Sunday, April 24, 2011

Greg Mortenson

Greg Mortenson is the well-known head of a non-profit that focuses on building schools in Central Asia, and particularly for girls in Afghanistan. I've been a fan of his for a while (his foundation had been in my links list to the right over there since I started the blog; I've now taken it out). He appealed to me because he was a mountain climber who had the insight to realize that there were more important things in life than being able to brag to people you've climbed that, that and THAT icy rock - and, not coincidentally, because he's a non-religious person who has done good things.

Recently Mortenson has had some pretty bad press, stemming from a non-embeddable 60 Minutes story (one of Mortenson's responses is here.) There seems to be a pretty clear case that a lot of his inspirational adventure stories are B.S., and from some of the evidence 60 Minutes turned up it's hard to see how he could explain himself.

It's a no-brainer that you shouldn't lie to advance your foundation's goals, however noble they might be. But if Mortenson is converting the goodwill of people in the U.S. into the education of women, and therefore encouraging demographic transition and human rights and economic growth and happiness, then having made up what he thought were unverifiable adventure tales from an inaccessible part of the world is the less important part of the whole affair. Indeed I'm surprised that both 60 Minutes and Outside spent so much time on this. The real question is whether he's fudged the output he's produced (and the money he's taken in), which also seems to be in doubt. That's a much bigger deal.

In the 60 Minutes piece John Krakauer makes the point that Mortenson has done good things for education in Afghanistan while also being quite adamant in asserting that Mortenson has over-represented the impact of his foundation.

Needless to say, if any of this is true it's very disappointing, for non-religious people as well as for the children (and future economy) of Afghanistan. NGOs are usually shoestring operations that rely on donations, and trustworthiness is a basic requirement. Atheists aren't responsible for the misbehavior of other atheists, but we know that if any theist is paying attention, this will make their confirmation bias that much easier to indulge. (And again, money that was supposed to build schools might have just lined somebody's pocket.) But here's food for thought: if it's wrong for one person to use stories that aren't literally true to promote charity, isn't it wrong for everybody? I'm thinking specifically of Western Christians here who concede the metaphor-only value of much of the Bible.

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