now regarding the two theories – did Peter Gleick get an anonymous and highly embarrassing-to-Heartless leak which gave him enough information to fool them? (Theory B)
Or to the contrary, was Peter Gleick able to fool them based on some other as-yet-unknown evidence, and then, frustrated by the lack of incriminating evidence, concoct the forgery? (Theory A)
For B to hold water requires believing that Heartless Institute, with its roots in tobacco denialism, is immensely cynical and a bit sloppy with shredding.
For A to hold water requires believing that despite his unforced confession, Peter Gleick is clumsily lying, and also that he is immensely clever in having been able to pose as a board member without any prior knowledge (or with prior knowledge from some other source), that he would construct a fictitious document solely for the purpose of emabrassing HI, and that this is the document he came up with for that purpose.
I prefer B because 1) A seems to me to require a paranoid worldview to believe – the combination of cleverness and foolishness in the presumed enemy and 2) A requires Peter to be a persistent and consistent liar, who nevertheless confessed his role at the first opportunity, which seems contradictory. Meanwhile B only requires a belief that someone at the Heartless Institute is actually a heartless SOB.
However, I encourage endless speculation on the matter, because it shines a light on who the climate-confusion people are and how they operate, something we’ve been struggling to do for decades.
So while it surely remains an awful nuisance for Peter and possibly even a real legal threat, I think it is a good thing for the world that Heartland draws attention to this “Fakegate” business. This is not primarily because of how effective that name and that positioning have been in defanging the pernicious calumnies known by the “climategate” monicker – that good work is mostly done by now.
The good they still do is by drawing attention away from climate science and back to themselves.
There was essentially no journalism about climate-science-denial prior to Peter’s escapade outside our own good-guy climate-blogger fringe of the media. We have Peter to thank for cracking that wall.
In the end the Heartless Institute is a small fish. We may relish their comeuppance, but the problem is not solved. The problem is that there is an industry that preys on paranoid tendencies of rich old people and converts that to a not very huge but still very high-margin profit. As a side effect, democracy is subverted and the environment is systematically degraded among many other ill effects. It is not James Taylor or Joe Bast we need worry about anymore. They may still have a few fish but they have no larger impact anymore. The problem is the whole endeavor of which they are a small part. The business of getting to the bottom of how that works, and how to defuse it, is a serious one. We should thank Heartless for reminding us that it remains undone.
So was it worth it in the end?
Maybe. We haven’t seen the end yet. If the reduction of the Heartland Institute to irrelevance is the whole story, it’s marginal. Propriety and trust are important to science and transgression of the rules must be a very rare event. But Heartland is the tip of the iceberg. What is necessary for Peter’s sacrifice/recklessness to get the most possible merit is for the whole problem of how money corrupts discourse to itself become part of the public conversation.
We’re still a long way away from that success. I for one am grateful to Heartland for reminding me that the problem in the large remains unresolved.
UPDATE: In email, Eli points to an article by Rick Perlstein (whom I once met at a birthday party in Hyde Park, Chicago, my and Obama’s erstwhile ‘hood, but that’s neither here nor there) that sheds a lot of light on what this is really about. The article is called “The Long Con: Mail-order Conservatism“.
Following the standard scare-mongering playbook of the fundraising Right, Weyrich launched his appeal with some horrifying eventuality that sounded both entirely specific and hair-raisingly imminent (“all-out assault on our traditional family structure”—or, in the case of a 1976 pitch signed by Senator Jesse Helms, taxpayer-supported “grade school courses that teach our children that cannibalism, wife swapping, and the murder of infants and the elderly are acceptable behavior”; or, to take one from not too long ago, the white-slavery style claim that “babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood”). Closer inspection reveals the looming horror to be built on a non-falsifiable foundation (“could become”; “is likely to become”). This conditional prospect, which might prove discouraging to a skeptically minded mark, is all the more useful to reach those inclined to divide the moral universe in two—between the realm of the wicked, populated by secretive, conspiratorial elites, and the realm of the normal, orderly, safe, and sane.
These are bedtime stories, meant for childlike minds. Or, more to the point, they are in the business of producing childlike minds. Conjuring up the most garishly insatiable monsters precisely in order to banish them from underneath the bed, they aim to put the target to sleep.
Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.
I’m with Steve Easterbrook’s succinct and well-honed comment:
The opening sentence from McPhadden:
“The success of the scientific enterprise depends on intellectual rigor [sic], truthfulness, and integrity on the part of everyone involved.”
is self-evidently not true. Science is very successful *despite* the regular uncovering of frauds and charlatans, the systematic biasing of medical trials by the drug industry, and the all-too common abuse of statistical methods by just about everyone.
Science works not because we trust each other, but precisely because we don’t trust each other, and we’re continuously finding and addressing the weaknesses in each other’s work. I don’t know about you, but I think most of my colleagues are deficient in intellectual rigor, truthfulness and integrity. The drive to publish leads everyone to over-state their claims.
The criticism of Gleick is ridiculously over-wrought, and these theories about him forging the original memo are have no more credibility than the conspiracy theories woven by hardcore denialists.
Occam’s razor: Gleick found himself in a quandary, having been sent a copy of a memo, which, if genuine, was explosive. His curiosity got the better of him, and he spoofed heartland into sending him board meeting docs. These corroborated enough of the original memo that he went public. He was then immediately overcome with a sense of guilt, and publicly confessed, in one of the most miserable examples of public self-flagellation I’ve ever seen.
I’m sorry, but that confession was too artless to be contrived. Peter’s really not cut out for industrial espionage.