Selling Your Soul For a Narrative: Understanding the Gleick Fraud

Within the green movement, Peter Gleick is a renowned environmental scientist specializing in the negative impact of global warming. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, co-founded the Pacific Institute, served as chairman of a “task force on scientific ethics and integrity” in the American Geophysical Union, and received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (aka “genius grant”) in anticipation of exceptional achievement in his field of research. Peter Gleick is also the self-admitted perpetrator of a recent fraud.

This fraud did not involve any aspect of his own research, but was purely ideological in nature, directed against the Heartland Institute, a think tank that funds conferences featuring the work of scientists who do not toe the line on catastrophic global warming. Gleick impersonated a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents including the institute’s donor list. He proceeded to combine this material with a fabricated strategy memo, antagonistically mischaracterizing the institute’s intentions, and send the package anonymously to media organizations for the purpose of outing the donors and undermining future contributions.

Only after himself being outed as the source of these documents by the detective work of a non-catastrophist blog contributor, Gleick fessed up and thereby cemented his career self-sabotage. He also claimed,implausibly, not to have himself fabricated the strategy memo, which he said he had received in the mail from another anonymous source, who for some reason trusted him and apparently him alone to disseminate it to the media and whose writing style coincidentally mimics Gleick’s own stylistic idiosyncrasies.

This story has quickly gone viral in the climate blogosphere, but a lesser discussed aspect remains: why in the world would Gleick expose himself to such potentially career-destroying consequences, not to accomplish some Michael Mannian coup in the world of academic climatology, but merely to see his ideological foes embarrassed in print about a matter unrelated to any particular scientific controversy?

Clearly the answer involves Gleick’s own consuming belief in the righteousness of his cause. But particularly revealing is what aspect of his opponents’ case he sought to undermine. If he were convinced the issue of primary importance were the battle over scientific proof of the coming catastrophe, he would not waste his fraud on what would then appear to be a minor tactical skirmish. But he just might risk it all to take down Heartland if what he saw as primarily important were constructing a moral narrative about his enemies’ motivation and financial backing.

In the mutli-decadal climate battle, organizations like Heartland have only recently erected a forum for scientists who do not embrace catastrophism, so that they may present their results and bypass what had been a media blackout. The initial, hockey-stick phase of the catastrophists’ response, while making use of tangential slurs about their opponents’ purportedly corrupt motivation, consisted largely in attempts at scientific counter-argument.

Observing the ultimate failure of this approach, Gleick seems to have realized what the catastrophists real weapon is: the morality play of evil capitalists trashing the planet and hiring glib hacks to obfuscate the scientific evidence of what they’ve done. As long as this message is planted deep into the brain stems of the young, prickly details about erroneous principal component analysis in temperature reconstructions or missing feedback mechanisms in climate models can be smoothed over. Cobbling together plausible counter-arguments is tedious and subject to perpetual back-and-forth, while shaping the basic moral story by which people understand modern industrial capitalism and its relationship to human well-being—especially when their opponents offer no alternative to this story—is the rhetorical gift that keeps on giving.