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Selling your soul for a narrative: understanding the Gleick fraud

by Eric Dennis

The author holds a PhD in physics from UC Santa Barbara and is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Industrial Progress.



The Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) at UC Santa Barbara (the Kohn Hall).

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.



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reader pjb253 said...

I would be surprised if he is a fellow at the Center for Industrial Progress. Doesn't look like his type of organisations at all.


reader Luboš Motl said...

I assure you that Eric Dennis is a senior fellow of the center (click to see the official page on the leadership). What has led you to your demonstrably wrong conclusion?


reader pjb253 said...

My apology. Confused The Author with Gleick. The anti robot defenses are almost impossible to get past. Probably get a more intelligent comment from a robot than me.


reader Lemon2 said...

Lubos,
From everything I see and read, I've concluded the following:
-- the AGW alarmists are wimpy geeks who could never get a date or afford a nice car until Al Gore came along
-- the AGW realists (scientists and bloggers) are a collection of really smart people with elephant sized bull shit detectors who know a scam when they see one. They're able to identify flaws in both the science and the logic behind the theory and destroy both in logical and scientific ways.
-- the defenders of the Alarmists (Desmog as well as mainsteam media) are not very bright and can't come up either logical or scientific support for the geeks so end up just writing ad hominem criticisms of the critics which make them look even geekier and mean.

Lemon from Toronto

(as an aside one of the comment moderation words below my comment was: "sensable"


reader Harlow said...

All charitable foundations eventually end up in the hands of academia. MacArthur would be apalled. I didn't know him personally, but heard many stories while working as an actuarial consultant putting a value on the insurance company he founded.


reader hopalongtom said...

The alarmists are in a panic about
Heartlans receiving big oil funding. So what, the CRU receives big oil funding.


reader Doug S said...

Very good post on the subject Eric. This is a religious phenomenon as far as I concerned. The kids in school are being indoctrinated into this religious movement and it makes them easy targets for political causes once they reach voting age. All the propaganda presented in schools about dying polar bears, dying seals, rising sea levels, on and on lays the foundation for a moral and righteous cause i.e. "love of mother earth" or "environmentalism". When the kids grow up and vote, politicians can bundle their proposed initiatives with a sprinkling of "polar bears" or "environment" and the voters equate the message with morality and "the right thing to do". It's imperative that we get honest and pure science back into the schools and remove all of the advocacy science. We need high quality scientists and engineers tomorrow and not indoctrinated religious followers of faux environmentalism.


reader Unknown said...

Very good post, Eric, which starts to get to the root of the motivation behind the fraud.

I think it also yet another sign that the warmists are starting to panic as the current lack of warming falsifies their conjecture. The resulting loss of public support is proving difficult for them to deal with, hence this and other examples of irrational behaviour.


reader Unknown said...

Gleek as a verb used to mean gaining an advantage by trickery, a meaning now supposedly considered obsolete. It also could mean jesting or gibing. At Climate Audit they presented a quote from a Shakespeare comedy, where a character named Bottom (wearing a mask in the form of the head of an ass) says: "I can gleek upon occasion." To which another character replies: "Thou art as wise as thou art beautiful."

The Urban Dictionary says that the verb "gleek" means "building up saliva in the salivary glands using some stimulus, like sour food or yawning, and then pressing the tongue upon the glands, causing the saliva to shoot out, usually at an impressive distance.” It also means: “the use of one’s saliva glands to shoot the saliva a credible distance, with the intention of hitting someone.”

Finally, a popular character named Gleek is described in Wikipedia as follows:

Gleek is a blue "space monkey" and the pet of Zan and Jayna, the Wonder Twins. Gleek is often used as comic relief for the series, as the character often gets into mischief. A joke involving Gleek often ends episodes of the Super Friends in which he appears. Gleek has a stretchable, prehensile tail which can be quite useful. Gleek is also highly intelligent, as he clearly understands spoken English.