Climate change denial: a response to some criticism

This is my second post on the climate change project (see my earlier piece on the background to the story).  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) experiences with the media, and (ii) advice for skeptical campaigns in general.

Patterson responds on the 580 CFRA show “Late Night Counsell”.  He makes a number of points and I haven’t really responded to these before so I thought I would take a minute to quickly sketch out my thoughts.  You can listen here (the clip is only about 13mins long):

1. You’re calling us Holocaust Deniers, so your argument is invalid

  • Straight off the bat, Patterson goes tone-trolling with a quick nod towards Godwin’s Law.  Science denial covers a range of topics including vaccines, HIV/AIDS,  tobacco smoke, acid rain, and evolutionary biology.  This has nothing to do with the Holocaust.  It is the rejection of ideas that have been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt.  Elsewhere I refer to science denial as “hyper-skepticism” if that makes him feel any better.
  • In an interesting case of hypocrisy, Patterson informed me during a face-to-face meeting (he refers to the meeting during the recording) that he was going to label me as an “activist” (a promise that he later followed-through on in emails sent around to the Earth Sciences department at the university) and asked whether the report had been funded by various environmental groups – a clear attempt to diminish the report by associating it with a particular group of people.

2. “Geneticists and ‘insect ecologists’ don’t have the right to criticise”

  • Straight away this brings up PZ Myer’s Courtier’s Reply.  It is interesting to note that my doctoral research on climate change impacts on biological systems is actually quite similar to aspects of Tim Patterson’s research, but where he uses small, marine organisms (as well as sediments) to reconstruct past climate, I look at insects to evaluate the impacts of changing climate in the present.  A second co-author on our report works on contemporary climate change impacts on health.  As far as contemporary climate is concerned, I think we are pretty well covered!
  • Furthermore, following Tim’s logic, what exactly is Tom Harris’ qualification to be teaching climatology…?  Harris was teaching the course while Patterson was on sabatical, but Harris is a mechanical engineer with absolutely no formal training in climatology or earth sciences!
  • Finally, it’s a bit dangerous to start saying that only climatologists can comment on climate science, as most denier petitions are written and signed by non-climatologists.  For example, only 39 out of 31,487 (that’s a paltry 0.1%)  signatories of the “Petition Project”, the largest climate denial petition, are climatologists.  And that’s according to the Petition Project’s own figures!  For more details on the Petition Project, see Climate Denial Crock of the Week.

3. The report shows no understanding of climate from a geological perspective and inevitably within a few millennia we’ll go back into a cooling period

  • Apparently because we didn’t ignore contemporary processes we are ignorant?  Patterson clearly has more expertise in paleoclimatology than in climatology per se (and I’m not denying that he has a lot of expertise in that area), and this appears to have coloured his opinions of what is causing contemporary climate change.  In particular, Patterson thinks that cosmological forcings (primarily solar activity) are the principle drivers of contemporary climate change (see his Canadian Senate testimony for a statement of this belief) and he presumably holds this belief due to the results of his studies of past climate change.  This belief is incorrect and reveals his ignorance of contemporary climate science.
  • The evidence for global cooling is that “the earth has always cooled before”.  The problem with that reasoning is that we have applied anthropogenic forcings to climate that are much stronger than those which caused previous Ice Ages.  The planet now is not the same as the planet that Patterson studies through his paleoclimate work.

4. “They’re trying to modify the course!”

Patterson has no evidence for this claim.  Indeed, our report states:

We would like to begin at the outset by stating that it is not our intention to foist censorship or exert control over teaching at a university.”

…and…

The issue of academic freedom allows the instructor to express his opinion and we do not wish to contravene that principle, however, students also deserve to know where what they are taught falls within the broader context of the debate.”

This sums-up our approach: just to present the science for the world (and especially the students) to see.

5. “It’s unprofessional to publish critiques like this!”

Scientific critiques are published all the time, and Patterson is well aware of this.  This was a scientific critique of scientific content, and at no time did we attempt to interfere with the teaching of the course (we didn’t even think it was being taught any more!).  I met with Patterson himself and told him that I was going to publish the report prior to publication, as well as speaking with several members of the university administration to discuss the course of action.

6. “Why do these people [i.e. me] get given so much air time!?  “

It is interesting to note that the panel appearing on this show is Ian Clark (climate change denier), Tom Harris (climate change denier), and Tim Patterson (climate change denier).  Hardly balanced reporting, is it?  Ironically, in all the mainstream media reports (the Guardian, CBC print and radio, various Postmedia outlets), you will find comments from Tom Harris alongside my own, while those who rail against bias in the MSM (including the John Counsell show and Sun TV) only invited skeptics (I certainly wasn’t invited to contribute!).

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