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

Posted on 8 August 2023 by John Mason, BaerbelW

On February 14, 2023 we announced our Rebuttal Update Project. This included an ask for feedback about the added "At a glance" section in the updated basic rebuttal versions. This weekly blog post series highlights this new section of one of the updated basic rebuttal versions and serves as a "bump" for our ask. This week features "How the OISM Petition Project casts doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change". More will follow in the upcoming weeks. Please follow the Further Reading link at the bottom to read the full rebuttal and to join the discussion in the comment thread there.

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

Click for Further details

In case you'd like to explore more of our recently updated rebuttals, here are the links to all of them:

Myths with link to rebuttal Short URLs
Ice age predicted in the 1970s
It hasn't warmed since 1998
Antarctica is gaining ice
CRU emails suggest conspiracy
What evidence is there for the hockey stick
CO2 lags temperature
Climate's changed before
It's the sun
Temperature records are unreliable
The greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics
We're heading into an ice age
Positives and negatives of global warming
Global cooling - Is global warming still happening?
How reliable are climate models?
Can animals and plants adapt to global warming?
What's the link between cosmic rays and climate change?
Is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth accurate?
Are glaciers growing or retreating?
Ocean acidification: global warming's evil twin
The human fingerprint in global warming
Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming
How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?
Explaining how the water vapor greenhouse effect works
How the OISM Petition Project casts doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change

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.

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Comments 1 to 11:

  1. My Dad signed that petition.  He was a Crop Scientist.  I'm sure he meant well, but 'damage done'.  How hard is it to sign your name?  I took two terms of Atmospheric Physics.  For a few months I was working to get a PhD in climatology, but I later left to get a Masters in Mechanical Engineering.  Did I sign any petitions?  Have I signed any since?  Because I was lightyears more qualified to do so than my Father, who knew a lot about Plant Genetics, and a little about anything other than Plant Genetics.  But, regarding the Scientific opposition to AGW, that has rarely been a disqualifier.  As long as you 'wrote the book' on Plant Genetics, then you must certainly know everything there is to know about the subset of GeoPhysics called Atmospheric Science...

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  2. I suspect that many of the OISM signers have passed away over the past 25 years. The petition is now an irrelevant historical artifact. 

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  3. Re #1 - a very good geologist colleague of mine totally fell for the petition, mainly because I guess he was politically very conservative and the very notion of global warming did not fit with his worldview. I soon realised good scientists can let politics get in the way of trusting other scientific disciplines to have the same rigour as one's own. In a sense, I learned an important lesson right there.

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  4. Whenever these kinds of petitions come up. I always like to mention the National Center for Science Education's Project Steve. Although targeted at similar petitions related to evolution/creation science, it is equally applicable here. From their preamble:

    NCSE's "Project Steve" is a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of "scientists who doubt evolution" or "scientists who dissent from Darwinism."

    Creationists draw up these lists to try to convince the public that evolution is somehow being rejected by scientists, that it is a "theory in crisis." Not everyone realizes that this claim is unfounded. NCSE has been asked numerous times to compile a list of thousands of scientists affirming the validity of the theory of evolution. Although we easily could have done so, we have resisted. We did not wish to mislead the public into thinking that scientific issues are decided by who has the longer list of scientists!

    Project Steve pokes fun at this practice and, because "Steves" are only about 1% of scientists, it also makes the point that tens of thousands of scientists support evolution. And it honors the late Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary biologist, NCSE supporter, and friend.

    We'd like to think that after Project Steve, we'll have seen the last of bogus "scientists doubting evolution" lists, but it's probably too much to ask. We hope that when such lists are proposed, reporters and other citizens will ask, "How many Steves are on your list!?"

    Even more tongue-in-cheek was when a federal political party in Canada was proposing a process where a referendum could be forced if a group could get 3% of the electorate to sign a petition. The leader's name was Stockwell Day, and a comedy show gathered names on a petition asking Stockwell Day to change his name to Doris Day. (Yes, they got enough signatures. No, he did not change his name.)

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  5. "How the OISM Petition Project casts doubt on the scientific consensus on climate change......Do you think that a lot of scientists reject the idea that human-caused carbon emissions are responsible for climate change - and is that because you once read about a petition signed by them to that effect? If the answer is yes, then this is for you."

    It is well known that plenty of people only read the headline or first paragraph, or half  of articles, and here you are stating in the headline that a petition casts doubt on the consensus on climate change, and the very first paragraph states that lots of scientists reject that human emissions cause climate change. With not even a  mention of how flawed the oregon petiton was in the first paragraph.

    Is this the impression you wanted to leave those readers with? It looks self defeating to me. 

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  6. Nigel J #5: Thanks for this feedback. If plenty of people "only read the headline or first paragraph, or half of articles", then there's the huuuuge problem with humanity/for our community straight away! That aside, I take your point here: it is a valid criticism. Noted for actioning at some nearby date (this is a big project so has to be time-managed appropriately)....

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  7. I've always thought that the exact wording of the Oregon Petition

    "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"

    was grammatically constructed to actually have been technically signable AT THE TIME OF FIRST LAUNCH even by such climate luminaries as James Hansen.

    It comes down to the artful use of "is causing" and "will cause" - instead of 'may cause' -  catastrophic heating and disruption etc. The petition does not state that its wording assumes that mainstream climate science was asserting that emissions will continue to rise sharply and that climate sensitivity to CO2e was at the top end of published expectations back then (somewhere around 6°C per doubling if I remember, although 10°C was mentioned ) but it is the underlying insinuation (of the text) that climate science was saying these things that enables the rhetorical deceit inherent in that exact wording. It allows any scientist who was fairly familiar with the science back then to jump to the conclusions that, because such emissions rises weren't certain to take place, and that ensemble figures for climate sensitivity were showing a 'most likely' figure of ~3°C per doubling, then it was definitely not certain that 'catastrophic heating' would occur.

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  8. I agree with NP.

    It may also be about the term catastrophic which I believe is a strawman. Because climate science never claimed at that time that heating would be catastrophic, which is a colourful, imprecise, loaded term that many may associate with billions dying very fast. Science claimed anthropogenic warming will cause  very serious problems xyz, and cause a significantly increased mortality rate in the tropics.

    So its understandable that a petition saying there is no convincing evidence of catastrophic heating of the atmosphere would get plenty of signatures. If the petition had just said there is no convincing evidence of serious problems it probably wouldn't have got nearly as many signatures.

    But by using a strawman the denislists got plety of people to sign and thats what people notice more than the significance of the word catastrophic. Dont be fooled by the denialists tactics.

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  9. And 'catastrophic' is a very loose term, is it not? One man's catastrophe may be another's bad day. Getting your car swept away in a flash flood if you are well-off and well-insured is a bad day but if a skint subsistence farmer and that flood destroys the year's crops it gets a bit trickier.

    The very wording of the petition is weaseliferous!

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  10. @nigelj, we'e taken your suggestion on board and edited the start. Thanks!

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  11. John Mason @10. Thanks for listening. Your revisions look really good to me. I know it wouldn't be easy writing this sort of thing.

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