Debunking “The Petition Project”

{Update 27 May 2013: I saw some traffic looking at this page and decided to clean up this post as it was originally a back-and-forth on Facebook and not formatted well – still isn’t, but it’s better…}

Earlier this week, I posted a link to an NPR piece  that talked about climate change, but was actually focused on how people “tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view.” In the article, Robert Kennedy, Jr. was quoted as claiming 98% of climate research scientists say global warming is real.  My point in posting was the cultural bias link, but a friend’s response to the 98% statement (that I also quoted in my posting of the link) offered The Petition Project. He added, “Has 31,000 scientists (9,000 with PhDs) who refute the theory.”

This post collects my my posts in that Facebook thread. I made a few corrections and minor additions.

I pointed out to others reading the thread (because I know that the friend that responded with the Petition Project post read the NPR article) my intent, but I decided to look into the Petition Project. Put out originally in 1997, and then resent in 2007, the paper makes claims that the climate changes are not due to anthropogenic effects, but solar activity.  Formatted to look like one published in a technical journal, it was not published in 1997. The 2007 paper was published, though not in a mainstream technical journal. Instead, it was in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons (JPandS), an interesting choice and one discussed later.

I read the Petition Project paper, trying hard, but coming short, to look at it from an objective perspective. I’ve only published one paper, and I didn’t think it was very good. The Petition paper has a lot of substance, but I didn’t know whether it is valid. I will say that I thought it shifted from technical to editorial several times, and I think the editorializing has no place in a technical paper. But that’s me.

I flagged some things that I thought were unsubstantiated and absolute statements that I did not feel one could conclusively draw from the data presented. Example: “The extent and diversity of plant and animal life have both increased substantially during the past half-century.” Curiously (or maybe not), that particular line is quoted extensively on the internet, most often out of context and usually as a pseudo-citation for another conclusion reached. The statement itself had no citation; later in the paper there was a second reference to it and as a (dubious) conclusion to a couple of other papers, which I checked into….more on that later.

I looked at the graphs without trying to confirm the source(s) and validity. It seemed to me that where the trends agreed with the conclusions, then trends were shown. Where not…medians were shown. Not having the data, and only briefly looking at them, several of the graphs (1,9,10, …) looked as if the trend would not support the statement or conclusion. In those cases, the median lines were indicative of no changes, but I question that.

I saw liberal use of regional (US and even more localized within the US) data where such confirmed conclusions. This is as flawed as “I just shoveled 12 inches of Al Gore’s global warming off my driveway.” Australia records show a significant increase in the last 100 years.  I wondered at the use of Sargasso Sea data to generalize the surface temperatures of the entire earth.  Far too weak a connection there.

The last three pages read more like an infomercial. I agreed with much insofar as nuclear power was concerned. And I found the section on CO2 fertilization and plant growth interesting. I thought the conclusion stated for the reason for US forest growth (regional again) in the last 50 years to be questionable –”due to atmospheric CO2 increase”? What about forest management, sustainability initiatives, and overall resource conservative cultural changes? All they seemed to look at were standing timber inventories and drew a conclusion I didn’t think was there to be drawn.

The thing that stands out is that, as noted above, the first paper was never published. It was just formatted to look like it might have been. That really has little bearing on anything, BUT, the revised paper was published in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. A *medical* journal? And the JPandS apparently is not well regarded in the scientific community, as having little scientific content. More on that later also.

Okay, so I freely admit I had no desire to analyze the paper from a technical perspective – I’d have to spend too much time relearning or learning the background material. So I went to find others who did take the time.

Baliunas and Soon

First…a few things I found out about the authors of the paper: Arthur Robinson is a biochemist. Son Zachary, co-author of the original paper but not of the revision, is a veterinarian. Son Noah, co-author of the revision, is a chemist.  Sallie Baliunas, co-author of the original paper but not of the revision, and Willie Soon, co-author of both, are both astrophysicists.

Baliunas and Soon co-authored a 2003 paper published in the journal “Climate Research” on historical climatology that resulted in 13 authors cited in the paper formally disputing Soon’s and Baliunas’ interpretation of their work and the publisher admitting the conclusions of the paper could not be supported by the evidence.  “There were three main objections: Soon and Baliunas used data reflective of changes in moisture, rather than temperature; they failed to distinguish between regional and hemispheric temperature anomalies; and they reconstructed past temperatures from proxy evidence not capable of resolving decadal trends.”  Similar allegations surround the data and conclusions of the 1997/2007 paper.

Fringe connections to other controversies include Baliunas maintaining a skeptical position that CFCs are not damaging the ozone layer, Soon co-authoring an article arguing that climate change may not be the factor for polar bear survival (Sarah Palin used the article to get polar bears delisted from the endangered species list), and Arthur Robinson has signed “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism”.

The Petition Project signatory claims

As to the Petition Project claiming “31,000+ signatories, 9,000+ of which have PhDs”….

In 2005, Scientific American “took a random sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a Ph.D. in a climate-related science.” Results are not on the SciAm site anymore, but can be found in this archive: “Skepticism About Skeptics”. They contacted 26 of the 30,  finding only “one was an active climate researcher, two others had relevant expertise”.

Someone named Chris Colose chose 60 names to check as to relevant climate science experience through publications by the signatory.  He said his “subsample was the first 10 people of the petition, and the first two of each subsequent letter (ten from A, two from B, two from C…two from Z). I actually did a bit of cherry picking, but only to help out their side a bit more, so starting from “B,” I chose the first two people who were listed as PhD’s.”  Of his sample of 60, “there were a grand total of zero publications…relevant to climate or climate change.”  Here’s the site: One more Petition, still a consensus.

Why is picking this apart relevant?  Because the “Qualification of Signers” page reads: “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.”  Also that it is being used to bolster the deniers’ claims by the logical fallacy of argument from authority – 9,000 PhDs signed it, so it must be right!  The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) seems to have deliberately hidden how many petitions were sent out as compared to how many signatures they received so that opponents couldn’t use that against them (Robinson apparently said that himself.)

Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine

As to the OISM, from what I’ve read they have little respect in the scientific community.  I’m not going to post more on them.  Further, I can’t comment as to the motivations of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (the publisher of the Journal of Physicians and Surgeons), its predecessor Medical Sentinel, and other pubs, for publishing the paper, but the author of a blog focused on autism took issue with articles published in the JPandS and surveyed the AAPS website “to get a sense of the convictions driving its editorial policies.”

The OISM website claims the paper is peer reviewed.  See the thread on the Real Climate weblink below and the views on that claim.

Other Critiques of the Robinson, et al paper

Now, some critiques of the actual paper:

Steven Dutch, a professor of Natural and Applied Science at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, got the first Oregon mailing and ignored it because while it looked professional, there was no citation.  When he got the second mailing nine years later, he wrote an analysis (“A Global Warming Counterfeit”).  Dutch took great exception to the correlation between solar activity and atmospheric temperature changes, and had interesting comments on the paper’s offering of atmospheric particulates actually masking warming.  Dutch suggests that several graphs actually supports correlation with hydrocarbon use, though disclaims drawing the conclusion that the environment tracks use that closely, with feedback and time lags more logically implying a delayed response.  Further, the solar activity correlations presented by the authors seem to antedate the events they are claiming follow the activity.  I didn’t catch that, but then my reprinted graphs were rather small.  Dutch notes several qualitative exclusions, meaning no numbers, so no comparison, and logically meaningless graphs.  There are enough holes in this paper for someone educated in science in general, let alone, climate science, to question the validity of said conclusions.  But then, that may be why it wasn’t peer-reviewed and published in a reputable, legitimate scientific journal.  I’m tempering my “interest” in the CO2 link to growth after reading Dutch’s comments on that.  Cardinal rule of analysis: what were the assumptions?  I didn’t think far enough to question the “all other things being equal” component.  (Final note, Dutch’s review is not without his own editorial, and it contains a few factual errors that I am aware of in the sarcastic section, but he asks legitimate questions about the graphs and data and offers legitimate, alternate interpretations.)

Someone named Mike Powell wrote a technical analysis of the paper, with very good questions and supporting contradictory information: Critical Review of Robinson, Robinson and Soon’s “Environmental Effects of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide”.

A detailed paragraph by paragraph critique by Dr. Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs, Climate Institute can be found here, and here’s McCracken’s biography.

Check out a clearinghouse from RealClimate.  Apart from the disparaging title of the thread (“Oregon Institute of Science and Malarkey”), a lot of the 138+ comments have very good counter points and links to legitimate references. A few are sarcastic.  Many are self-policing (chiding the title, criticizing attempts to discredit the players instead of posing real arguments with supporting data).  Read through the comments – I read them all and learned a lot.  I was going to post a smattering sample of some of them, but if you are interested, check the site yourself.

Climate Science

And finally, here are some links to read on the climate science debate:

The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change – Naomi Oreskes  ( […analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect.]

Here is a curious website that reputedly shows who is funding the “climate change skeptics”.  Supposedly a Greenpeace tool, and biased against ExxonMobil, it was fun to play with for a while.

An interesting blog that I first found when digging into this: Well written, and concluding with “The above doesn’t demonstrate that climate skepticism is without merit, but it does demonstrate that there are reasons to be skeptical–and in many cases extremely skeptical–about some of the organizations and individuals promoting climate skepticism, independently of their arguments.”

The blog author also referenced a 2008 paper by Peter J. Jacques, Riley E. Dunlap, and Mark Freeman, “The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism,” Environmental Politics vol 17, no. 3, June 2008, pp. 349-385.  Of the 141 “English-language environmentally skeptical books published between 1972 and 2005”, over 92% were connected to conservative think tanks.

Why bother arguing the point?

So why go through all this trouble?  Because people will use that argument from authority and wave a “9,0000+ Ph.D.s” banner as support for pseudoscience.  I don’t pretend to know this material, although I know a lot more now than I did last week!  I am a degreed mechanical engineer, with a master of science in the same discipline, focusing on energy management.  What does that mean?  I look hard at fringe “science” with a very skeptical eye.  When I don’t know the answer, I go look for it.  And it takes effort to filter the editorials and reactionary information.  It takes effort to dig deeper than the single layer given.  And when I look for consensus, I look for different sources, not the number of sites repeating the same material, good or bad.  I have spent time in my job debunking the latest gimmicks and schemes to save 30% on my electric (always 25-30%).  I have to in order to keep my employer from being taken by charlatans. This was an extension of that. There are a lot of people being duped by pseudoscience and that disturbs me.  What disturbs me even more is the media lack of journalistic integrity (Fox News) and scary people-in-power (Senator Inhofe, Oklahoma – I don’t need to add the “R” after his name, that should be apparent) pushing this out to people who believe it on faith.

I have already admitted my bias that I believe that humans are affecting the environment in catastrophic ways.  I still read both sides, and look for the peer consensus on the positions of both sides.  But my bias leads me to follow the credible consensus.  That is why I consider these climate change skeptics on the fringe.  And probably wrong. Einstein rocked the world of physics with his own fringe theory, but even he allowed for the possibility that he was wrong.  And when his theories were tested, the consensus shifted.  The climate science consensus is not shifting off of AGW.

I like what I read on the Real Climate web site.  As I said, the self policing and very often highly detailed and cited answers encourage credibility in my eyes.


2 responses to “Debunking “The Petition Project”

  1. Pingback: The tangled web woven on the internet | Random (and not) Musings

  2. Pingback: The Emperor’s language has no clothes | Random (and not) Musings

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s