Home » Ethics, Intelligent Design, News, Science » “Noble cause” corruption: It’s okay to lie, even in science … ?

“Noble cause” corruption: It’s okay to lie, even in science … ?

For example, some say it was okay to lie in the “fake but accurate” memo scandal the Darwin lobby got caught up in, when it decided to join forces with the greenhouse gas lobby.

Some interesting observations from Robert Tracinski on the general acceptance of fakery in science (on behalf of a “good” cause) here. For example,

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.

Interestingly, as Tracinski notes, the plod on yer local street corner could set some PhD scientists straight. Cops have a term for this sort of thing: 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?

And all that the rest of us know is that we are dealing with liars, forgers, and frauds, whose word we are supposed to accept because they supposedly represent the common good.

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26 Responses to “Noble cause” corruption: It’s okay to lie, even in science … ?

  1. And they wonder why they lack credibility with the public!

    Actually it helps our cause when they lie because they lose trust and gain a bad reputation. This shows us why God’s laws are actually good for us.

    It also shows us what happens when people make up their own moral standards.

    How often do we hear the claim that atheists don’t need God to be good? Sure, if you create your own definition of good, anyone can say that.

  2. I would lie to the Nazis to protect Jews hiding in the cellar. Lies are sometimes justified by the circumstances:

    All war is based on deception.
    — Sun Tzu

  3. Horgan had Kant wrong. Kant wrote that it was always wrong to lie, even to save a life. Lying violates the categorical imperative. Maybe Horgan was following his own advice and misrepresenting Kant in a “noble” cause.

  4. OK, I would probably lie to save someone’s life as well – the lesser of two evils, but that’s not what we are talking about here.

    With an “end justifies the means” outlook, you can justify any kind of evil you want to. This is dangerous.

    Lies may be a necessary evil because of the circumstances – but surely only on very rare occasions.

    I don’t think in my 50+ years of life I have ever faced such a situation – but that doesn’t mean I have never lied of course.

  5. For example, some say it was okay to lie in the “fake but accurate” memo scandal the Darwin lobby got caught up in, when it decided to join forces with the greenhouse gas lobby.

    That’s not lying is science. Rather, it is lying in politics.

    I am not suggesting that makes it okay.

  6. 6

    @5,

    So if someone lies about stuff that has to do with science it is not necessarily lying in science? Does the lie need to be in a peer reviewed journal in order to be officially lying in science, or are you saying that the global warming debate is pure politics and has nothing to do with anything scientific whatsoever?

  7. 7

    @2,

    You make it sound as if the global warming crowd is literally at war with the global warming deniers.

  8. Dear M. Holcumbrink

    So if someone lies about stuff that has to do with science it is not necessarily lying in science? Does the lie need to be in a peer reviewed journal in order to be officially lying in science, or are you saying that the global warming debate is pure politics and has nothing to do with anything scientific whatsoever?

    That’s right. There’s a significant difference in my view between science per se, and political and philosophical baggage attached to the science. Lying in science per se would mean lying in journals, falsifying lab records etc. Lying in a political or philosophical statement about the science is not the same as lying in science.

    The global warming debate, I think, includes both science per se and political and philosophical views about the science.

    You make it sound as if the global warming crowd is literally at war with the global warming deniers.

    I just meant war is an example of a situation where deception is justified.

    Cheers

  9. Well, Barbara Tuchman remarked that war is the unfolding of miscalculations; and that does seem to be the stock-in-trade of our evolution fantasists, doesn’t it? Never-ending, moreover.

  10. Hi tjguy

    OK, I would probably lie to save someone’s life as well – the lesser of two evils, but that’s not what we are talking about here. With an “end justifies the means” outlook, you can justify any kind of evil you want to. This is dangerous.

    I expect many in the global warming debate do perceive that the situation involves saving lives, millions or possibly even billions of them.

    And yes, “the end justifies the means” outlook is dangerous, but nevertheless I think we all recognise there are situations where lying is justified.

    Lies may be a necessary evil because of the circumstances – but surely only on very rare occasions.

    I don’t think in my 50+ years of life I have ever faced such a situation – but that doesn’t mean I have never lied of course.

    I don’t think the rarity of the situation matter very much at all compared to other factors, like the relative gravity of the two “evils”. Wouldn’t you tell a lie to prevent even one death?

    Cheers

  11. “I can be nice….. and I can be…. not.. nice…” is the torturer’s version of implicitly shifting the blame for the threatened villainy on his victim.

  12. It’s part of our fallen nature that, as adults, we should be faced with moral dilemmas; to such a point even that we must, on rare occasions, simply try to act in good faith to the best of our ability, when making our choice, leaving the rest to God. “All things work together for good to them that love God.”

    And yes, CLAVDIS, that’s an easy one. For the Christian saving an innocent life would take precedence over an arid moral rectitude, over adherence to an honesty that would be used for evil, wouldn’t it?

    In this case, the dishonesty is clearly not underpinned by consideration of any conceivable higher good, still less, one so dramatic, despite the miscreant’s protestations.

  13. Hi Axel

    In this case, the dishonesty is clearly not underpinned by consideration of any conceivable higher good, still less, one so dramatic, despite the miscreant’s protestations.

    I live in Sydney so I didn’t know much about this; I’ve now had a google around.

    It appears Gleick’s deception brought to light documentation of unethical lobbying practices — at least, they would be unethical and punishable under Australia’s parliamentary rules; I don’t know what the laws are in this area in the US.

    So it seems to me there was a conceivable higher good – namely, ensuring the transparency and honesty of political lobbying, in an area which may affect global health and welfare. Whether this is weighty enough to balance Gleick’s deception would seem to be a judgement call that reasonable people might differ on.

    Cheers

  14. Hi CLAVDIS

    I don’t know enough about the issue to venture an opinion with any great confidence.

    A few things occur to me though:

    a) Gleick’s critics here are stressing the danger of allowing ends to justify means, as the thin end of a wedge of open-ended cynicism.

    Really, in my view, science should not be a sphere open to controversy. There are methodological canons that are unambiguous, and the subject matter, itself, until the more recent problems of quantum physics encountered, for example, at CERNE, is not abstruse and arcane – unlike more profound spheres such as the spiritual realm;

    b) Gleick’s critics here seem to view this deception as being characteristic of Gleick’s modus operandi, which they perceive as all too familiar, perhaps, not with him, personally (although perhaps so), but certainly with his camp.

    Wwhen considering possible meritorious grounds for deception on the basis of a higher good, it is probably also wise to view the context of the deceiver’s intellectual integrity, a deficiency of which may be more significant than the issue in dispute.

    It is also wise, surely, to consider whether the higher good is, in truth, secondary, to an axe of a less than admirable nature that the individual wishes to grind.

    c) I mentioned earlier, one can be too ivory-tower focused, when dealing with powerful people to whom truth is what they want to believe, and the sensible approach is to seek to impose one’s authority on them, as per the dynamics between the judges and lawyers in court-rooms. Fighting fire with fire, in other words. We have ample scope for satire and ridicule at our disposal – rational arguments being too objectionable to them to be considered.

    Pretty waffley really, but that’s my take, such as it is.

    Happy days

  15. Hi Axel

    As I said, in Australia, the unethical lobbying practices uncovered by Gleick’s deception would be viewed as highly corrupt and punishable — they had the effect of undermining the transparency and honesty of the democratic process which impacts the entire nation. In comparison, Gleick’s deception appears relatively minor, and the ill effects of his deception fell mostly on himself.

    a) In law enforcement, military actions etc. we recognise that sometimes we must fight fire with fire to expose people who are behaving corruptly and unethically and are deceptively concealing their conduct. Undercover cops are an example of this. I agree there are dangers to an “end justifies the means” approach, but this is balanced by the danger that some bad people would never be exposed and stopped unless we used their own deceptive practices against them.

    And I don’t believe Gleick’s deceptive actions reflect on science in any way. They were political actions.

    b) I don’t see why deception being Gleick’s camp’s modus operandi makes any difference. It would make a difference, in my view, if it could be established that Gleick himself had a pattern of deceiving people without any justification. This doesn’t appear to have been established at all.

    And what are you suggesting is the “axe to grind of a less than admirable nature” that pertains to this case? It might be relevant – depends on what it is.

    What I don’t understand is why there’s such an outcry over Gleick’s behaviour, but not over the corrupt practices that he exposed. They appear to me to be much more serious.

    Cheers

  16. As I said, in Australia, the unethical lobbying practices uncovered by Gleick’s deception would be viewed as highly corrupt and punishable

    Which lobbying practices are those specifically? If you’re referring to the practices in the summary memo, are you aware that the memo is widely viewed as a forgery?

  17. I’ll also add…

    As I said, in Australia, the unethical lobbying practices uncovered by Gleick’s deception would be viewed as highly corrupt and punishable

    However, apparently if Heartland and company feel strongly enough about the issues, your ‘highly corrupt and punishable acts’ (even though, as I noted, they may be based on utterly bogus information) may be someone else’s ‘relatively minor acts’ which are justified by the ends in question.

    Apparently people are loathe to condemn Gleick’s acts because they like his politics and his views, and dislike the Heartland Institute’s politics.

    And I don’t believe Gleick’s deceptive actions reflect on science in any way. They were political actions.

    Gleick’s actions reflect on scientists. One common theme with global warming debates is the idea that “warmists” (or whatever they’re called by skeptics) exaggerate the effects of global warming to enact political policies they favor. That would be direct misrepresentation of science. Which you’ve just justified – after all, if it’s important enough to people, and if you think you’ll get action by exaggerating rather than being more realistic, then you have a reason to misrepresent the science. A justifiable one, by your terms.

  18. Hi nullasalus

    C: As I said, in Australia, the unethical lobbying practices uncovered by Gleick’s deception would be viewed as highly corrupt and punishable …

    n: Which lobbying practices are those specifically? If you’re referring to the practices in the summary memo, are you aware that the memo is widely viewed as a forgery?

    I’m referring to the concealment of lobbyists’ clients and funding sources. This is unethical, and should not be allowed.

    Cheers

  19. Corporate lobbying (by courtesy of our [right-wing] two- party systems in the UK and US) has finally given the coup de grace to democracy in the West, hasn’t it?

    Incidentally, seeing a half-baked, triumphalist article in the Daily Mirror (UK tabloid) yesterday on the just-so, ‘worm to man’, evolution nonsense, and another article today on our evolution from star dust, reminded me of just how powerful and purposeful the corporatists are with their subornation of the mass media.

  20. C: As I said, in Australia, the unethical lobbying practices uncovered by Gleick’s deception would be viewed as highly corrupt and punishable …

    n: However, apparently if Heartland and company feel strongly enough about the issues, your ‘highly corrupt and punishable acts’ (even though, as I noted, they may be based on utterly bogus information) may be someone else’s ‘relatively minor acts’ which are justified by the ends in question.

    Not in Australia, where unethical lobbying is specifically against the parliamentary rules, regardless of claimed justification. Maybe in the US, if such rules don’t apply, you would have a point.

    Gleick, on the other hand, was not engaged in lobbying, so the ethics of his actions are open to reasonable debate. There no general law against lying in the common law tradition, but there are particular situations where lying is an offense (fiduciary relationships, lobbying etc).

    Gleick’s actions reflect on scientists.

    I cannot accept, as an ethical principle, that one person’s actions reflect on another person’s ethics.

    One common theme with global warming debates is the idea that “warmists” (or whatever they’re called by skeptics) exaggerate the effects of global warming to enact political policies they favor. That would be direct misrepresentation of science. Which you’ve just justified – after all, if it’s important enough to people, and if you think you’ll get action by exaggerating rather than being more realistic, then you have a reason to misrepresent the science. A justifiable one, by your terms.

    No, I have not justified distorting science. What I think may be ethically justified is Gleick’s deception in obtaining documents in this specific situation, which does not involve any science on Gleick’s part.

    Cheers

  21. I’m referring to the concealment of lobbyists’ clients and funding sources. This is unethical, and should not be allowed.

    Unless, of course, the ends justify the means in the opinion of those perpetrating the act. In which case it’s entirely allowed.

    Likewise, I’d like to know where – according to US law – Heartland broke laws, or was unethical by US standards. They may well have – but then the above, per your exceptions, still applies.

    Gleick, on the other hand, was not engaged in lobbying, so the ethics of his actions are open to reasonable debate.

    Actually, all ethics are open to debate given the move you’re making here. You’ve pretty much said that so long as you feel something is important enough, and so long as it’s likely to get what you want, you’re justified. Now, you can whirl around and say “Yes, but according to me, Claudius, I don’t think Heartland’s actions or goals are justified”. But why should that be the standard? And what standard would you appeal to otherwise?

    I cannot accept, as an ethical principle, that one person’s actions reflect on another person’s ethics.

    What you personally can’t accept as an ethical principle isn’t much a concern. Gleick showed that scientists are, as a matter of fact, entirely capable of playing politics, of lying and deceiving to advance their aims. In particular, Gleick’s act showed beautifully that this issue isn’t merely about “science”, even (perhaps especially) for scientists.

    Gleick’s acts will directly, and rightly, bear on scientists. Especially given the number of people trying to justify his lying, and his outright deception via the memo.

    And his defenders are illustrating something that’s long been suggested in these debates: that deception and lies are viewed as justifiable by even the prominent academics ‘concerned about global warming’.

    No, I have not justified distorting science.

    Of course you have. After all, what if someone believes – or says they believe – that the lives of millions, even billions, lie in the balance? What if exaggerating the science will achieve what someone believes is necessary? More than that, why should anyone believe that lying about credentials to illegally bilk information out of an organization they politically oppose is justified, but lying about science to achieve a desired end isn’t? Because honestly communicating science is forever and eternally sacrosanct?

    Gleick’s move just helped shift the public’s attitude towards scientists generally, as well as what is offered as science. His name will be, for the forseeable future, invoked as a reason to be skeptical of scientists who are pushing for political solutions to “problems” they perceive. Put another way, his means will be justifying a very different end than he intended.

  22. Hi nullasalus

    May I say I generally admire your posts on UD and read them with interest. So to the extent I’m disagreeing with you on this thread, it is meant respectfully.

    C: I’m referring to the concealment of lobbyists’ clients and funding sources. This is unethical, and should not be allowed.

    n: Unless, of course, the ends justify the means in the opinion of those perpetrating the act. In which case it’s entirely allowed.

    I disagree. There are some areas in society where the use of deception to achieve a greater good may be acceptable, such as in police work; there are other areas where, in our collective judgement, absolute transparency and honesty are required, such as doctor-patient relationships and, in Australia, political lobbying.

    Actually, all ethics are open to debate given the move you’re making here. You’ve pretty much said that so long as you feel something is important enough, and so long as it’s likely to get what you want, you’re justified. Now, you can whirl around and say “Yes, but according to me, Claudius, I don’t think Heartland’s actions or goals are justified”. But why should that be the standard? And what standard would you appeal to otherwise?

    I’m not suggesting my opinion be the standard. I’m suggesting that the ethics of Gleick’s actions are open to reasonable debate, and that there are (obviously) differences of opinion.

    I don’t know much about Heartland’s goals; I only know — from reading the Internet, so this may be all untrue, but assuming this arguendo — they were lobbying government whilst concealing who their clients were. Australians, through their elected representatives, have judged this specific action is categorically unethical, and it will be punished as such. The reason for this judgement is that such undermines the democratic process and may negatively impact public policy for the nation as a whole.

    C: I cannot accept, as an ethical principle, that one person’s actions reflect on another person’s ethics.

    n: What you personally can’t accept as an ethical principle isn’t much a concern. Gleick showed that scientists are, as a matter of fact, entirely capable of playing politics, of lying and deceiving to advance their aims. In particular, Gleick’s act showed beautifully that this issue isn’t merely about “science”, even (perhaps especially) for scientists.

    Gleick’s acts will directly, and rightly, bear on scientists.

    Well, to me that looks like “guilt by association” which is a fallacy:
    P1: A is a scientist
    P2: A is also a liar
    C: All scientists are liars
    A simple exercise with Venn diagrams will show why this is fallacious.

    C: No, I have not justified distorting science.

    n: Of course you have. After all, what if someone believes – or says they believe – that the lives of millions, even billions, lie in the balance? What if exaggerating the science will achieve what someone believes is necessary? More than that, why should anyone believe that lying about credentials to illegally bilk information out of an organization they politically oppose is justified, but lying about science to achieve a desired end isn’t? Because honestly communicating science is forever and eternally sacrosanct?

    The only thing I am saying may be justified is Gleick’s deception in these specific cirumstances. I am not commenting on a hypothetical situation involving lying about science.

    Cheers

  23. There are some areas in society where the use of deception to achieve a greater good may be acceptable, such as in police work; there are other areas where, in our collective judgement, absolute transparency and honesty are required, such as doctor-patient relationships and, in Australia, political lobbying.

    If “our collective judgment” is key, then Gleick is screwed. Right now he looks far more culpable for dishonesty than Heartland – and people who disagree are in the minority. Stealing documents under a false name? Lying about how he got them? Doctored a memo? No, this isn’t excusable – and saying ‘well, he did it for a good cause, so it’s okay’ simply shows how politicized this issue is.

    I’m suggesting that the ethics of Gleick’s actions are open to reasonable debate, and that there are (obviously) differences of opinion.

    And I’m disagreeing. No, they are not even ‘open to debate’. He lied, and in all likelihood he forged a document to make Heartland look bad (I imagine, saying what he felt in his heart they ‘really meant’). Say “Well, it’s all for a good cause” or “Well, in Australia, we happen to think (via our representatives)…” and it changes nothing. Yes, a majority of Australians can be wrong.

    Well, to me that looks like “guilt by association” which is a fallacy:

    Then you don’t understand what a fallacy is. Saying that Gleick’s actions reflect poorly on his colleagues is not to say “Gleick was a liar, therefore all scientists are liars”. It’s to say, “The idea that scientists are pristine creatures, above politics and deception, even with regards to discussions touching on subjects of their expertise, just took a major hit.” Gleick didn’t lie about his taxes. He lied about an organization he tried to use his status as a scientist in order to combat. Yes, it turns out, scientists are often all too human. And not in the noblest way.

    The only thing I am saying may be justified is Gleick’s deception in these specific cirumstances.

    These specific circumstances involve a scientist lying about and to an organization over a scientific and political debate, being caught red-handed, and having his “science defender” friends and allies circle the wagons around him on the grounds that it’s okay to lie for a good cause. Hey, this is nothing new – it’s just out in the open now. And I look forward to the day the NCSE (for example) is hacked and their internal, personal emails are exposed. We can all talk about how lying is justified and sometimes even commendable when the result is taking a cause you support, and slamming it ten years backward in terms of progress.

    As I said, I am enjoying this newfound openness about the ethical legitimacy of lying to support a political cause. Ever since scientists decided to marshal their scientific authority to try and achieve political authority, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable reaction – where they are trusted every bit as much as politicians are. Thanks to Gleick – and doubly thanks to his apologists – that day is now closer. If this keeps up, it won’t be long before “most scientists say” has all the intellectual authority of “most democrats/republicans say”. I can hardly wait.

  24. Hi nullasalus

    If “our collective judgment” is key, then Gleick is screwed. Right now he looks far more culpable for dishonesty than Heartland – and people who disagree are in the minority.

    Yep. I agree. However, such a minority does exist.

    C: I’m suggesting that the ethics of Gleick’s actions are open to reasonable debate, and that there are (obviously) differences of opinion.

    n: And I’m disagreeing. No, they are not even ‘open to debate’. He lied, and in all likelihood he forged a document to make Heartland look bad (I imagine, saying what he felt in his heart they ‘really meant’). Say “Well, it’s all for a good cause” or “Well, in Australia, we happen to think (via our representatives)…” and it changes nothing. Yes, a majority of Australians can be wrong.

    That’s your opinion. My opinion is different.

    C: Well, to me that looks like “guilt by association” which is a fallacy:

    n: Then you don’t understand what a fallacy is. Saying that Gleick’s actions reflect poorly on his colleagues is not to say “Gleick was a liar, therefore all scientists are liars”. It’s to say, “The idea that scientists are pristine creatures, above politics and deception, even with regards to discussions touching on subjects of their expertise, just took a major hit.”

    This still looks like the same fallacy to me:

    P1: A is a scientist
    P2: The idea that A is a pristine creature, above politics and deception etc., just took a major hit

    Therefore -

    C: The idea that all scientists are pristine creatures, above politics and deception etc., just took a major hit.

    As I said, I am enjoying this newfound openness about the ethical legitimacy of lying to support a political cause. Ever since scientists decided to marshal their scientific authority to try and achieve political authority, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable reaction – where they are trusted every bit as much as politicians are. Thanks to Gleick – and doubly thanks to his apologists – that day is now closer.

    For my part, I don’t think the erosion of trust in science is anything to be happy about.

    Cheers

  25. Folks, There is a clear and serious ethics crisis in science, but there’s a river in Egypt called de Nile. It’s going to have to get much worse before it will get better. KF

  26. 26

    Ever since scientists decided to marshal their scientific authority to try and achieve political authority, I’ve been waiting for the inevitable reaction – where they are trusted every bit as much as politicians are.

    tee hee

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