David Suzuki’s Smoke & Mirrors

April 18, 2012 at 9:51 am

Would a scientifically rigorous organization have the owner of a PR firm as its chairman?

Here in Canada, David Suzuki’s recent decision to remove himself from the board of directors of the David Suzuki Foundation has been a hot topic. Suzuki is our version of Al Gore. Actually, that’s not quite fair. Gore has no scientific background. The 76-year-old Suzuki, on the other hand, is a trained geneticist.

But Suzuki’s area of expertise, which involved the study of fruit flies, is a million miles away from what most of us would consider climate science. He isn’t a meteorologist. Or a physicist. Or a geologist.

Moreover, much of his career has been spent as a science communicator. He has hosted multi-year radio and television shows, authored numerous books and newspaper columns, and delivered hundreds of speeches.

UNSCIENTIFIC ARGUMENTS
Helping people understand the natural world is a wonderful thing. But here’s the problem: Suzuki thinks that those who disagree with his climate change views should be silenced. This is what it says on the Suzuki Foundation’s website:

The debate is over about whether or not climate change is real; it is now time to act to solve the problem. [bold added by me, backup of that webpage here]

When someone says the debate is over they’re behaving like a bully. They’re saying that your views, objections, and questions don’t matter. They’re saying that your job is to sit down, shut up, and let other people make the decisions. It’s amazing that Suzuki got to be 76 years old and still doesn’t understand that such attitudes aren’t acceptable in a democratic society.

But there’s even more reason to be concerned. Here are the two sentences that precede the one I’ve quoted above:

Despite the international scientific community’s consensus on climate change, a small number of climate change deniers continue to deny that climate change exists or that humans are causing it. However, these individuals are generally not climate scientists, and their arguments have been discredited by the scientific community at large. [link in the original, bold added by me]

Scientific facts are not established decided via opinion polls carried out amongst scientists. What most scientists believe at a particular historical moment is not evidence. When the words consensus and science are used in close proximity that’s a big clue something is amiss. As Jay Richards has observed:

with really well-established scientific theories, you never hear about consensus. No one talks about the consensus that the planets orbit the sun, that the hydrogen molecule is lighter than the oxygen molecule, that salt is sodium chloride, that light travels about 186,000 miles per second in a vacuum, that bacteria sometimes cause illness, or that blood carries oxygen to our organs. [backup link]

Scientists are supposed to remain open to new possibilities. Why would anyone worthy of that name try to squelch further discussion – especially when we learn new things about the world all the time?  And where does the need to call other people names – like deniers – come from?

This three-sentence paragraph, therefore, contains arguments that are profoundly unscientific. The appeal to consensus. The name-calling. The attempt to shut down the debate. For bonus points, it’s implied that we should trust non-climatologist Suzuki’s views regarding climate change and yet reject the views of other people because, well, they are generally not climate scientists.*

FANS OF THE IPCC
The same page on the Foundation website also sings the praises of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Our understanding of climate change is largely the result of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most authoritative voice on the topic. Established by the United Nations, the IPCC assesses the scientific and socio-economic information relevant to climate change.

The IPCC has released several assessment reports over the years. More than 2,500 scientific expert reviewers, 800 contributing authors and 450 lead authors from over 130 countries contributed to the last one, the Fourth Assessment Report.

If I hadn’t spent the past three years writing a book-length exposé of the IPCC I might be impressed. But now I find it quite startling that the Suzuki Foundation is a year-and-a-half behind the times. When the IPCC was investigated in 2010, a report identified “significant shortcomings in each major step of the IPCC’s assessment process” (my italics).

It turns out that nothing in the IPCC’s structure prevents its personnel from ignoring the feedback provided by those 2,500 expert reviewers (see here for more info).

It turns out those 450 lead authors were not selected by science organizations, but by a collection of the world’s politicians. Many of these politicians are from corrupt, dysfunctional countries with no track record of wise decision-making.

It should also be obvious to anyone who spends 60 seconds thinking about it that the educational infrastructure necessary to produce world-class scientists does not exist in 130 countries. (The real number is closer to two dozen.) IPCC insiders say that incompetent people are routinely chosen to be lead authors. This demonstrates that the IPCC cares more about geographical representation than about getting things right.

In other words, the minute one becomes a tiny bit educated, the climate change arguments on the David Suzuki Foundation website seem shallow, at best.

SCIENCE-LITE BOARD OF DIRECTORS
In an open letter last week Suzuki said he has given up his seat on the board of directors of that foundation. His explanation was as follows:

I have reached a point in my life where I would like to consider myself an elder. I want to speak freely without fear that my words will be deemed too political, and harm the organization of which I am so proud. [backup link]

His letter claims that “the Foundation brings science and solutions to environment problems” and that it carries out “science-based research” (my italics). But if that is the case why is there not a single prominent scientist amongst its guiding lights?

The chairman of that 12-member board is about as far from being a scientist as one can imagine. He is, in fact, a professional spinmeister. According to his bio on the Foundation website, James Hoggan is the president and owner of “one of Canada’s most successful public relations firms”. Yeah, that’s who’d I’d pick as chairman if I wanted to be considered scientifically rigorous.

Suzuki would like us to believe that stepping away from the Foundation that bears his name will put meaningful distance between him and it. But that’s hard to swallow given that his wife is now the president – and that two of his five children are still members of the board.

The bio for his wife, Tara Cullis, tells us that she used to be a “faculty member of Harvard University.” But if she has any scientific training, it’s a well-kept secret. What isn’t hidden is the fact that she’s an activist. We’re told that she “has been a key player in environmental movements in the Amazon, Southeast Asia, and British Columbia.”

One of Suzuki’s daughters is doing graduate work in biology, but the first thing her foundation bio tells us is how passionately she feels “about oceans, fish and the conservation of biodiversity.” For those of us who think science and dispassion go together, this is cold comfort.

Other members of the board include David Miller, the former mayor of Toronto (there’s no science in his background) and Stephen Bronfman – a wealthy businessman (none there, either). Nor is there any suggestion that Miles Richardson (an aboriginal politician) or George Stroumboulopoulos (a television talk show host), or Peter Victor (an economist) can claim much in the way of scientific training.

The board member who comes closest is Samantha Nutt – who’s described by the foundation as “a medical doctor with more than fifteen years of experience working in war zones.”

BELIEVING YOUR OWN PR
The David Suzuki Foundation wants us to believe that it’s all about the science. Considering its choice of a chairman, perhaps it’s no surprise that some of those involved seem to believe this PR.

But this organization doesn’t look, sound, or behave like a scientific body.

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*The paragraph just above the FANS OF THE IPCC heading was re-written for clarity a few hours after this post went live.

A backup of the webpage containing bios of the Foundation’s board members appears here.

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