The Morality of Lying and Exaggerating for Climate Science

In the Guardian today, James Garvey, argues that the actions of Peter Gleick in lying to obtain documents from the Heartland Institute could be justified in the interests of the wider good. He says

The documents, if authentic, show that Heartland takes money – in secret – from people who have something to gain by the idea that climate science is uncertain, and then spread that idea with enthusiasm. Do I actually need to say this in 2012? There is no controversy in the scientific community about Heartland’s target: the fact of warming and the human role played in it.

What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action. Was Gleick right to lie to expose Heartland and maybe stop it from causing further delay to action on climate change?

There are some issues with this statement

  • The most important strategy document is almost certainly fake. Peter Gleick was accused of being the source of the leak by Steven Mosher, because this document was in his distinctive style of writing, including grammatical errors. Gleick denies he wrote the fake document, but now admits to (the lesser crime of) obtaining the other documents by deception.
  • The following statement is ambiguous

    There is no controversy in the scientific community about Heartland’s target: the fact of warming and the human role played in it

    It can mean one of four options. First, that the “scientific community” believe what the Heartland’s target is (so there must be a straw poll somewhere). Second, the scientific community believe in anthropogenic global warming. In which case there a definition of who is in the “scientific community” and who is out. The “97% of scientists believe” was a small subset of all scientists in the climate field, who were asked two very trivial questions, so the degree of belief is not in the predicted level of catastrophe that will justify drastic action. Third as to whether the human role played in (global warming) is a fact. The statement of global average surface temperatures being higher than they were 50, 100, 150, or 400 years ago is incontrovertible (though the actual amount is debatable), but the human role is a subject of wide controversy. They are two separate facts, so the human role is just a belief of the 97% of 1.6% of those who answered two trivial questions, which was just over 30% of those who received questionnaires. Whatever the ambiguities in the statement, it does not rely on scientific evidence, as there is plenty of controversy of the anthropogenic contribution due to a lack of incontrovertible scientific evidence.

  • If the scientific consensus was created by a minority  and maintained by “outing” any who voiced concerns, with activists seeking to annul their funding, then that “consensus” opinion should be viewed with a little bit of scepticism.
  • The statement “What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action.” is a potential moral minefield. If 90% of the population decide that it is alright to persecute a peaceful minority would that be alright? If 90% of the population strongly believe that potential terrorists should be held without trial and tortured, would that be alright?

But leaving these issues aside, the problem with telling lies, or exaggerating, is when you are found out. Once you have lost people’s trust, it is very hard to regain that trust. Dale Carnegie in “How To Win Friends And Influence People” made this very point. 
However, from a purely utilitarian point of view it might be permissible to mislead a suspect criminal in order to find the evidence, at it is not that person’s trust that you want to maintain. The wider public will generally think well of you if you get a criminal off the streets. But if it is to marginalise you opponents, it will backfire if the wider public then perceive that you cannot be trusted. This is especially true when much of the case for climate change is based on trust in scientists to report accurately on a complex subject.

The reasons that there is growing distrust in the scientific consensus are multiple:

  • Michael Mann’s hockey stick studies were based on cherry-picked data, biased weightings of individual studies that showed hockey sticks over the ones that did not AND the favoured studies have all been overturned.
  • The UNIPCC 2007 report did not live up the projected image in a number of areas. The Himalayan Glaciers episode is only the tip of the non-melting iceberg. It is full of partisan analysis and exclusion of contrary science.
  • The Climategate email hack also showed the public image of certainties held by a wide number of scientists is nothing of the sort. The core group are highly partisan, and have taken strenuous efforts to exclude contrary views from the journals.

Finally, please remember that activists have got every major scientific body, including the Royal Society, to make proclamations in favour of Global Warming Alarmism. If public funding of science is seen to go to those who lie and exaggerate, then there will be increased distrust in all areas of science. These activists scientists are risking more than their own reputations.

 

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2 Comments

  1. Brian H

     /  February 28, 2012

    Noble Cause Corruption is sooo seductive. You get to be as bad as you want being good! What a deal.

    Reply
  1. A Reply to Lewandowsky’s sideswipe « ManicBeancounter

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