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Climate scientist `troubled' by skeptic's teachings at Carleton University

OTTAWA - A leading California-based atmospheric scientist says he is ``troubled'' about the teachings of a climate-change skeptic at Ottawa's Carleton University following an audit that uncovered 142 claims made by the Canadian instructor that were seen as providing a misleading or inaccurate portrayal of peer-reviewed scientific research linking human activity to global warming.

Ben Santer, who has published about 80 peer-reviewed scientific articles on climate-change science since 1985 and continues to conduct research in the field, said he would be asking the university for an explanation about the claims made by the instructor, Tom Harris, who taught a class between 2009 and 2011 before it was removed from the curriculum.

Harris, a communications consultant who earned degrees in engineering in the 1970s, has laughed off the criticism from the report, saying that his course was designed to raise awareness about uncertainties.

``If you teach that much, you're going to find mistakes here and there,'' said Harris, a communications consultant who obtained degrees in engineering in the 1970s, specializing in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics and heat transfer.

``Certainly, I'm open to correcting mistakes if there are mistakes, but the overall thrust of the course is we don't know.''

The audit report, entitled Climate Denial in the Classroom, was produced by the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism, a group of investigators within an educational charity, the Centre for Inquiry Canada, that attempts to investigate or to debunk public claims. The centre, known for sponsoring a controversial ad campaign on city buses in 2011 that questioned the existence of God, suggested Harris's lectures, intended to cover the geological history of climate change, often included references to conversations and correspondence with experts about their opinions, instead of referring to legitimate scientific evidence and literature.

But the report has prompted a debate about academic freedom and instructors' obligation to base teachings on an ``honest search for the truth,'' as required under the university's collective agreement.

``Academic excellence is a priority at Carleton and we have a process in place for reviewing courses that balances content with academic freedom and the rights of our instructors as outlined in their collective agreement,'' said Malcolm Butler, the dean of the university's faculty of science, who was appointed after Harris was hired.

Santer, a key author on the first major international report that revealed a consensus among scientists and governments about human influence on climate, said he took exception to claims made by Harris that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was asked to ``go back and change the science,'' on the report, its second major assessment of scientific literature, released in 1995.

Santer and other scientists have explained on numerous occasions over the past two decades that the final report emerged after a legitimate peer-review process that reflected the evidence.

``I am indeed troubled by Mr. Harris's misrepresentation of my conduct as convening leading author of chapter eight of the IPCC's Second Assessment Report,'' Santer wrote in an email to Postmedia News. ``I have not yet had time to bring my concerns to the attention of Carleton University, but hope to do so within the next month.''

Harris declined to respond to Santer's concerns.

The audit report's lead author, Chris Hassall, a biologist who completed a PhD on the impact of global warming on insects, said he wasn't challenging academic freedom, but wanted to ensure that science was being accurately portrayed in the classroom.

``I think there are more constructive ways to use academic freedom to promote debate among students and right now, this course perhaps doesn't do as well as it could in promoting that debate,'' said Hassall, who also teaches at Carleton University.

The report was produced on a volunteer basis by Hassall and two other scientists, and reviewed by Ottawa-based climate-change scientist John Stone.

Harris said he was not immediately able to respond to all the specific claims, outlined in the report, that his course lectures delivered incomplete and inaccurate information. Those include instances where he allegedly mixed up the concept of weather - the current meteorological conditions - with climate, which are average weather patterns. Harris said this example was taken out of context.

The report alleged that in other lectures, Harris presented inaccurate information about scientific research on sea-level rises, and drew attention to colder temperatures in a particular region, without providing the context of the rise in average global temperatures. Harris later told Postmedia News in an email that he believed the average temperature records were ``manipulated,'' and that some recent satellite measurements, taken after he had delivered the lecture, would confirm his statements casting doubts about sea-level rises over the past year and a half.

Although he could not produce peer-reviewed literature that supported his arguments, Harris, the executive director of the International Climate Change Coalition, described the criticism of his lectures as a joke that he wasn't taking seriously.

``So, I think the whole report is hilarious,'' said Harris, whose coalition is known for challenging peer-reviewed climate change science while advocating against some forms of renewable energy. ``It looks like it was put together by a bunch of teenagers because it's just such a joke.''

Despite his playful dismissal of the findings, Harris engaged in a testy exchange of emails after the report was released, accusing the lead author of ``shoddy work'' by inaccurately describing him as a lobbyist. Iain Martel, chair of the committee that released the report, responded by saying it was correcting any apparent mistakes, and questioned the ``bullying tone'' of Harris's email.

Harris subsequently responded that he believed the report was attempting to ``smear'' his reputation with a ``very public attack'' and asked Martel not to contact him again.

Harris later told Postmedia News that he felt the entire investigation by the committee was inappropriate, saying that he was not contacted to clarify points about what was observed in the recordings.

``As my students who took my course know, I have never had any problem with correcting or clarifying anything in the course when needed,'' he said. ``However, I have yet to see anything in the course critique from Hassall et al that warrants correction.''

Harris has worked previously as a public relations consultant on a project funded by the oil and gas industry that used ``research'' accounts at the University of Calgary to produce a video that attacked the Kyoto Protocol and peer-reviewed scientific literature linking human activity to climate change. Alberta-based Talisman Energy kick-started the project with a $175,000 donation in 2004.

The university later shut down the accounts following an audit that revealed they were being used by a group of climate-change skeptics in Calgary to fund a wide range of expenses, including wining, dining, travel, lobbying, marketing and public relations, while issuing tax receipts.

Harris also acknowledged that he had participated in recent conferences organized by the Heartland Institute, an American think-tank with conservative leanings, that has received funding from major industry stakeholders and actively challenges government regulation in areas such as the environment and public health. But Harris said references to the conferences and questions about who paid his expenses were promoted by his opponents as a distraction.

Meantime, the science faculty dean said any new courses, regardless of the subject matter, would go through a ``rigorous process'' involving faculty members, department heads and other university officials.

``The (collective) agreement also stipulates that academic freedom carries with it an obligation to base research and teaching on an honest search for truth,'' Malcolm Butler said.

Mike De Souza
Postmedia News