Yesterday I received a letter from a madman. It was actually more than a letter. It was an inch-thick packet of legal-sized paper. As best I could tell the papers, some of them photocopies of hand-written notes, covered the author’s twenty year battle with a worldwide conspiracy, which he calls the Wackenhut PSI Battle Unit (WPSIBU). Copies had been sent to Joint Chiefs of Staff, the General Secretary of NATO, senators, congressmen, heads of corporations, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics, and newspaper editors galore. The WPSIBU conspirators, he explained, had already murdered his brother and had been torturing and for many years trying to kill him too.
It’s gratuitous to mock this poor fellow but the worldwide conspiracy he had conjured seems oddly inept. Though WPSIBU supposedly commands the most advanced secret technology in the world, it seems unable, despite years of effort, to stop this one fellow armed only with Kinko’s copiers and postage stamps.
Letters from lunatics, I suppose, form a small but distinct stream of mail in most offices. When I worked in college administration I kept a file of the more interesting ones. The usual claim is that the author has discovered a dangerous truth and is desperately trying to get the word out before the forces of evil close in. In The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (2011) Robert Trivers argues that our capacity for self-deception helps us to deceive others. But not always. A good many self-deceived can’t convince anyone else.
What happens when someone really does have a dangerous truth? The late Roger Shuttuck, my onetime Boston University colleague, wrote a valuable book on the topic,Forbidden Knowledge (1997), in which he wove together Adam and Eve, Prometheus, Frankenstein, and biotechnology. A case in point: the current controversy over the publication of studies by Dutch and American researchers on how H5N1 flu viruses (avian flu) can be altered to make them readily transmissible to mammals. The virus is highly lethal in humans, killing 60 percent of those who become infected.
Last September, Ron Fouchier of the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam announced at a conference in Malta that he has succeeded in mutating the virus into a highly contagious form and tested it on ferrets. In November the journal Science provided the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) with the still unpublished details of Dr. Fouchier’s work to determine whether the information could safely be made public. The NSABB recommended against publication and in December Fouchier agreed to omit crucial details. Likewise a another team of virologists led by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin accepted the NSABB’s recommendation to withhold some details in a forthcoming article in Nature about work in which, according to an article in Science Insider, they “stitched the hemagglutinin gene from the avian virus—the H5—into a H1N1 virus that easily spreads between humans.”
Knowledge of a certain kind can be truly dangerous, but Fouchier and Kawaoka seem pretty far off from Mary Shelly’s Dr. Frankenstein, H.G. Wells’s Dr. Moreau, and the legion of pulp fiction and cinematic mad scientists who followed, who deploy impeccable rationality as they pursue their dark dreams. One version of the type that sticks with me is Basil Rathbone—the actor who gave us the classic screed version of Sherlock Holmes in the 1930s and 40s—playing the mad experimental surgeon in the 1956 B-movie The Black Sleep. His pose of hyper-rationality laid over a demented soul and acted out in an overwrought plot captures the metaphor perfectly.
Meanwhile we have the emerging story of Dr. Peter Gleick, the MacArthur Fellow, elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (2006), president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute, well-known researcher on hydroclimatology, and outspoken proponent of the theory that global warming is the result of human actions. Gleick was chairing the Task Force of Scientific Ethics for the American Geophysical Union until February 16. He resigned after he confessed that, impersonating a member of the board of the Heartland Institute, he had obtained internal documents from that organization. He distributed the document along with a forged memo that purported to show Heartland plotting to suppress legitimate science. He targeted the Heartland Institute because it has supported scientists who have expressed skepticism about the degree and character of manmade global warming.
The salience of the story lies not just in Gleick’s egregious misbehavior but in his pose as a guardian of ethics and scientific integrity. Judith Curry gathered several of his pronouncements on the topic, which he seems to have piled end to end to build a platform for his swan dive into ignominy. Gleick persists in saying that he didn’t forge the memo but received it from an anonymous source, but he has asked for a leave of absence from his position at the Pacific Institute.
Gleick’s brother, James, is the science writer best known for Chaos: Making a New Science, which helped bring this emerging field to broader public attention. Gleick appears to be exploring the personal and professional dimensions of chaos. Certainly he has done his cause no good.
Delusion (as in believing that the Wackenhut PSI Battle Unit is closing in), discovery of knowledge that really could pose a danger to humanity (as in Dr. Fouchier’s mutations of bird flu); and deception (as in Dr. Gleick’s clumsy effort to discredit the Heartland Institute) are the sometimes entangled threads of our wish to know more than we can or should. Conspiracies are usually fiction but now and then someone like Dr. Gleick acts one out.
Part of the problem is that the world of climate science overlaps so much with the cult of climate zealotry. The effort to demonize skeptics and de-legitimize scientific findings that deviate from the “consensus” narrative has led to deep erosion of the shoreline between solid scientific inquiry and by-any-means-necessary tactics.
This article originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on March 8, 2012.