Eight related commentaries written by Tom Harris of the International Climate Science Coalition since mid-December are packed them with distortions, errors, hypocrisy, and more.For the other posts in this series, click here.
[Update 2/21/2014: A word in one of Tom’s commentaries was confused by the author – “censure” was confused for “censor.” Since the entire section was based on this error, it has been struck from the post]
Starting in the middle of December, 2014 and continuing through February, 2015, Tom Harris, Executive Director of the industrial climate disruptionA denying International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC), wrote at least eight nearly identical commentaries. They were published mostly in small local newspapers and websites around the United States, Canada, and South Africa. The stated purpose of the commentaries was to call for scholars and philosophers to engage in the public argument over climate disruption (aka global warming or climate change), and Harris wrote that “philosophers and other intellectuals have an ethical obligation to speak out loudly when they see fundamental errors in thinking6.” As S&R hosts an occasional feature called “Climate Illogic,” we accepted Harris’ invitation and looked through his own commentaries for illogical arguments as well as other issues of concern.
As a result of our review, S&R identified five major areas of concern and a troubling observation. First, Harris engages in what is known as “tone trolling,” attempting to distract from an argument by complaining that the language or tactics used by the debaters is offensive. Second, Harris misidentifies many logical errors he alleges are made by others and he commits several logical fallacies of his own. Third, he misunderstands how science can legitimately draw conclusions that are “unequivocal” and discover “truth.” Fourth, he demonstrates a significant lack of understanding of the scientific method in general, the state of climate science in particular, and the differing levels of expertise between climate disruption deniersB and climate realistsC. Fifth, Harris’ commentaries are found to be less about fixing the tone of a supposedly broken debate and more about undermining climate scientists, poisoning the well against any logic experts who actually engage in the discussion, and derailing the discussion as much as possible. Finally, S&R reviews the fundamental asymmetries between climate realists and climate disruption deniers and how those asymmetries enable Harris and his peers to regularly produce distortion-filled commentaries like these.
False equivalence, hypocrisy, and tone trolling in Harris’ gripes about the so-called “climate debate”
Harris opens his wide ranging broadside against the perceived evils of the public discussion regarding climate disruption with an allegation that the tone and tactics used by climate realists have supposedly driven participants out of the public square. Harris writes that “Today, many of the world’s leaders in science, engineering and other relevant disciplines will not comment publicly about climate change,” presumably due to “fear of retribution1.” However, he provides only three specific examples throughout the commentaries reviewed by S&R – supposed death threats made against climate disruption deniers, deniers being labeled “anti-science shills” or “religious fundamentalists,6” and censorship. In combination, his allegations combine to represent a prime example of tone trolling, which is itself a type of red herring logical fallacy.
The false equivalence of death threats
There is no doubt that, as Harris wrote, “Death threats and other abuses have been experienced by those on both sides of the controversy.5” There are many examples of climate scientists who have had threats of violence directed at them or their families. S&R searched online for evidence that climate disruption deniers had had their lives or property threatened and found that there were only a few examples of violent threats aimed at specific individuals. The Daily Telegraph reported in 2006 that Tim Ball (an associated of Harris’ at the ICSC) had received a total of five threats. There were a few examples of death threats against journalists, commentators, and politicians who deny the reality of climate disruption as well, but such threats are an unsurprising, if deplorable, part of life for public figures and journalists who report on topics of great public interest. By far the largest number of “threats” identified were calls by climate activists to criminalize, prosecute, and punish the denial of climate disruption. For example, a May 2014 story in the conservative website Newsbusters found that Canadian climate scientist and activist David Suzuki had called for the arrest and jailing of climate disruption deniers and that James Hanson had called such denial “high crimes against humanity.” Only a few activists went so far as to call for death sentences or made Nazi comparisons, and in those cases the activists later apologized for their inflammatory language.
In contrast, Popular Science reported in 2012 how Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University received a white powder in an envelope that the FBI later determined was not anthrax, but rather corn starch. Marc Morano has a habit of abetting threats against climate scientists by posting their emails at his website Climate Depot, and this has resulted in death threats being emailed to at least two scientists – Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech and Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and S&R has seen copies of threats received by other scientists involved in climate-related research over the years. Officials at the Australian National University were sufficiently concerned about emailed threats and conference attendees holding up nooses to visiting scholars in 2011 that they moved the targeted scientists to a building that required ID cards to access.
There are three significant differences between the nature of the threats levied against climate disruption deniers and those levied against climate realists. First, the target of the threats is quite different between the two different groups. When climate disruption deniers are threatened, the threats are levied almost exclusively against people who, unfortunately, should probably expect to get threats from time to time – commentators or politicians advocating for specific policies via large media outlets or journalists reporting on topics of great public interest. When climate realists are threatened, however, the threats are nearly always made against private citizens, usually scientists, who would not normally be in a position where threats should be considered an unfortunate side effect of their job.
Second, when climate disruption deniers are threatened, the threats are usually calls for the criminalization of their denial. Criminalization necessarily requires public engagement, legislation, legal action, grand juries, and trials. In other words, the threats against climate disruption deniers nearly always involve due process under the law. Threats against climate scientists, on the other hand, tend to be extra-judicial threats of violence against the scientists and/or their families. There is no due process mentioned or implied, and thus the threats are both more immediate and more intimidating.
Finally, climate disruption denial tends to be more common among political conservatives and libertarians, while climate realism tends to be most common among political moderates, independents, and liberals. Historically, when liberals commit political violence, it is usually directed against organizations and property rather than people. Political violence committed by conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, tends to be directed against individuals. Given these differences, death threats made against climate realists are more likely to be legitimate threats than those made against climate disruption deniers.
Harris’ concerns about death threats against all parties are commendable, but they also represent a false equivalence. He’s trying to say “everyone’s at fault” when in fact climate disruption deniers are more culpable than climate realists.
David Suzuki’s “personal attacks” on climate disruption deniers
Harris has also complained that the subject of climate disruption is filled with “defamation1” and that experts are afraid of being “labeled scaremongers or deniers, or being funded by special-interest groups or not caring about the poor7.” There’s no question that these and similar terms have been applied against both climate disruption deniers and climate realists, yet Harris provided only one specific example in one of his commentaries. Specifically, Harris wrote that David Suzuki labeled attendees at the Heartland Institute-organized 9th International Climate Change Conference (ICCC) in July 2014 as “fossil fuel industry supporters and anti-science shills” and “religious fundamentalists whose ‘worldview predetermines their approach to the science’6” of climate disruption. The problem with Harris’ claims is that the “personal attacks” Suzuki made in August 2014 are factual, and by definition the truth can not be defamatory.
In his August 7 blog Suzuki wrote that the ICCC speakers represented a “who’s who of fossil fuel industry supporters and anti-science shills,” just as Harris claimed. While Suzuki did not provide proof that the labels were justified, Media Matters for America generated short bios for each of the speakers which show that a significant number of the speakers did qualify as “fossil fuel industry supporters.” For example, James L. Johnston, Senior Fellow at the Heartland Institute, is a retired economist for Amoco. Marlo Lewis is a Senior Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a think tank that has been funded heavily by fossil fuel interests for years. Tom Harris himself used to
energy industry lobbying the High Park Group (ED: Corrected). Craig Idso has connections to the largest private coal company in the world, Peabody Energy. Patrick Michaels estimated in 2010 that about 40% of his work is paid for by oil companies. At least 23 of the 61 ICCC speakers (nearly 40%) did or had worked for energy companies and/or energy industry funded think-tanks and public relations firms, so it’s a fairly accurate to claim that the speakers actually did represent a “who’s who of fossil fuel industry supporters.”
The Media Matters bios also demonstrate that the label of “anti-science” applies to many of the ICCC speakers. Joe Bastardi has claimed that climate change violates thermodynamics (it doesn’t). Craig Idso thinks that more carbon dioxide (CO2) is good for plants but ignores the fact that plants also need water and nitrogen, two things that are likely to limit plants’ ability to use the extra CO2. Nils-Axel Mörner claims to be able to dowse water. Anthony Watts has written extensively that the US temperature record is “unreliable” and has yet to retract those statements even though his claims have been thoroughly and repeatedly disproved. Bob Armstrong has written that Venus’ surface temperature is not due to a runaway greenhouse effect but rather due to atmospheric pressure (interactions with Bob here at S&R led to the five-part Venus series that thoroughly debunked many of his pseudoscientific claims). And S. Fred Singer has been attacking ideologically inconvenient science for decades including CFCs vis-a-vis ozone depletion, second-hand tobacco smoke, and most recently industrial climate disruption.
As for the “shill” label, it’s usually difficult to prove that someone wrote a blog or commentary specifically because they were paid to, but at least one of the ICCC speakers has admitted to being a shill. During the Jack Abramoff scandal, BusinessWeek outed Peter Ferrara (who is associated with Heartland and blogs at Forbes) as having been paid to write columns, telling the magazine “I do that all the time … I’ve done that in the past, and I’ll do it in the future.” And Tom Giovanetti, president of the Institute for Policy Innovation and Ferrara’s employer at the time, told BusinessWeek that he had “a sense that there are a lot of people at think tanks who have similar arrangements.” Giovanetti and Ferrara felt that being paid to write op-eds and commentaries was ethical so long as you actually believed what you were writing. The dictionary definition of “shill” has nothing about whether or not the author believes what their paid to write – only that they’re paid to write it. Regardless of Harris’ opinion of the matter, there is documented proof that one ICCC speaker was, indeed, a shill.
Harris also took exception to Suzuki’s supposed characterization of several scientists as “religious fundamentalists whose ‘worldview predetermines their approach to the science.’6” Suzuki never characterized ICCC speakers as “religious fundamentalists” – those are Harris’ words. Here’s the entire quote from Suzuki’s blog:
Many attacks came from fellow Christians unable to accept that humans can affect “God’s creation”. That’s a belief held even by a few well-known scientists and others held up as climate experts, including Roy Spencer, David Legates and Canadian economist Ross McKitrick. They’ve signed the Cornwall Alliance’s Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming, which says, “We believe Earth and its ecosystems — created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence — are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception.” This worldview predetermines their approach to the science.
To better understand why Suzuki thinks that signers of the Declaration have a worldview that predetermines their approach to science it’s necessary to consider the basis of the Declaration itself, a document called “A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor” (aka Renewed Call).
Renewed Call is a three chapter document that purports to address the theology, science, and economics of climate disruption. The theology chapter talks at length about how climate disruption cannot be caused by human activity, and perhaps doesn’t even exist, all because the Bible says so. For example, one section of the theology chapter titled “The Robustness of Creation” starts with the following:
A crucial element of the environmentalist worldview is that Earth and its habitats and inhabitants are extremely fragile and likely to suffer severe, even irreversible damage from human action. That view contradicts Genesis 1:31. It is difficult to imagine how God could have called “very good” the habitat of humanity’s vocation in a millennia-long drama if the whole thing were prone to collapse like a house of cards with the least disturbance—like a change in carbon dioxide from 0.027 to 0.039 percent of the atmosphere. (Emphasis original)
The theological argument in a nutshell goes like this: God created the universe and said in Genesis that creation was “very good.” “Very good” means that the Earth is robust and not subject to being significantly altered by greenhouse gases. If the science underlying industrial climate disruption were true, that would contradict God’s declaration that the Earth is “very good.” Since God can’t be wrong, the science must be wrong.
Another example comes from the section called “Divine Promises and Global Warming,” also in the Theology chapter. This section claim that God promised “that flood waters will never again cover the Earth (Genesis 9:11–12, 15–16; Psalm 104:9; Jeremiah 5:22)” and that God’s promises are “difficult to reconcile with fears of catastrophic sea level rise.” This section goes on to say that “While there is evidence that sea level was once much higher than it now is, that evidence is best interpreted in light of the flood of Noah’s day—a never-to-be-repeated, cataclysmic judgment of God that would have been followed by a sudden ice age….” The theological argument goes like this: God promised not to destroy the world with another great flood, but rapid sea level rise like that projected by climate scientists would be very destructive to humanity. Since the projected sea level rise would contradict God’s promises, the projections (and/or the science underlying the projections) must be wrong.
Roy Spencer and David Legates, both of whom acknowledge being evangelical Christians and who wrote/co-wrote Chapter Two of Renewed Call, were specifically identified by Suzuki as scientists whose worldviews predetermine their approach to climate science. If they agree with the theology chapter, then it’s hard to imagine how their evangelical Christianity doesn’t affect their scientific views on climate disruption. In fact, it’s difficult to see how anyone who agrees with the theological arguments described above could have worldview compatible with climate realism. We don’t even need to consider the obvious and gross scientific and logical errors in the two theological arguments presented above. We only need to consider that, in an argument between God and, well, anything – God always wins. The problem is that the phrases “God did it” or “God wouldn’t allow it” are fundamentally anti-scientific and no better than the ancient Greeks claiming that lightning was Zeus’ anger made manifest.
So much for censorship Finally, Harris alleges in several of his commentaries that climate realists “fan the flames of intolerance, encouraging suppression” of climate disruption deniers. He also alleges that debates about industrial climate disruption are “riddled with censorship.1” While Harris offers no proof of these allegations, his commentaries do represent a prime example of hypocrisy. In the same commentaries where Harris writes that climate disruption is “riddled with censorship,” he also writes that “[opinion leaders] should invite input from specialists on all sides of the issue and censure anyone who tries to suppress alternative opinions.1” It’s hypocritical of Harris to decry censorship in one paragraph only to call for censorship in the next.
Harris’ commentaries are ostensibly a call for both climate realists and climate disruption deniers to play nice and fight fair. But his distorted narrative falsely equates the personal threats of violence that climate scientists receive with the impersonal threats of criminal prosecution that climate disruption deniers receive. He also falsely berates climate realists for their supposedly attacking and defaming climate disruption deniers while the public record shows that Harris’ only specific examples of alleged attacks were actually factual.
And he demonstrates his own hypocrisy by accusing climate realists of censorship while explicitly calling for censorship himself. In combination, Harris’ distorted wrong complaints about the tone of the climate “debate” suggest that he’s not actually interested in an open and honest debate. Rather, his complaints combine to turn his commentaries into an example of “tone trolling” (a type of red herring logical fallacy). Given Harris is ostensibly calling for a more elevated and logical discussion about climate disruption, relying on a red herring to start his commentaries is not a good way to start.
Unfortunately, S&R will show in Part Two that Harris makes many more illogical arguments throughout his commentaries.
- TOM HARRIS: Taming the climate debate, posted December 6, 2014.
- Climate Debate Needs Philosophers’ Unbiased Insights, posted December 9, 2014.
- Guest Opinion: Intellectuals should heal, not fuel, toxic climate debate, posted December 10, 2014. NOTE: this guest opinion is identical to source #1 above.
- Taming the climate debate – Tom Harris, posted December 11, 2014. NOTE: this letter to the editor is identical to source #1 except for a number of criticisms of David Suzuki.
- We need wise men to defang climate debate
- My View: Scholars needed for climate debate, posted on January 7, 2015.
- Commentary: Philosophers must tame global warming debate, posted on January 13, 2015.
- When Will Intellectuals Heal Toxic Climate Change Debate?, posted on February 7, 2015.
- Industrial climate disruption: the position that climate is changing, that the emission of greenhouse gases by human industry is the dominant driver of those changes, and that the changes will almost certainly be disruptive to human society and global ecology
- Climate disruption denier: someone who denies that industrial climate disruption is supported by multiple independent lines of evidence and is derived from well established physical laws
- Climate realist: someone who accepts the overwhelming data demonstrating that industrial climate disruption is real