Last week, I think it was, there was a big swivet over some leaked, or stolen, documents from the Heartland Institute, purporting to show the underhanded role the think tank plays in pushing climate-change denialism. Though I generally believe the case for man-made global warming, and hate the way many conservatives treat the whole thing as a test of ideological purity, I hesitated writing about all of this after seeing Megan McArdle’s post raising questions about the authenticity of one of the documents. Nota bene, some of them are true and accurate, and reflect poorly on Heartland. But Heartland adamantly claimed that one of the worst was a fabrication. McArdle said they might have a point, and made a case for her suspicions about this sting.

She was right, at least in part. As McArdle posts tonight, Peter Gleick, chair (until, like, yesterday) of the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics, confesses to having contacted Heartland under a false name, and tricked them into sending him the confidential material. As a gobsmacked McArdle writes:

This is . . . just . . . words fail me . . . I mean, seriously . . . um . . . well, what the hey?!?!

The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties.  Let’s walk through the thought process:

You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute.  It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion.  Do you:

A.  Throw it in the trash

B.  Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance

C.  Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.

As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.

It’s a gross violation of journalistic ethics, though perhaps Gleick would argue that he’s not a journalist–and in truth, it’s hard to feel too sorry for Heartland, given how gleefully they embraced the ClimateGate leaks.  So leave ethics aside: wasn’t he worried that impersonating board members in order to obtain confidential material might be, I don’t know, illegal?  Forget about the morality of it: the risk is all out of proportion to the possible reward.

Read McArdle’s entire post. If you like, here is Heartland’s reaction to Gleick’s confession. Looks like Pete better lawyer up. To be clear, this by no means exonerates Heartland from the embarrassing material in the bona fide documents. But Peter Gleick lied to trick someone into giving him confidential information. In so doing, he made himself the story — and handed to his opponents a public relations victory of monumental proportions.