What Made a Good Scientist Do a Bad Thing?

03/13/2012 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2012
  • Brandon Brown Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of San Francisco

The sad recent news concerning Dr. Peter Gleick highlights the evolving interplay of science, politics, and media. Writing on The Huffington Post, Dr. Gleick has admitted to presenting himself under false pretenses to obtain internal documents from the Heartland Institute. Fallout has been significant for Dr. Gleick, and for his cause of sharing the meaning and implications of climate science. Meanwhile, his adversaries, those who sow distrust of mainstream climate science, will get to merrily parade this very personal error on a pike.

The narrative arc has familiar dramatic and cliché elements of the hero becoming what he most despises. As a scientist, I find his recent actions indefensible, but I'm interested in the causes.

To be transparent, I've met the man; I helped arrange his 2009 visit to our campus, where he gave a stunning, authoritative, and compelling talk. He was humorous and down-to-earth (pun intended), and he shared his time before and after his lecture with researchers, non-scientists, and students alike.

Dr. Gleick's credentials are stellar. He's a MacArthur "Genius" Fellow and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Compared with most scientists, he's worked with unusual agility in the arenas of politics and media, writing and speaking on informed policy with great effect and toward great respect. What I've found refreshing about his message is the offer of good news to accompany the bad. Far from a doomsday screamer, he regularly points out where we're improving as citizens of the planet.

Dr. Gleick stands in a long history of scientists struggling with policy concerns. It's always a bumpy road, to be sure, but how does an imminently logical and successful person like Gleick get to a place where he decides to try special ops, plotting a fraudulent caper to expose his enemies?

Modern media, of course, suffer from the malady of false equivalence: "Do house cats cause dropped cell phone calls? Let's hear from both sides." The technique sells ad time, but this is an incredibly difficult hairball for most scientists to swallow.

According to Dr. Gleick's statement, this frustration drove him to a "serious lapse" of ethics. His work, and the work of other experts, was held up as an equal debating partner to entities playing by different rules. As he has pointed out, some of these people and organizations are not entirely data-driven, to put it nicely, and in some cases they appear to have supporters with conflicts of interest as deep as their pockets.

To understand his frustration, imagine a news show where NBA star Kevin Durant is held up as an equal basketball player to a pudgy, 5'9" guy who once played for his high school team. Mr. Durant is only allowed the opportunity to prove himself in a 40-second seated appearance, where he can discuss his career and playing ability. The weekend warrior gets equal time, and he regales the audience with stories of scoring 200 points in his driveway, all while pointing out that Mr. Durant is rather skinny, as athletes go. The moderator says, "Well, that's all we have time for today. Clearly a hotly debated issue. Next up, Angelina Jolie's leg!"

Would anyone blame Mr. Durant for trying to leak home movies of the guy bricking shots in his driveway? Or trying to drag the fellow to a real NBA arena to unveil the truth? The analogy is silly, but it underlines the frustration that a person such as Dr. Gleick must have felt, for many years, finding himself pitched against largely non-scientific adversaries in non-scientific arenas. And unlike a basketball career, the perceived stakes are much larger than someone's reputation.

Beyond false equivalence and the mismatch of rules between debates of science and those of policy, I submit that there is a familiar and even more fundamental problem of time scales (see, for instance, an eloquent 2007 piece by Oxford's Maxwell Boykoff). Take just two processes: scientific discussion and the churning of news media. They work toward vastly different update rates, with the gap getting worse every day.

The German physicist Max Planck famously said that new scientific ideas do not advance through compelling argument, no matter how clear and correct. They advance only when the older scientists die. Dark humor (or dark truth) aside, this nicely paints the picture of slow renovations within the house of science. Even a scientific "revolution" takes a generation or more of scientists, start to finish.

A generation? That's the time equivalent of 84,750 status updates from a single political wonk. It's no secret that news media must work quickly on a topic before moving to the next. They are understandably ready to pounce on the "hot tape," to encourage colorful exaggeration, and to provoke ad hoc extrapolation, within the minimum possible number of words and seconds.

So we have a growing chasm of mismatched timescales. Scientific stories in general need time, caution, and skepticism. They require honest exploration of caveats and technical details. Moreover, large-scale complex problems require exponentially more time, especially if the results impact societies. Climate conversation probably deserves a long symphony of refined probabilities, while the audience members (and the tweeting music critics to boot) prefer a short and catchy chorus: "I couldn't really tap my foot to that, Professor. Sorry."

It appears that one good scientist, perhaps fearing declining attendance in the public auditorium, considered extreme and unethical measures -- clearly not for his own image or legacy, which he has now put at risk, but, I imagine, for what he views as the crucial music of valid science.