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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 'OISM petition' was signed by only a few climatologists.

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)

At a glance

Do you think that, just like politics, the laws of physics can be overturned by polls and petitions? Quick answer: no they cannot. But didn't you, or someone you know, read about a petition signed by thousands of scientists who disagreed with manmade global warming? The petition actually exists, but it changes nothing about the physical reality of the world. Below we explain why this is a flawed exercise and a "good" example for the denial techniques of fake experts and magnified minorities.

The petition was organised by the self-styled "Oregon institute for Science and Medicine" (OISM). OISM is a non-profit organisation, based at a location in rural Oregon, USA. The petition had two launches, initially in 1998 and again in 2007. People were invited to sign by self-certification, meaning anyone who said they were qualified in the physical sciences at a USA institution could take part.

The initial release of the petition was done as a response to the Kyoto Protocol, signed the year before. Kyoto was explicitly mentioned in the petition text. The petition text also claims that 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".

There are some fairly obvious problems with the petition. To begin with, what guarantee is there that a graduate in engineering or medicine will know anything about climatology? None. We need to pause here and consider for a moment the term 'scientist'. Science is a broad field. One scientist may work in immunology, another in engineering. Would you go to the engineer if your immune system started playing up? If the answer is 'no', then good for you and you can likely see this major problem with the petition. But there's worse to come.

The documents accompanying the petition included a 'research paper' dressed up to look convincingly like official material from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Normally, we say, "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery". Not in this case. It was flat-out deceit. So misleading was this document that the NAS issued a press-release in April 1998, stating the following:

"The petition was mailed with an op-ed article from The Wall Street Journal and a manuscript in a format that is nearly identical to that of scientific articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS Council would like to make it clear that this petition has nothing to do with the National Academy of Sciences and that the manuscript was not published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences or in any other peer-reviewed journal.”

Who signed? Some 31,487 people eventually - not necessarily all scientists as multiple enquiries have demonstrated - and even if they were that would still only represent 0.25% of all USA physical science graduates over the preceding 43 years. That's a prime example of the phenomenon of 'magnified minority', if there ever was one!

In the light of those figures, the key question would have to be, "so what do the other 99.75% of scientists think?"

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

Over the years since the threat of climate change emerged, there have been various moves by corporations and their think-tanks to downplay the perceived risk. Such moves have included making claims that large numbers of scientists disagree with the basic principles behind human-caused climate change. One of the most notorious such exercises manifested itself as a petition organised by the so-called 'Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine' (OISM), launched in 1998 and revived in 2007. This petition has apparently been signed by thousands of people with a self-certified BSc or higher science qualification. Signatories were invited to agree with the statements on display in fig. 1.

OISM petition

Fig. 1: The OISM petition, archived by Brian Angliss in 2015.

Accompanying the petition was a bizarre article, initially dressed up to resemble a scientific paper from the journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences' (PNAS). In response, the NAS put out an official statement putting as much distance as possible between it and the OISM. The 'paper' was nothing of the kind. In fact, a cursory look at its content indicates the presence of fundamental errors in almost every paragraph. Desmog describes a 2007 version of the 'paper' thus:

"This exercise is so flawed that it’s hard to know what demands criticism the most. First, the whole exercise is being pushed by Arthur B. Robinson, the survivalist, Darwin skeptic and proprietor of something called the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. The “scientific” article on which the petition rests is authored by Robinson, his son Noah, and the American Petroleum Industry-funded Willie Soon, none of whom could hope to get their climate work published in a peer-reviewed science journal."

As to the statements that form the backbone of the petition, they are fundamentally flawed. There is no great debate on the core principles of human-caused climate change - in the professional field of climate science. Human carbon emissions are causing climate change. Continuing emissions at current levels is only going to make a bad situation far, far worse.

As of spring 2023, according to their website, the petition has been signed by "31,487 American scientists… including 9,029 with PhDs". Not much change from 2008 then, when OISM said it had over 31,000 signatures. The organisation's website does not stipulate how many signatories work in climate science. In fact, they specify their definition of 'scientist' as follows: anyone with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate of Philosophy in a field related to physical sciences can sign the petition. That is a wide, wide field indeed.

OISM petition signatories in fact represent a tiny fraction of all US science graduates (petition cards were only sent to individuals within the U.S). How tiny? According to figures from the US Department of Education's Digest of Education Statistics: 2008, at the time the relaunched petition was doing the rounds, 10.6 million science graduates had gained qualifications consistent with the OISM polling criteria since the 1970-71 academic year. 31,487 out of 10.6 million is not a compelling figure, but instead a tiny minority of 0.29 per cent. As Brian Angliss put it (in 2015, so the figure has dropped still further):

"Far from being an alleged “counter-consensus,” the 31,487 names collected by the Global Warming Petition Project represent only one quarter of one percent (0.25%) of science and engineering degrees awarded since 1970. (fig.2)"

OISM petition signatories 

Fig.2: the OISM petition signatories shown as a fraction (red) of all US Science graduates (blue) and the breakdown (R) of the disciplines who signed the petition and who therefore make up that tiny but magnified minority. Graphic: Brian Angliss.

Former New Scientist writer Peter Hadfield, who now runs the excellent 'potholer 54' Youtube channel dedicated to climate science explainers, made the point that scientists are not experts on every topic. In one of his videos in 2010, Hadfield said:

"In between Aaagard and Zylkowski, the first and last names on the petition, are an assortment of metallurgists, botanists, agronomists, organic chemists and so on.... The vast majority of scientists who signed the petition have never studied climatology and don't do any research into it. It doesn't matter if you're a Ph.D. A Ph.D. in metallurgy just makes you better at metallurgy. It does not transform you into some kind of expert in paleoclimatology."

Attempts like this to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change have ideological roots, variously connected with vested business interests and their political lackeys. The claims made in the OISM petition do not withstand objective scrutiny. Instead, a growing number of independent studies, examined here on Skeptical Science, have shown that around 97% of climate scientists in fact agree with the core principle that human greenhouse gas emissions are causing the climate to heat up and change. Whatever impression silly petitions signed by a tiny minority of science graduates might try to give, the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is rock-solid.

Note - Aug 12, 2023: Following up on helpful reader feedback, we updated the title as well as the first paragraph to better spell things out.

Last updated on 12 August 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Myth Deconstruction

Related resource: Myth Deconstruction as animated GIF


Please check the related blog post for background information about this graphics resource.

Denial101x video

Here is a related lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


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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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