Thursday, September 22, 2005

Professional Integrity: Journalism and Research

An individual who claims to be a scholar has an obligation to present his case using only arguments that scholars will accept. Failure to do so displays a lack of moral and professional integrity comparable to the wrongs that, in other fields, count as malpractice.

The online edition of the Christian Broadcasting Network NewsWatch recently ran an article on "Dispelling the Myths of Global Warming." For this article, the reporter, Dale Hurd relayed several arguments from "Climatologist" Pat Michaels of the CATO Institute.

Mr. Hurd's article provides an extremely conspicuous display of academic negligence on his own part, and on the part of Mr. Michaels.

Focus

In spite of the fact that I am talking about an article on global warming, this essay is not about global warming. This is an essay about peoples' professional obligations. Regardless of where any reader comes down on the global warming issue, Michaels used arguments in defense of his position that are so poor that they are equivalent to professional malpractice. In writing the article that reports these claims, Hurd has shown his own lack of professional integrity.

In fact, I want it known that I think that the Kyoto Protocols have serious problems -- problems I think that Michaels and Hurd would agree with. However, I think that it is vital to be against them for the right reasons. There are some arguments against the Protocols that I would never use, precisely because of the lack of academic and moral integrity required to use them.

Human Acts and Natural History

Against the issue that humans contribute to global warming, Hurd quoted Michaels as saying, "…climate has changed in the past without human beings having anything to do with it. There was an Ice Age not very long ago -- 5,000 feet of ice over Chicago and look, here we are, thriving on a planet with an ever-changing climate."

What's wrong with this argument?

Imagine that you are a detective arriving on a crime scene. You see a body. The victim was clearly shot through the head. You see another person holding a gun. Forensic evidence reveals that the victim was killed with a bullet fired from that gun. The gun has the accused person's fingerprints on it. There are witnesses who say they saw the accused point the gun at the victim (who was alive at the time), and pull the trigger.

Now, the accused offers up his defense: "A lot of people have died in the past without my help. I did not kill any of them. Some of them died before I was even born, or in places I could not have visited. Therefore, I clearly did not kill this person."

Would any thinking person consider this to be a rational defense?

I repeat, this is not a essay about global warming. It is an essay about Michaels' display of academic wrongdoing by saying that he has a reason for us to doubt that humans are contributing to global warming. He has a reason that is no better than the accused murderer saying, "Some people have died even though I did not kill them; therefore, I am innocent of this murder."

It is a bogus argument that no academic scholar with integrity would consider using.

One Estimate

Michaels also makes use of one estimate that the Kyoto Protocol, if adopted, would contribute to only one seven one-hundredths of one degree Celsius change in global warming. He then goes on to argue as if this one estimate is the most accurate and best supported estimate in the field. "Not seven-tenths of a degree. Not seven degrees. But seven one-hundredths of a degree - an amount too small to measure. The European answer to this is, 'Well, at least we're doing something.' Yes, they are doing something. They're wasting money . . . "

I wonder if Michaels has any stock investments. If he does, I am certain that I can find an estimate that says that the stock market is going to crash in the near future and investors are going to lose a lot of money. Yet, if I were to write in a report saying that, "By one estimate, the stock market will crash in the very near future," I sincerely doubt that Michaels (if he were to read it) would suddenly sell everything he has.

Michaels knows that one study does not produce meaningful results. The smart investor gathers additional research and looks for the best evidence among them. However, when it comes to “dispelling the myths of global warming”, Michaels wants us to take one hand-picked report as the one and only authority on the issue.

Why This Is Wrong.

Morally, what type of person is Mr. Michaels?

Apparently, he is a researcher who cares very little about the quality of the arguments he uses to support his conclusion. He cares little about how good his evidence is. If it is convincing, even if it is poor evidence, this is all he cares about.

In the medical, legal, engineering, and many other fields, malpractice is wrong. Somebody who simply makes a mistake is not guilty of malpractice. This charge applies to somebody who should have known, as a professional, not to do something that he did. People who engage in malpractice are condemned and punished for the consequences of their actions because those actions are things that no decent, conscientious person of integrity would perform.

Micheals' use of these arguments constitute actions that no decent, conscientious researcher of integrity would perform. He has a professional obligation to make sure that he presents the best case possible.

A person who takes that obligation seriously would have seen the flaws in these arguments and not used them. Either Michaels lacked the professional integrity to check his arguments for flaws and weaknesses, lacked the competence to detect those weaknesses, or he lacked the moral integrity to not use arguments that knew to be flawed.

There is also a chance that Michaels is guilty of hypocrisy. What would Michaels have said of an opponent that he caught making arguments like, "X occurred naturally in the past; therefore, no human has ever done X" or "There was once a study that showed P; therefore, P"?

If he would have condemned that person, then he is a hypocrite. By definition, a hypocrite is somebody who applies a set of standards to others that he is not willing to apply to himself. A hypocrite is somebody who would condemn an opponent for using these types of arguments but not apply those same standards to his own writing.

Finally, Michaels can be accused of promoting academic irresponsibility. That which Michaels practices, he also preaches – he teaches by example. When he uses these poor arguments in his own writing, he communicates to others that this behavior is permissible. This promotes academic laziness and sloth, not to mention giving license to demagogues and outright liars.

A society of decent and respectable people with integrity is not a society that would welcome people like Mr. Michaels as a member.

Conclusion

Michaels' behavior not only taints his own work. It also taints the CATO Institute which, apparently, does not care whether its representatives use such sloppy reasoning in support of their conclusions.

It also tarnishes Dale Hurd, who wrote an article that endorsed these arguments, reporting them to the world without having the decency to scrutinize them. The heading clearly endorses the idea that the opposing view counts as "myths" and asserts that Michaels' work is to be taken as effective at dispelling them. If he says this, he has a professional obligation to make sure that this is correct -- a professional obligation that he failed to meet.

Finally, it taints the Christian Broadcasting Network, which did not have sufficient intellectual integrity to question the reasonableness of these claims.

It also taints the whole society that allows this type of behavior without treating those who engage in it to the moral condemnation they deserve.

2 comments:

Tim R said...

How do you judge the professionalism of scholars when their conclusions are based on solid research and yet are not accepted by most "scholars" because these scholars are biased toward a different conclusion?

You may have already guessed that I'm talking about the growing number of scholars who conclude that "Jesus of Nazareth" is a mythical character rather than the historical person most Christian scholars believe him to be.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Tim r.

Your question calls to mind Alfered Wegener, who first proposed the theory of Continental Drift in 1915, and was widely ridiculed for this theory that the continents actually moved.

Or Raymond Dart's find of an Australopithecine fossile in South Africa, which was widely dismissed by an establishment that wanted to believe the Piltdown Man hoax perpetrated in England.

It happens, and the fault belongs to those whose minds are so closed that they fail to look at the evidence and the reasoning behind a conclusion they do not like.

The article I wrote, hopefully, shows a clear example of a scholar, a reporter, a research institute, and a news publication all accepting arguments that no person with academic integrity would accept.