A New Kind of Science

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Ask most people to picture a scientist at work, and they’ll probably imagine someone in a lab coat and safety goggles, surrounded by test tubes and Bunsen burners. If they’re fans of The Big Bang Theory, maybe they’ll picture complicated equations being scribbled on whiteboards. Others might think of the Large Hadron Collider, or people wading through a swamp taking water samples.

All of these images are pretty accurate – real scientists, in one field or another, do these things as part of their job. But a large and growing approach to science, which is present in nearly every field, replaces the lab bench or swamp with a computer. Mathematical modelling, which essentially means programming the complicated equations from the whiteboard into a computer and solving them many times, is the science of today.

Computer models are used for all sorts of research questions. Epidemiologists build models of an avian flu outbreak, to see how the virus might spread through the population. Paleontologists build biomechanical models of different dinosaurs, to figure out how fast they could run or how high they could stretch their necks. I’m a research student in climate science, where we build models of the entire planet, to study the possible effects of global warming.

All of these models simulate systems which aren’t available in the real world. Avian flu hasn’t taken hold yet, and no sane scientist would deliberately start an outbreak just so they could study it! Dinosaurs are extinct, and playing around with their fossilized bones to see how they might move would be heavy and expensive. Finally, there’s only one Earth, and it’s currently in use. So models don’t replace lab and field work – rather, they add to it. Mathematical models let us perform controlled experiments that would otherwise be impossible.

If you’re interested in scientific modelling, spend your college years learning a lot of math, particularly calculus, differential equations, and numerical methods. The actual application of the modelling, like paleontology or climatology, is less important for now – you can pick that up later, or read about it on your own time. It might seem counter-intuitive to neglect the very system you’re planning to spend your life studying, but it’s far easier this way. A few weeks ago I was writing some computer code for our lab’s climate model, and I needed to calculate a double integral of baroclinic velocity in the Atlantic Ocean. I didn’t know what baroclinic velocity was, but it only took a few minutes to dig up a paper that defined it. My work would have been a lot harder if, instead, I hadn’t known what a double integral was.

It’s also important to become comfortable with computer programming. You might think it’s just the domain of software developers at Google or Apple, but it’s also the main tool of scientists all over the world. Two or three courses in computer science, where you’ll learn a multi-purpose language like C or Java, are all you need. Any other languages you need in the future will take you days, rather than months, to master. If you own a Mac or run Linux on a PC, spend a few hours learning some basic UNIX commands – it’ll save you a lot of time down the road. (Also, if the science plan falls through, computer science is one of the only majors which will almost definitely get you a high-paying job straight out of college.)

Computer models might seem mysterious, or even untrustworthy, when the news anchor mentions them in passing. In fact, they’re no less scientific than the equations that Sheldon Cooper scrawls on his whiteboard. They’re just packaged together in a different form.

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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.