Science Matters:Climate science deniers’ credibility tested

  • Feb. 28, 2018 2:51 p.m.

We base our arguments about environmental issues on sound research and evidence. Sometimes people challenge us — which is often positive, as informed debate leads to greater knowledge. But many challenges come from people with suspect motives.

In comments, letters and opinion articles, people spread nonsense from the likes of Ezra Levant, Tim Ball, Tom Harris and Patrick Moore. “David Suzuki owns an island with an oil company!” they write, among other absurdities — usually personal attacks that have nothing to do with the article under discussion. That tidbit is one of Levant’s many false and misleading statements. Several people bought land on the island to protect it from development, including a couple whose family ran a small household heating-oil distribution company in the 1950s and ’60s.

Beyond containing logical fallacies and personal attacks, the arguments aren’t credible. That’s clear from a legal case against Tim Ball, a retired University of Winnipeg geography professor with connections to anti-climate-science organizations like the misnamed, industry-funded Friends of Science and the defunct Natural Resources Stewardship Project.

Canadian climate scientist and now B.C. Green Party leader Andrew Weaver sued Ball in 2011 for an article on the Canada Free Press website (since removed). A B.C. Supreme Court judge recently dismissed the suit, but for a strange reason. “While the Article is derogatory of Dr. Weaver, it is not defamatory, in that the impugned words do not genuinely threaten Dr. Weaver’s reputation in the minds of reasonably thoughtful and informed readers,” Justice Ronald Skolrood wrote.

As the judge noted, “a reasonably thoughtful and informed person who reads the Article is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views.” That says something about those who do place stock in his views, including the Trump administration, which invited Ball to Washington after the 2016 U.S. election for a briefing with the transition team.

Judge Skolrood also wrote, “despite Dr. Ball’s history as an academic and a scientist, the Article is rife with errors and inaccuracies, which suggests a lack of attention to detail on Dr. Ball’s part, if not an indifference to the truth.” Weaver plans to appeal.

In 2015, a judge awarded Weaver $50,000 in a suit against Terence Corcoran, Peter Foster, Kevin Libin and Gordon Fisher of the Financial Post and National Post. In that case, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Emily Burke concluded the defendants “have been careless or indifferent to the accuracy of the facts,” and “were more interested in espousing a particular view than assessing the accuracy of the facts.” The decision was overturned and a new trial ordered because of an appeal argument that the court should not have considered the four articles in question together.

Courts have questioned Levant’s credibility more than once. In two separate libel cases, judges concluded that he showed “reckless disregard” for the truth. In a 2014 case, in which Levant was ordered to pay a Saskatchewan lawyer $80,000 in damages, Ontario Superior Court Justice Wendy Matheson wrote, “He did little or no fact-checking regarding the posts complained of, either before or after their publication.” In 2010, Levant had to pay another lawyer $25,000 in damages, with an additional $32,500 added in a subsequent 2011 hearing. The judge in that case wrote, “He did not want to check the facts as a responsible journalist would have done.”

As for Tom Harris and Patrick Moore, you don’t need a judge to see how unscientific and inaccurate their arguments are. In a 2007 speech in Regina, Moore — who once worked for Greenpeace but then started shilling for industries ranging from fossil fuels to nuclear power — dismissed concerns about melting glaciers. “Why are glaciers perceived as something important? They are just big globs of frozen water. Nothing grows on them, they are basically dead zones,” he said.

Over the years, Harris — now head of the misnamed International Climate Science Coalition and affiliated with denial organizations such as the U.S. Heartland Institute — has promoted almost every debunked anti-climate-science position available, from claiming CO2 is harmless plant food to doubting the existence of human-caused climate change altogether.

Skepticism and rational debate are healthy. Logical fallacies, misinformation and outright lies designed to support destructive industries by duping the gullible and muddying the waters are unconscionable.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington.

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