Students' climate assignment throws open debate

By Chris Barton

When a group of final year Auckland Medical School students began a week-long assignment on the impact of climate change on public health, they were given a CD of suggested reading material and a list of climate change experts they should talk to.

Chris de Freitas was on the list and the CD contained several articles disputing climate change and its effects - one written by de Freitas.

The students were bemused. "The project was on the consequence of climate change on human health - things like temperature-related illnesses and changes in disease patterns - not whether climate change was occurring or not," said one. Professor Alistair Woodward, head of the School of Population Health, which ran the short course, agrees: "It wasn't the best use of their time and we won't run the course that way in the future."

The students found the reading material puzzling, too. "I was actually surprised by these papers because there were well-documented arguments, including the presentation of scientific evidence in the forms of graphs and tables. I became convinced - temporarily - that there was strong evidence against climate change," said the student who spent a week researching and talking to other experts before concluding the papers were problematic.

"Firstly, they relied on old data or at least data that isn't in use by the IPCC. Secondly, the papers were not actually peer-reviewed.

Thirdly, they overinflated the degree of support that these conclusions have among scientists and scientific disciplines so that I was led to believe this was merely one side of a healthy scientific controversy rather than a tiny minority disagreeing with a near consensus amongst scientists." Woodward agrees: "I was frankly appalled when I saw the readings provided. They were nowhere near the mark really."

The students who visited de Freitas were perplexed too. " He suggested global warming is not necessarily due to humans, that it was just a natural phenomenon. He showed graphs and a few bits and pieces of data - and to be honest it did seem quite compelling."

In the end the students discarded de Freitas' information. As one pointed out: "If we had bought his view then we wouldn't really see any reason for doing the project." Which is hardly de Freitas' fault - he was asked for his views by School of Population Health and gave them freely and the meeting with the three med students was held at their request.

Woodward says the person organising the course thought it would be good for the students to hear a wide range of views, but hadn't appreciated the time needed to evaluate such a topic. But he felt the idea in principle was sound. "The fact that I disagree with him [de Freitas] and don't believe he has a substantial case to make doesn't mean I would disapprove of students talking to him. My judgment is, the sorts of things Chris de Freitas teaches don't count as unacceptable in a university."

Are there occasions when somebody has to draw a line - when advancing knowledge trumps academic freedom?

"In 2000 at Canterbury University there was this debate about Holocaust denial. Does that reach the point when you really are talking about a point of view which is inflammatory and destructive and beyond the pale?" says Woodward.

"That's the challenge universities face from time to time. I don't think this is the same - I disagree deeply with Chris but I wouldn't try to deny him the chance to present his point of view."

- NZ Herald

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