In March 2012 I was involved with a project that sought to make public some poor science that was being taught at a Canadian university. I have been busy with other things since then (like getting a job…) but now I find myself with a few minutes to reflect on the experience. I have a tendency to write long posts which I’m sure nobody ever reads, so I’m going to write three short posts on this topic. In this post I’ll talk briefly about some of the negative response that was raised to the project, primarily by the researcher who developed the course, Tim Patterson. It is worth noting that the course is being taught again in January 2013. I’ll follow this up with posts on (i) a response to some criticisms, (ii) experiences with the media, and (iii) advice for skeptical campaigns in general.
A lot of people think that climate change denial started with the oil industry, but this isn’t true. The denial machine started rolling at the request of the tobacco industry who saw the coming regulations concerning the health risks of second-hand smoke as a potential problem for their business. A tobacco company called Phillip Morris, took action by hiring a PR company famous for taking on controversial campaigns: APCO Worldwide. APCO set up “The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition” (TASSC) which was designed to “establish an image of a national grassroots coalition” (the process of producing a false grassroots campaign is now known as “astro-turfing”), and “cast grave doubts on government scientists’ capacity to produce fair research”. In order to deflect criticism of their just focusing on tobacco, TASSC attacked all areas of government research, including climate science.
Fastforward to January 2011. There is a course being taught at a Canadian university that seems not to represent contemporary climate science. The professor teaching the course is Tim Patterson, a well-respected paleoclimatologist who has gone on record as saying that
“Hundreds of…studies have shown that the sun, and not variations in carbon dioxide, …appears to be the most important driver of climate change.”
“It is global cooling, not warming, that is the major climate threat to the world”
Now climate deniers vent all over the place: websites, op-ed pieces… The problem was that Patterson said these things in front of the Canadian Senate. Seriously, here he is:
We looked at the course he was teaching at this university and found out – to our relief – that he wasn’t teaching it anymore (he had gone on sabbatical). However, the gentleman tasked with teaching the course in Patterson’s stead was far more interesting. Tom Harris is not a climatologist. He is not a scientist. He is not a teacher. He was the senior associate in APCO Worldwide’s Ottawa office! So here we have a situation where a course on climate change is being taught by a former employee of the company that invented science denial! Needless to say, now we had to take a look at what he was teaching.
What we did
Harris delivered 12 lectures (designed by Patterson), totalling around 27 hours of footage. Due to the university’s policy of broadcasting on cable television, all lectures were professionally recorded. We viewed those lectures and dissected them line-by-line to see what a climate change denier teaches in a climate change course. It wasn’t good. You can read the full report for yourself, but it’s worth highlighting a few details. These five statements comprise the “take home messages” that Harris imparted on the students during the final lecture:
1. The only constant about climate is change – Earth scientists are often fond of stating this mantra if they reject the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. The problem with it is that past climate change has been the result of natural forcings. Contemporary climate is influenced by natural and anthropogenic forcings. We cannot use the past to predict the future because we have changed the rules of the game. See Skeptical Science for more.
2. Carbon dioxide is plant food – This is absurd. Plants use carbon dioxide in photosynthesis, but they need a wide range of other substances and conditions in order to grow well. Climate change will influence many of these other factors, making any relationship purely between growth and CO2 meaningless. Furthermore, studies suggest that plants grown in increased CO2 environments do not even grow better after all under semi-natural conditions. See Skeptical Science for more.
3. There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes – Harris cites a small number of dissenters to make it appear that a debate rages on. There is no debate, only quibbling over the details. See Skeptical Science for more.
4. Prepare for global cooling – Tim Patterson’s work focuses on past climate change which was only influenced by natural forcings. If natural forcings were all that were influencing contemporary climate change then we would already be seeing cooling (solar activity is declining and has been doing so for a decade or two). Despite this, the earth is still warming. Patterson and Harris both ignore contemporary, anthropogenic forcings in making this prediction. See Skeptical Science for more.
5. Climate science is changing quickly – Again, just as science denial has attempted to do since its founding, Harris tries to create controversy and debate where there is none. The science on climate is changing, but this is a matter of evolution, not revolution. See Skeptical Science for more.
Why this is important
Some have asked why we put so much effort into this project (and it was a lot of effort on the part of all four authors!). The answer is simple: this is an issue that affects us all and about which we as a populace need to be well-informed. When people sow seeds of doubt, dissent, and disinformation it does more than just influence the people who hear such material at first-hand. Those people then pass on the information and influence others. Even when they are not believed, they promote doubt, doubt promotes inactivity, and inactivity is something we cannot afford right now.
- Original report can be found here.
- Part 1: Climate change denial: my part in its downfall
- Part 2: Climate change denial: a response to some criticism
- Part 3: Climate change denial: my experience with the media
- Part 4: Climate change denial: advice for skeptical projects