"Fake But Accurate" Science


by Robert Tracinski- February 29, 2012

For years, we've been lectured at by the global warming establishment about how anyone who doubts them is an enemy of science. One of them in particular, a fellow named Peter Gleick who was the chair of the American Geophysical Union's Task Force on Scientific Ethics, kept lecturing us about how much more scientific integrity the warmists have compared to us unscrupulous skeptics.

Well, now we know what the "scientific ethics" of this global warming establishment actually amounts to. It's not just that Gleick has confessed to stealing internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a think tank that supports global warming skepticism, or that he is suspected of forging another document in an attempt to defame Heartland. It's the fact that a whole section of the scientific establishment is defending Gleick on the grounds that it's OK to lie to promote their cause.

It should go without saying—it doesn't, apparently, but it should—that this is a complete inversion of genuine scientific ethics, in which there is no value higher than the truth. But that is how deeply the global warming dogma has corrupted the scientific establishment.

It starts with science journalists and commentators. In Britain's leftist newspaper The Guardian, for example, James Garvey writes that Gleick's lie was "justified by the wider good." The "wider good" is defined as suppressing any opposition to the global warming establishment. "What Heartland is doing is harmful, because it gets in the way of public consensus and action," Garvey writes. So, "If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn't his lie justified by the good that it does?"

You might reply that this is just what you'd expect from journalists, who have looser moral standards than, well, just about everybody. But the author's bio informs us that "James Garvey is secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy and"—get this—"author of The Ethics of Climate Change." Notice the pattern here. These aren't the rationalizations of a few rogue activists or hyper-partisan bloggers. This is coming straight from the intellectual heights of the establishment and specifically from those who have proclaimed themselves to be experts on scientific ethics.

But even the ink-stained wretches of the press are supposed to have higher ethical standards than this. Gleick's "Fakegate" scandal is not just a violation of scientific ethics but a violation of journalistic ethics. Any reporter caught stealing private documents by using a fake name, or, say, hacking into a cell phone's voice mail, or worse, forging a document in order to fabricate a scandal, would be fired.

Fakegate is most clearly reminiscent of Rathergate, the scandal in which CBS anchor Dan Rather promulgated a forged memo disparaging George W. Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard. It was not just a lie, but a crudely partisan one, a "September surprise" intended to swing the 2004 election for John Kerry. Then, as now, intrepid bloggers spotted the fake document and debunked it within days, and Rather was fired. And he didn't even forge the document himself; he merely passed it on without proper scrutiny, because he wanted to believe it was true.

The New York Times produced the line that summed up the scandal when it declared that the Rathergate memo was "fake but accurate." The fraud was acceptable, in other words, because it promoted a story that the media establishment just knew to be true. This is now the standard for the global warming establishment, too. Call it "fake but accurate" science.

The Guardian has a review of the "ethics debate among climate scientists," which reports that most of them are lining up on the side of fraud. After quoting one of the few warmists who denounced Gleick, climate activist-turned-journalist Andrew Revkin, the article concludes, "But there were relatively few in the campaigner or scientific community who shared that view."

I should acknowledge that most of Gleick's defenders mention only his use of a fake name to procure real documents. But this in itself is a giant evasion of the truth, like publishing a scientific study that deliberately omits relevant data. The only reason Gleick confessed to stealing the real documents was because bloggers were closing in on him as the forger of a fake document. So to ignore that issue and defend Gleick is to implicitly condone the forgery.

And why not, given the principles they have already conceded? Consider a post published at Scientific American by John Horgan, an award-winning science journalist and a booster of the "green" cause, who purports to explore the deep ethics of the question, "Should global-warming activists lie to defend their cause?" His answer is: yes.

He draws first on the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, then on 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....

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.

That such an article would be permitted under the name of a journal that is supposed to be a public standard-bearer for science is appalling.

This isn't even ethics. It amounts to saying that it's OK to lie and steal so long as you feel your intentions are good, and so long as you don't get caught. That's not a code of ethics, but a rationalization for throwing out ethics.

And it sure as hell isn't science. The whole foundation of science, not just its ethical code but its basic method, is to consider nothing other than facts and the truth, following the evidence wherever it leads. The history of science is a long, tortuous struggle against every form of authority, bias, and dogma, whether religious or political. But what we're seeing now, in the name of the global warming "cause," is the explicit reversal of these principles. The new non-ethics of modern science is that it is acceptable to lie to defend a theory that you "really know" to be true.

Anthony Watts, over at the skeptical Watts Up With That? blog, has been calling this "noble cause corruption." It's a term that originated in law-enforcement to describe a dirty cop who plants evidence on a suspect because he "really knows" that the guy is guilty, so he's doing the world a favor by making sure he gets locked up. It's the same rationalization: it's OK to lie, because you're acting in a "noble cause." The corruption, of course, is: how do you really know the suspect is guilty, if you have to fake the evidence against him? How do you know your cause is noble, if you keep having to lie to defend it?

The same thing applies to global warming. If they're so sure their critics are wrong, how come the warmists have to invent evidence to discredit those critics? If they are the heroic defenders of science that they claim to be, how come they have to tear down the very foundation of science in order to prop up their cause?

This is what makes many of us global warming skeptics so outraged. We have spent years being smeared as "anti-science," yet many of us became interested in this subject because of our reverence for science. When I was 11 years old, I encountered popularizers of science such as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, and I wanted to become a physicist. I was inspired by the story of Galileo, who was forced under threat of torture to recant his discoveries about the motion of the earth but still insisted that "nevertheless it moves." I was fascinated by Sagan's recounting of the story of Johannes Kepler, who started out trying to prove a fanciful theory about how the planets moved in circular orbits reflecting the proportions of the five perfect Pythagorean solids, only to reject that theory in the face of contrary evidence and go on to discover that the planets move in elliptical orbits.

While I eventually ended up in a career as a freelance philosopher and political writer (a field that is equally fascinating, if somewhat less reputable), I retained a reverence for the basic moral and epistemological code of science: an unbreached dedication to the facts and a commitment to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

The crime of the warmists is that they have betrayed this sacred legacy, first in practice and now in theory. They have become the enemies and corrupters of science. 

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.