Sunday, February 26, 2012

Heads being filled with slimy mush

John Horgan, @johnhorgan at the Scientific American @sciam blog, poses a moral question regarding Dr. Peter Gleick's recent ethical lapse:
Should Global-Warming Activists Lie to Defend Their Cause?
When, if ever, is lying justified? I talked about this conundrum this week in a freshmen humanities class, in which we were reading Immanuel Kant on morality. Kant proposed that we judge the rightness or wrongness of an act, such as breaking a promise, by considering what happens if everyone does it. If you don’t want to live in a world in which everyone routinely breaks promises, then you shouldn’t do so.

That’s a fine principle, in the abstract, but my students and I agreed that in certain situations lying is excusable. Shouldn’t you lie if your girlfriend asks you if you like her new haircut? If your boss, who’s a vindictive bastard, asks your opinion of his new business plan? What about lying in order to reveal a plot that you believe imperils all of humanity?

That brings me to the latest scandal to emerge from the debate over global warming...
Let's examine the three questions to which Mr. Horgan and his freshman humanities students agreed it was OK to lie:

1- Shouldn’t you lie if your girlfriend asks you if you like her new haircut?
No, you shouldn't lie. She'll keep getting it cut in ways you don't like, making her less attractive to you.  That wasn't her objective. 

2- If your boss, who’s a vindictive bastard, asks your opinion of his new business plan?
No, you shouldn't lie. He'll think he has a good plan (the author appears to assume it's not).  Toadyism might be his preference, but maybe he is just vindictive, not stupid. In any case, your lie will probably damage you and everyone else in the organization.

3- What about lying in order to reveal a plot that you believe imperils all of humanity?
Yes, you should lie. You and everyone else will die if you don't. Revealing a plot that imperils all of humanity (Wink, wink. Nod, nod: What Gleick did.) assumes that you lie by telling the would-be humanicidal maniacs that "I promise never to reveal your plot to kill everyone in the world."

But this hypothetical is not like the others: You lie to reveal, not conceal; And you lie about an existential threat. And it's the wrong lie. In the case at hand, Gleick's, your lie would have to be phrased, “I promise not to fabricate evidence that you have a plot to kill everybody.”

Mr. Horgan is obfuscating his way into an alternate reality where Peter Gleick lied for our sins.  Woe, woe to science when this slippery conflation of ethical situations is its defense of the unethical behavior of the former Chairman of the Ethics Committee Task Force for the American Geophysical Union. 

Woe to freshman humanities students who have such an instructor.

Finally, the fact that the headline can even pass editorial muster is telling.  They couldn't get to, "Are scientists still scientists when they fabricate evidence to protect a cultish mythology pet theory?"

1 comment:

Roug said...

Well, when has peer review ever been valuable anyway? Better to lie in case one of those pesky skeptics gets some traction.

This is, after all, the world we are saving. Oh, and the children. And polar bears!