2011-03-07 11:28:32Help with addressing a climate skeptic university lecturer
yocta

gregory.staib@gmail...
130.155.242.72

Hi SkS experts!

I was wondering if I could get some help from somebody more experienced in the debunking department. I have a situation where I believe that a lecturer at Newcastle University in Australia  (name Dr Rob Atkin) is introducing grossly bad skeptic climate 'science' into his lectures and I want to know the best way to address it.

First I should introduce myself as I am new to the SkS forums. My name is Greg (username here is yocta) and I am doing a PhD in Physics/Physical Chemistry in Adsorption of Mixed Gases (which is a fancy way of saying gas storage and gas separation). I am enrolled through Griffith University in Brisbane but am actually based at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle. I do lab demonstrating for first year physics at Newcastle Unviversity though.

Now, to my skeptic situation:

A friend was telling me how her friend thought climate change wasn't real and after a few questions it was from a lecture presented by Dr Rob Atkin that made her change her mind.

I have obtained a copy of the lecture notes in question of Dr Rob Atkin which from slide 7 onwards are cringeworthy to my eye (expeicially the WUWT material).

I don't know how to upload files on this forum but I have uploaded a .zip file here (password on zip file is "qwerty") for anyone's perusal:

http://www.sendspace.com/file/nfunz7

Now, the situation gets a bit more complicated. My friend's girlfriend emailed the department t head (A/Prof Hugh Dunstan) to complain about the content of the material (I don't have a copy of the letter she sent) and here is the details of the correspondance:

================================================

Dear Professor Dunstan.
Please find attached my letter, along with a pdf copy of the CHEM2610
lecture that I refer to in the letter.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards,

Zoe Rogers

Here is the reply:

Dear Zoe,
Thank you for your letter. I have discussed the issue with Dr Atkins
and spent some time going through the concepts with him. I understand
that you have not attended his lectures as an enrolled student and refer
to his recent lecture slides. It is important to take these in the
correct context of the full lecture and course delivery. I am keen to
support all lecturers developing a "questioning approach" to the
training of our students. Hypothesis testing and the scientific method
represent the fundamental basis to research. Dr Atkins has provided a
written response to me which I have pasted below.
Best wishes
Hugh



Dear Hugh,

I am writing in response to the letter from Zoe Rogers letter dated
17th February 2011.

Zoe’s assessment of my teaching of chemistry 2610 is incorrect on
several ways. In some cases, this is because Zoe has not attended my
lectures and therefore has based her opinions on second hand
information; Zoe graduated with Honours in 2007, and I did not start
teaching this course until 2008. In other cases Zoe’s criticisms stem
from the fact that she does not understand the scientific method.

The section of CHEM2610 I teach is concerned with the chemistry of the
atmosphere and the greenhouse effect, which is distinct from global
warming. I encourage students to embrace the scientific method, and
consider any evidence they are presented with critically and with
appropriate scepticism.

For the first 4 hours of my lecture series I teach the chemical
composition of the atmosphere and the ‘case for global warming’. I
then spend ~2 hours discussing the ‘case against global warming’. As
part of this section I present the documentary ‘The Great Global
Warming Swindle’. I am fully aware this documentary is factually
incorrect in some instances. I make sure the class is aware of this, as
an example of how information presented to them must be treated
sceptically. The documentary also makes a number of excellent points
relating to the origin of anthropogenic global warming theory, which is
valuable for the students education.

Zoe refers to me as a “climate change sceptic”.  I take this as a
compliment. A scientist by definition must be a sceptic - that is the
nature of the scientific method. Zoe also questions whether I am
qualified to teach this course. I would argue that my PhD in physical
chemistry qualifies me to teach this subject, and as I am not active in
climate change research, and therefore not reliant on the topic for
research funding, I can assess the evidence from a completely impartial
point of view.

My scientific opinion is that there is not enough evidence for climate
change, or against it, to be conclusive. I state this in my lectures,
and I encourage the students to consider all the evidence for themselves
and form their own opinion. There is no right or wrong answer, but I do
insist that they support their position with scientific data whose
accuracy they can attest to; a climate change model does not fit this
definition as the errors associated with modelling an enormously complex
system such as the Earth are inherently large.

The media’s suggestion that the scientific community is united in its
support of global warming theory is farcical, and the fact that anyone
who questions the theory is shouted down as a heretic is a problem - it
literally takes science out of the debate.

I make it completely clear in my lectures that the world would, without
question, be a better place if less fossil fuels were burnt. Further,
sometime in the near future fossil fuel reserves will run out, and
alternative energy sources must be found. These energy sources by
definition will not produce carbon dioxide, so would be acceptable to
groups like ‘Climate Action Newcastle’, which Zoe appears to be
involved with (http://www.climateaction.org.au/node?page=2). Given the
negative assessment of my teaching, it may have been appropriate for her
to mention this in her letter.

My teaching feedback for Environmental Chemistry has been excellent
(overall grades > 4/5) and the feedback I have received from students
about my section - in particular the way I challenge them to think
critically about the evidence they are presented with - has been
particularly encouraging. I do not plan to change the way I teach the
course.

Yours Sincerely
Rob Atkin
================================================

I really don't know what to make of the lecturer's reply but it seems very out of line. Since Zoe is not a scientist so to speak nor in the course, he does have a point. I however am a scientist and would like to think I understand the scientific method, and whilst not in that course do work at the University in the first year physics labs.

Now my question is, can anybody give me some advice how I can go about dealing with this situation. Since none of his material is online just his profile and the course description I don't think an online rebuttul could be a possibility.

I am thinking a letter direct to him querying his lecture slides but mentioning nothing of the content in his letter could be the best approach.

For example I thought of something like this:

Dear Dr Atkins,

I work at Newcastle University in the first year physics labs and have recently obtained a copy of your lecture slides for CHEM2610 for "Lecture 2a - case against global warming" and have a few queries related to its content.

My queries relate the information presented in the slides. Whilst I am not a climate scientist I feel that with my background in physical sciences (I am currently completing my PhD at Griffith University in physics/physical chemistry) undergraduate studies in climate science at Macquarie University, reading of peer review literature relating to climate science and discussions with my peers who are climate scientists I am able to understand the science on general terms.

In slide 7 you mention "More than 31,000 scientists …. have signed a petition..".

I note that this is the Oregon petition. I am not sure if you have read that this study has been met with heavy criticism and more recent surveys such as that done by Peter Doran 2009...


I thought a step by step critique of his lecture slides in a somewhat friendly tone could be the way to go.

Sorry that this is a long post, but as you can see I am not sure the best way to go about this, but I can't let nothing be done if indeed that lecture gets repeated to people this year.

Any advice is appreciated!

 

-Greg

 

 

2011-03-08 05:25:37
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.112.134

yocta,

It is a principle of academic freedom that the professor is largely free to teach the course whatever way he likes, as long as it conforms to the course outline agreed with the university. The department head is more or less obligated to back him up, unless he's promoting something grossly immoral or in violation of the conservation of energy.

It might be possible to work on him slowly; maybe one argument at a time. It depends on how much patience he has, and whether he's really open-minded enough to explore alternative points of view.

Another approach could be to try to see if he would accept SkS as a alternative source for peer-reviewed science, to represent a different point of view than what he is promoting. It's probably a long shot.

Another approach is to go retail: introduce your friend's friend to SkS as an alternative source. Maybe she can refererence it in her contributions to the class, and introduce it to her classmates.

Unless some big-shot climate scientist shows up on the scene to argue the case, no "appeal to authority" is going to do the trick: He has the right to teach the course as he wants. If you have time, you may have more success trying to engage him intellectually. There's an old saying: "A man convinced against his will is of his own opinion still."

PS: I couldn't open the zipfile. I have a Mac, maybe there's some incompatability?

2011-03-08 07:30:19
dana1981
Dana Nuccitelli
dana1981@yahoo...
38.223.231.252

I think you've got the right approach with the specific critiques of his individual slides - the intellectual engagement neal suggests.  Maybe just start off with a few, like your Oregon Petition example, and see how he reacts.  Then if you have some success, move on to the errors in other slides.

2011-03-08 08:55:29Tips on approach
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
124.186.229.6
I wouldn't start with a long list of critiques - or possibly even any critiques. You immediately have him on the defensive and constructive dialogue is impossible. I'd start slowly, build a rapport and perhaps not start with a divisive topic like the OISM petition. Instead start with something in the physical sciences, so you can start the discussion talking physics, measurement and science. Lastly, I'd probably not use SkS as your source. Instead, refer to peer reviewed papers as your source - get the links from our rebuttals. If he's aware of SkS and is a skeptic, it would have the same effect as him quoting WUWT to you.
2011-03-08 09:14:56Comment
Robert Way

robert_way19@hotmail...
134.153.163.105

Personally I am of the inclination that you should take him down hard and fast using substantive peer reviewed studies as a basis for your argument. I have seen first hand what this sort of professor can do to his students and I have been in classrooms where absolute rubbish is presented. Professors may have academic immunity to some degree but they also have a responsibility to provide accurate and timely information. When I found the slides in question what did I do? Well firstly I blogged about it, but secondly I forwarded them on to the climatology department at my university and that professor got some very strong responses from the profs there who saw the straight up lies being taught.

2011-03-08 09:22:03
nealjking

nealjking@gmail...
91.33.112.134

Robert,

I appreciate your zeal, but let's keep some things in mind:

- Atkin is a professor/lecturer at the university; yocta is a graduate student.

- The academic world is probably among the most political environments in existence.

- This is not the point in his career to create enemies he doesn't need - particularly when they outrank him.

It would be more effective and less dangerous to try to look for common understanding by narrowing differences: That puts both parties on the same side of the issue. Being confrontational, especially bringing in the disapproval of other faculty members, is a good way to make an enemy for life. And you never know when you might run into him again - perhaps as a faculty member in a department where you're applying for a job? You can kiss that off.

2011-03-09 16:29:51
yocta

gregory.staib@gmail...
130.155.242.72

Thanks for the feedback guys.

With regards to the .ZIP file, I used winRAR to compress it so maybe it is a Mac PC issue. Try this link, of the uncompressed file (but unsecure, meaning anyone can view it, but Sendspace should be private)

http://www.sendspace.com/file/90i52m

I think I will take the softer approach first by asking questions as well as presenting some peer reviewed papers I have found (mostly from SkS) to some of the points he raises.

With the recomendations I will keep to matters of the Physical Sciences

The points I will keep to will be:

*Papers challenging and criticising Roy Spencer’s Iris effect (slide 17)

*Papers on the reliability of models (slide 20)

*With the Surface Stations Project (slide 21) I will mention studies like Menne 2010

*With Steve McIntyre’s ‘revelation’ of 1934 being the hottest year (slide 28) I’ll provide some information about 1934 being globally the world’s hottest year.

Depending how long each point takes me to address will determine if I do that many, as I want to keep the letter concise and to the point I want to address which is Should you be presenting these slides as valid scientific criticisms if they don’t come from the Peer Review system, or are fringe results, or not current? Should students be aware of the context of these slides?

How I structure it, I am still yet to work that out but I will try to be more engaging than critical. I notice he doesn’t reference any of his figures (although slide 12 smells of our Lordship) so I could ask him where he got his references from at least. Surely the minimum he could do would be to put these in the lectures.

I’ll write up a draft over the next few days (probably Saturday) and put it up here.

Thanks Robert, as much as I would like to shoot him down I’ll try this method...if it fails I have some other ideas...(Distributing hard copies of his lecture to people in the Climatology dept or at least speaking to them about it is one I had in mind but that is an approach I would consider further down the road )

Thanks again everyone, I’ll post up on Saturday with what I’ve come up with

 

-Greg (yocta)

2011-03-09 18:33:32Source of peer-reviewed papers
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
124.186.229.6

BTW, I've been diligently adding to the database of peer-reviewed papers as often as possible. If our rebuttals don't contain all the papers you want, try:

http://www.skepticalscience.com/resources.php?peer=1

2011-03-12 06:42:06
Riccardo

riccardoreitano@tiscali...
93.147.82.172

"I encourage students to embrace the scientific method, and consider any evidence they are presented with critically and with appropriate scepticism."

Reading his slides this looks pretty much like an outright lie. But Zoe's strategy to attack him directly was wrong. You won't change his mind but there's a chance to make him stop pushing misinformations at his students. As others already suggested, you need to engage him scientifically, one point at a time, and possibly make him aware that you're talking with some climatologists at your University. Make him feel (just feel!) that he's "under scrutiny" and that his reputation is at stake.

Start with the easiest to attack scientific point, I think it is his slide 19. Ask him where those numbers come from. Be honest and tell him you're comparing them with the recent litterature (Schmidt et al. (2010)). This is good old scepticism, critical thinking and scientific method, afterall, isn't it? I think he will concede that no feedbacks are included, even though in the same slide he criticise the IPCC for not including negative feedbacks. Your goal should be to let him admit (in some way) his error, not that you found it.

Next step, in my opinion, should be the weather stations siting "issue". Ask him about the impact and the source of the data and compare with Menne at al (2010).

I hope this two examples make the strategy clear: pick up an easy to make scientific point, ask questions and never say he's wrong, just compare what he says with the scientific litterature and possibly with the opinion of a climatologist from the same University. After a while, and if you gain the support of a climatologist, you might eventually consider to stop pushing the brakes and attack him more directly.

I used this strategy with a colleague of mine with some success. Now it happened that some students organized a series of lectures on Environment and Energy to be held next week and invited both of us to talk about global warming. A couple of days ago, before being confronted in public, my colleague conceded that he needs to think a little bit more on the issue.


The bottom line is, don't try to win at the first round.

2011-03-12 13:44:39
yocta

gregory.staib@gmail...
220.253.189.35

Thanks Riccardo,

that will help alot.

I have to properly read through Schmidt et al more later. But from what I think I understand is Atkins in slide 19 in his graph presenting CO2 having a radiative forcing of 257 W/m^2 where as in Schmidt et. al. 2010 it gets put at about 28 W/m^2?


Here is what I have written of the letter so far...this is taking a long time to do as I have to understand the science better myself. Mark Twain's quote comes to mind

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

Dear Dr Atkins,

I am writing to you as I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who said she didn’t believe in climate change or at least to the extent that there wasn’t too much to be worried about. I asked to see how she met that conclusion and I was showed your Chem2610 lecture titled “Lecture 2a – case against global warming”. This matter concerns me as I try to keep up to date with the scientific literature and it was my understanding that the science was indicating there was something to be concerned about.

I would like to ask you if you had the time to answer a few questions about some of the points you raise in your lectures.  Whilst I am not a climate scientist I believe I have the background to understand the main tenants of published climate science papers. I have an academic background in the physical sciences and am currently completing my PhD through Griffith University with a focus on physical chemistry (I also work at Newcastle University as a physics lab demonstrator).  I have begun publishing and presenting papers, and hold regular discussions with colleagues who are climate scientists.

As I am mainly studying physical chemistry most of the papers that interest me are those that related to the molecular properties of CO2 that make it a greenhouse gas. This has expanded to papers concerning the sensitivity of global temperatures to CO2. In your lecture slide 19 you present a graph which I couldn’t find in the paper (Spencer et al 2007) you were referencing in the slides prior. I am interested as in the numbers on the graph it seems that CO2 has a radiative forcing of 257 W/m^2. I have just read a quite recent paper by Schmidt et. al. 2010 which puts it at about 28 W/m^2....

 

2011-03-12 14:37:10Suggestion
Daniel Bailey
Daniel Bailey
yooper49855@hotmail...
97.83.150.102

One quick suggestion: delete the first sentence of your second paragraph.

I would like to ask you if you had the time to answer a few questions about some of the points you raise in your lectures.

While polite to include it, it gives him the out to disregard your letter completely.  Including it also makes you seem subserviant to him.  He's no better than anyone else; either he has time as an educator to answer your questions or he doesn't.  Witout it, your second paragraph reads thusly:

Whilst I am not a climate scientist I believe I have the background to understand the main tenants of published climate science papers. I have an academic background in the physical sciences and am currently completing my PhD through Griffith University with a focus on physical chemistry (I also work at Newcastle University as a physics lab demonstrator).  I have begun publishing and presenting papers, and hold regular discussions with colleagues who are climate scientists.

Loses nothing in the translation.

When occupying the high moral and scientific ground, cede no foot unfought,

2011-03-12 17:17:52Tenets
James Wight

jameswight@southernphone.com...
112.213.158.190

"tenants" should be "tenets"

2011-03-13 19:16:13
Riccardo

riccardoreitano@tiscali...
93.147.82.144

From slide 19, the CO2 forcing is not 257  W/m2, you have to take the difference with the forcing at zero CO2. The problem is with the claimed 6 °C of warming. On passing, this claim is rebutted by facts, 6 °C colder means an ice age and CO2 was not zero at the time.

2011-03-15 09:33:23
yocta

gregory.staib@gmail...
130.155.242.72

Thanks for the help everyone.

I can't spend too much more time on this letter as I have to do some actual PhD work. I know it's never going to be perfect but I'll keep it simple the first time.

Here is the final draft. I am keeping it to three main points

*feedbacks

*station locations

*global cooling

My approach has been inquisical but trying to write it as a person not knowing where to look for the facts in science is much harder than I thought. 

As this is my first attempt at such a thing please point out anything I missed.

 

Dear Dr Atkins,

I am writing to you as I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who said she didn’t believe in climate change or at least to the extent that there wasn’t too much to be worried about. I asked to see how she met that conclusion and I was showed your Chem2610 lecture titled “Lecture 2a – case against global warming”. This matter interests me as I try to keep up to date with the scientific literature and it was my understanding that the science was indicating there was something to be concerned about.

Whilst I am not a climate scientist I believe I have the background to understand the main tenets of published climate science papers. I have an academic background in the physical sciences and am currently completing my PhD through Griffith University with a focus on physical chemistry (I also work at Newcastle University as a physics lab demonstrator).  I have begun publishing and presenting papers, and hold regular discussions with colleagues who are climate scientists.

As I am studying physical chemistry, most of the papers that interest me are those that related to the molecular properties of CO2 that make it a greenhouse gas. This has now expanded to research in the area concerning the sensitivity of global temperatures to CO2.

 In your lecture slide 19 you present a graphic which I couldn’t find in the paper (Spencer et al 2007) you were referencing in the slides prior. It seems to present the scenario that if CO2 is reduced from the atmosphere to 0ppm then the world would be 6˚C cooler. That would mean Earth would be in an ice age, but from looking at the Vostok ice core records (Petit el al, 1999) it indicates that CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was ~200ppm during the Earth’s Ice Ages when temperatures were at this level. My reading of Shmidt el al 2011  give a scenario of a CO2 free atmosphere in which the temperatures would be on the order of negative 25˚ C. Could you explain the details of this figure to me?

In slide 21 you raise a potential issue found with the locations of weather stations in the USA and the reliability of the US temperature record. I did however read a paper by Menne et al 2010 who evaluated the potential impact of these stations and found no inflation of the US temperature trends as a result of where they have been located. Your slides seem to indicate that it could pose potential problems to climate models. I couldn’t find any papers which dealt with this, and would appreciate if you could point me in the right direction with ones that you might have as I would like to compare the data and methodology with that of Menne et al?

In slide 12 you state that over the last 8 years that the temperature of the earth has gone down or stayed the same. Could you please tell me where to find some papers that shows it decreasing? So far I’ve been looking at the GISS, NCDC and HADCRUT temperature trends and analysis and they all seem to indicate that the temperature has increased by at least 0.1 degrees this decade.

Thank you, I look forward to your reply.

Regards,

Gregory  

2011-03-15 10:01:55Strikes a good tone
John Cook

john@skepticalscience...
124.187.101.78

Look forward to hearing how this develops.

2011-03-15 13:20:33Comment
Robert Way

robert_way19@hotmail...
134.153.163.105

Little note, it is Schmidt et al 2011

2011-03-15 14:01:32
Glenn Tamblyn

glenn@thefoodgallery.com...
144.137.1.94

Softly, Softly, Catchee Monkey? Keep us posted.

2011-03-23 07:18:07Suggestion
monkeyorchid

r.milne@ed.ac...
188.221.75.77

I'm a University lecturer myself, and deeply concerned by this guy.  I think the best approach, if it can be managed, is to try to get a team of genuine skeptics and well-informed people to go along to all these lectures and politely but persistently ask really difficult questions.  As he claims he's encouraging enquiry, he'll have no choice but to try and answer them.   

2011-03-29 09:34:49
yocta

gregory.staib@gmail...
130.155.242.88

Thanks monkeyorchind, that would be a good suggestion. At the moment I don't know anyone who is in this current year's course.

I have sent the letter to him two weeks ago and have no reply of yet. On Sunday I sent a follow up "hello just confirming to whether you have received my last email..."

The next step I am thinking is to print out the letter and actually put it in his pigeon hole at Uni and start looking at getting in contact with the climate scientists at Newcastle University.