Everyone’s entitled to their opinion – or are they?

On Monday I listened to an interesting interview on the National Programme with Patrick Stokes, Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University in Melbourne, and it got me thinking.

Not that long ago the only way to be heard by more people than you could physically shout at, unless you were very rich and influential, was via the mass media. The role of the media in a democracy is to inform the public, and apart from a few exceptions (Nazi Germany being the worst), media has done their job well.

That means all media organisations have (or used to have) gatekeepers whose job it is to make sure that nothing goes out that could bite them in the arse. When reporting scientific matters they (generally) base their stories on the opinions of recognised experts in the field being reported, and even then they frequently fact-check the story with independent experts. That helps them to avoid telling the world that Dr Hugh Jarse believes that gravity is a dastardly plot by the automobile industry to stop the development of flying cars. It means (or it used to mean) that stories with a scientific basis, such as those on climate change, are written using information from credible scientists and are then double-checked by the newspapers own experts. For the public it meant that what they read was pretty well on the money and could therefore be believed and acted on.

Then along came the web and suddenly anyone and everyone could be whoever or whatever they wanted. It was great for middle aged married men because they could be 29 year old professional surfers, and it really only really mattered to the women who turned up for a date to find a balding man with a paunch sitting where a tall, bronzed Adonis was supposed to be. Irritating as hell and a little embarrassing, but rarely causing lasting damage, unlike when an oil company pretends to be a group of highly qualified climate scientists concerned that the little guys like you and I are getting robbed by the ruthless, evil and greedy Al Gore.

People wanting to learn about climate change hit Google and find websites with titles like “The International Climate Science Coalition“. That has them impressed, especially when the discover that the first person on the list of members is Dr. Tim Ball, a renowned environmental consultant and award-winning former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he founded and directed the Rupertsland Research Centre.” Bloody hell, we’re in the big league here, this guy has “a doctorate in climatology from the University of London, Queen Mary College” and is “one of the first climatology PhDs in the world”. How could you NOT believe someone like that when they say cool stuff like “what’s wrong with global warming? There are lots of positive benefits to global warming”? Goodness me, that guy is waaaaaay smarter than you and I, and is a climate change Expert with a capital E.

Until you do a bit of digging and discover that Dr Ball may be very clever, but he was a actually a former professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg, and that the University of Winnipeg has never had an office of Climatology which makes it pretty well impossible for even as sharp a guy as Dr. Ball to head it. And it seems that his degree was in historical geography which has almost nothing to do with the category of climatology that relates to man made climate change. It also seems that he hasn’t had any peer-reviewed articles on climate change published this century. Scientific American, Time Magazine, The NZ Herald and even the NZ Woman’s Weekly wouldn’t present Dr Ball as an expert on climate change, which means that before the internet about the only people he’d be able to promote his views on climate change to would be the middle aged man sitting at the table next to his pretending to be a surfer, or possibly his dog. His opinion on climate change is not valid because that’s not his expertise in the same way my opinion on fashion design is not valid. It’s interesting and slightly odd, but it is not valid and in no way should anyone take it seriously enough to make choices about the future of the entire planet.

I picked poor old Dr. Ball because he was first on the list and it’s nothing personal, but I believe that while people like him have every right to hold an opinion, they are NOT experts and therefore have absolutely no right to express that opinion as being that of an expert in that field. Imagine if I presented myself as an expert mechanic, and when a bus driver came to me saying that he was worried that his brakes were making I told him that my expert opinion was that it was nothing to worry about, and he then crashed his bus killing everyone on board. I would face manslaughter charges at the very least.

And now I am left with questions.

Are these people so foolish that they don’t realise they are not who they say they are? And if that’s the case, why the hell don’t their colleagues tap them on the shoulder and give them something else to do? Or, worse still, are they deliberately misleading people who take them at their word when they claim expertise they don’t have? Do they realise that their deceit looks like it will cost our children their future? Do they not care? Would they not care if someone did the same thing to their children? And why do they do it? What reward do they get, and from whom? Many express belief in God, I wonder how they think God feels about what they do?

And the biggest question of them all: why the hell are you and I sitting back and letting this happen? Where is our outrage?

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5 thoughts on “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion – or are they?

  1. Thank you for linking to the International Climate Science Coalition Website.

    You are wrong about Dr. Ball however. He indeed is a “renowned environmental consultant and award-winning former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he founded and directed the Rupertsland Research Centre.”

    How we identify him on our site is completely correct: “Tim Ball, PhD, Environmental consultant and former climatology professor, University of Winnipeg (founded the Rupertsland Research Centre). Now residing in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada”

    Here is Dr. Ball’s CV: http://drtimball.com/_files/dr-tim-ball-CV.pdf

    I’ll post a link to his PhD credentials in historical climatology shortly.

    We never said the University of Winnipeg had an office of Climatology and we never said he headed it. Their climatology work was done under the umbrella of their geography department as one is a subdiscipline of the other.

    Tom Harris
    International Climate Science Coalition

    • Thank you for that Tom, your comment is a very useful demonstration of what I’m talking about. Allow me to to respond to your points:

      “You are wrong about Dr. Ball however. He indeed is a “renowned environmental consultant and award-winning former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he founded and directed the Rupertsland Research Centre.”

      The first point you raise is that he is a “renowned environmental consultant”. In order to be renowned as an environmental consultant by any credible definition of the word I would expect him to be referenced by at least some of the world’s primary environmental groups and relevant government agencies, yet the only time I find him described that way is on sites like yours and on blogs like “Watts up with that?”. I have also asked a friend who is widely respected environmental consultant in NZ and who completed his PhD in Canada, and he has never heard of Dr. Ball. So my response to your claim is to ask you who actually says he’s a renowned environmental consultant?

      The next claim you make is that he is an “award-winning former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg, Manitoba”. I note on his CV that he has indeed won many awards for teaching excellence, community service and a number of geography awards and scholarships, however I am unaware of any he won as a climatologist which makes your claim a little disingenuous. I have also won awards over the years, but none as a composer, so I would never call myself an award composer.

      You then mention that “he founded and directed the Rupertsland Research Centre.” Something to be proud of, but given that the centre “facilitates scholarly research and publishing concerning the human history of the Hudson Bay watershed, known in the period from 1670-1870 as Rupert’s Land.” I fail to see how this endorses his authority and expertise as a climatologist or environmentalist.

      Your final claim is that “We never said the University of Winnipeg had an office of Climatology and we never said he headed it. Their climatology work was done under the umbrella of their geography department as one is a subdiscipline of the other.”

      I have had a good look through the UoW website and found very little mention of climatology. There are a few (it seems all undergraduate) geography papers that include climatology in the syllabus, but that would hardly justify having a professor of climatology, especially as far back as 1996 when he retired from UoW.

      So there you have it, a selection of claims that at face value seem relevant and warranting respect, but a few minutes digging shows they are completely devoid of substance and a perfect illustration of the problem.

    • Hi Tom, one more thing that limits Dr. Ball’s credibility as a climatologist or environmentalist is his publication history. As I’m sure you’re aware, one of the main ways that a scientist’s credibility is measured is by their peer reviewed publications in their research areas. Dr. Ball has a long list of “significant publications” on his CV, but he has had nothing published about climate change since the late 80s, and even then most of his work was about the climate in the early 19th century. When I did a reasonably thorough search of the main academic databases I found nothing. Does he feel that he is unable to add to the existing knowledge? Or is he unable to produce any research to support his position that would make it through the peer review process?

      It might be fun to subject the other members of your organisation to the same scrutiny – just a quick look showed expertise and a research background in “domestication and breed development; evolutionary theory; evolution and history of the domestic dogs”.

  2. Only today, in Australia, one of our most infamous “shock jock” radio journalists, Alan Jones, has been told he has to attend training in fact checking because he has been caught out making false claims about climate change.

    One of the problems is the pace at which news happens these days. News is only “new” for a nanosecond and the pressure to be the first with breaking news is ridiculous. Who has time to check their facts?

    • He may well have to attend training, but his audience are likely convinced that the station is in the pockets of the evil and immeasurably powerful greens who won’t allow him to tell the truth. You’re right about the pace of news limiting effective gatekeeping, and added to the denigration of the reliability of information sourced from mass media is the new citizen journalist. Anyone with a smart phone can submit a story and hungry editors grab what they can with no knowledge about the background of the “reporter” and validity of their report.

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