Breaking news: Heartland leaker is scientist Peter Gleick, says documents are all real

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 21 2012 8:00 AM

Breaking news: Heartland leaker is scientist Peter Gleick, says documents are all real

The news about Heartland Institute just took a decidedly odd turn. Recently, internal documents leaked from the far-right group revealed their antiscience agenda, including their funding strategy, donor list, and most startlingly a paper outlining their strategy to "dissuade teachers from teaching science".

When these documents were posted, Heartland started threatening the sites hosting them, as well as bloggers who wrote about them including a 71-year-old veteran). This part is very important: Heartland has made repeated claims that the strategy paper is a fake.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Now, the leaker has outed himself: Peter Gleick, a research scientist with the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, which among other things investigates the impact of hydrology on human health and how climate change plays into it.

In his admission, Gleick says he initially received the Institute's internal documents in the mail anonymously. Given their potential impact, he tried to confirm their reality. How he did so, though, is something of an issue:

In an effort to [confirm the accuracy of the documents], and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name.

In other words, Gleick used a false identity to get more information from Heartland itself. This is an interesting situation, to say the least. I'll note that faking an identity is not necessarily wrong or illegal. And if there is a greater moral good involved, like exposing dirty dealings on issues that have a major impact on people's lives -- say -- it might even be understandable. On the other hand, if he impersonated someone real, then this may be a situation of identity theft. There's also the question of whether he did everything he could to find out the veracity of the documents before taking the path he did. I'm not a lawyer, and I don't have all the information, so I don't really have an opinion on this. On the other hand I have very little doubt that how people come down on this point will depend very strongly on where they stand on the reality of climate change.

However, how he obtained this information is not really the point. The information on those documents and their veracity is paramount. In his article, Gleick continues:

The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.

Emphasis added. Note that Gleick is explicitly saying the strategy document about the Heartland Institute trying to dissuade the teaching of science is in fact real, despite the claims from Heartland saying it's not. He is also saying he did not make any alterations, so again he is claiming they are actual Heartland Institute internal documents. Heartland has indeed admitted that nearly all of the documents are in fact real, but maintain the strategy document is a fake.

From the standpoint of an outside observer, this boils down in some ways to a he-said-she-said situation. Heartland says the document is a fake. Gleick says it is not. While people on both sides have made arguments for and against its authenticity, the actual evidence we have from both sides is circumstantial. Unless the strategy document contains some sort of traceable information, or the Heartland Institute's files are opened, there may not be any way to know for sure. However, Gleick has said he can explicitly confirm the documents are the same. I expect there will come a time when he'll have to do so publicly.

Obviously, some will paint Gleick as a criminal and fraud, and others as a whistleblower and hero. In the NYT blog Dot Earth, journalist Andrew Revkin has already said Gleick's reputation is ruined and his credibility destroyed, while at least one commenter is already calling him a hero.

However, there are things we do indeed know. One is that the Heartland Institute has a long history of climate change denial. Another is that they were huge cheerleaders of the manufactured Climategate nonsense, involving stolen emails from real scientists, but threatened to sue bloggers when their own documents were exposed in this very similar way. This reaction by Heartland is very telling, in my opinion.

And even that, in the end, is nothing more than a distraction, something taking away from the real issue: the Earth is warming up. This is reality, and this is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence. And the other thing I know for sure is that groups like Heartland, as well as ones like the Wall Street Journal and the Daily Mail, and many, many more, will now double their efforts to sow doubt on that fact.



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