Dishonesty, however tempting, is the wrong way to tackle climate sceptics.
In a much-quoted Editorial in March 2010 (Nature 464, 141; 2010), this publication urged researchers to acknowledge that they are involved in a street fight over the communication of climate science. So would it now be hypocritical to condemn Peter Gleick for fighting dirty? Gleick, a hydroclimatologist and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, California, admitted in a statement on news website The Huffington Post on 20 February that he had duped the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Chicago, Illinois, into handing over documents that detailed its financial support for climate sceptics. Gleick had passed these documents on to the website DeSmogBlog.com, which made them public on 14 February.
Gleick's deception — using an e-mail address set up in someone else's name to request the documents from Heartland — is certainly in line with some of the tactics used to undermine climate science. When in November 2009 a hacker distributed thousands of e-mails stolen from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, Heartland was prominent among those who criticized not the hacker, but the scientists who wrote the messages. However, Gleick, as he has admitted, crossed an important line when he acted in such a duplicitous way. It was a foolish action for a scientist, especially one who regularly engages with the public and critics. Society rightly looks to scientists for fairness and impartiality. Dishonesty, whatever its form and motivation, is a stain on the individual and the profession. Gleick does deserve credit for coming clean — but, it must be said, he did so only after he was publicly accused on the Internet of being involved.
The original accusation, incidentally, was more serious: that Gleick had deliberately forged a Heartland Institute memo that brought together, with suspicious convenience, the most incriminating sections of the other climate documents, which seem to have been presented to the Heartland board meeting in January. He denies doing so, and says that he received the memo, in which he is named and which Heartland says has been faked, separately from an anonymous source. The e-mail chicanery, he says, was an attempt to check whether it was genuine.
In his statement on Monday, Gleick said: “My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case.”
On 24 January, Gleick had published another article in The Huffington Post, entitled 'Climate Change: Sifting Truth From Lies in a Complex World'. As he now knows, the best way for scientists to help people find this truth is through open and honest debate.