23/02/2012 05:51 GMT | Updated 23/04/2012 06:12 BST

Gleickgate: Self-Immolation For the Greater Good

When Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010, precipitating the Arab Spring, no one complained that he was giving street vendors a bad name, or thoughtlessly putting those around him in danger. Clearly, we expect our scientists to be less impassioned about their causes.

Earlier this week, scientist Peter Gleick revealed on the Huffington Post that he had exposed the Heartland Institute's climate denialist strategies and funding sources using deception and fraud. Many knees, particularly those belonging to scientists, have jerked in response. The cry is that Gleick's actions were irresponsible. They will bring climate science into disrepute, ultimately making things worse.

That's nonsense. The fact is, many scientists have done unethical things in desperate pursuit of noble goals, and we don't regret any of them. Like Bouazizi's self-immolation, scientists' extremist behaviour has been a catalyst for change that seemed unachievable by any normal means.

Australian medic Barry Marshall was at the end of his tether when he drank a cupful of bacteria in an attempt to prove they cause stomach ulcers. He had just witnessed a patient have his stomach cut out as a result of what Marshall suspected - but couldn't prove - was a bacterial infection. His every attempt at proof had failed, and the only thing left to Marshall was to try it on himself. It was desperate and it was dangerous. In Marshall's view, "this was one of those occasions when it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission." He didn't ask for ethical approval. He didn't tell his wife he was going to do something so risky that he, as one of his colleagues later put it, "damn near died." He did need his colleagues help, though, and they stepped up, taking stomach samples from him on a "don't ask, don't tell" basis. If he had died, an inquiry would likely have scuppered their careers.

Gleick probably felt the same way Marshall did. He knew it was unethical to procure documents from the Heartland Institute under a false name. He simply did what he felt needed to be done at a desperate time in the climate wars, he says. There is every reason to believe him: nothing in his track record suggests he is a rogue scientist. It was a suicide mission, carried out for the greater good.

Will science be brought into disrepute because of it? No more than it was brought into disrepute by Marshall's action. Or by Werner Forssmann, who performed the first heart catheterisation upon himself in direct disobedience of his superiors, without ethical approval and with deliberate deceit that put several colleagues in difficult ethical positions. Forssmann, like Marshall, won a Nobel Prize.

Many of our greatest breakthroughs have been less than pure, in strict scientific terms. When proving the Earth goes round the sun, Galileo pulled the wool over the Pope's eyes with an argument he knew to be fallacious. At the end of the first world war, British astronomer Arthur Eddington wanted to give peace a chance. That's why he massaged inconclusive observations into proof showing that the German-born scientist Albert Einstein was right about general relativity.

Sometimes your instinct for the bigger picture tells you to push a little harder than the rules allow. Scientists are human, and in most cases rather noble ones. Gleick is no exception. Is anyone sorry they now have a sense of how the anti-global warming lobby is organised and funded? No, I thought not.