Climate change skeptic's university course criticized

A group of scientists is raising alarm about "incorrect science" in a course at Ottawa's Carleton University that was taught for three years by a climate change skeptic.

A group of scientists is raising alarm about "incorrect science" in a course at Ottawa's Carleton University that was taught for three years by a climate change skeptic.

"We describe a case in which noted climate change deniers have gained access to the Canadian higher education system through a course taught at Carleton University," the Ottawa-based Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism said in a report this week.

Tom Harris taught about 1,500 students at Carleton University over four terms that the course was offered between 2009 and 2011. (CBC)
But the course instructor, Tom Harris, denies there are any problems with the science he taught.

CASS, which says its goal is to "critically [examine] scientific, technological and medical claims in public discourse," said its audit of video lectures and course materials for the second-year course called "Climate Change: An Earth Sciences Perspective" found the course to be biased and inaccurate. 

It said the course's key messages "contradict accepted scientific opinion" on climate change, such as the idea that humans and their carbon emissions are largely responsible for the recent increase in global temperatures. 

Harris is executive director of an Ottawa-based group called the International Climate Science Coalition. His course featured guest lecturers from Carleton, the University of Ottawa, the University of Winnipeg and James Cook University in Australia, who are all on the coalition's scientific advisory board.

The coalition's website says it aims to move climate change discussions away from "costly and ineffectual 'climate control' " measures and publicizes issues such as the "dangerous impacts of attempts to replace conventional energy sources with wind turbines, solar power, biofuels and other ineffective and expensive energy sources."

On the coalition's website, Harris says that scientists "cannot as yet even detect a human signal on top of natural variability [in climate], let alone determine if action of any kind is needed" and that there is "intense debate now raging among researchers concerning the causes of climate change."

Christopher Hassall, lead author of the CASS report, said he and his co-authors were concerned about whether the science taught in the audited course was correct.

"And we feel very strongly that there are a large number of examples where the instructor taught incorrect science," he said, alleging that it included few peer-reviewed studies and those that were included have since been refuted.

The report listed 142 of what he and his co-authors deemed to be "incorrect or equivocal claims" about climate change.

Hassall, a postdoctoral researcher in conservation and evolutionary biology at Carleton, said he and co-author Chris Hebbern are both very familiar with the recent scientific literature on climate change and the scientific consensus views about it through their recent doctoral work on the impacts of climate change on biodiversity and human health respectively.

Report a 'disgraceful' attack: Harris

In an email, Harris called the CASS report's findings "often unsubstantiated and at times wrong" interpretations of the science he taught that were "often taken out of context."

"I have yet to see anything in the course critique from Hassell [and others] that warrants a correction," he added.

He said it is "disgraceful" that Hassall, himself a Carleton researcher, would publicly attack a course at the university and its instructors without checking anything with the instructor.

Harris, who has two degrees in mechanical engineering from Carleton, said he was asked to teach the course starting in January 2009 because the usual instructor, Prof. Tim Patterson, was going on sabbatical. Harris said he taught about 1,500 students over the four terms that the course was offered between 2009 and 2011 and his student ratings were very high. The course is not being offered this year.

According to Carleton University, when full-time faculty are not available to teach a course, the department hosting the course advertises for a sessional instructor and makes the recommendation to the dean's office, which reviews and approves the hire.

"Academic excellence is a priority at Carleton," the university said in a statement responding to the report. "We review our courses to balance content with academic freedom and the rights of our instructors as outlined in their collective agreement."


Emily Chung

Science, climate, environment reporter

Emily Chung covers science, the environment and climate for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry from the University of British Columbia. In 2019, she was part of the team that won a Digital Publishing Award for best newsletter for "What on Earth." You can email story ideas to