Science or Activism? Lessons from the Peter Gleick episode.

Posted on April 12, 2012

The most recent environmental community ‘scandal’ arose when Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick falsified his identity to gain access to confidential internal documents from The Heartland Institute – a climate skeptic organization. Predictably his actions ignited a vigorous public debate.

Much of the environmental community rallied behind Gleick presenting the case in the most superficial way as a battle between good and evil. The lionization of Gleick by some ran to this sort of comment: “we have a long and rich tradition in this country of individuals who break the law so that all others living under that law may benefit. The proper word to describe those individuals is ‘heroes.’ ”. The same piece described Gleick’s own admission of poor judgment as ‘disappointingly obsequious’. Others described Gleick as someone who ‘puts truth before self-interest’.

Andrew Revkin took a different view, suggesting that that the episode left Gleick’s “reputation in ruins and threatens to undercut the cause he spent so much time pursuing”. He was pressured by some climate campaigners to retract this opinion.

I believe this debate reflects a number of worrying trends in the environmental movement – trends that will undermine its ability to succeed.

Peter Gleick is not a crook. His tactics are no more than those that might be used by an aggressive investigative journalist. Neither is he a saintly hero saving the world. To my mind, Gleick made a simple choice (albeit probably unconsciously). In choosing to pursue a degree of deceit as the route of getting information, he firmly chose to be an activist first and a scientist second. Gleick no doubt has strong views on climate science. That he would willingly use deceit in order to support his views does not make him evil but it does raise legitimate questions about how much of his science can be fully trusted. If a scientist is willing to deceive once, would she also be willing to do so in how she compiles her scientific data? I am not suggesting that Gleick did or would, but that doubt will remain.

The activist, like the advertiser, is not expected to be unbiased. He is expected to present the most aggressive case for his product and the information presented in this way is rightly taken by the rest of us with a few pinches of salt. But eminent scientists are held to much higher standards. Their behaviors must be seen to be unimpeachable if we are to believe that their science has been conducted and presented as objectively as possible. Gleick gave up the right to be perceived in this way. His decision makes him an activist – no doubt an honest and well-meaning one – rather than a scientist.

And here’s the rub. Scientists involved in climate and other environmental issues are becoming increasingly vocal in their activist views. As a result, the vital boundary between science and activism is slowly being eroded. This does no good whatsoever to the environmental cause and its chances of success. If the general population is to see the science as a trustworthy input to public policy decisions, then we need to work harder to build a firewall between science and activism. In terms of credibility, there is no difference between science funded by a climate skeptic think-tank and science funded by an activist environmental NGO or Foundation. Both can be suspect as being under the influence of vested interest. Similarly a scientist who is vocally activist in arguing against policies that might mitigate climate change can be perceived as being just as subject to bias as one who is vocally activist in arguing for such policies.

I suggest that there may be two questions that could usefully be discussed following the Peter Gleick episode. The first is whether turning the environmental debate into a childish, unthinking battle between good and evil will simply lose public interest and delay or eliminate the possibility of progress. Those who want to halt progress will be the ones to benefit. Secondly, environmentalism must take seriously the need to guard the credibility of its scientific base. We cannot afford to conflate science with activism. Efforts need to be made to build an effective firewall between the two – something that currently does not exist.  We desperately need a body of scientists who are not seen to be ‘in the pocket’ of one side or the other. Scientists who can be trusted to generate clear and unbiased science and who leave the political fights about policy choices to others.

Are you a scientist or are you an activist? In resigning from key positions and admitting an error of judgment, Peter Gleick clearly didn’t kid himself that he could be both and still persuade the public to take his science seriously. Others need to be just as clear as to which choice they are making.



Update June 7th: Gleick reinstated at Pacific Institute