Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Hacking Integrity

Hans Christian Anderson's tale of the Emperor's New Clothes, is a simple morality tale about speaking out against hypocrisy and pretension. For those of us who see ourselves as the little child, shouting out that the emperor does indeed have no clothes, there is another side to the story we should consider.

What if the child was a shill, planted by the merchants to embarass the emperor? Is the child still a hero? Or should he be despised as a member of the criminal conspiracy against the throne?

When exposing hypocrisy, the integrity of the person who points out the nakedness of the emperor is central to the excercise. Consider these three examples:

My first example is the anonymous crook who makes a living helping college students cheat on their term papers and PhD theses. His self-important expose of how easy it is for students to pass off the work of another person is worthless drivel. Because he shouts from the shadows that the emperor has no clothes, and because he engineered the fraud in the first place, his story has no merit.

My second example is the professor of medical education who submitted a fake paper to a conference on Integrative Medicine, described in this post on Respectful Insolence. The fake paper described a new form of reflexology involving the buttocks, and was reportedly accepted for presentation at the conference. While most of us recognize that reflexology is bunk, this story contributes nothing of value to the debate. The only thing we learn is that in a discipline where the integrity of the researcher is essential, a compromised researcher can successfully commit fraud. This does not diminish those who were victims of the fraud, and does not disprove anything else in the domain. It only speaks to the lack of integrity of the one who perpetrated the fraud.

My final example is Wikileaks, the complete disrobing of diplomats world-wide. Julian Assange is not a hero, nor is the American who delivered the leaks to him. Whether good will come out of this episode remains to be seen. What we know today is that a man with no integrity publicly exposed hundreds of people who were just doing their jobs, and then shouted from the public square, "the diplomats have no clothes".

Hypocrisy and pretension should be denounced. But those who would do the denouncing should consider their methods, lest they sacrifice their own integrity.

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