doubting thomas on lying
Janet E. Smith is to be commended for the deference she shows St. Augustine and St. Thomas (“Fig Leaves and Falsehoods,” June/July). Her own position, however, is not without significant precedent in Catholic tradition. Blessed John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua contains a long and fascinating appendix titled “Lying and Equivocation” in which he notes that “[a]lmost all authors, Catholic and Protestant, admit, that when a just cause is present, there is some kind or other of verbal misleading, which is not a sin.”
As Smith notes, one of the harms of speaking untruth is that it undermines the bonds of trust on which human society depends. But Nazis who are seeking out Jews to murder and criminals who are the target of sting operations are themselves destroying these bonds. It seems unreasonable to claim for such men a right to receive trustworthy information for the furtherance of schemes that if unchecked would destroy the very conditions of trust within society.
The theologian Cattaneo, quoted by Newman, notes that “the obligation to veracity . . . is founded principally upon the necessity of human intercourse” and that without such veracity “the world would become a Babylon of confusion.” But he goes on to say that “such confusion would in great measure be really the result as often as a man should be unable to defend secrets of high importance, and other evils would follow, even worse than confusion, in their nature destructive of this very intercourse between man and man for which speech was instituted.”
Stephen M. Barr
Janet Smith claims that the differences between the first and second editions of the Catechism of the Catholic Church present a conundrum that leads her to believe that “it may be right on occasion to speak falsehoods to those who do not have the right to know the truth.” Both editions say that “to lie is to speak or act against the truth” in order to lead someone into error, but the first specifies that the one being led into error is “someone who has the right to know the truth.” Both editions go on to say, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned.”
Smith seems to ignore further statements in the Catechism that give clues as to why the phrase was dropped: “The right to the communication of the truth is not unconditional. The good and safety of others, respect for privacy, and the common good are sufficient reasons for being silent about what ought not to be known or for making use of a discreet language. No one is bound to reveal the truth to someone who does not have the right to know it.” This does not suggest, however, that we have a right to tell lies.
The phrase “who has the right to know the truth” was omitted from the second edition because the question of the obligation to conceal the truth is bound up with particular circumstances and it is unhelpful to include it in the general definition of lying. When circumstances require concealing the truth, one might use what the Catechism terms “discreet language”—or what has commonly been known as equivocation or mental reservation. This provides a benign interpretation of the intentions of those making false documents for Jews during World War II.
In claiming that “uttering a falsehood to deceive a Nazi in order to save a Jew seems to be just such a case” of a permissible concealing of the truth, Smith seems to set up a false dichotomy: Either you have to lie to prevent harm coming to the concealed Jew or you have to betray him. Why not another solution, one St. Augustine commends? A bishop of Tagaste, Firmus, having concealed a fugitive, said “he could neither lie nor betray the man” when the authorities asked if the bishop knew where he was. His courage merited for him torture from the authorities, and his courageous suffering was remarked upon not only by St. Augustine but even by the tyrant who sought the fugitive. As a result of the bishop’s example, the fugitive was pardoned.
Michael Gilmary, M.M.A.
most holy trinity monastery
Intentional deception seems inconsistent with loving one’s enemies. Knowledge of truth is an intrinsic good for persons, not merely an instrumental good. Error, then, is an absolute evil.
Where a truth also holds an instrumental value and is sure to be misused (as a “loaded weapon,” in Smith’s phrase), discretion certainly requires that one forbear from correcting error.
But allowing the unjust Nazi to persist in error is worlds away from intentionally causing his error. The deceiver wills evil on his enemy for the sake of another’s good. Had the Lord treated us thus when we were his enemies, what would have become of us?
Poul F. Lundgren
Janet Smith leaves one with quite the wrong idea of Thomas on lying. She fails to mention the distinction between mortal and venial sin, a distinction fundamental for a picture of life after the Fall. Some types of lies are mortal while some are venial.
Thomas teaches that the word “sin” is said analogically of mortal and venial sin. Venial sin is not “against the eternal law.” It is “out of step” with law, since law always prescribes that things be done according to reason. Still, as Thomas says, “someone sinning venially does not do what the law prohibits, or fail to do that to which the law by precept obliges.”
In this same line of thinking, we should hesitate even to say that venial sin is “bad.” At least, we must recognize that “bad” is said in different ways. Thus, Thomas tells us: “Venial sins do not exclude the spiritual good, which is the grace of God or charity. Hence, they are not called ‘bad’ unqualifiedly, but in a qualified sense.”
Taking only the example of the Gestapo at the door and Anne Frank in the attic, to deny her presence is, by Thomas’ standards, a venial sin. It is a lie about a contingent truth the Gestapo agent has no right to know. It parallels the case of the Egyptian midwives lying to Pharaoh; Thomas certainly supported the view that God rewarded the Egyptian midwives with eternal life for the goodness of their hearts, not precisely for the lie inasmuch as it is “bad” (though certainly not evil or corrupting).
Also needing clarification is that lying is not, as such, against the virtues of charity or justice; it is against the virtue of veracity or truthfulness, a virtue that, unlike charity or justice, admits of types of venial sin. The Catechism discusses lying in the context of the Decalogue and, as Thomas points out, the Decalogue is concerned with justice and charity; thus, the only reference in it to lying is “bearing false witness against one’s neighbor,” clearly a mortal sin in kind, a breach as to justice and charity.
Lawrence Dewan, O.P.
dominican university college
Janet Smith lucidly explains why it is sometimes permissible to lie, and I write only to suggest how to strengthen her answer to Aquinas’ argument that lying is always wrong, regardless of the circumstances. Aquinas reasons that “words are naturally signs of intellectual acts, and thus it is unnatural and undue for anyone to signify by words something that is not in his mind.” Explaining this, Smith says that, in Aquinas’ metaphysics, all things have ends or purposes and, in his moral theory, to violate those ends is to do wrong. She avoids Aquinas’ conclusion about lying, saying that in fact speech has many purposes and that this allows the telling of falsehoods in appropriate cases.
But Smith concedes too much here. Aquinas does not think that in general it is wrong to act contrary to the ends of things. The end of an egg is to grow into a chicken, but we may violate that end by boiling, frying, or scrambling. Chairs are meant for sitting, but it is not wrong to stand on them or to burn them for firewood. Even the ends of human body parts or human faculties may be violated in appropriate cases. Hence, walking on your hands is not immoral and neither is interrupting coitus to flee a burning house.
For Aquinas, an action is wrong not because it violates just any end but because it violates (that is, is not ordered as a means to) the final end of human nature. This can happen in two ways. Some actions are incapable of being means to the final end, much as striking out cannot be a means to the end of getting on base. Such actions are always wrong, for, regardless of the circumstances, they are not ordered to the final end. Other actions are wrong because, although capable of being ordered to the final end, they are undertaken in circumstances in which they are not actually ordered to that end. Such actions are sometimes right and sometimes wrong, depending on the circumstances.
Even on the implausible assumption that the faculty of speech has the sole end of conveying truth, Aquinas’ argument shows only that lying is contrary to that end, not that it is contrary to the final end of human nature. Since the ends of human faculties are constitutive of the final end of human nature, acts violating the end of a faculty usually also violate the end of human nature, but this is true only usually and not always.
Recognize too, as Smith persuasively argues, that speech has many purposes besides conveying truth, and it seems clear that, in appropriate circumstances, uttering a falsehood may be ordered to the final end and so be permissible. Hence, when Nazis appear on my doorstep hunting for the Jews hidden in my attic, I may deflect them with a clever falsehood as well as pull my .357 Magnum and send them to their maker.
Robert T. Miller
villanova law school
A key issue for Janet Smith is the difference between pre- and postlapsarian man—the innocent ideal and the less-than-so, practical, messy-world version of him. The relevant distinction, however, is one Smith also mentions: whether the requester of the information is one “who has the right to know the truth.”
I offer the familiar example of a runaway Roman slave named Felix. Some Roman guards ask him, “Esne Felix?” (Are you Felix?). He answers, “Non sum felix!” (I am not happy!” using the adjectival form of his name.) They asked him one question, he answered a different one. With the moral evil of slavery as a given, the guards—like those German soldiers looking for Jews—do not have “the right to know the truth,” but Felix should not lie either.
And he did not lie—speak a deliberate falsehood—but he did allow his hearers to apply to his words a meaning they chose, not the one he had in mind. It is perhaps a form of what used to be called “broad mental reservation”: answering a question incompletely, allowing the hearer to assume something you have not said. Such disinformation is not lying but rather is misleading—permitted by the absence of the guards’ “right to know.”
I think the confusion here is in not focusing on the primary human moral precept of “do good and avoid evil” while discussing the concept of “sin.” Many years ago, the vocabulary of morality used a “function and purpose” base, which made it all so very much clearer. Killing another human being is always an evil, but it is not always a sin. Sin depends on the intention of the actor and on the circumstances. Using that structure, the purpose of our speech-function is—and must always be—to speak the truth; not doing so is always evil. That speech purpose, however, does not always include ensuring that the listener understands the truth, as when that listener has no right to the truth. By strict logic, then, just as unavoidably killing the not-innocent may not be sinful but is always evil, so too lying may possibly not be sinful but always evil-doing.
It is a pity that we have lost that vocabulary; Smith lets the camel’s nose enter the tent by defending some lying as not sinful, forgetting to mention that it is still evil. “Everybody does it” in today’s postlapsarian world must not justify an evil means to a good end.
Arthur C. Henry
Janet Smith’s thesis that, in the postlapsarian world, language has legitimate uses besides conveying mental concepts strikes me as plausible, though I have some reservations and would like to share one of those.
When the accepted distinction between murder and lawful killing is compared to the proposed distinction between lying and lawfully telling a falsehood, notice that killing another human being is fully justified only in uncommon or rare cases. If a malefactor is a great enough threat, we are not committing sin by killing him, but because an aggressor usually can be neutralized in other, less violent ways, we are urged toward even further restraint than what would render us merely guiltless. Certain goods are lost when a human being is killed, even if he happens to deserve it. The Catechism states that bloodless means should be preferred because “they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
Likewise, if telling falsehoods is in fact not always lying, it is probably true that certain goods are still lost in those cases. But if conventional falsehoods can be excluded from the category of lying, then we allow this diminished state not rarely but commonly. We are saying that it is acceptable to deprive society of a multitude of goods that would have come about had we been able simply to tell the truth rather than settle for a falsehood.
I maintain that we are more impoverished for our conventional falsehoods. Exchanges in which false answers are acceptable or even preferred are not cost free. At risk of sounding merely picky, let me suggest that the repeated use of “How are you?” broadcasts the subtle message that we don’t have to take one another’s speech so seriously. It presupposes that the asker wants to know, which typically he does not. “Good morning” could easily be substituted. It presupposes nothing about the speaker and does not force the receiver into making an often disingenuous response. Conventional falsehoods in media reporting, espionage, police work, research, and so forth also have fallout, probably of an order more serious than one’s manner of saying hello.
If some falsehoods can be accepted, I think the line has to be drawn far out on the edges where civilized society rubs against truly evil forces in the most immediate and grave way, where the occurrences of justifiable lying generally are uncommon or rare.
ann arbor, michigan
Janet Smith replies:
I did not expect these responses to my defense of the telling of some falsehoods. All of them except Lundgren’s defend behavior that Aquinas would consider false signification and therefore morally impermissible, and none defend Aquinas’ metaphysical understanding of the purpose of language. He is the elephant in the room. I expected more resistance.
I thank Stephen Barr for bringing Newman into the discussion. There is no shortage of distinguished individuals like Newman, including saints (if their behavior is indicative of their beliefs), who defend the telling of falsehoods, but again Aquinas is not among them. I agree with Fr. Gilmary that acts of mental reservation (which I believe to be falsehoods) and false passports can be moral and with George Mead that one does not harm a Nazi or the truth when telling falsehoods to Nazis, but Aquinas would not agree.
Paul Lundgren simply asserts his contrary position but does not engage the argument. Yes, truth is an intrinsic value, but so is life, and it is not inviolate. I find it strange that we could kill a Nazi attempting to kill a Jew but not tell that Nazi a falsehood to save the Jew.
Fr. Dewan does not explicitly say that it would be right to tell falsehoods to prevent great evil, a venial sin in Aquinas’ view, though I think that is what he is suggesting. He doesn’t tell us how he would deal with Aquinas’ view that one should not sin venially even to prevent a great evil.
I appreciate Robert Miller’s attempt to strengthen my argument. Circumstances in the postlapsarian world require us to order our communications to ends other than conveying truth, and that truth is sometimes best conveyed or protected by falsehoods.
Arthur Henry seems to want to permit some falsehoods but to insist that such falsehoods involve doing evil. Again, in my view, there is no moral evil in telling some falsehoods, though certainly some harm may be done. In this postlapsarian world, much good action has some evil attached to it; to give alms to one organization means that one is not giving to another.
I would point out to Paul Malocha that, while moral killing is a comparatively rare deed, causing physical harm is quite common, as for instance in sporting activity. And I think conventional falsehoods are quite handy. “How are you?” at least opens the door for a genuine conversation, but the acceptance of “fine” as a response relieves us of the necessity of becoming psychoanalysts to all we greet. And lies told in the service of espionage are, I think, head-on with evil.
critical thinking and the preferential option
As a teacher at Columbia for sixty-five years (and still at it), I have had ample opportunity to witness the preoccupation of academia with “critical thinking” as the be-all and end-all of education, to which R. R. Reno draws attention (“Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking,” June/July). Critical thinking is not self-sufficient; it needs something of substance to work on and work with—something that speaks to the heart as well as to the mind (critical reason).
A reasonable way to go about this is to consider what time-tested classics propose to us and how they both contest and confirm the centrality of certain perennial value issues in human life. Extend this to the classics of other world traditions and one finds further contestation and confirmation of the same issues as well as the proposing of others. It is a continuing and expanding process. It gets you somewhere both on your own and with the help of others. It is critical but not to no end.
Theodore de Bary
new york, new york
I was very pleased to read R. R. Reno’s first installment of “The Public Square” on the “preferential option for the poor,” one of the oldest aspects of Catholic social teaching. In Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, the founding document of modern Catholic social teaching, he says the poor require an “especial consideration” from the state as they “have no resources of their own to fall back upon.”
This preference, though, is too often considered in terms only of monetary aid, narrowing the social teaching to socioeconomic and political reformation. This was not the vision of Pope Leo or of succeeding pontiffs who have written on the social obligations of Christians.
“Since the end of society is to make men better, the chief good that a society can possess is virtue,” says Pope Leo. “Virtue, and virtue alone,” not artificial impositions of economic equality, is the great equalizer among men. The pope goes on to say that access to material goods is necessary for the practice of virtue. But the former serves the latter. Always.
Therefore, the work of social justice, the preferential work for the poor in our society, is that which rebuilds, as Reno states, “the social capital squandered by rich baby boomers.” The import of this social capital is why the Vatican II document The Church in the Modern World addresses the priorities of social action starting with marriage and family, proceeds next to culture, and only addresses the political at the end.
Solzhenitsyn once wrote that the singular moral illusion of our age is that the “principal arena of the moral life, the true realm of good and evil, is politics.” When studies show that socioeconomic and psychological stability for adults and children are higher in homes with stable marriages, it seems clear that the pressing social work of today must look to include not just political solutions and the teaching of justice but also instruction in temperance; fortitude, yes, but also prudence; liberty, but one formed by the pursuit of faith, hope, and love.
Omar F. A. Gutierrez
deliver us from nabbish
Anthony Esolen’s article on the language of the New American Bible (“A Bumping Boxcar Language,” June/July) rightly identified some of the ugly characteristics of that dialect. I would like to add one more: Phony-Baloney Archaizing (PBA). PBA occurs frequently in the Psalms, usually in the form of a clumsy shift in word order. For example, from Psalm 33: “With the ten-stringed lyre chant his praises. . . . Of the kindness of the lord the earth is full.”
As an act of charity (to the afflicted New American Bible, and to the ears of us who read and listen), I tweak the phrases into normality. Sometimes, as with Psalm 23, we must destroy the reading to save it.
greenhouse gases and the public good
In “The Truth About Greenhouse Gases” (June/July), William Happer is clearly assuming that the cost of decreasing greenhouse emissions is so great that almost any attempt to address the matter would produce an economic catastrophe. The truth is that neither Happer nor anyone else knows with any certainty the cost of greenhouse-gas mitigation.
We have available a vast array of approaches to the problem. Engineering studies indicate that they range from zero or even negative cost to as much as $100 per ton of carbon dioxide avoided. Full knowledge of these costs will come only with experience. The prudent course would seem to be to begin to pursue immediately the most promising options on a small scale.
The simplest and most immediately relevant approach would be to bring per capita energy consumption in the United States down to the current average for industrial nations. If this were done with a set of energy taxes replacing one of the regressive taxes currently in use, the payroll tax in particular, we could achieve a substantial reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions at essentially no cost to the public while at the same time providing a much-needed economic benefit to lower- and middle-class American workers, as well as conserving our irreplaceable fossil-fuel resources. Making these resources last as long as possible might be our wisest energy policy.
Part of the “truth about greenhouse gases” is that the carbonaceous fossil fuels combine economic utility and low cost to a degree that has never been and likely never will be equaled. The idea that they will in time be superseded by synthetic fuels from nuclear energy is a fantasy. The selfish disregard for future generations that we show through the profligate use of these resources smacks of the same moral perversity that you attribute to those of us who take resource conservation seriously.
Because CO2 concentrations and global temperatures have both increased and “therefore the warming is due to CO2”—that argument, against which William Happer argues, is a classic straw man. I am disappointed that a Princeton professor should present such a pathetically weak, contrarian case. If he honestly thinks that this is all there is to the argument for global warming, his background in spin-polarized atoms and nuclei leaves him sadly unqualified to write about climate debates.
I also fail to see the point of his argument that CO2 levels have lagged past warming and cooling events. All this argument implies is that CO2 has not been the driving force for the changing temperatures, which any climatologist will freely admit, but it could still be a contributing factor. What would be more of a problem, although still not a refutation, is a case where CO2 levels had been observed to decrease during the warming periods.
There is perhaps a more fundamental problem with his article: Nobody is claiming that the current accumulation of greenhouse gases will be the largest cause of climate change ever in the history of the world. So the fact that there are other purely natural causes of climate change that have caused massive swings in temperature in the past is irrelevant. Binge drinking is far from being the main cause of deaths in the United States, but it is still not a healthy thing to do.
Mention of the Climate Research Unit email release was highly predictable. What was equally predictable was the failure to make any mention at all of the string of independent reviews of the Climategate issue, none of which found any reason to doubt the scientific integrity of the CRU or to find any reason to doubt the evidence for global warming.
In fact, the reviews found that some of the Climategate critics had displayed “a lack of awareness” of the difficulties of research in global-climate change. His comments about CRU being concerned to release station-temperature data, for example, displays a clear ignorance about broader political questions regarding access to station data that have absolutely nothing to do with global-warming questions at all. Most countries are highly reluctant to provide historical records of climate because of the perceived economic value of the data, to prevent other countries and independent “experts” from issuing warnings and alarms for the country that provided the data, and for a host of other perfectly good reasons. Much of the data that CRU has was given to them only on condition that CRU would not redistribute the data. Failure to abide by that agreement could seriously jeopardize the ongoing exchange of climate records.
What remains perhaps most disappointing is that the article is littered with the usual conspiracy-theory accusations about political agendas that pervade a disturbingly large proportion of First Things articles, about which I read constant complaints in the Letters section. There are the typical disparagements: silly accusations of a “herd” mentality, for example, which added an unnecessary, purely rhetorical flourish to what was otherwise a set of noble sentiments in Happer’s closing paragraphs. It was almost amusing to note that the opening paragraph about delusions could, with only minor changes in wording, have been written by a climate-change fanatic against climate-change skeptics.
The article is also littered with unsubstantiated claims such as climate change having been “embarrassingly uneventful” and extreme events having decreased in frequency over the past one hundred fifty years. Maybe these statements are true for specific phenomena or in certain locations, but there is no expectation that climate will change for the worse, or even just become hotter, in every region.
More generally, far too much of the article is personal perceptions presented as scientific fact. It is a major disappointment to me that scientists on both sides of the climate-change debate are unable to present information honestly; it makes finding the truth extremely difficult and truly possible only for the experts who approach the problem with no independent agenda. It is even more disappointing to me that Christians make the same kinds of mistakes.
As a long-term subscriber to First Things, I have had constantly to fight the inclination to cancel my subscription because of its insistence on publishing articles that either lack any truly substantive argument or, as in this case, present half-truths and misleading facts but that present a message in strong sympathy with the editor’s agenda and, therefore, apparently pass the editorial screening process. Has First Things become guilty of the very publication bias it likes to lament when, for example, Happer complains about the difficulties that climate-change skeptics face in publishing their work?
international research institute
for climate and society, columbia university
palisades, new york
Please help me make some sense out of the last two issues of First Things. I feel as though I’m being pulled in two opposite directions. In May, I read that we can trace the roots of the recent banking crisis to a revolution in our thinking that leaves us wondering “how anything like the love of money could ever have been regarded as a vice.” In the midsummer issue I am told that the majority of the world’s climatologists are alarmists trying to scare us into fruitless efforts that will only “enrich a favored few with good political ties—at the expense of the great majority of mankind.”
The reason that these efforts are putatively fruitless, writes William Happer, is that there is no solid science to back up the claims that rising CO2 levels are in any way to be feared. The models that would tell us otherwise are deliberately rigged to produce the results that support the alarmists’ convictions. We are asked rhetorically: “What has transformed climate science from a normal intellectual discipline to a matter of so much controversy?” And then we are supplied with the answer: a “co-opting of climate science by politics, ambition, greed, and what seems to be a hereditary human need for a righteous cause.”
I am personally more likely to accept the conclusions of Edward Skidelsky when he tells me that avarice was the motivation on display during the financial meltdown, because he at least quotes Joseph Stiglitz as saying that “the invisible hand theory [allowed] CEOs [to] . . . feel no guilt in greed; they should feel pride.” Unfortunately, Happer does not give the attributions for all his claims against the climate-science community. But I suspect that I can supply them. Consider this message from Bad Science: A Resource Book: “Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda. Government agencies . . . betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society.”
The irony of this source is that it was a publication of the tobacco industry and drew directly on the writings of Fred Singer, a widely respected physicist and professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia. Singer’s contributions to the debate over the health effects of secondhand smoke were also used during the fight over acid rain and the ozone hole and now resurface during our quest to come to grips with the consequences of rising CO2 levels.
I recommend Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Conway for a deeper understanding of how a small group of scientists, working with free-market think tanks like the George C. Marshall Institute, have played a hand in every fight over possible government regulation of pollution since the 1960s.
I think Edward Skidelsky had already adequately answered the problem regarding global warming. There was no need to revisit it in the following issue of your magazine.
The book of Deuteronomy establishes a robust method for determining truth: “A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Just as an Old Testament judge required multiple witnesses, scientists look for multiple lines of evidence. On the question of whether global warming is happening, natural witnesses are found throughout our climate.
What is causing the warming? Again, we find multiple witnesses pointing to human activity as the main cause of global warming over the last few decades, like steadily increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (40 percent greater than preindustrial levels), determined by fingerprinting analyses of the air, tree rings, corals, and deep ocean water to be caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuel. Scientists have compared decades of satellite observations of heat escaping to space, and what they find is just as expected: less heat escaping to space at those exact wavelengths at which carbon dioxide absorbs heat, and more heat returning to earth at those telltale wavelengths. The scientists who conducted this analysis concluded, “This experimental data should effectively end the argument by skeptics that no experimental evidence exists for the connection between greenhouse gas increases in the atmosphere and global warming.”
How do climate skeptics respond to the cloud of witnesses linking human activity to global warming? By cherry-picking isolated pieces of data while sweeping the rest of the evidence under the rug, ignoring the data altogether, and distracting from the evidence by arguing irrelevant points. A collection of all these techniques can be found in William Happer’s article.
For example, he argues that the only case for human-caused global warming is the correlation between rising CO2 and rising temperatures. This is completely incorrect. As we’ve already seen, there are many other lines of evidence establishing causation. No legitimate scientist would sweep all that evidence under the carpet only to focus on the least important result, namely, the correlation between temperature and CO2.
He also raises one of the pet topics of climate skeptics, the Medieval Warm Period, contrasting a graph from the 1990 IPCC report that showed unusually warm temperatures during medieval times with one from the 2001 IPCC report that showed relatively flat temperature change over the past millennium. Why the difference? The answer, which he fails to mention, is that the 1990 graph showed temperatures only from a single location, the Central England Temperature, while the 2001 graph is averaged from locations scattered across the Northern Hemisphere. The difference was the progression from one witness to many witnesses. While parts of Europe were warmer during medieval times, other parts of the planet were cooler. Globally, current warm temperatures are unprecedented over the past 2000 years.
Climate scientists predict that a doubling of CO2 from preindustrial levels should cause around 5 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit of warming due to positive feedbacks—doubled CO2 causes direct warming of around 2 degrees Fahrenheit, and feedbacks amplify this threefold. Happer argues that climate feedback is much smaller than this and possibly even negative and that the case for a high climate sensitivity of 5 to 6 degrees is based on computer models. Again, this is simply incorrect.
However, climate models are only one witness for high climate sensitivity. Scientists also use paleoclimate evidence, looking at how climate has behaved in the past. What we find from many different periods in earth’s history is that net feedback is positive: Feedbacks amplify any initial change in temperature, although in the past those changes were not necessarily caused by CO2 increasing. Happer seizes on one analysis of satellite observations that finds them to indicate negative feedback but ignores the vast body of evidence, including a number of studies analyzing the same satellite observations, that finds them to indicate positive evidence.
“A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” An understanding of our climate requires that we consult all the witnesses that nature provides. By withholding the full picture and distracting with irrelevancies, Happer is misleading people about the reality of climate change.
global change institute,
university of queensland
William Happer replies:
Stephen Bezanson speaks about “the cost of greenhouse-gas mitigation.” As I tried to make clear in my article, there is nothing to mitigate, because the amounts by which we can practically increase CO2 concentrations will be good for the planet and mankind. I agree with him that we should make our reserves of fossil fuels last as long as possible, but I do not accept the dubious claims about the ill effects of CO2 made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Even if one does, economic studies like those of W. D. Nordhaus show that doing nothing for fifty years—while the currently disadvantaged peoples of the world become more prosperous with the aid of fossil fuels—has a near-optimum cost–benefit ratio.
Simon Mason tells us that “finding the truth [is] extremely difficult and truly possible only for experts who approach the problem with no independent agenda.” And who are the “experts” to whom we should defer? Does Mason, the chief climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, have no independent agenda? Many of the people who conducted Mason’s “string of independent reviews of the Climategate issue” had very substantial stakes in continued climate alarmism. For example, one review was headed by Lord Oxburgh, president of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, chairman of the wind-energy firm Falck Renewables, and a member of the Climate Change Advisory Board of Deutsche Bank. Neither Oxburgh’s panel nor the others considered the science of climate or interviewed those whose frustrated attempts to access the raw data led to the Climategate scandal.
Mason tells us that “CO2 has not been the driving force for the changing temperatures, which any climatologist will freely admit.” If true, this is progress, since for years the establishment did its best to explain away the large, CO2-independent temperature changes of the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period. Defenders of the faith repeatedly asserted, contrary to a growing body of scientific studies, that these were European, not global changes and that the true global temperature was the celebrated hockey stick. The centerpiece of Al Gore’s scary presentations on climate apocalypse was always the correlated change of temperature and CO2 levels inferred from Greenland and Antarctic ice cores. He never mentioned that the temperature changes preceded the CO2 changes.
Philip Lussier seems to think that anyone who questions alarmism over CO2 is in it for the money. I am not, but money from governments, private foundations, and business opportunists is more than ten to one on the side of the alarmists.
According to John Cook, the Bible says that “a matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” My article was about the science of greenhouse gases, not climate religion. King Ahab had no trouble finding two witnesses to justify the execution of Naboth and the expropriation of his vineyard. Because of the huge sums of money spent on promoting alarmism over the past decades, “clouds of witnesses” can be found to testify that the world will soon end unless we immediately hand over at least part of our vineyards to the philosopher-kings of climate. Truth in science is decided not by witnesses but by careful experiment and observation as they are guided by theory and subject to unrelenting skepticism.