More Gleick / Heartland Developments

Another day, another harvest of Heartland-gate catnip:

The Megan McArdle pieces, especially, really made me think. As much as anyone, she’s directly addressing the wacky conspiracy theory I’ve been unable to let go regarding the forged strategy memo. Here’s what she had to say in the first of the two pieces I linked to above (with my own comments interspersed):

The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties. Let’s walk through the thought process:

You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute. It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion. Do you:

A. Throw it in the trash

B. Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance

C. Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.

As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.

It’s a gross violation of journalistic ethics, though perhaps Gleick would argue that he’s not a journalist–and in truth, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Heartland, given how gleefully they embraced the ClimateGate leaks. So leave ethics aside: wasn’t he worried that impersonating board members in order to obtain confidential material might be, I don’t know, illegal? Forget about the morality of it: the risk is all out of proportion to the possible reward.

Some of the climate bloggers are praising Gleick for coming forward, and complaining that this is distracting from the real story. And I agree that it’s a pity that this is distracting from the important question about how fast the climate is warming, and what we should do about it.

But that is not the fault of Heartland, or the people who are writing about it. When a respected public figure says that a couple of intriguing pieces of paper mailed to him by a stranger somehow induced him to assume someone else’s identity and flirt with wire fraud . . . well, that’s a little distracting.

Gleick has done enormous damage to his cause and his own reputation, and it’s no good to say that people shouldn’t be focusing on it. If his judgement is this bad, how is his judgement on matters of science? For that matter, what about the judgement of all the others in the movement who apparently see nothing worth dwelling on in his actions?

I think McArdle is pretty much right on the mark here. It’s a measure of how far apart the two sides have been driven that the reality-distortion field arising from the mutual hostility has reached this extent.

When skeptics complain that global warming activists are apparently willing to go to any lengths–including lying–to advance their worldview, I’d say one of the movement’s top priorities should be not proving them right. And if one rogue member of the community does something crazy that provides such proof, I’d say it is crucial that the other members of the community say “Oh, how horrible, this is so far beyond the pale that I cannot imagine how this ever could have happened!” and not, “Well, he’s apologized and I really think it’s pretty crude and opportunistic to make a fuss about something that’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”

After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.

That last line is a little long for a bumper sticker, which is a shame. And it applies to both sides in this war, obviously.

The other thing one must note is that his story is a little puzzling. We know two things about the memo:

1. It must have been written by someone who had access to the information in the leaked documents, because it uses precise figures and frequent paraphrases.

2. It was probably not written by anyone who had intimate familiarity with Heartland’s operations, because it made clear errors about the Koch donations–the amount, and the implied purpose. It also hashed the figures for a sizable program, and may have made other errors that I haven’t identified.

Did someone else gain access to the documents, write up a fake memo, and then snail mail that memo to Dr. Gleick? Why didn’t they just send him everything?

If an insider was the source of the memo, as some have speculated, why did it get basic facts wrong? (I have heard a few suggestions that this was an incredibly elaborate sting by Heartland. If so, they deserve a prominent place in the supervillain Hall of Fame.)

Heh. I think McArdle overstates the degree of Evil Genius required to specifically target Gleick, forge a memo based on the real documents but with enough deniability that it could be quickly denounced as a fake, and send it to him, hoping he’d release it. As McArdle almost certainly knows, this kind of dirty trick has been the specialty of a certain low stratum of political operative in this country at least since Watergate. This would be a fairly impressive example, but not so much as to make this an implausible scenario.

Why did the initial email to the climate bloggers claim that Heartland was the source of all the documents, when he couldn’t possibly have known for sure that this was where the climate strategy memo came from?

Yeah, even in the Gleick-is-telling-the-truth version of the story, this one pretty much has to be a failing on his part, and one that does add to the “what was he thinking?” conundrum.

Why was this mailed only to Gleick? Others were mentioned in the memo, but none of them seem to have been contacted–I assume that after a week of feeding frenzy, anyone else who was mailed a copy would have said something by now.

To me this doesn’t really present a problem for the Gleick-as-victim theory. If that theory is correct, the perpetrator of the dirty trick wasn’t casting some kind of wide net aimed at multiple people. This would have been a narrowly focused attack aimed at Gleick himself. Sending the forged memo to multiple people would have rendered the attack ineffective for exactly the reason McArdle hints at: If anyone else came forward with a copy of the forged memo, it would immediately tend to exonerate Gleick of the charge of having forged it.

How did his anonymous correspondent know that Gleick would go to heroic lengths to obtain confidential material which confirmed the contents, and then distribute the entire package to the climate blogs?

I think this is attributing too much super-villain genius to the alleged trickster. I don’t think he or she (if he or she exists) had any idea Gleick would pull off the social engineering attack on Heartland and obtain the real documents.

How did the anonymous correspondent get hold of the information in the memo?

Clearly, whoever forged the strategy memo had access to the legitimate Heartland documents. That means it almost certainly had to be Gleick, acting after he tricked Heartland into releasing them, or someone who already had access to the documents (presumably a Heartland insider or someone close enough to them to have access to the Board of Directors packet).

If he didn’t write the memo, how did Mosher correctly identify his involvement? A good portion of Mosher’s argument was based on the similarity in writing styles. Is this an amazing coincidence? Was the author of the memo engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to destroy Gleick?

I’m not buying the “amazing coincidence” theory. Having gone back and looked through much of Mosher’s commentary on the question of the authorship of the strategy memo (see his comments on Tell me what’s horrible about this on Lucia’s blog The Blackboard, for example), I’m leaning toward his just having been smart enough to actually spot the similarities between Gleick’s writing style and the strategy memo, and to have picked up on the oddities of the memo’s content, such that he figured it out on his own.

So yeah, once you accept that clues pointing to Gleick’s authorship really are present in the strategy memo, the only two viable explanations I can see are that 1) they’re there because Gleick wrote it, and he’s lying about having received it from an anonymous source, or 2) they’re there because the forger put them there intentionally in an attempt to frame Gleick. And yeah, as conspiracies go it would certainly be noteworthy, but it’s not like the really crazy impossible conspiracy theories that have so many moving parts and independent conspirators as to be ludicrous on their face. All it really requires is a single reasonably intelligent, resourceful, ethically challenged individual who is heavily invested in the climate wars and has access to the real Heartland documents. (And yeah, I realize that Gleick himself satisfies all those criteria once he’d tricked Heartland into the document release.)

I’m sure crazier things have happened, and as someone who has had an unbelievable encounter or two in her life, I always err on the side of believing people. But I would like more details on this story. When did Gleick receive the memo? Was there a cover letter? From where was it postmarked? Presumably he has saved the envelope and the original letter, so will he turn them over to a neutral party for investigation? I’m sure Heartland can come up donors for some forensics.

McArdle hits it on the head here. If Gleick can prove that he received the strategy memo before he obtained the legitimate documents from Heartland, it would come close to being smoking-gun evidence that he was the victim of a scam by someone else who had access to internal Heartland documents. If he can’t produce that proof, well, that’s unfortunate for him. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s the forger, since I can imagine him being inexperienced enough at all this cloak-and-dagger stuff that he didn’t establish that proof at the time. But it would be an opportunity lost, and I’m sure would push many people farther into the “Gleick is probably the forger” camp.

McArdle published the above post yesterday. Here’s some of what she wrote today:

Scientists and journalists are held to higher standards than, say, your average computer hacker. Trust in our work product is dependent on our personal integrity, because it can’t always be verified independently.

Impersonating an actual person is well over the line that any reputable journalist needs to maintain. I might try to get a job at a Food Lion to expose unsafe food handling. I would not represent myself as a health inspector, or the regional VP. I don’t do things that are illegal–at least, not things that are illegal in the stable western democracy in which I live.

Nor would I ever, ever claim that a document came from Heartland unless I had personally received it from them, gotten them to confirm its provenance, or authenticated it with multiple independent sources.

All of this sounds quite wise and reasonable to me. The thing is, though, Gleick isn’t a journalist. Like a lot of scientists who’ve been caught up in the climate wars, he comes off as being very much an amateur when it comes to these kinds of shenanigans. I’m sure in hindsight he recognizes the truth of all the points McArdle makes here. But he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight when he did what he did.

And ethics aside, what Gleick did is insane for someone in his position–so crazy that I confess to wondering whether he doesn’t have some sort of underlying medical condition that requires urgent treatment. The reason he did it was even crazier. I would probably have thrown that memo away. I might have spent a few hours idly checking it out. I would definitely not have risked jail or personal ruin over something so questionable, and which provided evidence of . . . what? That Heartland exists? That it has a budget? That it spends that budget promoting views which Gleick finds reprehensible?

The “medical condition that requires urgent treatment” stuff is pretty heavy artillery. I’m sure the people on the denialist side are going to love quoting it. McArdle can make the case that she means this sincerely, and maybe she does. And maybe she’s right; I wouldn’t be shocked to find that Gleick’s judgement was in fact warped by something, and that it contributed to the bad decisions he made. But again, I don’t think it’s necessary to posit mental illness or some kind of judgment-crippling dependency when simple naiveté and emotional over-involvement in the ongoing battles over climate science could have led to the same sort of lapse.

On that note, a few more questions about Gleick’s story:

How did his correspondent manage to send him a memo which was so neatly corroborated by the documents he managed to phish from Heartland?

Clearly, as McArdle already wrote the day before, the forger had access to the documents. If Gleick’s story about receiving the forgery from an outside party is true, then whoever forged the memo had access to those documents.

How did he know that the board package he phished would contain the documents he wanted? Did he just get lucky?

In the Gleick-as-victim theory he didn’t know. I’m not sure what she means, exactly, by “Did he just get lucky?” Clearly it was extraordinarily unlucky in terms of the eventual consequences it brought upon him. And it wasn’t necessarily some extraordinarily unlikely happenstance; in the Gleick-as-victim theory it would have been important that the documents be enough like the real Heartland documents to be credible to Gleick (while retaining enough clues to be easily exposed as fake if and when they came to light).

If Gleick obtained the other documents for the purposes of corroborating the memo, why didn’t he notice that there were substantial errors, such as saying the Kochs had donated $200,000 in 2011, when in fact that was Heartland’s target for their donation for 2012? This seems like a very strange error for a senior Heartland staffer to make. Didn’t it strike Gleick as suspicious? Didn’t any of the other math errors?

Yeah, clearly this is a problem for the Gleick-as-victim theory. I think the theory remains viable, mostly because it only requires us to believe that Gleick was acting somewhat addled and erratic throughout the incident, feeling pressured and out of his depth and betraying poor judgment. Which isn’t a stretch, since it’s actually a feature of both of the competing theories (and was acknowledged by Gleick in his confession).

Anyway, that’s all the obsessing I have time for today. Who knows what developments will arrive tomorrow?

7 Responses to “More Gleick / Heartland Developments”

  1. knarlyknight Says:

    Call me crazy, or call me a Liberal, but I figure it’s best if kids are encouraged to pursue whatever they want to study that piques their curiousity. After all, studies show, and by that I mean actual social science based, that that makes for better learning results than when a teacher drones on endlessly in front of a blackboard.

    As for the basic introduction to a subject, or the core curriculums if you will, there’s no need to teach more than the consensus scientific opinion and then merely mention what other wing-nuts are thinking.

    But in answer to wwnj’s question as to the percentage of experts that need to agree, as always with any crazy question the answer is “12″.

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