Climate change denial and academic freedom

Recently I engaged in a discussion on a blog about the teaching of climate change denial at the University of Auckland. It was in response to an article written by a student for the student magazine, Should we be paying to be taught climate denial? According to the student, at no point did the lecturer mention the IPCC or current climate information but instead presented information prepared by Christopher Monckton. Christopher Monckton is not a climate scientist or even a scientist and he has no publications in the peer-reviewed literature.

If I were a student at the University of Auckland, I would also feel a little jipped. I am currently taking a climate science course online through the University of British Colombia. It is very good. If however, they chose not to present the prevailing scientific evidence, and instead chose to present the fringe ideas of someone with no background in science whatsoever, I would simply drop the course. This option was not possible for the student who wrote the article for Craccum magazine as the course she enrolled in was a first year, prerequisite subject.

Is it appropriate to teach this sort of thing in a foundation course? And if a student objects, are they really attacking academic freedom? I am a fan of academic freedom so I loathe the idea that this could be true.

For the record, I believe the University of Auckland is an excellent institution which encourages critical thinking and I have never complained to them in any way, shape or form. I feel the need to say this because someone commented on my blog recently, and accused me of writing to the University to complain and demand that people who disagreed with me be sacked from their jobs. This is quite simply untrue. I have never done this and would never dream of doing this. It is however, exactly what the climate change denier, Christopher Monckton does.

My favourite philosopher, Peter Singer, has written about his own experience of being silenced in Germany. Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and he has written a great deal about controversial issues like euthanasia, abortion and infanticide. When Peter Singer tried to give a lecture at the University of Zurich some years ago, it was disrupted by a group of protestors. When he tried to address their protests, they began chanting, “Singer raus!” (Singer out!). At one point, one of the protestors came onto the stage behind him, snatched his glasses and tossed them onto the floor, breaking them. The situation in Germany has become so dire that it is not possible to teach applied ethics. He writes in his book, Practical Ethics,

One Berlin philosopher told me recently that it is not possible to offer a course in applied ethics in that city – whether or not it makes reference to my book – because such a course would be bound to be disrupted.

I think silencing views in this way is wrong. But is this the same thing as objecting to paying for a course on climate change denial? It would be different if the subject material in the course was disclosed so that students could make their own decision. If someone wanted to teach a course on climate change where they espoused their own fringe theories, then this would be fine, provided students knew that this was the case and they could choose whether or not to take it. I’m happy to be disagreed with on this, provided it is done politely and in a reasoned manner.

I agree with the views of Voltaire,

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

11 responses to “Climate change denial and academic freedom”

  1. Interesting article, Rachel. I’m assuming that the course at Auckland Uni was on climate change. If this is so, I wouldn’t object to Monckton’s ideas being presented as an example of how valid scientifically-based climate change theories are attacked by climate change deniers such as Monckton. I would be furious, however, if Monckton’s ideas were presented uncritically as an endorsement of the validity of climate change denial.

    1. Yes, I agree with you and wouldn’t object to learning about Christopher Monckton’s ideas from the perspective of how they are scientifically incorrect. But I believe that this was not the case. According to the student, only one view was presented.

  2. How one views this may also depend a little on the ideology of the particular academic system. I’ve taught in both the US and the UK. In the US, there seemed to be far fewer restrictions and you were seen as presenting a course that you could run almost anyway you liked. In such a system, if you were a noted “climate skeptic” and this was well-known, then maybe students would expect (as long as they knew) that you would present a particular side of the argument. As long as students knew this, then they could make an informed choice.

    In the UK, however, teaching is seen as a departmental responsibility and course content and level is normally checked by a committee before a course is approved. In such a system, the students could reasonably expect that a course would contain what was scientifically accepted, rather than simply the lecturer’s own views. In this kind of system, one might expect a department to step in if a lecturer was presenting material that wasn’t widely accepted. In such a system, I don’t think arguments of “academic freedom” would hold much water.

    1. That’s interesting. I didn’t know the US was like that and I can see that there would some benefit to such a system. It would certainly make life easier for the lecturer! I think the New Zealand system is similar to the UK.

      1. Of course, I only taught there for just over a year so my experience is somewhat limited. If I remember correctly, courses are approved and do appear with a description and some kind of syllabus, but it seemed must less restrictive than it is in the UK (and probably also New Zealand) and the lecturer did seem to have much more freedom as to how to present and assess the material. Maybe someone who has more experience than me can comment further.

  3. The University of Auckland has a Code of Conduct for Research (CoCR), https://policies.auckland.ac.nz/policy-display-register/code-of-conduct-research.pdf. It refers to the (NZ Education Act 1989, which defines university academic freedom to include, http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1989/0080/latest/DLM183665.html:

    “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”

    It would appear therefore that Peter Singer would be free to put forward an unpopular opinion about, for example, what to do with new-born infants that have a severe congenital deformity.

    However the CoCR has the following requirement:

    “Researchers should:

    * Endeavour to obtain and present facts and interpretations in an objective and open manner.

    *Strive to be fair and unbiased in all aspects of their research and in their application of their knowledge.

    * Honestly represent their research goals and intentions to any potential participants in the research process.

    * Fairly and fully represent their results without falsification.”

    The net effect is, as someone put it succinctly, that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.

    The person conducting the Introduction to Monckton course might claim that what he is doing is not research and is therefore not bound by these constraint but I think that is skating on rather thin ice.

    Suppose a teacher conducting an introductory course in human biology taught that vaccines commonly administered to New Zealand children were the cause of a wide range of serious diseases and that children should not be vaccinated (a belief that, like Monkton’s, is shared by a number of people). Such teaching is likely to have detrimental social consequences. Would the university countenance that?

    If not, why would it countenance Monkton’s nonsense?

    There is an important caveat to all this: it is completely inappropriate to find a person guilty of something by blog consensus. We have heard from a student taking the course. Have we heard from the teacher? Are course materials available for inspection? Is there any review by independent third parties?

    What the student has is a complaint. Substantially more is required before it can be elevated to a charge.

    1. @MikeM I wasn’t aware that anyone was suggesting that there should be charges brought (maybe I’ve missed it though) or that this was about guilt or innocence. I thought this was simply a discussion about whether or not academic freedom extends to freedom to teach whatever you like/believe.

    2. This is just a hypothetical discussion inspired by the student’s article. I have not verified the accuracy of what the student has said but the story did make it into the New Zealand Herald and whether or not they verified it I don’t know – http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10738739

      It’s worth noting that it’s also a couple of years old now.

  4. Rachel,
    An interesting post.I searched Geog 101 -Earth Surface Processes and Landforms at the School of Environment ,University of Auckland.Joe Fagan is the Course Co-Ordinator.Mr. Chris de Freitas lectures in Climate in this Geology course.Two other lecturers cover other topics in the course. Mr. de Freitas has been known as critical of mainstream climate science for a number of years .Prior to the New Zealand Herald article and the Craccum piece (or since), have any of these (or other ) academics at Auckland University taken exception to what Mr. De Freitas teaches about Geology or that Geological history is ruled by natural variability not greenhouse gas emissions ?
    Would De Freitas’ position be secure if he alerted his students to the UNIPCC reports but stated he dissented ?

    1. I’ve come to the realisation that if “he who must not be named” gets mentioned in a blog post, it evokes the same emotional response one might get when breastfeeding or child birth is mentioned on a parenting forum. So I don’t want to comment on any particular person anymore.

      I have been thinking about this quite a bit recently and have wondered how I might feel if say a high school teacher chose to present Christopher Monckton’s ideas and none of the mainstream science views in a science class that one of my children was attending. Would I complain? I’m not sure that I would. I like to think that my children will be critical thinkers who question everything and come to their own conclusions anyway. It would be better though, if the teacher presented the mainstream view and then explained why they thought it was wrong. I actually think students like a bit of drama and disagreement, but they wouldn’t know there was disagreement if only one side had been presented.

    2. Douglas, I certainly don’t know the answer. However, it would surprise me if he would be at risk under any circumstances and, in a sense, I would hope that this would be the case. I’m all for academic freedom and so have no issue with someone choosing to not follow the mainstream when it comes to research (that doesn’t mean that I’m against them being criticised though). The issue, though, is how much leeway to give academics when they’re teaching. The answer probably depends somewhat on the level of the course. If one is teaching core material at an early level, then it seems that they should be teaching the basics and it should be consistent with current scientific understanding (you’re trying to give students the tools that they can then use at a later stage). At higher levels, however, one could imagine introducing more controversial material when students are more able to appreciate the controversies and subtleties.

      I certainly would be extremely surprised if he would be criticised for alerting his students to the UNIPCC reports but stating that he dissented. He may, however, be criticised if he didn’t make it clear that his position was a minority position, but again what he would risk (at most I think) would be someone taking over his teaching of that course, rather than actually having his job at risk. I’m of course assuming here that he was able and willing to at least teach something that would be regarded as suitable for the students, but then there’s no reason to suspect that this wouldn’t be the case.

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