First, let me catch you up. On Valentine’s Day, there was a release of documents from the Heartland Institute documenting their budget and the status of their fund raising, as well as their strategy for protecting corporate interests in light of overwhelming evidence that Anthropogenic Global Warming and other climate change requires us to alter our global energy strategy. Heartland has been involved in science denialsm for some time. They are one of the groups that worked to deny evidence of the negative health effects of smoking, among other things. Heartland, a Libertarian “think” tank is a relatively small player in the overall climate discussion, and the documents indicate that the annual balance of their budget has been diminishing owing to reductions in contributions. Nonetheless, the documents painted a picture of systematic dishonesty. In particular, the documents seemed to indicate that Heartland was launching a bought and paid for effort to interfere with the teaching of good science in our K-12 educational system, replacing honest science with the willful misdirection we know of as science denialism.
One of the documents, a “strategy memo,” was, Sesame Street style, “Different from the others” and seemed not to belong. It was a photocopy or fax, while the others were word processor documents, it seemed to have been written in a different style, and had a different look and feel. This led Heartland-sympathizers to claim that it was faked.
Late yesterday, climate scientist Peter Gleick publicly took responsibly for the release of the documents. Peter is a well respected scientist and spokesperson, MacArthur award winner, and by all accounts an all-round nice guy. He had recently been invited to the board of the National Center for Science Education, and had already embarked on a renewed effort to fold climate science denialism into the broader and troubling movement of science denialims we have known of for years as Creationism.
In his piece in the Huffington Post, Peter told us that he had obtained the “strategy memo” and felt compelled to verify the startling contents of this document. He did so by requesting documents that were being distributed to Heartland board members from the Institute, and they complied by sending them to him. He indicated in his blog post that he had used a false identity to do this, but it is important to note that we know nothing about that identity as of this writing (I’ll get back to that in a moment).
One outcome of this revelation is that the outstanding questions about the authenticity of the strategy memo have now vaporized. It still could be a fake, but there is no specific reason to believe it is. The documents Peter obtained seem to authenticate it at several points.
As you might expect, science denialists and pro-industry shills are now crying foul. Somewhat less expected is that some science writers, bloggers and journalists seem quick to throw Peter under the bus, declaring that what he did was clearly unethical. The incident which served initially to expose the seemingly nefarious workings of an anti-science non-profit has now become a distraction in the important discussion of what we need to do to mitigate against the ill effects of our inefficient and thoughtless energy technology and concomitant policies.
In a recent tweet, Bora Zivkovic notes “… trying to figure out where Gleick fits in the media ecosystem, trying to clarify for myself (and others) his role, ethics.” And that is what I want to talk about for a moment.
Clearly there has been an evolution of the media ecosystem, and it is ongoing. In the old days, there were Journalists and then there was everyone else. Then the blogosphere was born. A couple of years back, I remember being rather annoyed at the prospect that bloggers would automatically be considered “journalists” because, well, we weren’t. Journalists were people who went to journalism school and learned journalism methods, ethics, strategies, and so on. I felt (and I still feel this is true in many cases) that “blogging” was not a thing in and of itself for most people who were blogging. Scientists could blog, but they were still scientists. Who blogged. If a journalist blogged, they were a journalist. Blogging. A cook could blog about recipes, but that did not make him or her a journalist, or even a blogger. And so on.
Underscoring this point was a key difference between scientists (who might be blogging or otherwise writing) and journalists, in how sources were handled. A journalist could use an unnamed source to make a point. A scientist would normally use citations or personal communications, identified. A journalist (according to many journalists that covered my own scientific work) would be wrong to run pre-published copy by a source (who is, say, a scientists whose work is being covered by the journalist) to check for accuracy. This was somehow a violation of journalistic rules, because the journalist is to be independent and is not to share information among sources prior to publication. A scientist writing about some scientific issue would normally cross check statements with the appropriate sources in order to get it all scientifically right. Overall, I saw the role, methods, and ethics of journalists as different from, and sometimes in conflict with, the role, methods and ethics of scientists. At some level, ethics are ethics, but at many other levels, ethics are agreed upon rules of conduct that make sense only in a certain well defined situation. A scientist making a claim by reference to “an unnamed source at a major research laboratory” would be doing something wrong. A journalist reporting a claim by “an unnamed source at a major research laboratory” is protecting a source and may well be doing a great job, as a journalist.
Having said all that, I agree with Bora’s overall theme (developed in much of his writing) that the media ecosystem is not what is used to be, and that it is changing in ways that are mostly positive. So, when Peter Gleick, scientist, starts writing blog posts at HuffPo or elsewhere, it is not at all clear that he is a scientist writing, or a scientist moonlighting as a journalist, or some new thing. Well, actually, it is clear: He is a new thing. But with novelty and evolution of a traditional system comes ambiguity.
Over the last several hours, I’ve had conversations with numerous well respected professional journalists about this, and I learned some interesting things. (Despite being a blogger, I did not osmotically absorb Journalism School!) We all know of famous journalists who obtained secret documents using various methods and in so doing revealed things that needed to be revealed, and thus changed history. From long before the Pentagon Papers through Wikileaks to the present, there have been many moments where someone doing either journalism or whistle-blowing, or something in between, caused the release of secrets that we are now glad to have been apprised of. Wasn’t Peter Gleick also such a laudable conduit of truth? That may well be, and I’m not going to judge him or what he did at this point of time. But it turns out to not be a very simple question to answer.
It turns out that among Journalists, it is not considered ethical to falsify an identity, especially a specific individual’s identity, or an identity of authority over a person who is being fooled, to obtain information. It is, however, considered valid and normal to be thought of as someone one is not. As I understand it, the difference can be exemplified in the following comparison.
Scenario A: The scene is a public lobby of Acme Corporation with a receptionist at a desk. Members of the Acme Board of Directors have been told to stop by at the receptionist desk and pick up the information packet for the upcoming board meeting. Mary Smith, board member, goes up to the receptionist and says “I’m board member Mary, please give me one of those packets” and the receptionist complies. Board member Joe does the same thing. Then, reporter Alice Stravinsky goes up to the receptionist and says “I’m board member Harry’s assistant, he’s in the coffee shop and wants me to bring him his packet for today’s meeting” and the receptionist complies. Reporter Alice absconds with the package and writes up a story about their content.
That was a violation of journalistic ethics. Alice is fired.
Scenario B: Same setting, same circumstances as Scenario A. However, in this case, reporter Alice is simply standing in line behind Mary and Joe. When Alice gets up to the reception desk, she simply puts out her hand, the receptionist figures she’s supposed to get a packet, and hands it to her. Alice takes the package back to the newsroom, writes up a revealing front page story on the nefarious activities of Acme Inc, and eventually gets a Pulitzer Prize for her excellent investigative reporting.
I’m sure many will have problems with this false set of scenarios, others will agree. The point is: If a reporter pretends to be someone she or he is not, that’s bad. If a person thinks the reporter is just some person and says something to the reporter quite innocently, or the reporter without falsifying an identity somehow comes to be in the possession of some document, that’s OK.
Peter Gleick may or may not have followed either of these two scenarios, but it may not matter for two reasons. The first reason, is that even though he blogs, Peter is not a journalist. It is not fair or reasonable to hold him to journalistic standards. As I noted above, journalistic standards are in part situational, and can differ from other perspectives. In addition to that, it is not necessarily fair or appropriate to decide that on Monday, the media ecosystem is evolving and it is not any longer true that the old school is the only school, but on Tuesday, decide that traditional journalistic rules apply as they always have even to people who are not journalist.
The second reason that while the comparison of methods for obtaining information is interesting, it may not apply in this case is the simple fact that Peter Gleick may have decided that falling on his sword for a greater good is what he had to do. Also, putting it a bit differently, he may have thought (as many have) that in an effort to release and publicize the inner workings of an institution that seems to be acting against the interest of all future generations, one does what one has to do. It may be the case that Peter was acting as an inspired and well meaning citizen, rushing past the fire fighters to put out the grease fire, but doing it wrong, because he didn’t know the rules and proscriptions.
We are also seeing, as this drama unfolds, two other Internet-exacerbated phenomena. We are seeing the Watch the Monkey strategy taking hold, both before and after Peter’s revelation, and we are seeing in commentary about Peter’s activities, the Damning and Execution effect.
The first of these is obvious. We have developed, as a species, a technology for doing much of what we do that has the unintended consequence of changing the way the planet’s climate system works. Another outcome of that technology is the rise of a well embedded class of one-percenters who are convinced that they will remain comfortable and in power only if we don’t change that technology, and they have employed all manner of strategy to derail the scientific and political discussion of climate change and energy policy. One method that is used to good (meaning bad) effect is to develop any available means to distract the discussion away from good science and thoughtful policy. It is Johnnie Cochran all over again.
The second and somewhat more disturbing pattern is the all too common human tendency to push our way in the front of the line to throw rotten tomatoes, or worse, stones, at anyone we see as having made a mistake. The reason we have a criminal justice system, and a civil law system, is to thwart this tendency. We have all heard of the not-too-apocryphal societies with vengeance systems. You do something bad to me, so I get to kill you (or a relative). When human reactions are allowed to transform unchecked into social action, hands are cut off for stealing loaves of bread and women who are found in the company of men to whom they are not married are executed. All crimes lead to the maximum punishment. In civilized society, we have learned to mete out punishment in proportion to the crime, and in some cases, maybe a bit less so, to err on the side of reason. But in the blogosphere there is no such regulation of our instincts. If you say or do something wrong you are pounced upon and vilified. Peter is to be vilified for his efforts, no matter what the exact methods he used and no matter what is reasons were. Indeed, we have come to equate as though it was really true appearance with reality when it comes to possible impropriety. This is wrong. Fortunately, it is also often short lived. By next week or next month, the realities of Heartland’s anti-science and anti-education strategies will be an enduring truth while the vilification of specific actors in this drama will have lost its impetus and unsavory luster.
My respect for Peter Gleick is unmoved. He is a great scientist, an excellent communicator, a brave guy and a crappy journalist. Oh well.