Climate denial at a Canadian university

One of the most troubling aspects of the leaked Heartland Institute documents was the revelation that they were planning to create a school curriculum for K-12 students that that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science indicates that there is scientific controversy on the core issues of anthropogenic climate change (*).  This was seen by many as the most controversial aspect of Heartland’s attempt to ‘influence’ the debate on climate change, because it is one thing to confuse political leaders (they almost seem to enjoy it), but quite another to spread misinformation to students.

Yet this is exactly what is happening at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

Tom Harris has a long history as a lobbyist for the energy industry. He currently heads the International Climate Science Coalition, which has received funding from the Heartland Institute. And for the past several years has been teaching a course on climate change  at Carleton University.

Given Harris’ background it should come as little surprise that he has a long and checkered history with the facts of climate change. This is reflected in his course  “Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective” which is filled errors, misrepresentations and flat-out falsehoods.

To get an idea of what the course ‘taught’ the poor students who took it, we need only look at the five take away slogans (click for a debunking):

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

Anyone who has paid even the slightest bit of attention should be shaking their heads violently about now. These ‘take away slogans’ are some of the most thoroughly debunked denier talking points.

To show how absurd they are just think about points 3 and 4 for a minute. First, the students are told that there is no consensus on climate change because it is too complicated for scientists to figure out, then they are told that we need to prepare for cooling! Huh? I though professor Harris said that we simply don’t know enough to understand what the climate is doing (through in reality we do)? So how does he know we should prepare for cooling (he doesn’t and we shouldn’t).

But this is just a small sample of the problems in the course. Thankfully the Committee For The Advancement Of Scientific Skepticism has done an exhaustive review of the lectures. They documented a total of 142 errors. Chris Hassall, one of the team members who wrote the report was shocked at the amount of misinformation that Harris was giving to his students, saying:

It was fairly shocking really… To look through some of the claims and to find that he was spinning those things as either a scientific debate, or muddying the waters on the extent of the consensus in scientific literature, or providing theories that really lacked empirical evidence – it happened time and time again and we document it extensively.

Some people have raised the question of academic freedom in reference to Harris’ course. But academic freedom does not apply here.

Academic freedom is not a licence for professors to teach demonstrably false ideas to the students. What they teach must conform to what is known about reality. For example, biology professors are not allowed teach creationism or intelligent design as an alternative to evolution because only evolution conforms to what we know about reality. It is the only theory that is supported by data.

The same is true of  anthropogenic climate change. It is supported by data, while theories that the change in climate we are observing is due to the sun, or volcanoes, or other natural forcings, are not.

More troubling is the denial machine’s attempts to influence the curriculum taught in schools. For example we have the recent discovery that the Heartland Institute is considering creating a school curriculum on climate change for  K-12 students. Or the fact that in the past Heartland has sent  ‘teaching materials’ to schools in Canada and the US.  And finally the fact that for several years an abysmally bad course on climate change was being taught at a Canadian university and their goals becomes clear.

There is now an extensive record that the denial machine no longer content with muddying the waters of public and political discourse. They are now going after children and university students, following in the footsteps of other successful (for a time) campaigns to deny an overwhelming scientific consensus:

(*) Quote from the disputed memo, which may not actually be the official position of Heartland Instite, struck.

18 thoughts on “Climate denial at a Canadian university

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  1. Wow. The poor students, having paid for that rubbish, in time and cash and then be found with ‘knowledge’ that is applicable nowhere except as a climate denier lobbyist. And you don’t need any qualifications for that. And all the plum jobs there are already occupied.

  2. An important element to this story is Tim Patterson. He is the department head. Harris admitted, that ’95 %’ of the material was Patterson’s. According to his own Carleton page, Patterson ‘was appointed chairman of the International Climate Science Coalition in 2008′, which is Harris’ political think tank. This appears more than just some guy who got lucky and ended up with a job at a college. It needs to be looked how that position was created, who recommended Harris, and who hired him.

  3. I’m curious: You’re quoting from the alleged 2012 “strategy memo” in the italics near the beginning of the post. You don’t identify it as such, though. Are you one of those who believe not only Peter Gleick’s claim that he received the memo anonymously in the mail prior to his phishing attempt, but also that the memo is, in fact, a genuine internal Heartland memo that accurately reveals their intentions in their own words?

    If so, have you already written somewhere as to your reasons for believing that? If not, are you concerned that by quoting from a memo that has been attributed to Heartland but that does not, under scrutiny, appear to be genuine, that you might create a misleading impression?


    1. Thanks for pointing that out. I confirmed with the author that this was an error, and edited the text.

      P3 takes no position on the origins of the disputed memo.

      I for one encourage endless speculation about it, to the extent that such speculation draws attention back to Heartland and similar groups.

    2. “accurately reveals their intentions”

      And of course it does exactly that.

    3. @ John

      Sorry. That was sloppy on my part. Thankfully MT was able to fix it quickly while I was at work.

      If you want to know more about my opinions on the Heartland/Gleick subject I suggest you read this and this.

      Thanks for bringing the error to my attention.

  4. What does the course material look like? Are there, like, any actual math exercises inside there?

    — frank

    1. When I was there, there was a rather vicious divide between the hard sciences/engineering and the rest of the student body, who were called “artsies”. This was sort of the reverse of the contempt that I had earlier seen at Northwestern, where us engineers were referred to as “tech weenies”.

      It’s clear, anyway, from the student reports, that this was a course that “artsies” used to fulfill their science breadth requirement and was a notorious easy A.

      In fact, it would be very difficult to create climate-denialist, or anti-CAGW if you prefer, course material that had math in it at an undergrad level, since, after all, the various positions they hold are mutually incoherent.

      But more than confusing kids about climate, this must confuse them about science. It’s really unfortunate that we have come to this pass.

  5. On the plus side, Carelton isn’t exactly renowned for anything other than journalism and aerospace engineering last time I checked.

    This is what’s got my goat up at the moment.

    The MacDonald-Laurier Institute looks to be a slightly less rabid version of Fraser (channel your inner Mashey and look at their funding). Sad to see that McKitrick gets to peddle this garbage and muddy the waters. Apparently his intellectual awesomeness isn’t restricted to tree rings and thermodynamics. He’s also an expert on transportation policy. One wonders how he stays so humble…

    1. The EE department is no slouch. When I was at Carleton, the Systems and Computer Engineering department was spotty, but the data communication side was strong and I got a lot out of it, including a casually Bayesian attitude without the philosophical baggage.

      Unfortunately the star prof on the computer side got an untimely leukemia and died, which set the department back spectacularly.

    1. et tu, Marlowe?

      Sometimes I think that 3/4 of the North Americans interested in climate are Canadians or have spent some significant part of their lives in Canada.

    2. And how many will be driven out of Canada by the outrageously stupid cuts to research fund made by the lying cheating Harper Conservatives? Though we can hope that the current widespread electoral fraud scandal might shorten Harper’s time in the PMO, or at least hamper his most destructive tendencies.

  6. As soon as I heard about this I contacted the Faculty of Science at Carleton and shortly after received this reply:

    “Thank you for your concern on this. The course in question has not been offered this year, and Tom Harris is no longer teaching at Carleton University.

    Best regards,

    Malcolm Butler
    Dean of Science”

    What remains is for Carleton to determine just how such an outrageous farce could have occurred in the first place.

    1. They are ducking the question. Patterson has been pulling this stunt for a long time at Carleton.

  7. Craziness…

    I think there needs to be a class taught in the pysch dept about what in the make-up of a human being makes them inclined to support the science or deny it. That would be $$ better spent.

  8. What often goes overlooked is Harris’ previous years spent working for APCO International. APCO ran the Phillip Morris campaign sowing denial about the link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It closely resembled the RJ Reynolds campaign that provided the blueprint for the initial global warming denial campaign.

    APCO was exposed in a brilliant piece by The Fifth Estate.

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