Mar 06 2012

CASS: Skepticism FTW

I don’t claim to understand the climate science. I am not a climatologist, I haven’t cracked the literature, and even if I did I lack the training to fully parse truth from falsehood. I am confident in accepting the scientific consensus, however, because of the advocacy by people whose opinions I have come to trust and whose credibility has been demonstrated to me. When I read the work of someone who clearly has a grasp on critiquing evidence and weighing claims based on the facts rather than elaborate conspiracy theories about a New World Order plot to ban incandescent lightbulbs, I have no difficulty accepting the fact of the human contribution to global warming. Folks like Orac, or Darksyde, or Mano – they keep my head straight when I get confused, and they’re who I refer inquisitive friends to.

There’s another group that I rely on heavily when I need some expertise outside my own background:

A group of scientists is raising alarm about “incorrect science” in a course at Ottawa’s Carleton University that was taught for three years by a climate change skeptic. “We describe a case in which noted climate change deniers have gained access to the Canadian higher education system through a course taught at Carleton University,” the Ottawa-based Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism said in a report this week.

But the course instructor, Tom Harris, denies there are any problems with the science he taught. CASS, which says its goal is to “critically [examine] scientific, technological and medical claims in public discourse,” said its audit of video lectures and course materials for the second-year course called “Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective” found the course to be biased and inaccurate.

I have been nominally involved in CASS for over a year now, in context of my work with CFI Vancouver. While I haven’t been the most active member by far (there is a time zone issue for meetings, and the skeptical community in Vancouver is undergoing a pretty significant restructuring), I do respect the work they do in science advocacy and countering some of the more egregious pseudoscientific claims made by various Canadian outlets. My favourite activity of theirs continues to be the research behind the Extraordinary Claims website, which I have referenced a few times on this site.

This time they’ve taken on a professional climate “skeptic”, which is good because quite frankly I am tired of seeing the word ‘skepticism’ abused in this way. Skepticism is the systematic application of the scientific method to empirical questions, and apportioning the direction and strength of one’s belief to the quality of the available evidence. It does not mean doubting things simply because they are popular or well-known, nor does it mean striking a contrarian stance to spite the mainstream. It certainly does not mean prioritizing whispered innuendo over established fact, which is the main ammunition used by climate “skeptics”.

CASS has taken the scalpel of legitimate skepticism to a howler of a course taught by an affiliate of Heartland, an anti-warming propaganda outlet*. What they found will probably not shock you:

  • Harris does not introduce students to the primary scientific literature, instead requiring them to read books and watch films (i.e. not peer-reviewed material) for the exam
  • By way of example, in response to seeing a quote from Ban Ki Moon saying: ‚climate change will continue unless drastic measures are taken to stop it‛ the winning student from one week wrote ‚the climate is always changing, so this cannot be stopped as we do not have such control over the sun and other cosmic forces that greatly correlate to the warming and cooling of Earth. We cannot change climate just as we cannot change the seasons from winter to summer.
  • Like much of the climate change denial movement, Harris’ course is structured around concentric sets of arguments. The first line of defence is to claim that climate change (morespecifically, global warming) is not happening. (snip) Harris now falls back on the second line of defence, which is to claim that the causes of global warming are not anthropogenic. (snip) In response to this and in apparent contradiction to his earlier stated beliefs, Harris states that the global warming that we are causing is not bad, and may in fact be a good thing.

Yeah… that’s really skepty, Dr. Harris. Very well done. That PhD in mechanical engineering is clearly a perfect fit for your discussion of climate science, just as my master’s degree in epidemiology makes me the perfect person to teach a university course on art history. The fact is that all scientists, even those who actually understand the subject they’re working with, benefit from and actively participate in the peer review process. It is the best tool we have for separating fact from fiction, evidence from bias. CASS has identified a multitude of ways in which Dr. Harris’ course fails to stand up to scrutiny and advances a position that stands directly at odds with the evidence.

Dr. Harris’ response?

“I have yet to see anything in the course critique from Hassell [and others] that warrants a correction,” he added.


CASS wins it in one round.

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*I recognize the implied ad hominem in associating Dr. Harris with Heartland. However, I argue that his participation in an organization whose primary activity is to undermine the scientific evidence is not fit to teach a course in climate science. I would make the same argument about a history or political science teacher who consults for the Heritage Institute, or a biology teacher with an appointment with the Discovery Institute.


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  1. 1

    Just the single fact that primary sources are not used in this university course, tells us everything we need to know about how useless a course this must be.

  2. 2

    This was a review course for non-scientists, so one could argue it’s actually okay that students didn’t get much direct exposure to primary sources. The problem is what they were exposed to instead.

    Rather than relaying to his students an idea of what the science of climate change actually says, for example by discussing findings from the peer reviewed literature with his students, Harris showed them crappy movies like The Great Global Warming Swindle. He would also talk about emailing or calling a scientist friend for an opinion, then telling the students what his buddy told him; of course, his science buddies also coincidentally hold fringe opinions. Harris goes out of his way to avoid the primary literature as much as possible, and why not? It doesn’t support his point of view.

    It’s a pitifully embarrassing way to teach a course on a scientific topic.

  3. 3

    Hmm. I went to the UofO and I remember I once had a guest lecturer for one of my courses that thought climate change was all due to the sun. I’d be curious to know if it was him….

  4. 4

    Speaking of the arts and climate change abuse of the term skeptic…Ian McEwan’s Solar is brilliant. There’s a bit where the main character thinks about climate change denialists and wonders why they take up the position when the scientific evidence is so overwhelming. He concludes that they mistake themselves for free-thinkers.

  5. 5

    UofO also has at least one pseudo-skeptic on staff. Ian Clark (who is associated with Tom Harris’ coalition) actually appeared in the Great Global Warming Swindle and was one of those (along with the professor who hired Tom Harris) who were invited? to dish out their garbage to our Senate. There are videos online, pushed by Tom Harris of course. I started going through Clark’s testimony noting all of the errors. In one case (and this is also in the Swindle flick) he cherry picks from the research of Solanki re the sun. ClimateCrocks uses that in a debunking video.

  6. 6

    It’s sad though, because there is a bunch to be legitimately skeptical about in climate change science. Temperature’s responsivity to [CO2] estimates vary wildly, as do the importance of a wide range of feedback mechanisms. It’s a very exciting scientific field precisely because of the room for skepticism. The accuracy with which we model the climate’s response has a big effect on public policy, which should also turn on the skeptical lenses.

    However if you start denying that the climate is heating up, and that anthropogenic CO2 is a major contributor to the change, then you’ve stepped off into the loony bin.

  7. 7

    Listen to the originator and, in 2013, the instructor of this course, Prof. Tim Patterson take apart the ridiculous attack on my course:


    Tom Harris

  8. 8
    Eileen Kinley


    I just started listening to your clip from CFRA. Right off, I noted that Dr. Patterson appears to be playing the victim card about the term ‘climate change denier’ and comparing it to holocaust denialism. Of course there are other contexts of denialism / deniers – e.g. HIV/AIDS deniers. See the European Journal of Public Health:
    Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? at http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/2.full
    They refer to the definition at the denialism blog: “Denialism is the employment of rhetorical tactics to give the appearance of argument or legitimate debate, when in actuality there is none. These false arguments are used when one has few or no facts to support one’s viewpoint against a scientific consensus or against overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They are effective in distracting from actual useful debate using emotionally appealing, but ultimately empty and illogical assertions.”

    I listened to about the 8 minute mark. By that point no one had discussed relevant science (other than pointing out that the planet is expected to go into a cooling phase in about a millenia), though Patterson did attack Dr. Suzuki and Dr. Hassell. As far as I could tell Patterson did not actually read Dr. Hassell’s report, characterizing it along the lines of describing how a ‘bug scientist’ wanted the course taught. I have read the report – for most errors that the report documents it provides references to published science.

    So in fact, the first 8 minutes were typical ‘denialist’ rhetoric and a waste of time.

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