by James Garvey
Gleick has been criticised for how his Heartland Institute probe, but perhaps more climate scientists should play dirty
A lie is a lie. There may be other considerations, but that’s main motivation behind the condemnation of Peter Gleick, the scientist who used an assumed name to obtain documents produced by the Heartland Institute.
He’s been criticised for a lack of scientific integrity, and those who fund his post are “concerned about any allegations of unethical conduct”. Everyone is having a go at Gleick, including Gleick: he called his actions a lapse of “professional judgment and ethics”. Are his actions wrong just because he lied?
Suppose you stop a friend from driving after he’s had too many drinks by slipping his keys in your pocket and lying about it until you manage to drive him home yourself. Sometimes lying is the right thing to do – a lie isn’t just wrong full stop. We think through the moral side of our lives with a mixed bag of ideas, but consequences and intentions have a central place here. Maybe lying about the keys is morally right because the consequences of lying are better than the consequences of telling the truth. Or maybe the lie was right because of your intentions – you were trying to prevent harm coming to your friend, not trying to steal his car.
You can see where I’m headed. Gleick’s intentions matter when we try to work out whether he was wrong to lie. It’s worth noticing that he wasn’t lying for personal gain. What resonates for me, though, are the consequences of his action. If Gleick frustrates the efforts of Heartland, isn’t his lie justified by the good that it does?
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? If his lie has good effects overall – if those who take Heartland’s money to push scepticism are dismissed as shills, if donors pull funding after being exposed in the press – then perhaps on balance he did the right thing. It could go the other way too – maybe he’s undermined confidence in climate scientists. It depends on how this plays out.
The fact that so many people are criticising Gleick for his lie, rather than Heartland for its secret funding arrangements, is itself remarkable. It points to something weird in the way we think of climate scientists as opposed to other scientists who use their expertise to campaign against new earth creationism, homeopathy, and other stupid ideas. It’s said that climate scientists must maintain objectivity to retain credibility, and therefore that they ought to stay clear of politics and debates in the wider world. If they’re partisan, how can we trust what they say about the science of climate change?
Does anyone think that Richard Dawkins’ work on evolutionary biology is undermined because he campaigns against teaching creationism in schools? Did anyone suggest that we strike Ben Goldacre off the medical register when he undermined Gillian McKeith’s credentials by “using deception” to get his dead cat membership to a body of nutritional consultants? Climate scientists should stand up against people who misrepresent climate science just as evolutionists and medical doctors fight equally absurd claims in their domains. Did Gleick go too far? I’m not sure he did, but I do wonder whether some climate scientists go anywhere near far enough.