Whatever Happened to Integrity?

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We don’t hear much in today’s popular discourse about integrity. That’s too bad: integrity is an important matter in a republic with democratic institutions. The republic itself needs integrity, as do the people who would influence its institutions, as do their arguments and the data that back them up.

So, let’s consider integrity.

Applied to people, “integrity” means consistency in principles, values, methods, and actions. It is generally considered the opposite of hypocrisy. For some thinkers, this consistency isn’t a fundamental moral principle. In their version, a person with mistaken or flawed morals might act badly and still “have integrity” because his actions were consistent with his flawed principles. Others believe that integrity is a moral “first thing,” that it means consistency between words and deeds but requires the deeds to be morally right. They see integrity as an essential “wholeness” in the person possessing it. They expect a person with integrity to understand the moral consequences of his actions. This second, deeper notion seems to be what most ordinary citizens have in mind when they speak of integrity. Of course, the term “integrity” can also be applied to the purity or intactness of an object or system. Scientists will sometimes argue about the integrity of data in an experiment or supporting a conclusion. These arguments are often dismissed as “technicalities” when news of the experiment or conclusion makes its way into public discourse. This is a problem. Manipulation of data to the point where it no longer has integrity is a common practice among some activists. The University of East Anglia is located in Norwich, England — about 80 miles north and east of London. In the hierarchy of British universities, UEA is in the third tier. There probably isn’t a fourth tier. Schools like UEA struggle for academic and financial recognition in a marketplace where older, established players enjoy advantages that keep them on top. In the early 1970s, UEA developed a useful tool in this struggle: the Climate Research Unit (CRU).

The CRU started out with the dowdy mission of tabulating UK weather data. But, in the 1980s and early ’90s, it broadened its mission to include such activities as compiling a “global near-surface temperature record” in conjunction with the more prestigious Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. This climate record turned out to be a big deal to the provincial university. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used the record in its publications; this meant money and prestige. CRU staff would fly to Switzerland and the United States to explain datasets and consult with diplomats. The relationship was mutual in a way that CRU staff didn’t understand. The IPCC, like many United Nations agencies, employed scientists and bureaucrats whose training and experience were not state-of-the-art. They hid these professional shortcomings behind the luster of a British university — no matter what tier it might be.

The CRU’s operating budget increased steadily. It moved into a fashionable, cylindrical building designed by a trendy architect. Its staff made contacts with other climate scientists around the world. It was, by the standards of university budgets and politics, a big success. In 1998, Phillip D. Jones was appointed co-director (he would eventually take over as sole director). Jones cemented the CRU’s relationship with the IPCC, contributing extensive data and analysis to several IPCC publications in the 2000s. He became a prominent man in climate science circles.

And then came Al Gore. After narrowly losing the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Gore set out to establish his bona fides as a public intellectual. To do this, he focused on the issue of anthropogenic global warming. And he wanted bold data to support what he fancied would be a populist crusade to protect Mother Earth from manmade pollution. The crusade relied on data provided by Jones and other climatologists to suggest scientific rigor and legitimacy.

In late 2009, an anonymous computer hacker (most likely, an employee of UEA) broke into the CRU’s server, pulled out and released to the public a large number of emails and other documents which suggested that Phil Jones and several other

Lithwick’s critique was marked by shoddy logic, strident self-righteousness, and self-satisfied contempt.

 

climate scientists had manipulated global temperature data. Jones wrote of using “a trick” that may have exaggerated warming-trend data that the CRU provided to the IPCC.

But the manipulations discussed in the emails weren’t very tricky. They were crude. The most common seemed to be omitting numbers from locations likely to report lower temperatures, such as places in high elevations or near coasts. A close second: ignoring (and, in some cases, erasing) legitimate questions from credentialed scientists about CRU data.

Faced with a growing scandal, Jones stepped aside temporarily as director of the CRU. He has since been cleared by the UK House of Commons of criminal wrongdoing and has very recently returned to a somewhat different post at CRU. The IPCC dug in, insisting that anthropogenic global warming is an “established fact” supported by “scientific consensus.” Such ravings recall some tinhorn totalitarian from a banana republic; they are amusing rather than threatening — and typical of a United Nations agency.

The critical issue with regard to global warming is not only whether it exists (it may . . . or may not) but whether people are its main cause. The CRU’s work, “tricks” and all, was intended to make a strong circumstantial case that human activity was the main cause. With the integrity of the CRU’s data eroded, that case eroded also.

Gore has been cagey about acknowledging that the integrity of the data behind his climate change rhetoric has been compromised. Of course, in the midst of a complex daily life, people often have reasons to avoid resolving incompatible desires for such things as truth and convenience, or truth and power. But a slapdash resolution of such conflict, or an awkward withdrawal from it, is not consistent with most notions of integrity. To maintain his integrity, a public figure like Gore — so closely identified with the climate change issue — ought to make public statements thoroughly examining the relationship between the CRU’s questionable data and the bold statements they were used to support.

Identity, personal and public, influences integrity. Some contemporary philosophers focus on the commitments people identify with most deeply, the things they consider their lives to be fundamentally “about.” (The “identity” definition of integrity is associated most closely with British philosopher Bernard A.O. Williams.) Identity integrity recognizes the relevance of self-knowledge to acting with integrity.

Other philosophers argue that identity integrity isn’t broad enough. To them, integrity requires you to have proper regard for your role in a community process of deliberation over what’s valuable and what is worth doing. This means not only that you stand up for your best judgment but also that you have proper respect for the judgment of others. This respect (or its absence) explains why a fanatic does not have integrity. Fanatics remain true to their deepest commitments — much more than others usually do — but they lack respect for the deliberations of others and therefore to any method of checking their self-knowledge.

Dahlia Lithwick is a senior editor covering the Supreme Court beat for the internet magazine Slate.com, which is owned by the Washington Post Group; as a result, Lithwick’s columns also appear in the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine. While critics dismiss her work as trivial and undone by vacuous references to pop culture (imagine Kelo v. New London explained by one of the women from “Sex in the City”), Lithwick has some influence in middlebrow circles. In early May, she dedicated a column to criticizing Virginia State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli for investigating climatologist Michael Mann, a colleague of Jones in CRU projects and a former employee of the University of Virginia. Her critique was marked by shoddy logic, strident self-righteousness, and self-satisfied contempt. It presumed — not merited — reader agreement, which is a mark of inferior writing. Lithwick set up Cuccinelli as a rube and a “darling of the Tea Party movement.” She described the data Cuccinelli sought on “more than 10 years’ worth of state-funded research.” But she failed to acknowledge that state funding was the critical point of Cuccinelli’s investigation. “And who is this nefarious Michael Mann?,” she asked. “A climate scientist who worked at UVa from 1999 to 2005 and now runs Penn State’s Earth System Science Center.” Having made a cartoon of Ken Cuccinelli, she ridiculed him for making a cartoon of Michael Mann. Next, Lithwick (inadvertently, it seems) damned Mann with faint praise:

In 2006, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, commissioned an investigation into Mann’s research that ended with statistician Edward Wegman of George Mason University concluding that he would have looked at the data differently but “saw no evidence that Mann committed any fraud or deception.” A panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences reached the same conclusion that year: “There are some things that he could have done better, but there’s no fatal flaw.” A 2006 National Research Council report found that Mann’s conclusion “has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence.” But Mann’s hacked e-mails were at the center of the East Anglia ‘Climategate’ scandal, so more investigations ensued. A report by the British House of Commons’ Science and Technology Select Committee concluded in March that there was no evidence of malpractice. . . . A Penn State panel also investigated Mann for allegations that he had manipulated or destroyed data to shore up his arguments and largely cleared him. (The investigation into one final allegation is still pending.)

These conclusions were no ringing endorsement of Mann’s work — mainly carefully worded, legalistic answers. But Lithwick’s aim was to create the impression that Mann has been the object of a political witch-hunt. And, surely, the debate over the existence of and best remedies for climate change brings out the fangs in many political animals. Academics who work on trendy subjects like climate change often operate in two worlds — activism as well as research. In the world of an activist, a witch-hunt can be a badge of honor; in the world of an academic research scientist, so many questions about a man’s methods could be a career-stalling stain. Lithwick’s catalogue of cautious or partial acquittals helps Mann the activist . . . but hurts Mann the scientist. Lithwick stumbled on, trying to draw broader conclusions:

It’s not just Mann on the hook here. “With a weapon like this in Cuccinelli’s hands, any faculty member at a public university in Virginia has got to be thinking twice about doing politically controversial research or communicating with other scholars about it,” says Rachel Levinson, senior counsel with the American Association of University Professors. UVa environmental science professor Howard Epstein, a former colleague of Mann’s, puts it this way: “Who is going to want to be on our faculty when they realize Virginia is the state where the A.G. investigates climate scientists?” If researchers are really afraid to do cuttingedge research in Virginia, the state’s flagship university is in enormous trouble.

Cagey framing. Mann isn’t being investigated because his work is politically controversial or cutting-edge or climate science. He’s been investigated repeatedly because his methods are suspect. Lithwick and company assume that a “state’s flagship university” is somehow obligated to finance academic research with no oversight or control of how that research is performed. This is a defect in the logic of most statists — a kind of tragedy of the commons for professional responsibility. They believe that government institutions should provide resources yet exact no obligations. The expectation that government employment comes with no strings is simply childish.

Lithwick implied that Cuccinelli’s investigation is a repetition of Galileo’s trial. In fact, it’s something closer to the audit of an executive who may have been padding his expense account. Cuccinelli’s investigation isn’t interested in why Mann believes crackpot things about climate change;

Gore has been cagey about acknowledging that the integrity of the data behind his climate change rhetoric has been compromised.

 

it is, according to Cuccinelli’s office, interested in whether Mann applied for funding based on data that he’d manipulated or falsified. And, again, Mann’s own boasts in the CRU email thread opened the door to this possibility. All in all, Lithwick’s defense of Mann was logically specious and intellectually lazy.

Integrity means more than following a path of least resistance. Mark Halfon, a professor at Nassau Community College in New York and author of several popular books on philosophy, describes integrity in terms of a person’s dedication to the pursuit of a moral life and his intellectual responsibility in seeking to understand the demands of such a life. He writes that persons of integrity “embrace a moral point of view that urges them to be conceptually clear, logically consistent, apprised of relevant empirical evidence, and careful about acknowledging as well as weighing relevant moral considerations. Persons of integrity impose these restrictions on themselves since they are concerned, not simply with taking any moral position, but with pursuing a commitment to do what is best.”

In other words, there are some things a person of integrity will not do — even if he could play logical tricks to justify those actions. The philosopher and novelist Lynn McFall has expanded on this notion:

A person of integrity is willing to bear the consequences of her convictions, even when this is difficult . . . A person whose only principle is “Seek my own pleasure” is not a candidate for integrity because there is no possibility of conflict — between pleasure and principle — in which integrity could be lost. Where there is no possibility of its loss, integrity cannot exist. Similarly in the case of the approval seeker. The single-minded pursuit of approval is inconsistent with integrity . . . A commitment to spinelessness does not vitiate its spinelessness — another of integrity’s contraries. The same may be said for the ruthless seeker of wealth. A person whose only aim is to increase his bank balance is a person for whom nothing is ruled out: duplicity, theft, murder.

Halfon extends the list of hollow claims of principle to point out that there’s more to intellectual integrity than having a fanatic commitment to truth and knowledge. Intellectual integrity is often characterized as a kind of “openness” — to criticism and to the ideas of others — that’s essential to the scientific process in the modern liberal sense. According to Halfon: “An account of intellectual integrity should recognize

Academics who work on trendy subjects like climate change often operate in two worlds – activism as well as research.

 

other sources of conflict and temptations that impede intellectual integrity, such as the temptations offered by the commercialization of research, self-deception about the nature of one’s work, and the conflict between the free pursuit of ideas and responsibility to others.”

Free pursuit of ideas — versus the wanton politicization of research. In May of this year, Peter Dreier, the pompously (and repeatedly) self-described “E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, Director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, Occidental College,” circulated an electronic memo soliciting contract workers to perform “paid activist research” for something he called the Cry Wolf Project, characterized as

the fight to transform American politics and policy takes place on a battlefield in which ideas, narratives, and the construction of a politically driven conventional wisdom constitutes a set of highly potent weapons. Too often conservatives in the Congress and the media have captured the rhetorical high ground by asserting that virtually any substantial, progressive change in public policy, especially that involving taxes on the wealthy or regulation of business, will kill jobs, generate a stifling government bureaucracy, or curtail economic growth. But history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are “crying wolf.” We therefore need to construct a counter narrative that demonstrates the falsity or exaggeration of such claims.

Do research — and make sure you know in advance how it will turn out.

The CRU’s biases remained mostly oblique; but Dreier plainly states that the Cry Wolf Project’s bought-and-paidfor partisanship “is sponsored by the San Diego-based Center on Policy Initiatives and funded by a grant from the Public Welfare Foundation.” It represents a further debasement of intellectual integrity — and capitulation to the temptations of research-for-pay.

Ignoring all the associated pomposity, the Cry Wolf Project is a mess of small fry, just one more group of radical professors trying desperately to seem relevant. But these small fry indicate a larger issue, an erosion of integrity that is pervasive in American institutions, an erosion of integrity that affects bigger fish.

Last April, Barack Obama signed a presidential memorandum suggesting that hospitals receiving Medicare and Medicaid monies should liberalize their policies about patient visitation. Specifically, the memo stated that the Secretary of Health and Human Services would “initiate appropriate rule-making . . . to ensure that hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid respect the rights of patients to designate visitors. It should be made clear that designated visitors, including individuals designated by legally valid advance directives (such as durable powers of attorney and health care proxies), should enjoy visitation privileges that are no more restrictive than those that immediate family members enjoy.”

Durable powers of attorney (DPAs, in legal jargon) have become commonplace documents that well-organized people use to make clear their preferences about the healthcare services they receive. Perhaps most significantly — and depending on applicable state law — these documents can nominate a “legal representative” to speak for a person who has become physically incapacitated. The nomination of a legal representative is an important thing. Basically, if you’re an unmarried adult, you should designate such a person because the law can be fuzzy about who speaks for you if you don’t.

Why does the president care enough about the minutiae of hospital management to draft a presidential memo on the subject? The third paragraph of the document gets to its political raison d’etre. It charges the HHS Secretary to “provide additional recommendations to [the president], within 180 days of the date of this memorandum, on actions the Department of Health and Human Services can take to address hospital visitation, medical decision making, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.”

There’s the rub. Obama had drawn heavily on money and political support from left-leaning gay and lesbian activist groups during his 2008 presidential campaign. In exchange, he’d implied that he would champion various issues important to these groups — including recognition of same-sex marriages and an end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gay service-members. But, a year and a half into his presidency, he hadn’t made significant headway on these issues. Hospital visitation policy seemed like a simpler matter.

Turned out it wasn’t. Since hospital visitation policies are shaped mostly by state law, Obama was reduced to manipulating Medicare and Medicaid purse strings to get the changes he desired. As if to compensate for the weak practical effects of his memorandum, Obama layered on the rhetorical treacle:

Every day, all across America, patients are denied the kindnesses and caring of a loved one at their sides — whether in a sudden medical emergency or a prolonged hospital stay. . . . Also uniquely affected are gay and lesbian Americans who are often barred from the bedsides of the partners with whom they may have spent decades of their lives — unable to be there for the person they love.

That’s awful writing, from the redundancy of “all across America” to the meaningless vernacular of “be there for.” It’s writing that exemplifies the president’s reputation for (false) eloquence. Then, glaringly and near the end of the memo, comes the all-important hedge: “This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.”

If the president wanted to make a public service announcement about the importance of DPAs and other estate-planning directives, he could have done so more effectively if he hadn’t allowed his staff to bill the message as a major step forward for gay rights. It wasn’t. The memo wasn’t a sincere attempt by Obama to combat antigay bias; it was a cynical attempt to impress LGBT supporters that he’s doing something for them when he isn’t. Not much integrity there. The antics of academic or political or journalistic operators resurrect an old philosophical question: Are political conditions in the great liberal societies conducive to acquiring the self-knowledge necessary for integrity and, more importantly, for acting with integrity? Maybe not. Because those societies may not be great or truly liberal any longer.

Integrity in fact and argument is consistent with straight talk, not cagey rhetoric. We expect straight talk from friends and family — and we should demand it from public figures too. If a friend spoke to us in the way that people too often speak to us in public, we’d sense that something was very wrong. Rational people shouldn’t accept, as some pseudosophisticates do, being manipulated by people they are asked to trust.

We need to mind our own integrity as listeners and readers. Integrity has something to do with self-knowledge, the ability to assess ourselves in the context of a moral system that demands something of us. In this sense, are we people who expect to be manipulated? And, if we are, is that identity desirable? Does it allow us integrity?

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