My (Very Belated) Two Cents on Heartlandgate

There’s been reams of digital ink spilled about the leak of a large quantity of documents from the Heartland Institute, which is a think-tank devoted to to anti-environmentalism. The leaked documents are available here on DeSmogBlog, and the contents aren’t especially surprising: there’s lists of donors, including big tobacco companies and pharmaceutical companies, there’s the names of people on their payroll, including Anthony Watts, and there’s some strategy documents which don’t have anything startlingly unexpected in them that I’ve seen. The added wrinkle is that the documents were collected by Peter Gleick, an American environmental scientist who worked, among other things, in ethics. He contacted the Institute with a false identity and got a hold of the documents, which was a deeply stupid move that demolishes Gleick’s credibility as an ethical scientist. While it’s nice to have these documents, as they confirm a lot of the tactics and participants that climate and environmental scientists thought were a part of anti-environmental movement, it’s not like there’s much that earthshattering in them.

I don’t have very much to say about the documents themselves, though I encourage you to have a look at them — primary sources are optimal! I do have a few words to say about how the documents were obtained and what that means for the scientific community as a whole, and a few other words about the strategy to dissuade teachers from teaching science, which is the bit from the documents that’s caused the most hubbub in the media.

I can understand why Gleick would want to get his hands on these documents in whatever way possible — the more paper trail evidence that climate and environmental scientists have to follow the money trail and see who’s being funded by whom, the better. We know that the anti-environmentalist lobby trades in half truths and outright lies, but it’s always good to have hard evidence of that from their own documents. I get that. But his contacting the institute under a false name to get the documents is astoundingly stupid for all sorts of reasons, most of which impact him alone. However, even though he’s obviously not all scientists, and his actions are not representative of scientists as a community, but the anti-environmentalist lobby thrives on sowing doubt, even in minute quantities. They know that doubt grows, given enough prodding, and Gleick will now be held up as an example of how scientists are deceitful. And if they will be deceitful to get documents (and not even especially earthshattering documents), couldn’t they be fibbing about their science and their data, too? The anti-environmentalist lobby will start dropping that into their rhetoric now, and since Gleick did in fact act unethically, that argument will have weight. And that is not good for scientists who’re fighting tooth and nail to get the public (moreso in the US than in Canada) and the government (in both the US and Canada) to take climate and environmental science as a legitimate, objective, and accurate description of what’s going on on our planet.

Secondly, here’s the paragraph from strategy document of possibly questionable origin that’s caused the most stir in the media (emphasis mine):

Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. To counter this we are considering launching an effort to develop alternative materials for K-12 classrooms. We are pursuing a proposal from Dr. David Wojick to produce a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools. Dr. Wojick is a consultant with the Office of Scientific and Technical Information at the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of information and communication science. His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science. We tentatively plan to pay Dr. Wojick $100,000 for 20 modules in 2012, with funding pledged by the Anonymous Donor.

The authenticity of this document is not unambiguously confirmed — Heartland says while the other documents are real, the strategy document is faked. Gleick claims it’s authentic; I think both parties’ statements should be regarded with skepticism, since both have acted unethically. I suspect we’ll never decisively know one way or the other, so let’s take it at face value; it’s not wildly inconsistent with Heartland’s history.

Given that Heartland is at heart (ha!) concerned with environmental issues, rather than a broad range of scientific issues, this could be chalked up to imprecise language, and read “science” as “environmental science.” On the other hand, science is a discipline was demands constant questioning and continual (re)affirmation and evolution of what we understand to be true. Scientists know that this continual curiosity is the lifeblood of the discipline, but those who trade in half truths and lies say that this means that scientists don’t know anything and thus the lay public shouldn’t believe a word they say. And if you teach kids to ask questions about something less controversial like chemistry, then there’s no reason to think that the kids won’t then start asking questions about more politically controversial subjects like climate change. Science relies on curiosity, and curiosity is by it’s very nature unbounded. I don’t think that sentence was a victim of sloppy writing; I think it was deliberate, because teaching kids to ask questions about how our world works is a deep and fundamental threat to the trade of organizations like Heartland.

I am not the slightest bit surprised that there’s an explicit strategy to be implemented to dissuade teachers, who are in many ways subject to the capricious whims of bureaucrats and politicians who decide what can and cannot be taught, from teaching science. Science education is under attack (again, moreso in the US than in Canada; there are days I want to hug my Canadian citizenship) — of course these people would want to get in on that! A scientifically literate person can see through their smoke and mirrors, and the fastest way to keep someone from becoming scientifically literate is to cut off their science education, or dilute their science education with nonsense and falacies in the name of quote unquote balance (for instance, insisting that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution). The earlier those seeds of doubt and mistrust of the scientific community are sown, the better, in the anti-environmentalist lobby’s eyes, and sowing doubt is Heartland’s mission. We knew all that, but, assuming the document is authentic, it is nice to see it in cold hard (digital) ink; it adds a certain gravity to the matter.

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