Feature:Opinion

Crime, punishment and Climategate

If you want to know what’s really behind the international Climategate scandal you need to know about Greg Taylor.

Taylor isn’t a renowned scientist or a powerful politician. He’s a former crack addict who spent 17 years in a North Carolina prison after being convicted of murdering a prostitute. Taylor was released last month when a three-judge panel declared him innocent

Like many people falsely accused of a crime, Taylor was the victim of good intentions gone bad.

His abandoned truck was found near the victim’s body. There seemed to be blood on the fender. Another prostitute said she had seen the victim with two men that night—perhaps Taylor and his buddy, who were out on a binge.

The evidence was thin, but it pointed toward Taylor. Police arrested him the day after the murder. They had no vendetta against him. There were not trying to frame him or settle a score. The cops simply decided that he was their man. This decision became a form of proof, coloring their view of the case. There was no need to pursue other leads or question holes in their case. They knew he was guilty.

The prosecutors believed their version of the truth. The trial judge raised no objections. The jury pronounced him guilty.

All were wrong as wrong could be. They failed in every respect. But, the reporting suggests, however lazy, misguided and negligent they may have been, they believed they were acting in good faith. Even at the recent hearing, when Taylor’s innocence was clear, the district attorney pressed his guilt because his office was so deeply invested in it.

I am neither apologizing for nor defending their actions. Taylor was harmed beyond words. His story, however, is instructive precisely because he was not the victim of extraordinary circumstances. It reflects, instead an all-too-common—and all-too-human—dynamic fuels so many of our bitter debates.

Al Gore and his Climategate colleagues in the academy and the press are like the North Carolina police officers and prosecutors who put an honest man behind bars. Almost all of them began with open minds and the best intentions. At some point they honestly concluded that the Earth was in great peril. They began viewing evidence through this lens, accentuating data that bolstered their view, discounting findings at odds with the “truth.”

As their investment in the idea of global warming increased—their careers, good names and sense of themselves—their minds closed. Dissension, debate and doubt became too dangerous. Members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change trumpeted faulty data, climate scientists stifled legitimate inquiry and influential journalists likened those who questioned global warming to Holocaust deniers in the name of truth.

In a recent column, James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal found it “amusing” that the New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert had rejected the seriousness of the Climategate scandal in a recent podcast. “She sounds extremely defensive,” Taranto wrote, “as if she feels personally threatened by questions about global-warmist doctrine.”

Of course she does. Kolbert has written numerous articles and a celebrated book, “Field Notes On a Catastrophe,” detailing the threat of global warming. Her investment in it is immense. It cannot be easy for her to even entertain the possibility that she—so smart, so accomplished—might have been duped, even a little bit.

This is not how journalism or science is supposed to work, but it is how human thought has always functioned. History shows that the vast majority of people almost always defend the status quo because they believe in it. It is how they see the world. It is only overthrown when the weight of a new idea is so compelling that it can withstand the brutal attacks lodged against it. In the interim, Socrates drinks the hemlock and Galileo is imprisoned. As Albert Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

We like to think that the best and the brightest—us included!— are ever open to new ideas. But this view is at odds with human nature. We think, we decide, we harden. When challenged, we circle the wagons.

Old people do not lead revolutions. Conversions are rare. The road to Tarsus gets little traffic.

This observation is obvious. Yet, it is almost always forgotten. It is a major reason why our politics in Washington is so poisonous. Despite the contentious contention of talking heads, most liberals and conservatives have come to their views honestly. Experience, education and self-interest have led each side to see the world differently.

As someone who has spent 25 years in journalism I can tell you that yes, most reporters and editors are liberal. But this is not the result of some cabal or conspiracy. It reflects their best effort to understand the world around them. The problem is, too many journalists admit this fact and too few are able to willing to fully engage views at odds with their own.

Instead of recognizing that people of good faith can reach different conclusions, critics on the left and right tend to demonize their opponents as corrupt or delusional. They assert that there is only one truth—their truth—that is plain for all to see. And when others do not accept it, they figure that base and ugly motives must be at work.

This nastiness is exacerbated by the fact that our debates have largely been framed in moral terms since the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. Even as our culture has become more secular, the language of sinners and saints, of good and evil, the righteous and the damned, persists. The spirit of Jonathan Edwards lives on in the editorial pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

There are dishonest, evil people among us, including rogue cops and politicians on the take. But they are rarities. Most failures, lapses and misjudgments occur when good intentions go awry.

Even as we hold accountable the law enforcement officials who sent Greg Taylor to jail and the Climategate crew who have tried to smother dissent, we should admit how much the rest of us have in common with them.

J. Peder Zane is journalist who has worked at The News & Observer of Raleigh and The New York Times. His writing has won several national awards including the Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.