Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I did jail time in the Sixties for a peaceful sit-in against the Vietnam War. So (as with many things) my understanding of the issues involved in what may be termed “civil disobedience” is eminently practical as well as theoretical. I was very disturbed by a recent column in the New York Times by Kirk Johnson entitled “Do Motives Matter?” It discussed the DeChristopher case. I reproduce it in its entirety and discuss it below.
Do Motives Matter? The DeChristopher Verdict
Tim DeChristopher hugged supporters as he left a courthouse in Salt Lake City after his conviction. Associated Press Photo
The American legal system tends to pay obsessive attention to a person’s motives and mental state. A hate crime, for example, only becomes a hate crime at all with motive. Premeditated offenses often get harsher treatment than impulsive acts of rage or passion. The capacity to understand right and wrong is a fundamental threshold of competency in a courtroom.
OK, let’s stop right there. Part of that is simply untrue. In addition, he is conflating motive, premeditation, mental competence, and intent.
The American legal system pays almost no attention to motive. The only crime I can think of in which a person’s motives make a difference is a “hate crime”. This is a recent addition to the law. But if you murder someone, or steal their wallet, your motive is meaningless. You might have stolen to impress your girlfriend. You might need the money to feed your kids. Doesn’t matter, the jury will never hear about your motive. The only question the jury ever considers is “did you do it”, not “why did you do it”.
While premeditation and mental competence and intent are certainly issues to which the law pays “obsessive attention”, they have nothing to do with motive. All they are doing in his essay is confusing the issue. In general
the person’s motive for doing something whether a person had noble reasons for committing a crime is legally immaterial to the jury. If motive enters into the record at all, it is only and solely in the sentencing phase, after the person has been found guilty and the jury sent home. Thus the judge acted correctly in doing what Kirk Johnson describes in mildly accusatory accusatory undertones as:
But in the federal trial of Tim DeChristopher, who was convicted on Thursday in Salt Lake City on two felony charges for trying to derail an auction oil and gas leases in southern Utah in late 2008, discussion of motive – at least so far as the jury got to hear – was almost entirely stripped away.
Judge Dee Benson told the lawyers that the case would not be about why Mr. DeChristopher did what he did, but only whether he did it. Federal energy policies and concern about climate change, which were in fact the core drivers of Mr. DeChristopher’s actions, as he has said in many interviews, would not be put on trial, Judge Benson ruled.
And he properly ruled so. DeChristopher’s motives are not relevant to the jury’s deliberations.
Does it matter? In covering the case for The New York Times, I found myself pondering a pretty deep question: In assessing offenses driven by environmental concerns, is an understanding of the “why” crucial to the truth? Or is it a huge distraction because of the politics and complexity and controversy that swirl around the subject?
Is his motive “crucial to the truth” or a “huge distraction”? I would say neither. I would say that an understanding of his motive in the context of what is called “noble cause corruption” is useful in understanding the current sorry state of climate science. In either case his motive does not matter to the law, nor should it.
Would the jury have assessed things differently if the defendant’s deeper psychological portrait had emerged – specifically his belief that risks to the planet and the future are so dire and urgent that rules must be broken?
Or is the “rule of law,” as an assistant United States attorney, John W. Huber, put in it his closing argument, crucial to civil society — the linchpin of protecting everything we have, including and perhaps especially the environment?
I have no sympathy with this argument at all. Why on earth should I care about Mr. DeChristopher’s “deeper psychological portrait”? I don’t generally turn over rocks if I fear that there are strange things under them … I’m not interested in what lies under Mr. DeChristopher’s actions. I have enough problems with the creatures that live under my own skullcap, I have no interest in the unknown denizens of Mr. DeChristopher’s cranium.
Certainly, Mr. DeChristopher, a 29-year-old economics graduate, is no eco-terrorist. This was not an Earth Liberation Front firebombing; the closest he got to violence was raising his bidding paddle at the auction to buy land leases with money he didn’t have. But there was also little doubt, as he had also conceded in interviews, that he broke the law by signing federal forms while posing as a legitimate energy buyer, and then by bidding successfully for upward of $1.8 million in leases from the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Again, I’m not clear what the relevance of this is. He is not an eco-terrorist. He is also not a kidnapper or a child molester … so what? What does that have to do with his case? Is he saying we should have sympathy for him because he is a “white collar criminal”? Because I generally have less sympathy for that breed of crook, not more. I’ll take an honest bank robber over a bank accountant who steals the same amount of money, any time.
In a statement after the verdict, the United States attorney for Utah, Carlie Christensen, addressed part of this debate, one that will no doubt continue in Mr. DeChristopher’s probable appeal. “Whether the B.L.M. was correct in its decision to offer these parcels for oil and gas lease sales was not the question which this jury was asked to resolve,” Ms. Christensen said.
Nor should they be asked to resolve it. It is not a question for the jury.
Look, I have no problem with Mr. DeChristopher’s actions. As I mentioned, I did the same myself, and I did time for it. As we said then, if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. However, I never heard the New York Times opining that the judge should have considered my motives in deciding my guilt or innocence. It didn’t matter. I was guilty. As is DeChristopher.
What I have a problem with is when this kind of thinking slops over into the scientific arena. You see, if a scientist thinks it is ethical to break the laws of civil society in the name of saving the planet, I have absolutely no confidence that the same man will not break the laws of honest, transparent, ethical science in the name of saving the planet. As we have seen, sadly, this more than a thoretical threat.
When this occurs in science, it is called “noble cause corruption”. It occurs when a scientist thinks that their cause (saving the world from Thermageddon) is so important and so noble that it transcends plebeian concerns. Their cause is much more critical and vital and important than, you know, mundane boring things like transparency, and scientific integrity, and archiving data that may not agree with your hypothesis, and revealing adverse results. For scientists like that, those are petty scientific concerns, things that only apply to people who are not engaged on a mission from Gaia.
This noble cause corruption, amply personified by Michael Mann, Phil Jones, Gene Wahl, Caspar Amman, Gavin Schmidt, James Hansen, Stephen Schneider, Lonnie Thompson, and far too many other leading lights of AGW orthodoxy, has been the root cause of the mistrust of the public in climate science.
And reasonably so. When the public sees top-notch, world-renowned climate scientists lying and cheating and breaking the rules and stuffing the peer-review panels and subverting the IPCC, what do you think will happen to the reputation of the field?
Judith Curry and others keep presenting this as a communications problem. It is not. The AGW folks think the problem is that they’re not getting the word out. So they’ve formed some kind of Guerrilla AGW Killer Rapid Response Ninja Suicide Death Commando Team to answer questions, at least I think that’s the name … guys, lack of AGW scientific opinion is not a problem as far as I can see, quite the opposite. We’ve heard your scientific claims of upcoming catastrophe proclaimed at full volume over and over. And over. And over. The problem is not that your message is not getting across. We hear it. It’s crystal clear, no problem with either the medium or the message. RST is five by five, as the ham radio operators have it.
But most folks simply don’t believe anything you say. You’ve lied to everyone before, you conned us in the past, people are determined it won’t happen again.
The problem is that a large number of the top names in the field have been shown to be, well, liars, cheats, and thieves. They were working hard, in secret, using deplorable, unethical, and likely illegal tactics to advance their noble cause and to protect their secrets and their data and methods.
Now, if that were all, it would be bad. But it is worse than that. If, when all that was revealed, the rest of the honest, decent climate scientists had stood up and pointed and said “For Shame!”, the breach in trust could have been repaired. If the miscreants were identified and disowned by the majority of climate scientists, there would have been problems, but not huge problems.
But that’s not what happened. When the Climategate rock was rolled over, and the UEA nest of scorpions was revealed and they started running from the sunlight, with few and notable exceptions the good, decent, honest climate scientists suddenly found something else really fascinating to talk about. About how it was just boys being boys. About how it was just scientists talking trash about each other in private. About how Climategate meant nothing. About how the use of “hacked” emails was unethical. The overwhelming majority of the good honest decent AGW supporters talked volubly about everything under the sun … everything except the putrid scientific rot Climategate revealed within the top ranks. Nor did they say a peep about a succession of ludicrous whitewash investigations apparently led by Inspector Clouseau of “Pink Panther” fame … silence and closing the ranks was the order of the day.
So as a result much of the general public in the US at least believes that all climate scientists are crooks. They’re not. They’re mostly just reasonable, curious scientists who tragically were unwilling to speak up for scientific honesty and integrity when history called on them to do so. And as the saying goes, for scorpions to succeed, all that is necessary is for good climate scientists to do nothing.
After all of that, anyone who thinks that what we have is a communications problem, or that it can be solved by better scientific explanations, or that it can be fixed by reframing the discussion, is seriously deluding themselves. Someday, good science will eventually win out. Not communication. Not reframing. Good science.
But until then, I can assure you that if a climate scientist says it’s raining outside, any reasonable person will surreptitiously glance out the window …
[Update] There is an outstanding comment below:
Turn this around when thinking about the “profit motive” such that the “profit motive” were a valid legal defense. A really scary thought, that one is.