The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick – Part 2: Prosecution Opening Argument

From the beginning: The (Imaginary) Trial of Peter Gleick.

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. It features characters based on real people and evidence based on real events, and is as close to reality as my whim and imagination allow. But it’s completely fake.



All rise. The Imaginary Court of the Internet is now in session. The honorable Judge Mumble K. Mumbles presiding.

The Judge enters and takes his or her seat behind the bench.


Prosecution? Are you ready to make your opening statement?


I am, your honor.

The Prosecutor stands and approaches the jury.


This is a simple case. Now, don’t get me wrong; parts of it will be complicated. For one thing, we’ll be looking at some questions involving climate science, and that stuff can be hard to understand. Especially for someone like me, who isn’t a scientist.

The Prosecutor turns from the jury box and walks toward the defense table, stands in front of it, and lays a hand on it, fingers outstretched.


We need scientists. People drawn from our best and brightest. People who have trained for years under the supervision of other scientists, mastering the knowledge and techniques of their field. Demonstrating the quality of their intellect. Demonstrating the quality of their character.

The Prosecutor turns from the defense table and walks back toward the jury.


Because character is crucial for a scientist. Absolutely crucial. In that sense, scientists are like doctors, or high public officials, or priests. We trust scientists. We have to. They do their work outside the public eye, using equipment and techniques that we don’t -- and can’t -- understand. And then they bring us the results, and they say, like a doctor: “This is what’s wrong, and this is the course of treatment that can best help you.” Or like a public official, “These are the challenges we face, so this is how we’re going to spend your tax money.” Or like a priest, “This is what God intends for us, so this is how to live a life in accordance with His law.”

The Prosecutor pauses for a moment before continuing.


Trust is crucial for scientists, because they come to us and say those sorts of things. They say, “This is how the universe works. This is what is going to happen. So this is what we must do.” We need to be able to trust that advice. To trust that they’ve done the science right, that they’re being honest with us. That they haven’t let something prejudice their conclusions, that there isn’t some all-too-human failing that has compromised their judgement.

The Prosecutor looks at the ground, gives a low chuckle and shake of the head, then looks up at the jury again.


The truth, of course, is that just like doctors and scientists and priests, scientists are human beings. Just like the rest of us. They make mistakes. And just like the rest of us, when they make mistakes they don’t like to admit it. Not to themselves, and not to us. They get caught up in clashes of personality. They disagree. They get angry. They want to prove the other guy wrong, not just so they can be right, but so they can win the argument. And sometimes they can get so caught up in a scientific debate that they lose sight of the need for openness, and honesty, and humility. They find themselves wanting to shut down debate, to come in like a dictator and say, “No more talk. I’ve decided what the answer is, and you’re not qualified to question my judgement. So sit down and shut up.”

While talking, the Prosecutor returns to the defense table. This time, though, the Prosecutor walks behind it, past where the Defense Counsel is seated, to where an empty chair has been left for the defendant. The Prosecutor stops behind the empty chair.


Unfortunately, as you will learn in the course of this trial, this isn’t a hypothetical scenario I’m describing. This is exactly what the defendant, Peter Gleick, has done. As you will learn, he used to be a respected scientist. But over time he gradually became the sort of person who wanted to be right, to win the argument, regardless of the truth. Peter Gleick became an activist, an advocate, a True Believer, someone so committed to his cause that he lost sight of all other truths. He became so convinced of his own rightness that he was willing to use his authority to try to silence others, to shut down debate. Worse than that, he was willing to engage in willful, deliberate deception. He admits to assuming a false identity to obtain private information, then leaking that information to others under false pretenses. He wanted to trick those others into publicizing the information, hurting his enemies while allowing him to remain concealed behind a smokescreen of scientific respectability.

The Prosecutor puts a hand on the defendant’s empty chair.


As you can see, Peter Gleick isn’t here. He’s being tried in absentia. He’s chosen not to participate in this discussion. Now, no one is required to give incriminating testimony against himself. That’s an important principle in our system of justice. Peter Gleick is completely within his rights to be absent as we consider the question of his guilt. And really, it doesn’t matter.

The Prosecutor steps away from the defense table and walks back toward the jury.


It doesn’t matter. Because again, at its heart, this case really is simple. Peter Gleick, by his own admission, has been dishonest and deceitful. And once we realize that, and look carefully at the evidence, it all becomes clear. It becomes clear that his sins run deeper than the things he’s admitted to. In his confession he claimed to be a victim. He said he’d been tricked by some unknown person into committing disgraceful and dishonorable acts. In fact, the evidence will show that this was just another layer of deception, that even as he made his confession, Gleick continued to lie.

The Prosecutor strides toward the jury, voice rising.


The facts of this case will make it clear that this entire affair, from the beginning, was his idea, and his idea alone. Peter Gleick found himself caught up in a public argument with the Heartland Institute, an organization that does research and education based on free-market principles. He was losing that argument. And he couldn’t accept that. Angry, embarrassed, desperate to hang onto his credibility and prestige, he came up with a risky strategy: He would use deception to obtain private documents from Heartland, then release those documents to the world.

The Prosecutor sighs.


His deception succeeded -- but then he suffered the worst shock of all: The documents for which he had risked his professional career, the documents that were going to bring down his enemies, were unremarkable. They revealed that the evil cabal he had been fighting really was just what its supporters had been saying it was all along: a small and not very scary organization promoting research and education.

The Prosecutor shakes his head.


And here, Gleick showed his worst judgement of all. Faced with these facts, what did he do? The evidence will show that he then forged a new document, the so-called “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” memo. He used information from the legitimate documents to give it an air of authenticity, but he embellished that information, enhanced it, coated it with a layer of sinister intent. In effect, Gleick forged the document he wished he had found. Like an experimenter willing to falsify data in order to get the results he wanted, he twisted reality to make it match his theory. Then he leaked that fraudulent information to the world, and sat back and watched the firestorm of controversy it created.

The Prosecutor walks slowly back behind the defense table, and grasps the back of the defendant’s empty chair with both hands. There is a pause. The courtroom is silent.


What Peter Gleick did was wrong, obviously wrong. But the mistakes he made offer a lesson to the rest of us. That lesson is this: No one is immune to human failings. Scientists -- like doctors, priests, and holders of high office -- need our trust if they are to do their jobs. But they must earn that trust. They must prove themselves worthy of it. And when one of them proves himself unworthy, as Peter Gleick has, we need to call him on it. We owe it to the people he serves. We owe it to his colleagues, the men and women who do meet that standard of honor and integrity every day. And we owe it to the perpetrator himself. We owe it to Peter Gleick to be honest about what he did, to look him in the eye and tell him it was wrong. Only in that way can we honor the truth. Only in that way can we give him the chance to begin a journey to real redemption.

The Prosecutor steps away from the empty chair, gesturing toward it.


If Peter Gleick were here today, that’s what I would tell him. With your verdict, you can tell him the same thing.

The Prosecutor sits down.

Next: Part 3: Defense Opening Argument.

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