Environment/Nature

Tom Harris’ commentaries intended to impede, not advance, public understanding of climate science

Tom Harris’ stated goal in his commentaries is to advance the public discussion on industrial climate disruption, yet his language and arguments say exactly the opposite.

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

Tom Harris, Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC)

For the other posts in this series, click here.

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 that appeared mostly in small local newspapers and websites around the English-speaking world. The stated purpose of the commentaries was to call for scholars and philosophers to engage in the public discussion about 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 thinking.6” 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.

In Parts One through Four, S&R showed how Harris’ commentaries contained misleading information, were illogical, and misrepresented science in general and climate science (and scientists) in particular. Today, S&R assembles the various issues in the commentaries in an attempt to understand why Harris wrote them and what his goals might be. What we found is that Harris is trying to undermine climate scientists, attempting to poison the well against any new experts who enter the fray but don’t support Harris’ own conclusions, and hoping to derail the public discussion of climate disruption as much as possible.

Undermining climate scientists

Harris’ commentaries make it clear that one of his goals is to undermine the credibility and expertise of climate scientists. We know this because he insinuates that climate scientists are incompetent, corrupt, biased, or spineless.

Galileo Galilei

Harris alleges that “climate campaigners” have illogically attributed industrial climate disruption to the industrial emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), writing that “the fact that scientific theories make correct experimental predictions… does not mean the theories are true1.” He goes as far as claiming that Newton, Galileo, and other early scientists knew that their experiments could be subject to error, but that “many of today’s scientists” have either “forgotten2” or “swept this issue under the rug1.”

Harris is not just trying to manufacture doubt about climate science with these statements. He’s trying to portray climate scientists as either incompetent (“forgotten”) or corrupt (“swept this issue under the rug”). Neither is correct, as the scores of studies mentioned in Part Two attest to. Furthermore, Harris is indirectly equating scientists with “climate campaigners,” insinuating that the scientists are undercover activists. While there are climate activists among the ranks of climate scientists (James Hanson, for example), there’s every reason to believe that the scientists in question became climate activists as a result of their research. Harries does not even acknowledge this possibility in his commentaries.

Harris also wants his readers to think that climate scientists, most of whom are associated with a university, are biased. He writes that “university spokespeople2” and the mainstream media is intolerant of “anyone who disagrees with politically correct climate dogma.2” Nature doesn’t care about politics – gravity keeps us firmly attached to the Earth’s surface regardless of whether we’re liberal or conservative, and sea-level rise will happen no matter how much we try to legislate it away. Facts can’t be politically correct or dogmatic – they simply are, and reaching conclusions based on the facts isn’t “politically correct” – it’s science. Scientists and others who follow the facts wherever they lead are not biased. People who deny the facts or refuse to follow them to their natural endpoints, on the other hand, are biased.

Harris didn’t rely exclusively on insinuations of bias, however. In his defense of attendees to a Heartland Institute-organized climate conference in Las Vegas last year, Harris implies that climate scientists are enthralled by the “fashionable views about climate change4.” Beyond the fact this is a “bandwagon” logical fallacy (see Part Two and this Climate Illogic post on the subject), its also contrary to the normal, highly competitive psychology of scientists. Scientists make their names by publishing new and interesting research, not by publishing “me too” papers Given the scientific and public interest in the Earth’s climate, any scientist who could demonstrate conclusively that CO2-driven climate disruption was wrong would be practically guaranteed fame and fortune (and a Nobel Prize or two). People motivated in part by the tearing down others’ work are not likely to be caught up in a bandwagon, but they may well reach the same conclusions as everyone else based on the strength of the evidence.

Anderegg et al 2010 Figure 1 (PNAS)

Anderegg et al 2010 Figure 1 (PNAS)

The title of one of Harris’ commentaries neatly encapsulates his goal of undermining climate scientists: “My view: Scholars needed for climate debate6.” This title inaccurately suggests that “scholars” are not already involved in the scientific debate about climate disruption. The reality is that scholars with sufficient expertise to contribute meaningfully have been involved in the scientific debate since the 1950s and 60s, and that the scholarly, peer-reviewed debate was largely over by around 1991. The use of the word “scholars” invokes visions of other experts than climate scientists, but as S&R has discussed previously, not every scholar has the necessary expertise to contribute. After all, scholars who study Shakespeare’s plays or the chemistry involved in turning petroleum into transportation fuels clearly have no relevant expertise on whether climate disruption is happening, what’s causing it, or what the impacts might be.

So who does Harris really want to bring to the climate table? “[L]eaders in science, engineering, economics, and public policy1.” Scientific leaders are already engaged, and overwhelmingly they are convinced by the evidence that industrial climate disruption is real. Engineering leaders, leading economists, and public policy experts usually have little to no scientific expertise on the subject of global warming theory, so while they each have a place discussing how best to address industrial climate disruption, they don’t belong in the scientific debate.

Harris also wants philosophers, with their presumed expertise in logic, to enter the public discussion regarding climate disruption. It’s unfortunate, then, that he’s already poisoned the well against any philosophers who answer his call.

Poisoning the well against the very engagement Harris has asked for

Poisoning the well is a logical fallacy in which one participant in a debate pre-emptively makes an ad hominem attack on their opponent. In this case, Harris has poisoned the well so that any philosophers who heed his call and agree with him will be deemed credible while any philosophers who disagree with him will not be.

Harris asks in his commentaries why philosophers and other experts in logic don’t speak out about the illogical arguments he alleges are rampant in the climate debate. He answers his own question by writing that “It may be that academics…keep their opinions to themselves rather than impede progressive policies1,” that “the overwhelming majority of philosophy professors are politically left of center,1” or that they’re subject to “groupthink2.” These statements say essentially the same thing in slightly different ways – that philosophers and logic experts are political liberals. What makes this “poisoning the well” is that people who have read Harris’ commentaries are more likely to conclude that any criticism of Harris and other climate disruption deniers is because the critic is biased. Not because Harris’ arguments are flawed, or because Harris is misrepresenting the state of climate science – because the critic is supposedly a liberal.

Similarly, if no philosophers choose to heed Harris’ call to engage, then that outcome too can be dismissed as “because the philosophers are liberals.” Never mind that experts in logic may not bother because they have long ago given up trying to explain logic to the average American, or that the experts have better things to do with their time (like teach logic to paying college students), or that they read Harris’ commentaries and realized how bad Harris’ logic was. No, Harris has poisoned the well against everyone who doesn’t explicitly support his own position.

Derailing the debate

Harris claims that he wants “[p]hilosophers and other scholars who study rational argumentation… to us overcome the fallacies that are sabotaging the discussion1.” Over the course of his commentaries, Harris has made many illogical arguments of his own while attacking the illogic of others, he’s misrepresented climate science and scientists, and he’s attacked the very people he claims to be inviting into the debate. Given these facts, it’s fair to conclude that Harris does not actually want a fair and open debate about industrial climate disruption.

If Harris doesn’t actually want a fair and open debate, what does he want? The arguments in his commentaries can be roughly summarized as follows:

The climate debate is rife with personal attacks and illogical arguments. The tone is so bad that it’s keeping experts from engaging in the debate. The science isn’t as well understood as everyone thinks it is, and the supposed experts on the side of global warming theory are all biased, corrupt, and/or mediocre scientists. Since we can’t trust what the supposed experts are saying, we need to bring in new experts and an objective set of referees to clean up the debate.

As this series has shown, however, not one of these assertions is correct. Part One showed that Harris was trying to “tone troll” on the issue of personal attacks, death threats, and censorship. Part Two showed that most of the allegedly illogical arguments were Harris’ own misunderstandings and that he was making many illogical arguments himself. Parts Three and Four showed that Harris was misrepresenting science in general and climate science in particular, that the scientific foundations of global warming theory are very well established, and that Harris has been engaged in climate science PR long enough that he has to be aware of these facts. Part Four also showed that Harris’ attacks on climate scientists’ expertise are baseless and that the people he wants to bring into the debate generally lack the expertise to contribute meaningfully to any scientific debate about the nature of climate disruption. And Part Five showed that Harris went out of his way to eliminate the possibility that any referees could possibly be considered unbiased.

Harris’ stated goal is diametrically opposed to the words he uses and the arguments he makes in support of that goal. His actions do not match his words. Ultimately, these are not the actions of a good faith actor. These are not the actions of someone who legitimately wants to see progress on improving the public’s understanding of climate science. These are the actions of someone who is willing to distort, manipulate, and deceive in order to impede progress toward addressing industrial climate disruption.

Given these facts, it’s fair and accurate to say that these are the actions of someone who should not now, nor ever, be listened to.

Part Six is an epilogue to this series that contains some observations on how the battle of fact, truth, and reality against fiction, deception, and denial is fundamentally tilted in favor of Harris and those like him who trade in fiction, deception, and denial.

Sources

  1. TOM HARRIS: Taming the climate debate, posted December 6, 2014.
  2. Climate Debate Needs Philosophers’ Unbiased Insights, posted December 9, 2014.
  3. Guest Opinion: Intellectuals should heal, not fuel, toxic climate debate, posted December 10, 2014. NOTE: this guest opinion is identical to source #1 above.
  4. 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.
  5. We need wise men to defang climate debate
  6. My View: Scholars needed for climate debate, posted on January 7, 2015.
  7. Commentary: Philosophers must tame global warming debate, posted on January 13, 2015.
  8. When Will Intellectuals Heal Toxic Climate Change Debate?
    , posted on February 7, 2015.

Notes

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Climate realist: someone who accepts the overwhelming data demonstrating that industrial climate disruption is real

3 replies »

  1. Calling anthropogenic climate change “fashionable” seems to be fashionable among climate septics. Here, Willie Soon:

    “He said he is seeking only to spread the truth about science as he sees it. Scientists who say carbon-dioxide-induced warming is a virtual certainty, he added, have allowed political fashion to compromise their integrity.

    He lays claim to higher standards.”

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2013/11/05/harvard-smithsonian-global-warming-skeptic-helps-feed-strategy-doubt-gridlock-congress/uHssYO1anoWSiLw0v1YcUJ/story.html

    Now, as you are acutely aware of language and craftsmanship, a few more occasions to exclaim, “Ah, crud.” From part 1:

    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.” (My italics.)

    You’ve crossed out the section, So much for censorship, but the deletion isn’t reflected in your conclusion:

    “And he demonstrates his own hypocrisy by accusing climate realists of censorship while explicitly calling for censorship himself.”

    From part 2:

    “…the two sides are ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.’ ”

    I would argue that fiction often leads to a better understanding of the truth, and that some better choices would have been fabrication, untruth, falsehood or misrepresentation.

    “Harris is wrong because scores of peer-reviewed attribution and fingerprint studies have concluded that only a single theory that matches all the data.”

    …that there’s only a single theory…

    (Without there’s the sentence is incomplete.)

    Anyway, it’s good to have you back. I’ve profited from your knowledge in the past, and expect to do so again in the future.

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