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The tricks employed by the flawed OISM Petition Project to cast doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

The 30,000 scientists and science graduates listed on the OISM petition represent a tiny fraction (0.3%) of all science graduates. More importantly, the OISM list only contains 39 scientists who specialise in climate science.

Climate Myth...

Over 31,000 scientists signed the OISM Petition Project

The Petition Project features over 31,000 scientists signing the petition stating "there is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide will, in the forseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere". (OISM)

In early 2008, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) published their Petition Project, a list of names from people who all claimed to be scientists and who rejected the science behind the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming (AGW). This was an attempt to by the OISM to claim that there were far more scientists opposing AGW theory than there are supporting it. This so-called petition took on special importance coming after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and specifically the Working Group 1 (WG1) report on the science and attribution of climate change to human civilization.

The WG1 report was authored and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists with varying expertise in climate and related fields, and so having a list of over 30,000 scientists that rejected the WG1’s conclusions was a powerful meme that AGW skeptics and deniers could use to cast doubt on the IPCC’s conclusions and, indirectly, on the entire theory of climate disruption. And in fact, this meme has become widespread in both legacy and new media today.

It is also false.

According to the Petition Project “qualifications” page, “Signatories are approved for inclusion in the Petition Project list if they have obtained formal educational degrees at the level of Bachelor of Science or higher in appropriate scientific fields.” The fields that are considered “appropriate” by the OISM are as follows:

  • Atmosphere, Earth, and Environment fields: atmospheric science, climatology, meteorology, astronomy, astrophysics, earth science, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, geoscience, hydrology, environmental engineering, environmental science, forestry, oceanography
  • Computers and Math: computer science, mathematics, statistics
  • Physics and Aerospace: physics, nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering
  • Chemistry: chemistry, chemical engineering
  • Biochemistry, Biology, and Agriculture: biochemistry, biophysics, biology, ecology, entomology, zoology, animal science, agricultural science, agricultural engineering, plant science, food science
  • Medicine: medical science, medicine
  • General Engineering and General Science: engineering, electrical engineering, metallurgy, general science

oismpet-smThe OISM’s qualifications for being a “scientist” are expansive, and as such there are a number of questions that have to be answered before we can take this list seriously. What expertise does a nuclear engineer or a medical doctor or a food scientist or mechanical engineer have that makes them qualified to have an informed opinion on the cause(s) of recent climate disruption? How many of these names are working climate scientists instead of science or math teachers or stay-at-home-mom’s with engineering degrees? How many of these people has actually published a peer-reviewed paper on climate? How many people took a look at the card that served as a “signature” (click on the image to see a larger version) and realized that they could lie about having a science degree and their deception would never be discovered?

At this point it’s literally impossible to know because the names and degrees on the list cannot be verified by anyone outside the OISM. We can only take the OISM’s word that they’re all real names, that all the degrees are correct, and so on. This does not stand up to the most basic tests of scientific credibility.

Unfortunately, the OISM’s list has had its credibility fabricated for it by individuals and groups as diverse as Steve Milloy of Fox News (see this link for a S&R investigation into the background and tactics of Steve Milloy), L. Brent Bozell of conservative “news” site Newsbusters and founder of the conservative Media Research Center, Benita M. Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the libertarian/conservative site American Thinker (a site that has regularly failed to fact-check their AGW posts), conservative commentator Deroy Murdock (who works on Project 21 with the wife of one of Steve Milloy’s long-time associates), RightSideNews, Dakota Voice, Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute, Michelle Malkin, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to name just a few of the better known. As a result, the OISM’s petition has been elevated to a level of credibility that is arguably undeserved.

While it’s not possible to test the validity of OISM list directly, it is possible to test the conclusions that have been drawn from the OISM list. Specifically, we can test what percentage the 30,000 “scientists” listed on the OISM petition represent when compared to the total number of scientists in the U.S. And we can then compare that to the percentage represented by the 2000 IPCC AR4 WG1-associated scientists as compared to the estimate number of U.S. climate-related scientists.

According to the OISM website, anyone with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate of Philosophy in a field related to physical sciences is qualified as a scientist. In addition, the OISM sent the petition cards pictured above only to individuals within the U.S. Based on this information, we can us the OISM’s own guidelines to determine how many scientists there are in the U.S. and what percentage of those scientists are represented by the OISM petition.

The U.S. Department of Education tracks the number of graduates from institutions of higher education every year, and has done so since either the 1950-51 or 1970-71 school years, depending on what specifically the Dept. of Ed. was interested in. This data was last updated in the Digest of Education Statistics: 2008. We’re specifically interested in the number of degrees that have been awarded in the various scientific disciplines as defined by the OISM in the list above. This information is available in the following tables within the 2008 Digest: 296, 298, 302, 304, 310, 311, and 312. Table 1 below show how many graduates there were in the various categories defined by the Dept. of Ed. since the 1970-71 school year (click on the image for a larger version). The numbers have been corrected to account for the fact that PhD’s will usually have MS degrees as well, and that both are preceded by BS degrees.


As you can see, Table 1 shows that there were over 10.6 million science graduates as defined by the OISM since the 1970-71 school year. This is a conservative estimate as illustrated by the 242,000 graduates in biological and biomedical sciences from 1950-51 through 1969-70 alone, never mind the 166,000 engineering graduates, and so on. Many of these individuals are still alive today and would be considered scientists according to the OISM definition thereof.

The OISM website lists how many signatures they have for scientists in each of their categories. Given the number of graduates and the number of signatures claimed by the OISM, we can calculate the percentage of OISM-defined scientists who signed as referenced to the total. These results are shown in Table 2 below.


In other words, the OISM signatories represent a small fraction (~0.3%) of all science graduates, even when we use the OISM’s own definition of a scientist.

However, as mentioned above, it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether a veterinarian or forestry manager or electrical engineer should qualify as a scientist. If we remove all the engineers, medical professionals, computer scientists, and mathematicians, then the 31,478 “scientists” turn into 13,245 actual scientists, as opposed to scientists according to the OISM’s expansive definition. Of course, not all of them are working in science, but since some medical professionals and statisticians do work in science, it’s still a reasonable quick estimate.

However, it’s not reasonable to expect that all of those actual scientists are working in climate sciences. Certainly the 39 climatologists, but after that, it gets much murkier. Most geologists don’t work as climate scientists, although some certainly do. Most meteorologists do weather forecasting, but understanding the weather is radically different than understanding climate. So we can’t be sure beyond the 39 climatologists, although we can reasonably assume that the number is far less than the 13,245 actual scientists claimed by the OISM.

13,245 scientists is only 0.1% of the scientists graduated in the U.S. since the 1970-71 school year.

We can, however, compare the number of atmospheric scientists, climagologists, ocean scientists, and meteorologists who signed this petition to the number of members of the various professional organizations. For example, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has over 55,000 members, of which over 7,200 claim that atmospheric sciences is their primary field. The OISM claims 152 atmospheric scientists. Compared to the atmospheric scientist membership in the AGU, the OISM signatories are only 2.1%, and this estimate is high given the fact that the AGU does not claim all atmospheric scientists as members.

The AGU hydrology group has over 6,000 members who call hydrology their primary field. The OISM list has 22 names that claim to be hydrologists, or 0.4%.

The AGU ocean sciences group claims approximately 6,800 members. The OISM has 83 names, or 1.2%. And again, given that AGU membership is not required to be a practicing ocean scientists, this number is inflated.

The American Meteorological Society claims over 14,000 members and the OISM claims 341 meteorologists as petition signatories. That’s only 2.4%.

It’s clear that the OISM names don’t represent a significant number of scientists when compared to either the total number of science graduates in the U.S. or to the number of practicing scientists who work in likely relevant fields. But that’s not all.

Over recent years, various organizations have set out to estimate just how widespread the supposed “scientific consensus” on AGW actually is. Two recent efforts were conducted by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University and by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The STATS survey found that 84% of climate scientists surveyed “personally believe human-induced warming is occurring” and that “[o]nly 5% believe that that human activity does not contribute to greenhouse warming.” The STATS survey involved a random sampling of “489 self-identified members of either the American Meteorological Society or the American Geophysical Union” and it has a theoretical sampling error of +/- 4%.

The Pew survey was taken in early 2009 and asked over 2000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) their opinion on various scientific issues, including climate disruption. 84% of AAAS respondents felt that “warming is due to human activity” compared to only 10% who felt that “warming is due to natural causes.” The AAAS has over 10 million members, and the results of the survey are statistically valid for the entire population with a theoretical sampling error of +/- 2.5%.

84% of 10 million scientist members of the AAAS is 8.4 million scientists who agree that climate disruption is human-caused. 84% of the climate scientists (conservatively just the members of the atmospheric science group of the AGU) is, conservatively, 6,000 scientists who have direct and expert knowledge of climate disruption. The 13,245 scientists and 152 possible climate scientists who signed the OISM petition represent a small minority of the totals.

The IPCC AR4 WG1 report was written and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists. If we assume that the 20,000 AGU members who claim to be atmospheric scientists, ocean scientists, or hydrologists represent the pool of potential experts in climate science in the U.S., then approximately 10% of all climate scientists were directly involved in creating the over 1000 page report.

That compares to less than 1% of all OISM “scientists” who mailed a pre-printed postcard.

A more recent survey of earth scientists asked the question "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?". 97.5% of climatologists who were actively publishing papers on climate change responded yes (Doran & Zimmerman 2009). What is most interesting about this study was that as the level of active research and specialization in climate science increases, so does agreement that humans are significantly changing global temperatures.

Figure 1: Response to the survey question "Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?" (Doran & Zimmerman 2009) General public data come from a 2008 Gallup poll.

Ultimately, The OISM petition will continue to rear it’s ugly head until its fabricated credibility has been thoroughly demolished. Social conservatives and libertarians, each of which has their own ideological reasons to push the OISM petition, have been effective at keeping the “30,000 scientists reject warming chicken-littleism of IPCC” meme circulating throughout conservative media outlets, even as climate disruption-focused media have worked at limiting the damage from the OISM petition. But given the fact that the science supporting a dominantly anthropogenic cause for climate disruption is overwhelming, it’s only a matter of time before the OISM petition wilts in the heat.

Acknowledgements to Brian Angliss at Scholars and Rogues who guest wrote this post.

Last updated on 4 November 2016 by MichaelK. View Archives

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Comments 1 to 25 out of 43:

  1. I've posted this before but I haven't seen the point understood yet. The actual wording of a major part of the petition is so constructed that even fully legit climatologists - even James Hansen - could happily sign it. It is this bit (the second paragraph): There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gases is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth's atmosphere and disruption of the Earth's climate. The weasel wording is "is causing or will", which are 100% definitive statements (there's no probability in them). Catastrophic heating/disruption is by no means certain so the average pernicketty scientist could sign with a clear conscience. The first paragraph may have just been skated over by respondents as out of date now (by mentioning 1997...)
  2. RE: Poptech Whilst on the EOS site I think you also forgot to put the link for this paper. Doran and Zimmerman have written: Reply to Comments on “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change”s This paper addresses both the ones you quote, and I think it is important for SkepticalScience readers to get the full picture since it was published the same day!
  3. As the Policy on Comments and Replies states: ...Both Comments and Replies will be refereed to ensure that the Comment addresses significant aspects of the original paper without becoming essentially a new paper... Notice how the word "comment" is in the title? You have to be careful with your language when using words such as 'refute' and 'challenged in the peer-review literature' when informing the readers on SkepticalScience as it is highly speculative language. If a new survey and hence a new paper was performed with results contrasting Doran and Zimmerman then you could say 'challenged in the peer-review literature'. At the moment all you can say is their are two published criticisms of the paper, and that the author replied to these. With your actual concerns over the survey, that the two critics made, the EOS is behind a pay wall so it would be difficult to discuss the actual contents and author's reply further unless somebody with a subscription can access the content. Also where do you get the number from Doran 2009 that 567 Scientists Surveyed do not believe man is causing climate change?
  4. There are people to whom no amount of reason will change their minds. My MD friend just replied to this with the following argument which he considers rational: Scientific concensus of the day on sun around earth: 99% Galileo: . 00001% earth around sun truth matters Censorship and manipulation of data and careers does too. But here it's way more than 1, it's 10's of thousands of rational educated professionals in opposition as the (correct) minority.
  5. DrTom, I like Carl Sagan's response to crackpots (of whatever viewpoint) who think that because the rest of the scientific world doesn't agree with them, they must be another Galileo: They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. I don't intend this as an ad-hominem attack on your friend (whom I've presumably never met), just a general observation. The odds are that anyone who thinks they're a second Galileo is probably suffering from an extreme case of Dunning-Kruger.
  6. DrTom you should prioritize friendship. Ned mentions laughter and as an MD your friend ought to know laughter is indeed sometimes the best medicine. Try steering him to DenialDepot which may actually succeed in provoking some thought on the whole matter.
  7. @Poptech Your list of the qualifications of the proponents of AGW is not terribly relevant. The whole point is that the proponents are deferring to a scientific consensus and body of literature. While denialists (or whatever they're calling themselves) are either: 1. doing their own science (not very common in the AGW 'debate', but it applies to Newton and Galileo) or 2. relying on other publications (which means that they are cherry picking from the science, because there is a consensus the other way there)
  8. A few issues with this post: "The IPCC AR4 WG1 report was written and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists." - needs a link, given rebuttals such as this. Too much attention spent focusing on how many people theoretically could have signed it. Saying there are 10M science grads since 1970 isn't any sort of refutation. Broken link to the 2009 Pew survey.
  9. Tristan: "Too much attention spent focusing on how many people theoretically could have signed it. Saying there are 10M science grads since 1970 isn't any sort of refutation." There's nothing to refute. What argument does the petition make? The only arguments that the petition makes are that "strength is in numbers" (bandwagon) and "undergraduate science degree = universal scientific expert" (false authority). If an audience exists for these arguments, then an analysis of the strength of the arguments is relevant and in order. A useful counter to such moves is the analysis of strength, in this case showing that an impressive number like 31,000 is pretty weak when set against the maximum number who could have signed. The stronger criticism (of the false authority) won't work in this case, because the target audience won't be willing to spend the time to consider the actual authority represented in the 31,000 (or they would have already done it intuitively). It's fairly clear that the 31,000 argument is designed for people who don't have the motivation to even open the cover of climate science basics. To make such an argument is to express a desire to shape the opinion of these people without providing them with the critical context (and the petitioners have been reticent regarding methodology) necessary for making ethical choices. Using the 31,000 argument says a lot more about the integrity of the user than it does about climate science. Reading anything about climate science from the results of the petition says more about the critical ability of the reader than it does about the truth of the petition.
  10. The theoretical maximum number of signatories is almost irrelevant. What would be far more relevant would be an estimation/examination of the petition's distribution and a discussion about why 32000 signatories isn't of itself, a useful estimate of opinion. Explaining the distinction between results from a petition and a survey is also important. I've seen people say 'they're calling 32000 a tiny fraction and then relying on a survey of 3000 individuals?!' Assigning the maximum possible denominator to the 32000 and saying 'look how small it is' is almost as bad as saying '32000 is a really big number!'.
  11. Tristan, what is useful about the estimate of opinion of a bunch of non-experts? Tristan: "Assigning the maximum possible denominator to the 32000 and saying 'look how small it is' is almost as bad as saying '32000 is a really big number!'." I agree, but unfortunately the original argument was made, and it has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed with the audience-appropriate logic (as "bad" as it is). The people who accept the "over 31,000" argument (as silly as it is) will be forced to accept the "10 million" number, or else they'll be forced to recognize the silliness of the "over 31,000" argument. Tristan: "What would be far more relevant would be an estimation/examination of the petition's distribution and a discussion about why 32000 signatories isn't of itself, a useful estimate of opinion." Again, would you expect anyone who accepts the "over 31,000" argument to be willing to do or read what you suggest?
  12. I guess I just can't abide the idea of audience appropriate logic, especially when it's under the heading 'intermediate'.
  13. Of all the nonsense spewed by deniers, this one is certainly one of the most ridiculous. The self contradictory arguments go like this: "There is no scientific consensus." Since it's quite easy to show that, in fact, there is one, this is often followed by "science is not done by consensus" with all manners of misundertanding what scientific consensus actually is. Attempts to correct the misunderstanding by pointing that consensus follows from the science instead of preceding it usually falls on deaf ears. This in turn, is often followed by arguments like the stupid petition thing, portraying a consensus of opinion among non experts as a valid one, right after insisting that consensus among experts is not. When emotionally charged, ideology driven opinion puts up its defenses, there is no amount of rational thinking that can tear them down.
  14. An intermediate argument at the level of most intermediate articles on SkS would be pointless. All that needs to be stated is the obvious: 1. Those who hold science degrees (and in particular undergraduate degrees only) are probably clueless in many areas of science. 2. What is the basis of the signers' expertise? 3a. If 32,000 is impressive, and I find 32,000 people who think you should die, will you kill yourself? 3b. If I find 32,000 atheists who say you should worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster (praise its name), will you? 3c. If I find 32,000 science majors who think the Earth is 6000 years old, will you then believe the Earth is 6000 years old? 3d. If I find 32,000 English majors who say that Joyce's Ulysses is the greatest work of fiction in English, does that settle the matter? 3e. (etc. ad nauseum) 4. If I create a petition that says the opposite, and I get 32,001 signatures from science majors, are you forced to believe my petitioned claim? 5. What happens if all of these 32,000 change their minds? Does your mind change as well? What if these 32,000 are then replaced in a new petition by a different set of 32,000? Will you short-circuit? 6. If 32,000 climate scientists put their expertise up against that of 32,000 science majors, who would be right about issues within climate science? Here you see that the maximum number is important. If I ask, "If 100 of the most-published climate scientists put their expertise up against that of 32,000 climate scientists, who would be right about issues within climate science?" then the denominator is critical, because I could bring it down to 1 vs. 32,000. It's all goofiness designed to prey upon people who, again, do not have the time, means, energy, training, and/or motivation to come to an understanding for themselves--or designed to confirm what we already suspected, the Great GW Hoax!
  15. Tristan @10, the petition was originally circulated to "virtually every scientist in every field" in the US according to one of its critics. But the OISM refuses to indicate the size of the mailout. From SourceWatch:
    "OISM has refused to release info on the number of mailings it made. From comments in Nature:
    "Virtually every scientist in every field got it," says Robert Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland at College Park and spokesman for the American Physical Society. "That's a big mailing." According to the National Science Foundation, there are more than half a million science or engineering PhDs in the United States, and ten million individuals with first degrees in science or engineering. Arthur Robinson, president of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the small, privately funded institute that circulated the petition, declines to say how many copies were sent out. "We're not willing to have our opponents attack us with that number, and say that the rest of the recipients are against us," he says, adding that the response was "outstanding" for a direct mail shot. [16]"
    The original mail out only garnered about 15,000 responses. Despite Robinson's claims, without a precise statement of the mail out number, no significance can be assigned to the petition as a survey of scientific opinion. What is more, given the anecdotal evidence of the size of the mailout, and the small size of the respondents (15,000) compared to the number of "virtually every scientist in every field", the reasonable conclusion is that the response rate was very small. Indeed, if it were not, you can be sure that the OISM would be trumpeting not only the absolute number of signatories, but the response rate as well. Since the original mail out, the petition has been available online to add the signature, and has been frequently trumpeted by various political figures, so its presence has been known. Given that, the response rate is best given by the number of signatories divided by the number of potential signatories as given in the main article, ie, 0.3%. As such, this petition is no more significant than any of the various creationist petitions that get circulated. Indeed, given the close ties of the OISM and the Discovery Institute (an Intelligent Design creationist site), it can be viewed as one of the various petitions circulated by creationists.
  16. Tristan wrote : "The IPCC AR4 WG1 report was written and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists." - needs a link... I haven't counted all the names in Annexes II and III : Contributors and Reviewers of the IPCC WGI Fourth Assessment Report, but there can't be too far off 2000 names there, can there ? Anyone care to count...?
  17. I'm not a scientist, but I do have a great deal more experience than most scientists at sending direct mail and getting responses. Some observations: when soliciting money, a response of 2% was often thought of as the gold standard. If one is not asking for money, then a response rate in the double digits is probably a reasonable standard if the solicitation is written clearly enough. I've received response rates as high as 10% for complex questionnaires. With those thoughts in mind, the (estimated) .3% response rate to the OISM mailing is --wow -- friggin' awful. They didn't even ask people to send money and they got only three tenths of a percent to agree? That is only a tenth of the percent of climate scientists (3%) who either dispute or have no opinion on the majority consensus on global warming. I'd love to have the mailing list of this 31,000 people. I could publish all kinds of drivel and sell it to them for a profit.
    Response: TC: All caps changed to bold to comply with the comments policy. The comments policy contains tips on the use of html tags for emphasis so that future comments can comply.
  18. It's worse than that, Bill. All that was needed was a BSc degree in some field arguably generally related to climate. It's probably safe to say that most of the signers probably aren't actually working in the sciences.
  19. Peter Hadfield AKA potholer54 has a good video on that. "Meet the Scientists" =>
  20. I did peruse some Michigan names on this "petition". A couple of the 'good doctors' don't exist. I tracked down one of the veternarians. I would suggest some of you try that...maybe we could find a few more 'weasels.'

  21. Gee, I never knew it was so easy to write off 30,000 people's opinions as being meaningless.   You'd think it would at least cool the sanctimonious rhetoric about 97%.

    Maybe someone needs a reality check?:

  22. likeithot...  No one writes off the opinions of 30,000 people. It just happens to be an extremely low figure once you put it into context.

    The 30k figure is a subset of some 30 million people who fit the definition of the petition. Once you add the denominator you find that 30k is a very tiny number.

    Once you refine the standards and focus on actual expertise in the subjest of climate change, then you find that 97% agree that humans are changing the climate primarilty through the emissions of CO2.

  23. The article I cited explains clearly how the standars were "refined" with a clearly pre-meditaded (+unscientific) political adgenda.

  24. likeithot @23.

    Do you not feel that the OISM Petition Project has "a clearly pre-meditaded (+unscientific) political adgenda"?

    I note elsewhere on this website you protest that your questioning went unanswered. With that sensitivity in mind, I would answer your question @21 by pointing out that the "someone" is surely the GWPF who certainly require a reality check. To publish that propagandist and scurrilous nonsense from Andrew Montford is, for an organisation registered as a UK educational charity, bringing the UK Charity Commission and the numerous legitimate charities it supports into disrepute.

  25. Just a psychologist so I'm sure I don't count here, but I do know something about people and the herd instinct which I think is working here to a large extent.  There is also, I am not a theologist, some evidence of the sin of greed.  So many billions of dollars changing hands over a theory, really just a theory which looks more like a religion since you can't oppose it without retribution.  Wise men should be skeptical.

    I am quite relaxed about the climate getting warmer, I like summer better than winter, don't you?  The people with  coastline properties are probably those terrible "rich" people anyway whom we have all been told are sucking on our vital juices for their own benefit.  Terrible people.


    [Dikran Marsupial] Welcome to SkS (psychologists are most welcome).  Please take time to read the comments policy, SkS is intended to be a site for productive discussion of climate science and closely related topics, but it is not a forum for the sort of trolling that is all too common on climate blogs.  Further comments of this nature will be deleted.  If you disagree with the mainstream position on climate science, then I would encourage you to pick a specific argument (see the list of climate myths on the bar to the left) and explain your objection clearly.  I'm sure you will find plenty of people here willing to discuss the science with you in a rational and friendly manner, provided that you behave in a similarly mature manner.

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