by Judith Curry
The enduring question re Peter Gleick is how to reconcile his apparent commitment to the integrity of science with his behavior in the Heartland affair.
Some excerpts from Gleick’s 2007 congressional testimony Threats to the integrity of science:
For the last several years, there have been growing indications of systematic challenges and threats at the federal level to the integrity of the scientific process using a variety of strategies and tactics. Independent government review organizations and advisory boards have been disbanded. Access to data and information has been reduced. Federal scientists have been muzzled. Scientific reputations, rather than scientific evidence itself, have been questioned. Scientific analyses and conclusions, prepared within federal agencies or by people outside of government, have been changed for political and ideological reasons by people who have not done the scientific work. Work by partisan organizations has been substituted for work by non-partisan scientists.
In the long run, the truth of whether the earth is round (mostly), goes around the sun (so the best evidence shows), or is warming due to industrial activity (considered “very likely” i.e., more than 90% certainty) will be demonstrated on the global stage. Our job as scientists is to seek the best understanding of the world around us and to communicate that understanding to the public. Your job as elected officials is to encourage scientists to give you their best understanding, fund new science if there are gaps vital for the public interest, to weigh scientific information, and then to make decisions. Short-term political or economic advantage must be trumped by our collective responsibilities to protect public health, the environment, and our national security and to ensure that our decisions are informed by the best available information.
Congress can act to help restore confidence in the integrity of science and to reduce threats to science and scientists working to advise policy makers and the public:
- Reinstate independent advisory committees to Congress and to federal agencies. ␣
- Require that no political litmus tests be imposed on advisory committee appointees. ␣
- Guarantee open public access to government studies, data, and scientific findings. ␣
- Require transparency of information on conflicts of interest. ␣
- Prohibit federal agencies and employees from modifying, censoring, or altering scientific findings. ␣
- Re-establish and adequately fund an independent advisory organization to Congress on technology and science issues.
JC comment: I don’t have any argument with the individual statements that I have excerpted above from the Introduction and Summary.
In the main text of his testimony, he presents the following categories of threats:
- Scientific misconduct and altering good science
- Suppressing or limiting good science
- Scientific policy misconduct
- Arguments from ideology
- Ad Hominem attacks
- Misuse of uncertainty and arguments from consensus
Table 1 is comprised of a list of deceitful tactics and abuse of the scientific process. Its a pretty good list.
Most of what he writes seems reasonable when each point is considered in isolation. But does all this add up to saying anything about the integrity of science? I would argue that (mostly), it does not.
When I think of integrity in science, I think of Richard Feynman’s reflections on the subject, from his Cargo Cult Science talk:
“It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. . . [A]lthough you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. . . The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”
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.
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.