Denial in the Classroom

At one of Canada’s top comprehensive universities, a well-known climate change denier was recently discovered “educating” a class of undergraduate students about global warming.

The Instructor

Tom Harris spent much of his career acting as a PR consultant for fossil fuel companies. Today he directs the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), an advocacy group closely tied to the Heartland Institute. In fact, Harris is listed as a Global Warming Expert on Heartland’s website, and spoke at their 2008 conference. However, with a background in mechanical engineering, Tom Harris is hardly qualified to comment on climate science.

The ICSC’s position on climate change is, unsurprisingly, similar to Heartland’s. Their list of Core Principles includes the following gems:

  • Science is rapidly evolving away from the view that humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ are a cause of dangerous climate change.
  • Climate models used by the IPCC fail to reproduce known past climates without manipulation and therefore lack the scientific integrity needed for use in climate prediction and related policy decision-making.
  • Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant – it is a necessary reactant in plant photosynthesis and so is essential for life on Earth.
  • Since science and observation have failed to substantiate the human-caused climate change hypothesis, it is premature to damage national economies with ‘carbon’ taxes, emissions trading or other schemes to control ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions.

More recently, Harris began teaching at Carleton University, an Ottawa institution that Maclean’s magazine ranks as the 7th best comprehensive university in Canada. Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective looks innocuous enough, claiming to teach “the history of earth climates, geological causes of climate change and impact that rapid climate change has had on the biosphere”. As we’ll see, the real content of the course was not so benign.

The Watchdog

The Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) is a Canadian society dedicated to scrutinizing scientific claims made in advertisements, classrooms, and the media. As part of the skeptic movement, they mainly address paranormal phenomena and alternative medicine, but have recently broadened their interests to include climate change denial.

Four members of CASS living in the Ottawa area became aware of Tom Harris’ teaching activities at Carleton, and requested access to videotapes made of his lectures. Earlier today, they published their findings in a disturbing report.

As Heard in University Lectures…

“We can’t even forecast how these clouds are going to move in the next week,” Harris remarked in the first lecture. “Our understanding of the physics is so bad that we can’t even do that. So to think that we could do a whole planet for 50 years in the future…” This kind of misconception, conflating weather and climate predictions, is understandable among laypeople whose only experience with atmospheric modelling is the 5-day forecast presented on the news each night. For a university instructor teaching a course dedicated to climate change, however, such an error is simply unacceptable.

But the next lecture, it got worse. At the time, sunspots were the lowest on record, and some scientists speculated that the Sun might return to Maunder Minimum conditions. However, this slight negative forcing would cancel out less than ten percent of global warming from greenhouse gases, were it to even occur. The numbers, though, didn’t stop Harris, who claimed that “we’re in for some real cooling come around 2030 because we’re going back to the conditions that existed at the time of Napoleon. So cold weather is coming.” Forget about global warming, his message was – global cooling is the real threat.

The misconceptions, oversimplifications, half-truths, and flat-out nonsense continued throughout every single lecture, leading to a whopping 142 “incorrect or equivocal claims” as tallied by the CASS report, which quoted and rebutted every single one. It’s as if Tom Harris was actively trying to hit every argument on the Skeptical Science list.

In the last lecture, the students were presented with “take-away slogans”:

  • The only constant about climate is change.
  • Carbon dioxide is plant food.
  • There is no scientific consensus about climate change causes.
  • Prepare for global cooling.
  • Climate science is changing quickly.

This clear exercise in creating young climate change deniers seems to have influenced some, as shown by the RateMyProfessors reviews of the course. “Interesting course,” wrote one student. “Nice to have some fresh perspectives on global warming rather than the dramatized fear mongering versions. Harris really loves to indulge in the facts and presents some pretty compelling evidence.”

Crossing the Line

There is a line between ensuring academic freedom and providing unqualified individuals with a platform for disseminating nonsense. It is clear to me that Carleton University crossed this line long ago. I am astounded that such material is being taught at a respectable Canadian university. If the Heartland Institute’s proposed curriculum comes through, similar material might be taught in select K-12 classrooms all over the world. As an undergraduate student, the same age as many of the students in the course, I am particularly disturbed.

I have encountered climate change misinformation in my university lectures, both times in the form of false balance, a strategy that I feel many professors fall back to when an area of science is debated in the media and they want to be seen to respect all viewpoints. In both cases, I printed out some articles from Science, Nature, PNAS, and the IPCC, and went to see the prof in their office hours. We had a great conversation and we both learned something from the experience. However, it took an incredible amount of courage for me to talk to my professors like this, not only because teenage girls are naturally insecure creatures, but also because a student telling their science teacher that they’ve got the science wrong just isn’t usually done.

Even by the time they reach university, most students seem to unconditionally trust what a science teacher tells them, and will not stop to question the concepts they are being taught. Although many of my professors have encouraged us to do research outside of class and read primary literature on the topic, nearly all of my peers are content to simply copy down every word of the lecture notes and memorize it all for the final exam.

By allowing Tom Harris to teach the anti-science messages of climate change denial, Carleton University is doing a great disservice to its students. They paid for a qualified instructor to teach them accurate scientific knowledge, and instead they were taken advantage of by a powerful industry seeking to indoctrinate citizens with misinformation. This should not be permitted to continue.

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19 thoughts on “Denial in the Classroom

  1. I’ve heard Carleton University isn’t exactly a top-notch school (not that it would excuse letting an oil lobbyist teach climate denial) – what’s your opinion of the college?

  2. A couple of notes:

    Tim Patterson, of “Friends of Science” fame, is also in the Earth Sciences faculty at Carleton (the Guardian article says he is the head).

    Tim Patterson along with two University of Ottawa professors (Ian Clark and Jan Veizer), plus Ross McKitrick, testified before a Canadian Senate committee in December 2011. Videos of their testimony is online. I was going through Ian Clark’s, noting all of the misinformation. Ian Clark was among those Canadians who appeared in the “Global Warming Swindle” propaganda piece – Climate Denial Crock of the Week took that bit apart.

    Back in 2008, Canadian journalist Mike deSouza reported on Heartland’s mailout of material to Canadian schools –
    http://www.canada.com/calgaryherald/news/story.html?id=c007a9c3-0538-47ed-829a-fdf93e89266c

    I thought I read another article about the 2008 mailout that reported the material was also sent to Canadian politicians. This is another reason why the Harper Government’s recent demonization of U.S. philanthropists supporting Canadian NGOs is so hypocritical.

  3. Coincidentally, a faculty member of Carleton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies just won an award for

    Pisaric, M.F.J., Thienpont, J., Kokelj, S.V., Nesbitt, H., Lantz, T., Solomon, S., and Smol, J.P. 2011. Impacts of a recent storm surge on an Arctic ecosystem examined within a millennial timescale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 108(22): 8960-8965. doi:10.1073/pnas.1018527108

    covered in NewScientist here:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110516161947.htm

  4. >Even by the time they reach university, most students seem to unconditionally trust what a science teacher tells them, and will not stop to question the concepts they are being taught.

    Hmmm.

  5. Interesting. Also disturbing though, when you don your “funhouse mirrors tu quoque” eyeglasses, since monitoring a professor’s speech can be turned into a tool for intimidation. How do we resolve this tension?

    > “There is a line between academic freedom and the teaching of false information”

    I think accreditation is supposed to address this, which might answer my question..

    • Anna, university lectures aren’t exactly private events (at least where I am), so I think it’s pretty pointless for a professor (whether real or fake) to try to ‘hide’ his lectures from public view.

      I expect that most professors would’ve done some due diligence in ensuring that their lecture material sits well with different people’s sensitivities, while imparting some actual knowledge.

      Of course, crazy people (*cough* James O’Keefe *cough*) can always ‘parse’ someone’s lectures by cutting and splicing words and phrases into nefarious-sounding babble. But I guess there’s not much one can do about it, other than laugh it off.

      — frank

  6. Well done for approaching your professors, Kate. When I taught I made a mistake regarding some project and next class had to correct it after I reviewed my notes and found the mistake.

    After class I asked one of my students who was directly involved in the project why he didn’t correct me. He said he didn’t think it was his place to correct a professor, so for next class I made sure to emphasize that I expect my students to critically evaluate my lectures AND absolutely let me know if I get something wrong.

    I only had a couple of students over the years approach me, but I was very appreciative. Makes me wonder how many other mistakes I made but no-one was brave enough to tell me or no-one caught them.

    Some day when I retire from field research I would like to return to the university to teach again, and it is students like you that make me look forward to teaching once more–not just for the courage needed to approach a prof but for the love of learning you display.

  7. Regards to the Carleton case I’m rather taken aback that a university would have such a lax screening process that an unqualified individual would be hired to teach a course in which they have no proper credentials. It makes me wonder who was doing the hiring and what their views are. Certainly, such a person would never have made it to the interview stage for a similar position at the places I’ve worked (or maybe I’m indulging in rosy-glassed nostalgia now).

  8. > a lax screening process that an unqualified individual would be hired to teach a course in which they have no proper credentials.

    Still, the course content was the actual problem. What if the professor had valid and appropriate biology or paleontology credentials, but still went ahead and taught that the science supported creationism? What keeps this from occurring in a university setting?

  9. Anna, I agree that the problem is not with the lecturer but with the material.

    The answer to your questions (which might have been rhetorical, but I’m answering as they weren’t!), is that the vast majority of University professors and lecturers research and teach in good faith. It wouldn’t enter their minds to present other than what they consider to be a scientifically-valid, evidence-based account of their subjects. There is a tiny number of individuals that consider that their political agenda trumps an honest account of the science and it’s pretty disgraceful that Carleton University allows this to occur in their institution.

    Creationism is truly rubbish scientifically-speaking and no-one gets away with this in real Universities. To get round this little problem, creationists have set up entire colleges and “Universities” (Patrick Henry College, Bob Jones University, Regent University…) in order to “teach” this stuff! Perhaps Carleton University feel it appropriate to align itself in this direction….

  10. Carleton University in Ontario, Canada (carleton.ca) should not be confused with Carleton College of Minnesota, U.S. (carleton.edu). The latter is home base of workshop leaders for CLEAN (Climate Literacy & Energy Awareness Network) , which is offering online workshops on Communicating Climate Science in the Classroom (for which John Cook will appear) and a month later, on Teaching Climate Complexity. Looking over the resources CLEAN offers, I’m glad they’ll be meeting up with Skeptical Science.

    Note to funders: more resources to Skeptical Science and other like-minded (as in, simultaneously trees-accurate and forest-accurate) websites please.

    • Upon looking a little deeper, it turns out that CLEAN’s “Teaching Climate Complexity” 2011 workshop opened with Richard Alley and closed with John Cook, indicating that its content was many steps up from [what I took to be] its “focus on how complicated this all is”-themed title.

      (My bad, for judging a workshop by its title; sorry.)

  11. Kate,

    Sorry I missed this post.

    Recently I had mentioned that Heartland Institute is proposing the “…creation of a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools.” Clearly you are on top of the subject. Do you have more information?

    http://blog.nwf.org/2012/02/koch-funded-plan-in-development-to-teach-k-12-kids-global-warming-isnt-real/

    I shouldn’t be so surprised about Harris with his close ties to Heartland Institute.

    http://deepclimate.org/tag/friends-of-science/

    Now for the scary part. Heartland Institute may be slipping in through the back door along with the house flies and other vermin. Their new strategy may be, if you can’t win from the top-down, work from the bottom-up. Far too many marginally educated people are too susceptible to brainwashing, and allowing them to dictate criteria for educating their children could be devastating.

    Look at the mass confusion involving evolution and creationism. When more than half the students have been taught since birth (brainwashed) that they were created or intelligently designed, teaching conflicting evolution in school must be nerve racking. How do you honestly teach evolution or climate change with the threat of being closed down or fired by disgruntled parents looming over your head?

    http://heartland.org/policy-documents/model-bill-parent-trigger
    http://heartland.org/policy-documents/parent-trigger-model-transforming-education

  12. Kate,

    I have been aware of this educational lapse of quality and accuracy regards Mr. Harris from other reports on the internet. Your article fills in the gaps very nicely. What happens next? It is very often the question I ask after an expose of climate misinformation. So having asked that question of myself ….why not ask the Carleton University the same question …..what next?…Enclosed, is my e-mail to those who may reply….

    Dear Sirs & Madams,

    I recently received a update for a blog called ClimateSight reviewing the investigation by your organization regards Mr. Tom Harris and his teaching syllabus at Carleton University. I also am aware of Mr. Harris and his controversial climate dictums from other online sources and media exposures. Following the release of a report of an audit of the course taught by Mr. Harris, ref. (A), by CASS, ….what will the policy of Carleton University be for the content of future courses taught by Mr. Harris? I am interested in how universities with high scholastic standards react to criticism of the quality of education within their curriculum. Thank you in advance for the time taken to address this inquiry.

    Regards,

    Lucien P. Locke, Jr.

    reference (A): http://scientificskepticism.ca/sites/default/files/pressreleases/CASSREPORTClimateChangeDenialintheClassroom.pdf

  13. I thought it might be interesting to read what you had to say but I stopped after the first sentence when you wrote “Tom Harris spent much of his career acting as a PR consultant for fossil fuel companies.”

    Of the 35 years I have worked since grad school, it breaks down:

    1 – aerospace engineer: 14 years
    2 – IT engineer: 7 years
    2 – technical recruiter: 2 years
    4 – S&T communications consultant: 4 years, mostly with APCO Worldwide, a year with HPG and the House of Commons
    5 – Executive Director of NRSP: 2.5 years.
    6 – Executive Director of ICSC: 5.5 years.

    If you just make up stuff in the very first sentence, why should anyone believe anything else you write about me?

    An apology would be appropriate

    Tom Harris

  14. I guess if you’re going to slam the likes of Tom Harris based on credentialism, then I guess we all need to stop listening to David Suzuki as well…he’s not a climate scientist at all.

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