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”.
- 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.