Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
In November 2009, in the wake of the first release of Climategate documents, I found myself asking rhetorical questions:
To those minimizing ClimateGate: How badly do people have to behave? What line must they cross before you’ll stop excusing them?
I am now pondering similar questions regarding the Peter Gleick affair. Two weeks have passed since this story broke. This is what we know:
In Gleick’s own words, the above demonstrates “a serious lapse” of “professional judgment and ethics.” There are many ways to win the hearts and minds of the public. Anyone who feels the need to resort to phishing or forging would seem to have little faith in their own evidence.
Two weeks later I remain horrified by the moral vacuity demonstrated by the many, many people who think Gleick’s behaviour is no big deal. An alarming number of them appear to be employed in the sciences. In the view of “anthropologist and science communicator” Greg Laden, for example:
My respect for Peter Gleick is unmoved. He is a great scientist, an excellent communicator, a brave guy… [backup link here]
Great. Brave. Scientist. On what planet could any of these words possibly be applicable?
For his part, American research scientist Michael Tobis has written a blog post titled In Defense of Peter Gleick, Muckraker (backup link here). He says that because some journalists have also behaved unethically, Gleick’s actions shouldn’t be criticized by the media. In Tobis’ view, Gleick’s behaviour may serve “the greater good” by raising awareness.
When the average person learns that climate scientists steal confidential information from people with whom they disagree – and are applauded by their colleagues for doing so – their awareness may well be raised. But perhaps not in the way that Tobis hopes. Even more bizarrely, he says that New York Times‘ journalist Andrew Revkin
should be defending [Gleick] for taking personal risks in the pursuit of what, in the end, was a journalistic endeavor.
When, exactly, did behaving unethically get equated with taking personal risks in the name of journalism? But perhaps I’m being too hard on Tobis. Scientific American did run a column last week in which a former staff writer, John Horgan, argued that
[Immanuel] Kant said that when judging the morality of an act, we must weigh the intentions of the actor. Was he acting selfishly, to benefit himself, or selflessly, to help others? By this criterion, Gleick’s lie was clearly moral, because he was defending a cause that he passionately views as righteous… [bold added]
Even though Horgan qualified this conclusion in the next paragraph, readers were still invited to view Gleick as morally blameless, if strategically clueless:
We also have to look at consequences. And if Gleick’s deception has any consequences, they will probably be harmful. His exposure of the Heartland Institute’s plans, far from convincing skeptics to reconsider their position, will probably just confirm their suspicions about environmentalists. Even if Gleick’s lie was morally right, it was strategically wrong. [bold added]
lied to a conservative think tank to access climate change documents…
But minutes of Heartland’s board meeting, and details of its budget, are not “climate change documents.” Nor is it appropriate to compare Gleick’s actions to those of Winston Churchill during WWII, as Lewandowsky invites us to do. For one thing, Churchill was elected to lead his country.
Sensible commentators from more than one side of the climate debate think the bona fide Heartland documents contain nothing particularly new, revealing, or significant (see here, here, here, and here). Moreover, rather than demonstrating that climate skeptic organizations such as the Heartland are lavishly funded, the confidential documents suggest the opposite. But none of this prevents Lewandowsky from implying that Gleick’s ends justify his means. He writes:
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 [Heartland] revelations.
This, apparently, is how scientists think and speak in the 21st century. Whether or not lying is bad is simply a matter of “personal moral judgment.”
Over at a blog called Science 2.0, a retired engineer named Patrick Lockerby has written a post titled Why I Am Peter Gleick. Lockerby links directly to Gleick’s online confession, so there’s no possibility that he is unaware of the full extent of these ethical transgressions. In his view, it’s “the duty of every rational human being to oppose” the Heartland Institute’s perspective on the world. While many of us think diversity of opinion is essential to a free society, Lockerby apparently believes that every right-thinking person should spend their time stamping out alternative points-of-view (backup link here).
With moral leadership from scientists so thin on the ground perhaps it isn’t surprising that non-scientists are also prepared to defend Gleick. Just today Mark Alan Hewitt, an architect who thinks it’s significant that both he and Gleick attended Yale University, has penned a blog post titled Peter Gleick’s Courageous Defense of the Environment. Despite Gleick’s confession, this gent seems to think there’s doubt about how the documents were obtained. He refers to the
the controversy surrounding Peter Gleick’s supposed pilfering of confidential files from the conservative Heartland Institute… [bold added]
the fact that [Gleick] had the courage to stand up to rich, powerful and increasingly belligerent nay sayers on climate change is an inspiration to all who care about the breakdown of discourse in America. More important, here was a renowned scientist standing up to bullying by right-wing ideologues who are intent on helping self-serving corporations destroy our environment. What he did was unorthodox and clearly beyond the bounds of journalistic transparency, but the people he was fighting have done much worse without any criticism or scrutiny. [backup link here]
Impersonating third parties and misleading those to whom you are leaking confidential information is all about courage, you see. Whatever could be more inspiring?
Perhaps Hewitt was won over by the devastating display of logic on the part of James Garvey, a philosopher who has authored a book titled The Ethics of Climate Change. Writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper yesterday he, too, couldn’t bring himself to condemn bad behaviour:
Gleick’s intentions matter when we try to work out whether he was wrong to lie. It’s worth noticing that he wasn’t lying for personal gain. What resonates for me, though, are the consequences of his action. If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn’t his lie justified by the good that it does?
Climate change is a strange beast. When it enters the room, even ethicists lose the ability to think straight:
What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action. Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out. [backup link here]
It will be fascinating to see how this story develops. In the meantime here is a question for all of the above apologists. For Greg Laden, Michael Tobis, John Horgan, Stephan Lewandowsky, Patrick Lockerby, Mark Alan Hewitt, and James Garvey. Here is a question for all of those individuals who expressed similar opinions on news websites and blogs during the past two weeks. Where do you draw the line?
I get it. Lying and stealing and misleading are OK so long as they help advance a good cause. What else is acceptable? Old fashioned burglary? Arson? Car bombs?
Where is the line?