Lying for the Cause?


On 24 February, the Scientific American carried a revealing blog by John Horgan entitled, Should Global-Warming Activists Lie to Defend Their Cause?  Horgan is the Director of the Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology.  He analyzes his question in the context of a discussion he held in a freshman humanities class. The subject was the morality of Dr. Peter Gleick’s use of identity theft to steal documents from the Heartland Institute.  Horgan is a promoter of the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and he is clearly at pains to rationalize the implications of Gleick’s caper.  Included in Gleick’s distribution was a forged document, although Gleick denies any connection to its fabrication.  Of particular interest to this essay is Horgan’s last sentence, because it unintentionally places the politicization of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) debate into sharp relief.

To put this into context, however, we need to begin with a little background:  Dr. Gleick, winner of a MacArthur genius award, is a very prominent scientist and a highly respected AGW advocate. Prior to this episode he was the chairman of the American Geophysical Union’s ethics committee, and he is also the President of the small but prestigious Pacific Institute, an influential AGW advocacy organization.  His target for the identity theft, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, is also a small, but relatively obscure, libertarian organization that promotes a skeptical viewpoint of AGW theory as well as the ideology of free-market solutions to all problems. The latter is a point of view to which I do not subscribe.

Heartland provides skeptical scientists, so-called climate deniers, like UVA physics professor Fred Singer with small grants of funds donated legally by the kind of wealthy conservative activists that liberal-minded citizens who fear the rise of oligarchy — including myself — love to loathe.

Nevertheless, it is a fact that the dollars Heartland distributes to the so-called ‘deniers’ are minuscule when compared to the billions of taxpayer dollars and the hundreds of millions in grants from private foundations now being rained down on the scientists promoting AGW theory.⁠[1] The Heartland-funded scientists examine and publish questions about and uncertainties implicit in AGW theory, and part of its motives are surely political, as are those of far more luxuriously-funded, pro-AGW outfits like Climateworks [see endnote #1].  So, from the point of view of the AGW fraternity, if Heartland’s efforts ever hit pay dirt, a lot of money would be at stake, and taxpayer and private donations to the fraternity could be reduced.  That makes Heartland a threat to the AGW honey pot and therefore one of the fraternity’s many enemies. As a veteran of many Pentagon budget battles, I can assure you that any threat to any program’s honey pot, no matter how small or inconsequential, is taken very seriously by the faction that benefits from the continued cash flow.⁠ [2]

Suffice to say, Gleick’s theft is not in dispute; he has admitted to it.  However, he denies any relationship to the crucial, smoking-gun, forged memo that he distributed anonymously along with the package of authentic Heartland documents he stole.  Without the forged Heartland memo, that package of real Heartland documents would have been a yawner.   The forgery, the source of which is still in dispute, makes it clear that the entire operation was intended to smear Heartland by discrediting the motivations of its scientific work with unflattering claims of influence peddling that Heartland insists are false. Descriptions of and apologia relating to Gleick’s caper can be easily found all over the net, and for interested readers, I recommend they start with Megan McArdle’s relatively balanced one in the Atlantic Monthly blog site at this link.

Here, we are concerned with the ramifications of Horgan’s ethical rationalization of Gleick’s behavior, because together, they shine a bright light on the state of moral decay in climate science.

To those who say I am cherry picking examples, I can only say that Horgan’s blog appeared in the Scientific American, a prestigious magazine professing to be a promoter of science and the ethical practice of science.  SA is an enormously influential source of information for concerned citizens interested in learning about science and public policies affecting science.  Horgan is an influential teacher of science in one of America’s top science and engineering colleges.  Therefore, it is worth taking the time to examine Horgan’s reasoning by reading his blog entry at this link. Briefly, here is how Horgan framed the moral dilemma by synthesizing a twisted interpretation of Immanuel Kant to irrelevant reading of John Stuart Mill:

Kant said that when judging the morality of an act, we must weigh the intentions of the actor. Was he acting selfishly, to benefit himself, or selflessly, to help others? By this criterion, Gleick’s lie was clearly moral, because he was defending a cause that he passionately views as righteous. Gleick, you might say, is a hero comparable to Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who in 1971 stole and released documents that revealed that U.S. officials lied to justify the war in Vietnam.

But another philosopher my students and I are reading, the utilitarian John Stuart Mill, said that judging acts according to intentions is not enough. We also have to look at consequences. And if Gleick’s deception has any consequences, they will probably be harmful. His exposure of the Heartland Institute’s plans, far from convincing skeptics to reconsider their position, will probably just confirm their suspicions about environmentalists. Even if Gleick’s lie was morally right, it was strategically wrong.

The comparison of Gleick to Ellsberg is absurd, even if we accept Horgan’s warping of Kant’s theory of the categorical imperative⁠ [3] to infer that any self-defined goodness of the “end” justifies the “means” employed to achieve that end.  Ellsberg was an insider who exposed illegal government behaviour.  Federal officials who lie to Congress are committing a felony that carries both a heavy fine and time in the slammer. That it is almost never enforced is beside the point. The most charitable description of Gleick’s behaviour is that he committed a crime (identity theft) to expose perfectly legal if unsavory behaviour — and the adjective ‘unsavory’ would apply only if the forged document was accurate.  By the way, Horgan seems not to realize that many of the federal officials committing the crime of lying to Congress about the Vietnam war believed passionately, like Gleick, in the righteousness of their cause, but their self-defined righteousness did not absolve them of the crime. For this reason, a more appropriate comparison would be of Gleick to General Westmoreland, not Daniel Ellsberg.

Horgan’s invocation of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy is equally bizarre.  It does not even address the moral question, but simply introduces the unrelated idea that Gleick’s Heartland caper was strategically stupid.

So, Horgan’s moral appeal to the authority of philosophers on the question of lying boils down to a system of right and wrong based on the belief that the ends justify the means conditioned only by a condition that the means achieve the desired end are not stupid.  This curious conception of morality gets worse when one considers Horgan’s conclusion:

“I’ll give the last word to one of my students. The Gleick incident, he said, shows that the “debate” over global warming is not really a debate any more. It’s a war, and when people are waging war, they always lie for their cause.”

That seem true enough, but does the argument end there?

To be fair, Horgan did not endorse this view, but significantly, he did not dispute it either.  He just left it hanging ambiguously to be interpreted any way you want, like a chad in a Florida election.

Horgan may invoke Kant and Mill to rationalize Gleick, but then he fails to place the philosophical nature of his endpoint — war — into a philosophical context.  Also, his subject is behaviour in moral conduct of scientific debate, yet he did not invoke noted philosophers of scientific thought like Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, or Bertrand Russell.  Let’s shine a light on these glaring omissions:

Sun Tzu is certainly the most influential philosopher of the morals used in the conduct of war.  Sun Tzu said correctly, 2500 hundred years ago, ‘all war is based on deception.’  Winston Churchill certainly agreed, when he said the truth must be guarded by a “bodyguard of lies.”  Sun Tzu and Churchill justified deceptions and lies to wreak havoc inside the adversary’s mind, because war is clearly a matter of life and death, and in matters of life and death, the ends justify the means, by definition.  Horgan’s omission of any discussion of the philosophical essence of war is doubly strange, because he just published a book entitled “The End of War” in which he claims to have applied the scientific method to the study of war.

Had Horgan bothered to think about the implications of Sun Tzu’s or Churchill’s  philosophy, his last word might might have been a response to the student by noting the practice of science most certainly cannot be based on deceptions and lies.

Scientific debate can be a spirited and passionate conflict, but the rules of engagement must be based on the polar-opposite principles of transparency (i.e.,information is freely available so experiments/reasoning can be replicated via some kind of critical testing) and conditional truth (i.e., accepted theories must be stated in such a way that they always can be tested for falsification).  Transparency in testing and observation and conditional truth are what separates science from religion and protects science from the oppressive authority of dogma, be it the consensus view of priests or other scientists.⁠ [4]

Horgan must be familiar with the moral ideal of conditional truth as postulated by Popper and implied by Kuhn’s theory of revolutionary as opposed to normal science. After all, he has interviewed Thomas Kuhn, the historian of science, who authored the classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book about the limits of knowledge.  Surely, as a seasoned writer of science, he is aware of Karl Popper’s principle of falsifiability in the pursuit of science.  If the twin ideas of conditional truth and fidelity in observation and testing were good enough to condition the sometimes creaky evolution of celestial physics from Ptolemy to Galileo to Newton to Einstein, or evolution from Darwin [5] to Mendel to Crick and Watson, they ought to be good enough to condition the evolution of AGW theory.

But apparently that is not the case with AGW theory, because those who disagree with the consensus view of the AGW fraternity are the enemies of a good and moral cause.  And that mentality opens the door to a moral war between good and evil, where incontrovertible truth and authority are absolute, and therefore, the self-proclaimed goodness of the end always justifies the use of any means, including crimes like identity theft and lying.  Taken to its extreme, this is the kind of thinking that led to the Inquisition and ultimately I.G. Farbin’s ovens.

That is the message of Gleick’s theft and Horgan’s equivocations.  Together, they shine a spot light on the moral swamp that climate science has become.

There is only way to drain this swamp: The advocates for AGW need to come clean.  They should make their warming data, together with the assumptions and computer codes used to analyze that data (like the proxies in paleoclimatology), freely available to anyone, including especially the Galileo and Michaelson-Moreley wannabees who want to falsify the consensus worldview.

The necessary condition of transparency is especially true for the overwhelming mass of climate data that is produced through billions of grant dollars that are publicly funded by taxpayers, like those to (1) the Climate Research Unit at U. of East Anglia in the UK, (2) the data/codes that Michael Mann and his cohorts used to produce the centrally important ‘hockey stick’ in the US and the UK, and (3) data/codes  used to produce the global climate models and their flawed predictions contained in the reports of the UN funded IPCC.  These predictions that have failed miserably since 1990 as explained in the prediction/reality comparisons at this link.

On the other hand, if that data continues to be withheld or “lost’ (a frequent response to FOI requests by principled skeptics like Steven McIntyre, see here also), AGW theory will remain a war where deception  and obfuscation are accepted rules of engagement.

When science is practiced according to its core values, cream rises naturally to the top, and charlatans naturally expose themselves.  This can and will happen without AGW proponents having to steal documents as part of smear campaigns, or resort to name calling that implicitly compares their adversaries to holocaust and evolution deniers. But of course, to excercise these core values, they must have the character to run the risk of having to eat sour cream.

FRANKLIN “CHUCK” SPINNEY is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com


[1] Heartland has total budget of about $4.4 million for all its issues: health care, education, and technology policy, including global warming. Consider the scale of just one of Heartland’s opposite nongovernmental organizations: The Climateworks Foundation, which exists to “support public policies that prevent dangerous climate change,” received $46 million from the David and Lucille Packard Foundation in 2010, $26 million from the McNight Foundation in 2010, and on $100 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation on 15 Feb 2012.

[2] While it is probably a coincidence, revenues to Dr. Gleick’s Pacific Institute, which is about half the size of Heartland, declined by 17% between 2009 and 2010, according the most recent financial statement on its website. No information is yet posted for 2011.

[3] In the ethics of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, founder of critical philosophy, a Categorical Imperative is a moral law that is unconditional or absolute for all agents, the validity or claim of which does not depend on any ulterior motive or end. “Thou shalt not steal,” for example, is categorical as distinct from the hypothetical imperatives associated with desire, such as “Do not steal if you want to be popular.”  [quoted from the Encyclopædia Britannica 2007]

[4] One of the most hilarious ironies in the global warming debate is the predilection of AGW scientists/activists to compare their travails to those of Galileo.  At the same time, they insist their theory of AGW is the incontrovertible truth, because it is the consensus viewpoint held by the vast majority of scientists. In this, they a making an appeal to authority not unlike that used to silence Galileo.  He was discredited and silenced during his lifetime, precisely because he opposed the consensus viewpoint imposed by the authority claimed by the Pope and his cardinals.  To add further irony, according to the scientist-humanist Jacob Bronowski, one of the key pieces of evidence in Galleo’s trial by Inquisition was a forgery of still unknown origin, although it remains in the Vatican archives. (At least it did until the mid 1970s, when Bronowski displayed it to millions of viewers in his marvelous TV series, “The Assent of Man.”)  It is also pertinent to note the consensus-led notion of authority that suppressed Galileo wrecked the practice of science in the Mediterranean Europe and shifted it to Northern Europe.

[5] One criticism of Darwin has been that his theory is a tautology and can not be tested for falsification.  That is a flawed critique, because one clear test of falsifiability would be to find a fossil that is definitely out of sequence time-wise.  To date, that has not happened, so as far as the fossil record is concerned, Darwin’s theory of evolution has not been falsified. It remains conditionally true, but like all scientific theories, Darwin’s theory is not and can never be incontrovertibly true.

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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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