Coming soon to your local movie theater is a documentary film, "Last Call at the Oasis," about the need for better management of what is arguably the world's most critical resource: water. We do face worsening shortages for both human consumption and agriculture but if you dig into the subject a bit, you discover that the film is a shallow left-wing screed with commentary from a coterie of disreputable activists. That's hardly surprising, given that it comes from Participant Media, the same folks who produced Al Gore's propagandistic "An Inconvenient Truth."
Commentator Peter Gleick is exhibit number one. By his own admission, Gleick acted deceptively to acquire documents from the Heartland Institute, which has been at the forefront of skepticism about global warming. Gleick claims that the sordid sequence of events began when he received anonymously a "climate strategy document" that, in his words, contained information about Heartland's "funders and the Institute's apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy." Then, he says, he "attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and [sic] professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name…I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues."
The plot thickens… Gleick forwarded not only the materials he had obtained under false pretenses but also the original "anonymously obtained" document, which depicted Heartland as "dissuading teachers from teaching science" and paying off scientists. That document turned out to be a complete fabrication, a forgery. A forensic analysis by a digital investigation firm found that prior to its postings online the memo "was neither created on Heartland's computer systems nor ever existed there or within Heartland's email systems." The memo references the set of documents obtained by Gleick that Heartland says no one outside its organization could fully access.
Although Gleick's reputation is, in the words of the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, "in ruins," that won't keep him from appearing on movie screens nationwide, supposedly speaking truth-to-power in "Last Call at the Oasis."
Beyond the fascination of a salacious story, this saga illustrates two broader phenomena.
The first is the lack of honesty and candor from groups on the political Left. We have seen systematic mendacity and chicanery of various sorts for decades from a wide spectrum of leftist activist organizations, including Consumers' Union, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Center for Food Safety, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace, the Environmental Working Group and others. Their venom is directed at many targets but some of their worst excesses have been reserved for genetic engineering, nuclear power and the purported risks of certain chemicals. An attempt to frame Heartland with a phony memo is a natural extension of the kind of "the ends justify the means" attacks that we've seen on various products or technologies opposed by activists.
For example, Greenpeace has demanded endless, gratuitous testing of genetically engineered crops – one of the principal advantages of which is to conserve water — but then organizes pre-dawn raids to destroy the very field trials that would satisfy the group's demands for the assessment of risks. The group has even gone so far as to steal rice seeds intended to help poor Asian farmers that were en route to one of the most prestigious public sector research institutions in Asia. And NRDC sent the entire American apple industry reeling by means of a well-organized campaign of misinformation that culminated in a lurid 60 Minutessegment that supposedly exposed the cancer-causing dangers of Alar, a chemical used by some apple growers to synchronize the ripening of fruit. That over-the-top alarmist report seared into the minds of consumers across the country the image of an apple branded with a skull-and-crossbones.
The second is the emergence of what has become a sort of unholy alliance among anti-business ideologues, rogue scientists, trial lawyers and Hollywood filmmakers. In "Last Call at the Oasis," among the disreputable characters presented as experts is Erin Brockovich, the activist paralegal who gained fame in the eponymous movie that starred Julia Roberts. A civil case against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company brought by Brockovich's law firm found the company responsible for leaking Chromium-6 into the groundwater of Hinkley, California, for more than three decades, and eventually PG&E paid $333 million in damages to more than 600 townspeople and pledged to clean up the contamination.
But the evidence was shaky, and here's the denouement that both the litigation and the film missed: A California Cancer Registry survey released in 2010 failed to find a disproportionately high number of cancers in Hinkley. On the contrary, from 1996 to 2008, 196 cancers were identified among residents of the census tract that includes Hinkley — more than 10% fewer than the 224 cancers that would have been expected given its demographic characteristics. (Such surveys are probably not highly accurate, but this one does tell us that if Chromium-6 in water is a human carcinogen, it is certainly not a potent one.)
Another supposed expert in "Last Call…" is Tyrone Hayes, a University of California, Berkeley, biology professor who, in a series of e-mails dating back to at least 2002, exhibits an idée fixe about agribusiness company Syngenta, its employees and collaborators, and its pesticide, atrazine. The e-mails not only suggest that he lacks the scientific objectivity expected of an academic at a prominent research university but also contain bizarre and obscene threats to managers and researchers at Syngenta. Most important is the question of the integrity of Hayes' research, and other investigators and regulatory agencies in the United States and elsewhere have been unable to reproduce his claims and have found his experimental designs to be flawed. The Environmental Protection Agency has complained that Hayes has failed to make all of his raw data available for their review as he is ethically required to do.
Hayes' and Brockovich's shenanigans may have landed them on the big screen but Gleick's misdemeanors could land him in the Big House. Either way, few who see "Last Call…" will know about its dubious bedfellows, who seem to be part of a societal vicious circle — wealthy trial lawyers supporting environmental organizations that provide the grist for Hollywood documentaries that, in turn, establish the basis for the next big class action lawsuit bonanza for the lawyers.
Hmmm, wouldn't that make a great movie…
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.