Honest or Broken?

February 24, 2010

Roger will surely be pleased to see that the New Scientist has published an editorial suggesting that “Honesty is the best policy for climate scientists.” Given the language, the editorial could’ve been written by Roger himself.

Honesty, of course, is the best policy. Where Roger likes to offer the pragmatic argument for honesty — and shucks, there sure has been a lot of political crap floating to the surface to demonstrate his point — I tend to emphasize slightly different, non-pragmatic reasons for advocating honesty. Namely, I think we have an obligation not to be dishonest, even if it won’t end up badly for us.

(One issue that this raises, of course, is whether there was ever actually any substantial dishonesty afoot in the IPCC. I don’t want to go there.)

Rather, the editors at New Scientist make some provocative claims about environmentalists.

FOR many environmentalists, all human influence on the planet is bad. Many natural scientists implicitly share this outlook. This is not unscientific, but it can create the impression that greens and environmental scientists are authoritarian tree-huggers who value nature above people. That doesn’t play well with mainstream society, as the apparent backlash against climate science reveals.

I couldn’t agree more, though I disagree with the reasoning. Just as it is not the case that honesty is the best policy because dishonest practices may have negative political outcomes, so too is it not the case that holding the above-outlined position is wrong because it doesn’t play well with mainstream society.

The view that the planet is good, and that human interference is somehow bad, is just a naive environmentalist view. That’s what makes the view problematic. Sure, lots of people hold it, but let’s face it, there are a lot of unreflective environmentalists, just as there are a lot of unreflective anti-environmentalists. That it doesn’t play well is no reason to reject the view. There are better reasons to reject it. What makes the view wrong is its romanticism about nature. I’ll be kicking this theme around quite a bit over the next few months, but I thought I’d point out that the planet can actually be quite hostile. View a few pictures like these to remember that.


  1. For every environmentalist who thinks that human influence on nature is inevitably bad, and that we need to go back to being hunter-gatherers there is somebody (if not many) who thinks of nature solely as our pantry to use and abuse as desired. There are even those who think that we should do so, that to not do so who be bad, and that as a result we just will have to find another planet to go to some time relatively soon (and do the same thing). While there aren’t a whole lot of this last group, I would argue that the dogmatic belief that humanity should go back to hunter / gatherer status is also quite rare.

    • I think that’s probably true, so maybe New Scientist is committing a strawman. Even still, walk around Boulder for a day and talk to people about why we should care about climate change or the earth. Many will tell you that we should do so because there is something precious about nature. One doesn’t have to conclude that because they believe that there’s something precious about nature that therefore we should go back to the hunter-gatherer phase; but one does have to defend the claim that nature is precious. It’s this view that I find problematic, and I think it’s a deep running position throughout environmental ethics. Many of my students, both at CU and at in some cases, even in heavily urban environments where I’ve taught, are of the view that nature is exceptionally precious.

      • I think that there is something precious about nature partly because nature is mostly what sustains us, but also because it has inherent value in my opinion. I also think that humans are a part of nature and that we are precious as well. Not every individual. Butt not every aspect of nature is precious either. And precious doesn’t mean friendly. Saying that nature is precious or has inherent value is not the same as saying that human impacts are necessarily negative.

        Maybe your point is that the case for doing something about AGW need not be based on this kind of valuing of nature, and I agree as well. The average person (i.e. people not in Boulder 😉 will support doing something not because nature is precious, but because it will afect their lifestyle. But people will never all have the same motivation for doing something.

        And I lived in Boulder for 13 years, until 2002.

  2. What is the inverse of Honest? Dishonest = liar?

    I don’tlike how the “lied” word is thrown around in the climate debate (or in politics either).

    Many skeptics say AGW proponents are “liars” and many AGW proponents call skeptics “liars”.

    I do not think this is very helpful to the debate at all.

    When I disagree with a position I assume always assume that I can be wrong. I then assume that the other person can be wrong or have made a mistake. I do not leap to the conclusion that they are a liar.

    Even calling someone dishonest is a loaded term to me – and I would rather see people call the other person’s position mistaken or wrong.

    Just my opinion.

    • Very, very important point, Rick. Thanks. I agree with you completely.

  3. The idea of a “noble savage” is nothing new as any philosopher knows, so, zut alors, pretending that it is a recent happening is, shall we say slightly disengenuous.

    The discussion about who is lying scum is also an evergreen, but frankly, before Eli starts taking a microscope to Ben Santer and Co, he would like to see some Sister Soljah statements about some of the humdingers from Mr. Morano, Fred Singer, and other likely suspects.

    Before you start taking your colleague too seriously on the issue of honesty, consider Pachauri’s response when he was asked if the IPCC should not be cleaner that Caesar’s wife:

    “R.K.P.: Yeah, but Caesar was also murdered by Brutus, wasn’t he? Caesar was murdered by a group of people for their own interest,all right? So I cannot possibly be held accountable for all the lies that the media are writing about in a certain section of the U.K. press. I mean, if they are going to influence public opinion, I can assure you it is not going to last forever. I am absolutely convinced the truth will prevail in the end.”

    • Right. For my purposes here, though, I’m just interested in the caricature of the environmentalist, not in the honesty or dishonesty of the IPCC. I don’t harbor anywhere near the suspicions of the IPCC (or of Pachauri) that others do.

      • Ben, I don’t think you can separate the two, the caricature is rooted in the industrial mindset (which also explains why heavy industry communist and socialist types sign on to this).

    • Humdingers.

      This is a loaded word, which connotes liar, and I don’t think helpful to the debate.

      I say take a microscope to everybody.

      But just because you disagree with somebody doesn’t make them a liar.

      They can be mistaken or just wrong – without being a liar.

      Why not just say that Singer is wrong – why call him a liar?

      Lets be more civil as this debate continues.

  4. Nature in and of itself is neither good or bad. To make the argument either way is the naturalist fallacy. However, the destruction or preservation of the natural environment most definitely lies within the powers of modern humanity, and to those means ethical consideration must be applied. It’s not a matter of whether King Canute can stop the tide, but whether our progeny will have air to breath, food to eat, and water to drink.

    There is a certain irony that Pompeia was divorced by Caesar for the mere appearance of a scandal over which she had no power nor responsibility. There is little doubt that Fred Singer, Tony Watts and Steven McIntyre, et al. are persistent in promoting fake doubt and false exaggerations of uncertainty aimed at creating the exact same kind of spurious scandal, and Roger the ‘Honest Broker’ is quite happy to be their enabler. Should we ignore such infamous lies merely for the sake of the appearance of civility?

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