Bryan Lawrence : Bryan's Blog 2012/02/27

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Bryan's Blog 2012/02/27

A tale of two ethics

A couple of years ago I took part in a lengthy discussion on scientific ethics. The context of that discussion was "the ethical risks" of any given piece of research, but I well remember the bottom line: in matters of ethics, there is no real black and white, "it all depends". It's possible to find a standpoint from which most "thinking people" (whatever that means) will believe you behaved ethically, and a standpoint from which most will not; often for the same action, albeit generally in different contexts!

So I find the sense of outrage about Peter Gleick's actions over the Heartland documents a bit much. That said:

  • I find much to commend in Dan Moutal's analysis, and

  • I'm pretty relaxed about James Garvey's article. (Unlike Richard Betts I didn't read it as a call to misbehave - indeed as Garvey says "It depends on how this plays out". Perhaps Richard would have been less offended if the subtitle "...perhaps more climate scientists should play dirty" had an explicit rather than an implicit question mark?)

  • While I rather think Bob Ward has got it right (as reported by Scott Mandia here, I can't find the original tweet):

    "Peter was wrong but no comparison to Heartland's tactics. Not even close. Perspective in order."

  • ... I also have a lot of sympathy for Steve Easterbrook's position:

    " ...If AGW kills 300,000 p/y, exposing Heartland is ethical!"

However, I don't think it's about whether he was right or wrong, or even ethical (particularly the latter). What it's really about is what he might have done to trust. Some of my colleagues think we (scientists) have to somehow have the moral high ground to keep trust, and are worried that we're off down a slippery slope.

(We'll come back to the moral high ground.)

Misrepresenting yourself is not in and of itself unethical, I do it every Christmas, pretending to be Santa. Do you trust what I say scientifically any less? (If you do, then frankly you're beyond help.) So now we've established that misrepresentation is "allowed" it comes down to the context.

If I were to pretend some knowledge which I don't have, then you should absolutely stop trusting me. If I pretend to be someone I'm not (perhaps I dress up in women's clothing ... or maybe I don't) it shouldn't necessarily affect your level of trust in my science. Context matters!

OK, now if I pretend to be a conservative voter long enough to get my MP to pay attention to my moans about the NHS? What now? If I get him to inadvertently send me some document admitting the conservative party has never believed in being the greenest party ever? What lines will you let me cross? Why those particular lines? Context?

And so we come to Peter Gleick - who I've never met. He's not happy about what he did. Very few people are! But as far as I can see he's done a bit of mild misrepresentation. Not good, but not terrible either. It's who he is, and who he did it to that provides the context - and eventually, the results!

What are the consequences of his actions? The context?

  1. We know a lot more about Heartland!

  2. Those in an echo chamber (any chamber), wont change their minds on anything.

  3. Those who have minds that listen, will continue to weigh the evidence.

  4. Scientists will continue to respect his refereed work on science - as they did before, nothing has changed.

And thus we come to the nub of it. Even in science, especially in science, we trust no one - without evidence, and peer review. So we're happy to keep trusting his work in his domain of expertise (because we don't have to trust him). However we don't trust others (whoever they might be) to exercise trust in evidence in quite the same disinterested (?) and objective (?) way! Unlike "us" (being superhuman of course1 :-) ).

Of course, it isn't easy to weigh up evidence. Particularly now. In a completely different context, we have this: Weinberger's equivalent of Newton's first law: "For every fact on the internet, there is an equal and opposite fact."

So, to make decisions, we need a bit of expertise, but most of all we need provenance for our "facts" ... but is our moral high ground the only important part of our provenance?! Hell no, it's the method! Just because someone has never lied before, you shouldn't trust their science, you trust their science because of the method, and peer review (warts and all).

So I don't think what he's done will matter a jot in terms of influencing opinion in general, given my enumeration above, but what I'm really scared of is that it gives an excuse, to a certain kind of (cowardly) politician, for sticking his or her head back in the sand. Now that really is a pity - but it has nothing to do with ethics, or right or wrong, it has to do with a certain spinelessness of the political class to make tough decisions! And that really is something to get wound up about. Not Peter Gleick.

1: For American readers: please look up the dictionary definition of "irony" at this point (ret).

by Bryan Lawrence : 2012/02/27 : 0 comments (permalink)


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