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Ends and Means: Part Two
So far my examples of situations where the end justifies the means have been either hypothetical or fictional. Here are two real world cases of people acting on that belief, both of which, I think, show why doing so is usually a mistake.
Implications of Academic Dishonesty
There was a flap some years ago over the appearance online of a video of Jonathan Gruber telling the truth about the Obamacare bill: 
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“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If [Congressional Budget Office] scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in -– you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money — it would not have passed… Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter, or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass. And it’s the second-best argument. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.”
What he is saying, pretty clearly, is that he wishes one could both be honest and get good legislation passed but approves of dishonesty if necessary to get the job done.
A more recent example of the issue involved the Covid epidemic and the question of herd immunity. The New York Times quoted Dr. Fauci, routinely described as the nation’s leading expert on Covid:
"When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent," Dr. Fauci said. "Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, 'I can nudge this up a bit,' so I went to 80, 85."
The article went on to report:
In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.
The only sense I can make of that is that Fauci is an admitted liar. The number of people willing to take the vaccine has no effect on what is required for herd immunity. If it affects Fauci’s stated estimate then either his previous figure was a deliberate lie, as the account of the telephone interview implies, or his new estimate is a lie, or both. Either way, what he tells the public is not a report of what he believes the scientific evidence shows but of what statement by him he believes will have the best effect.
I find that he acts that way less shocking than that he openly admits to doing so.
My guess is that the willingness to be deliberately dishonest reflected in statements by both Gruber and Fauci is shared not only by most politicians but by most academics involved in the political system, although I expect many would be unwilling to say so, especially on camera. Part of the reason I believe that is an experience more than fifty years ago.
I was spending a summer in Washington as a congressional intern. My congressman lent me for four days a week to the Joint Economic Committee. They lent me to the Project on State and Local Finance of George Washington University, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the Joint Economic Committee, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the Governors' Conference. The Project was producing a fact book, a volume to provide the ordinary voter with information on state and local finance.
I discovered a fact. It was a demographic fact about people already born. It was a fact about future financial requirements for the largest expenditure in state and local budgets. The people running the project refused to include the fact in their factbook, not because they thought it was not true or not important but because it pointed in the wrong direction, would make voters less willing to support increases in state and local revenues.
The fact itself is one you can easily check. The date was about 1967. For the previous fifteen or so years, as the baby boom came into the school system, the ratio of students to taxpayers had been going up; in order to keep per pupil spending from falling taxes for schools had had to increase. For the next decade or two, as the baby boom came out of the schools and into the labor force, the ratio of students to taxpayers would be going down, so per pupil spending could be kept at its current level while taxes for schools went down. Schooling was and is the largest expenditure of state and local governments — about forty percent of the total, as of 1967.
I had assumed that professional academics, people I liked and respected, were committed to honesty in their professional work. I think of the discovery that they were not as my loss of innocence.
I disapprove both of what the people I worked with then did, pretending to inform people while deliberately misinforming them, and what Gruber did and defended, but I cannot prove that my reaction is justified. Gruber was willing to sacrifice one value for another that he thought more important and I cannot show that he is wrong.
I can, however, point out a danger in the approach. Once academics accept the principle that dishonesty is justified if done for the greater good their work cannot be trusted on any subject with regard to which they have an incentive to misrepresent it.
Another example, and one where the case in favor of academic dishonesty was, I think, stronger, is the case of Nuclear Winter:
"According to Sagan and his coworkers, even a limited 5,000 megaton nuclear exchange would cause a global temperature drop of more than 35 degrees Centigrade, and this change would last for three months. The greatest volcanic eruptions that we know of changed world temperatures somewhere between .5 and 2 degrees Centigrade. Ice ages changed global temperatures by 10 degrees. Here we have an estimated change three times greater than any ice age. One might expect it to be the subject of some dispute.
But Sagan and his coworkers were prepared, for nuclear winter was from the outset the subject of a well-orchestrated media campaign. The first announcement of nuclear winter appeared in an article by Sagan in the Sunday supplement, Parade. The very next day, a highly-publicized, high-profile conference on the long-term consequences of nuclear war was held in Washington, chaired by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, the most famous and media-savvy scientists of their generation. Sagan appeared on the Johnny Carson show 40 times. Ehrlich was on 25 times. Following the conference, there were press conferences, meetings with congressmen, and so on. The formal papers in Science came months later.
This is not the way science is done, it is the way products are sold."
(From a speech by Michael Crichton deploring the victory of politics over science in the form of "consensus science.")
I formed my own opinion on that particular issue many years ago after reading a scientific article by the authors of one of the publications that had fed into the nuclear winter calculations. It conceded that their earlier article contained, as critics had pointed out, an error serious enough so that correcting it reduced the predicted duration of global winter from years to weeks. But they explained that they had now discovered another error in the opposite direction and correcting it brought the duration back to years.
My guess is that they were telling the truth about their analysis. They may even have been correct in their conclusion. But the degree of uncertainty implied by that article was strikingly inconsistent with the confidence with which the nuclear winter conclusion was being trumpeted, largely by people who wanted other people to believe it because they thought that belief would reduce the risk of nuclear war.
One interesting thing about that particular case is that it might be defended as justified dishonesty. I can imagine a reasonable person deliberately misrepresenting the evidence, claiming it was much stronger than he believed it actually was, on the grounds that almost anything that reduced the risk of nuclear war, honest or dishonest, was worth doing. The counter-argument is implicit in Crichton's essay, that treating science in that way converts it from a mechanism for determining truth to a tool of partisan debate, with very bad long-term results.
For a more recent real world case, this one having to do with the Covid pandemic, consider the following statement from the editors’ blog of Science on their decision to publish an article implying that herd immunity would come sooner than early estimates had implied:
“we were concerned that forces that want to downplay the severity of the pandemic as well as the need for social distancing would seize on the results to suggest that the situation was less urgent. We decided that the benefit of providing the model to the scientific community was worthwhile.”
That implies that the editors believe that part of their job is filtering the scientific literature in order to bias the public perception in the direction they approve of, although in this case they decided not to.
Consider the relevance for the current climate controversy. No single academic knows enough to base his conclusion solely on his own work and expertise; each is relying on information produced by many others. Economists estimating the net effect on humans of AGW rely on the work of climate scientists predicting the effects on temperature of increased CO2, the work of other climate scientists predicting the effect of increased temperature on rainfall, hurricanes, and other relevant variables, the work of agronomists estimating the effect of changes in CO2 concentration, length of growing season, temperature, on agricultural production, the work of statisticians confirming the models of the climate scientists on the basis of their analysis of paleoclimate data, and many others.
What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to omit facts that point in the wrong direction, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes, what all of them believe, is the right conclusion? Each then interprets the work of all the others as providing more support for that conclusion than it really does. The result might be that they end up biasing in support of the wrong conclusion, the conclusion which each of them believes is right on the basis of the lies of all the others.
That is one of the reasons I am not greatly impressed by the supposed scientific consensus in favor of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming. For details, see my first post here.
There is a quote usually attributed to Bismarck but apparently due to Saxe:
“Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
It applies to other things as well, including the output of academics.
Lying for a Good Cause — The Principle Generalized
Some years ago, while waiting in the dentist's office, I took a look at a Time magazine and was mildly irritated by its attempt to defend Obamacare. The author described a deliberate lie about people being able to keep their insurance if they wanted to as the administration being insufficiently clear — I do not have the magazine with me so cannot offer an exact quote. And he echoed the Administration talking point that represented all existing policies that did not cover everything the ACA requires, including contraception, as worthless junk that people only bought because they were desperate for insurance. That left me wondering about the author of that particular piece of partisan puffery disguised as news commentary. My guess is that, dosed with truth serum or in a sufficiently private conversation with a trusted friend, he would admit that the Administration's claim was a deliberate lie but justify it on the grounds that it was necessary in order to get a good law passed — Gruber’s position.
It occurred to me to wonder if the author of the Time piece or others with similar views would accept the same argument applied to a previous instance and a different President. Would they have agreed that, while the facts it was based on turned out to be mistaken, the moral reasoning was correct.
Imagine that you are President Bush and that you believe the following:
1. Saddam Hussein is a murderous tyrant whose people would be far better off without him.
2. If he is overthrown by the U.S., his government can be replaced by a reasonably free and democratic one which will serve as a model to convert other dictatorships in the region into free and democratic societies.
3. Points 1 and 2 will not be sufficient to persuade the American people to support an invasion of Iraq. They would, however, support such an invasion if they believed that Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction.
4. While it is possible that Hussein is producing weapons of mass destruction, there is little evidence of it.
Would you be justified in pretending to have good evidence of WMD's in order to get sufficient public support to make possible a U.S. invasion of Iraq?
The logic is the same as in the case of Obamacare — lying to the public in order to make possible policies you consider highly desirable.
In both cases, the argument hinges on factual beliefs. Point 2 above turned out to be strikingly false. Obamacare will, I think, turn out to have been a mistake. But the question I am asking is not whether the beliefs were correct but whether the moral argument is. If Bush believed points 1 to 4, was he justified in lying to the American people? If Obama believed that the ACA would greatly improve American health care, was he?
And, perhaps most interesting, would people who answered "yes" to the second question be willing to give the same answer to the first, or vice versa?
 For an interesting fictional example, see The Fly on the Wall by Tony Hillerman.
 The project was run by Selma Mushkin, an economist who had worked mostly in health economics. I no longer remember the names of any of the other people associated with it.
 One example from my blog: http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2014/03/acts-vs-words-case-of-nordhaus.html
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