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Lying and deception can be justified, says climate change ethics expert

James Garvey, a philosopher and the author of The Ethics of Climate Change has written a defence of Peter Gleick at the Guardian:

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.

It's good to know that environmentalists feel this way about telling the truth. We have had similar insider views on truth-telling from, for example, the Open University's Joe Smith, who reported the decision to issue tactical lies over the nature of the global warming debate.

Hard also to avoid Stephen Schneider's famous quote:

...we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

I guess Dr Garvey has cast his vote for effective rather than honest.

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Reader Comments (158)

... I am very much looking forward to finding out if there is more to the notion of Gleick having been the author of the faked HI memo than well-founded suspicion.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:05 PM | Unregistered Commenterinteresting, but ....


RB has confirmed it's him:!/richardabetts/status/174148877631504386

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought

Taking the keys achieved the objective. Lying about it shows that "you" will resort to untruths to avoid an uncomfortable conversation with a drunk.

Feb 27, 2012 at 2:40 PM | Speed

Lying about it might also prevent you getting severely beaten in an alcohol-fuelled rampage, and the keys taken from you. I mean, you simply have to know in advance if your drunken friend can take you in a fight before you pursue the so-called high road.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterStark Dickflüssig

When you do an illegal act to get information you end up like the "News of the World". No credibility and no future. Come on Guardian if you defend that kind of action you no where it leads.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Whale

Of course Garvey is equivocating as to the moral rightness/wrongness of the lying. As a philosopher, though, he should be committed to at least the Pontius Pilate question of what "Truth" IS. Is truth a correspondence between a brute fact of the matter and a statement made which accurately describes said fact, i.e. in more common parlance, is he tellin' it like it is? Or is truth some sort of revealed wisdom that can only be attained by the elect, i.e. "I am the Way, the Truth and the Light..."? On this question too, Garvey appears to equivocate; should we eschew one species of truth for a higher "Truth"? It appears, to me at any rate, the most truthful thing Garvey is saying is that he'll wait to see how it all shakes out before he decides the rightness/wrongness issue; he would serve his cause a lot better if he would just introduce his enthymematic premise of moral scepticism about politically-charged issues. Of course, if he did so, that would undercut any claim to knowledge of any "Higher Truth" of anything, but especially in the anthropogenic climate change debate-- why should we believe that it's OK to doubt a moral absolute but not OK to doubt something that in theory should be amenable to empirical proof? He should simply say that, to him, it is possible to "know" something and it's not always possible to "know" how we're supposed to "know what to do about it." That, friends, would be the truth in this situation-- a correspondence between what is, and what's being said about it.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:20 PM | Unregistered Commentertherealguyfaux

So if its okay for Gleick
Then its ok for Bradley Manning
Garry McKinnon

And finally The News of the World

So has any one mentioned this article to Lord Levison

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:24 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

In the comments, Garvey continues to rationalize Gleick's bad actions ...

As I say, it depends on how this pans out. There might be other good effects, but outing donors, revealing bloggers who take money to campaign for scepticism, disclosing plans to discredit climate science in schools -- it all might be worth the bad effects of the lie.

A variation on ...
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpeed

Have to agree about Betts. This is precisely the kind of politics that real scientists should get involved in ... the politics of keeping politics our of science.

Good scientists don't tell us the right answer ... they tell me what the facts indicate. The difference is that there is no such thing in science as "the right answer" ... right** is a moral question, the facts are amoral, they are neither right nor wrong, they just are.

**except for silly calculation mistakes.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Haseler

I have recommended Richard's comment over at the Grauniad, but I would like to know if it is ethical to go back and recommend it again. Would that be deceitful? Does it matter if it is in a good cause?

Perhaps James Garvey can advise me.

Feb 27, 2012 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterDreadnought

A much-needed sanity check by Richard Betts in the Guardian comments.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:03 PM | Unregistered Commenterigsy

Not only is it ethical for you to repeat your 'recommend', but in this case it would even be ethically permissible for you to deny that you did it ;-)

More seriously, I am very glad to see several serious scientists on the 'warmist' side come out so categorically against Gleick's actions and particularly against the warped justifications that the more political are promoting. Now we know, at least to some extent, who is working in good faith and who is motivated by the green alarmist ideology.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan B

Latimer Alder:

The Guardian may be "the home of the warmists" but the most cogent comments are strongly critical of Garvey's article - and they're attracting by far the most recommendations. Interesting.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobin Guenier

The professor's comment is welcome, although "we know that some climate scientists get highly distasteful and upsetting mail through no fault of their own" seems to be a little backhanded to me...

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred Jensen

"... And finally The News of the World

So has any one mentioned this article to Lord Levison?
Feb 27, 2012 at 4:24 PM | jamspid "

Spot on!

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterIan_UK

Does anyone know Garvey's address? As far as I can see he believes it would be morally correct for us to go round to his house, remove all his possessions, and drop them off at a charity shop.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterdave

Defective rationalization by James Garvey:

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. [...] 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.

As Speed pointed out (though in my charming way)

This is indicative of these types, runs through them like a stick of rock.

It is a pussies solution to a problem because they can't back anything up. The correct answer is take the keys, when drunk mate protests either chuck them down a drain in front of him or tell him he can have them if he can take them off you. But don't be a pussy.

Own your actions.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterduncan

from a previous article by Garvey at the Graun:

we're all eco-warriors's up to us to do the right thing when no one else will.

The wholehearted defenders of Gleick like Garvey, Monbiot and Naomi Klein are all disappointed proponents of mass action against CAGW.
If it weren’t for the shame of their posthumous carbon footprint, they’d probably be covering themselves with biofuel and setting light to themselves

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:21 PM | Unregistered Commentergeoffchambers

As far as I know all the mainstream religions regard lying as a sin (those that have that concept as part of their doctrine) though there are times when it might be excusable. Certainly 'the end justifies the means' is not a tenet of any faith I know much about.
I come back to my perennial question. What are this man's qualifications for taking this stance? Has he actually looked at the science or is he just parrotting the eco-nut line? Given his track record it would seem to be the latter.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterMike Jackson

Garvey perfectly illustrates the incoherence of utilitarian ethics. Were Gleick's actions justified? It depends on how things work out: Perhaps his lie will help expose Heartland. But then again, perhaps his lie will bring disrepute on climate scientists.

Why stop there with the evaluation? Perhaps his lie will bring disrepute on climate scientists (bad), thereby causing the United States to do nothing on climate change (bad) ... thus bringing global catastrophe (bad) ... thus reducing the surplus population* (hmm) ... thus bringing nature back into balance (good!). See, it might work out for the best after all, and Gleick is just playing the long game.


Bottom line: since the consequences of actions cannot be completely known, the morality of our actions cannot be judged on the basis of their consequences.

* HT: Charles Dickens.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

By my count Mike, Gleick broke commandments 7, 8, and 10. Given the Decalogue is the basis of much of the law and morals in the western world I think the philosopher is on a sticky wicket.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

Well said, Richard Betts!!

No one needs these unethical diatribes from people like Garvey stirring things up more.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:51 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkiphil

Toldya. "His heart is pure, dammit!"

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:56 PM | Unregistered Commentermojo

Note that the reaction of the True Believers on the Guardian site to Richard Betts' comment is to deny (!) that Garvey in fact said what the article on the same page states in black and white.

How very unusual. And some of them are even now still quoting the fake HI document as gospel!

If something doesn't fit their warped version of reality they just scrub round and carry on regardless.

Feb 27, 2012 at 5:58 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

The professor's comment is welcome, although "we know that some climate scientists get highly distasteful and upsetting mail through no fault of their own" seems to be a little backhanded to me...

I don't see it that way. He knows as well as we do, per the explanation from HI as to why they don't reveal their donors, that it's not just the Team who get that sort of stuff. On the basis of the plethora of green ink warmist comments on various blogs, I'd be surprised if skeptical scientists don't get a lot more of that sort of thing.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:08 PM | Unregistered CommenterNW

Douglas Adams' take on philosophers [from The Hitchhikes Guide To The Galaxy]:

VROOMFONDEL [1st philosopher]:
"We demand that that machine not be allowed to think about this problem!"

DEEP THOUGHT [the sentient computer]:
"If I might make an observation..."

MAJIKTHISE [2nd philosopher]:
"We’ll go on strike!"

"That’s right. You’ll have a national philosopher’s strike on your hands."

"Who will that inconvenience?"

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:09 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

There is another Franklin C. Spinney essay on this very subject at Counterpunch applying the kind of philosophical reasoning that seems to elude young Garvey

Lying for the Cause?

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:15 PM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard In The Basement

I'm sick of hearing variations of the old debate: "Do the ends justify the means?". It's a meaningless question.

Corrupt methods produce corrupted results.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterEd Fix

That a Professor of Ethics doesn't seem to know when he is begging the question it's time to stop listening to that professor of ethics.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterJoe Ryan

AGW believers who write comlumns and make statements pretedning that their cause is too important for normal standards to apply only set off a "yuck" reaction in reasonable people. AGW is getting very, very yucky.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:47 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter

In the comments I asked Prof Betts what he thought the likelihood of CAGW occurring was. He was kind enough to reply. The funny thing is that I don't think a single sceptic would disagree with him.

I particularly liked his characterisation of the likelihood - 'I just think that the risk is non-zero', which in my mind means that he can't discount it but doesn't actually believe it could happen.

I am convinced by the evidence that humans are influencing the climate, and I am also convinced that, globally speaking, the overall negative impacts are likely to outweight the overall positive impacts.

As for "catastrophic" change though, that's a much tougher question. Depends partly on how you define "catastrophic". If it is defined as initiating a sudden, rapid change in the climate system, well, that kind of thing has happened in the past in response to relatively small (natural) forcings, so I think that yes, there is a risk that this may also happen as a result of unchecked AGW at some point. Exactly how likely this is to happen, or when, I don't know. I just think that the risk is non-zero.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterSwiss Bob

Clearly, they have been doing this for 30 years. It is simply the "Big Lie" propaganda technique.
Feb 27, 2012 at 2:27 PM | Don Pablo de la Sierra

In the end, the 'Big Lie' didn't do Goebbels much good. Pity about the horror it unleashed beforehand.

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterA Lovell

Actually I must reverse course from my prior comment and and say that it is useful to have bozos like Garvey doing a self-exposure about how many academics and "intellectuals" think about lying and fraud for "The Cause" ....

Feb 27, 2012 at 6:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterSkiphil

Soon it will become patently obvious that AGW climate change alarmism is fraudulent. When it does Mr Garvey should be academically defrocked.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterPaddy

@ Mike Jackson

As far as I know all the mainstream religions regard lying as a sin ... Certainly 'the end justifies the means' is not a tenet of any faith I know much about.

That's a very interesting point: cliematism would appear to be the first religion that advocates and excuses lying.

I believe Islam supports murder, but only if it's infidels being murdered, in which case it's not murder at all. So in its own terms, it doesn't advocate murder.

We now have Schneider, Gleick and the Grudania commentariat in agreement that lying is fine. Professor Betts is so far the only cliematista to stand up and disagree. Interesting.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJustice4Rinka

Climate Taqiyya

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:06 PM | Unregistered Commenteradam

I was emmensely pleased to see Richards Betts' response. It was exactly what I would have expected of him.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:19 PM | Unregistered Commenterstephen richards

James Garvey is secretary of The Royal Institute of Philosophy which, according to its website “... is not committed to any particular philosophical school or method or, of course, any ideology”.

They would say that, wouldn’t they?

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:20 PM | Unregistered Commentergeoffchambers

My favorite part was the activist who wanted to know whether this was the Richard Betts at the Met Office or the Hadley Centre (which is at the Met Office).

"You must be an impostor because the real Richard Betts is at the Met Office!"


Feb 27, 2012 at 7:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterCarrick

The problem with telling lies, or exaggerating, is when you are found out. Once you have lost people's trust, it is very hard to regain that trust. Dale Carnegie in "How To Win Friends And Influence People" made this very point.
From a purely utilitarian point of view it might be permissible to mislead a suspect criminal in order to find the evidence, at it is not that person's trust that you want to maintain. The wider public will generally think well of you if you get a criminal off the streets. But if it is to marginalise you opponents, it will backfire if the wider public then perceive that you cannot be trusted. This is especially true when much of the case for climate change is based on trust in scientists to report accurately on a complex subject.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:22 PM | Unregistered CommenterManicBeancounter

A couple of thoughts quoted from Richard Bett's comment:

"I would ask you to refrain from bringing my profession into disrepute by advocating that we act unethically."

""Fighting dirty" will never be justified no matter what tactics have been used to discredit us in the past."

Mr. Betts, please read the above quotes from your comment. Sir, your profession has acted unethically. "Fighting dirty" has been a tactic used by your profession from the start. You seem to be trying to overlook the revelations of Climategate I and II, IPCC, etc. as well as a multitude of other 'lapses' by / within your profession. There is very little ethics or truth within your peer group. You appear to detest someone openly rationalizing your profession's very tactics. Can you not see the view from a perspective other than your own?

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:26 PM | Unregistered Commentereyesonu

Ahh yes. The Taqiya of Climate Scientists.

So deserving of them. Because cheating always works.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred from Canuckistan

Maybe not lying for personal gain, but a massive massage (self administered) to his ego

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith

The 'argument from sincerity' - "since I really really really believe in my cause my actions need not be judged by common standards" (ie its OK for me to lie etc etc) - is pretty hopeless & even the Lefties should get it that not only themselves & others they define as the good guys, can be really sincere. Does it not occur to them that a certain A Hitler & acolytes really believed killing all the jews was a really really good idea. And was anyone up for letting them all off on account of their sincerely believing in what they did? Or have I got my dialectics in a twist, not realising that there is a difference between Hitlerian sincerity and, say, Leninist sincerity?

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:38 PM | Unregistered Commenterbill

"Lying and deception can be justified"

Of course it is possible to justify it, especially for the kind of philosopher who is willing to justify anything for a reasonable fee (in ancient times they used to be called "sophists"). However, never to believe a word what liars, deceivers and prevaricators are telling to the public, not only can be, but is perfectly justified.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterBerényi Péter

Guardian authors are queueing up to condone and lionise Gleick. Predictably, amongst them is corporal clot.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith

The spectacle of a supposed "philosopher" who begins with a fixed assumption about where the truth lies is quite incredible. Philosophy is all about the search for truth and methods of searching for truth, yet this fraud would use his PRESUMPTIONS about where truth lies to wage dishonest war against opposing views.

People who employ dishonest methods get further and further divorced from truth and reality, with the result that their presumptions about where truth lies can only be wrong, as Garvey is in this case. Heartland is using a relatively tiny budget to expose the genuine climate science that the vast monied interests in the climate establishment are trying to suppress.

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:46 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlec Rawls

Anyone know the time of RB's comment please?

Feb 27, 2012 at 7:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterPharos

The only reason that Heartland supported alternative conferences is because views are suppressed. The Heartland activity is a RESULT of this bias. If scientific discourse were truly functioning - the Heartland Conferences would fall by the wayside....

Feb 27, 2012 at 8:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterLearDog

An appropriate selection from Francis Bacon:

"an inquisitive man is a prattler; so upon the like reason a credulous man is a deceiver: as we see it in fame, that he that will easily believe rumours will as easily augment rumours and add somewhat to them of his own; which Tacitus wisely noteth, when he saith, Fingunt simul creduntque: so great an affinity hath fiction and belief."

_The Advancement of Learning_

Feb 27, 2012 at 8:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterKen Smith

Garvey is obviously a fool, likewise the Guardian for printing such rubbish without a nose-holding disclaimer. Betts is completely correct. Well said.

Feb 27, 2012 at 8:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlan Wilkinson

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