Can “31,000 Scientists” Be Wrong? You Betcha.

Especially when there aren’t actually 31,000 of them. But that hasn’t stopped climate change skeptics from trotting out something called the Global Warming Petition Project to help make their case that human-induced climate change is a lot of hooey.

For example, Bob Lutz, the Chairman of General Motors,  likes to cite it when he refutes “the CO2 theory” of global warming. Of course executives from old-line auto and oil companies could be expected to grope for credible-sounding skeptics. But this weekend my morning coffee nearly came out of my nose when I saw San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders fall back on the threadbare petition argument in a Sunday magazine piece entitled “Warming Science and Science Fiction” (not available online at this writing).

The framers of the petition assert 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.”

“So far,” wrote Saunders, “more than 31,000 scientists have signed it.”

What Saunders doesn’t say is that this effort was launched fully 10 years ago by a rinky-dink rural concern called the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. According to the Project’s own website, only 40 of the more than 31,000 signatories are trained in climatology (114 in “atmospheric science”). But we really have no way of knowing. The Project’s instructions for prospective signers say:

“Signatories to the petition are required to have formal training in the analysis of information in physical science. This includes primarily those with BS, MS or PhD degrees in science, engineering, or related disciplines.”

But it seems to run entirely on the honor system. There is no way to independently verify information given by the signatories about their training and experience. And the group’s qualification for “scientist” is a little lax, to put it mildly. An undergraduate degree in any science or engineering-related field hardly ordains one as an authority on climate change.

The group uses as its poster scientist Edward Teller, a key figure on the Manhattan Project and legendary “Father of the H-Bomb.” Teller died in 2003 at age 95, so it’s possible that he did sign this. And given his famously contrarian personality, it’s not even unlikely. Even so, the august Dr. Teller was a nuclear physicist–not a climatologist.

Saunders isn’t the first journalist to take the bait. In fact, she appeared to be sourcing an article that she read on the website

The Oregon petition and its promoters have been roundly criticized by the National Academy of Sciences and repeatedly debunked by others.

Even so, the petition has had traction in California. According to the Project’s web site, more than 3,700 of its supporters identify themselves as Californians (the second most signatures–3,500+–allegedly come from Texas. No other state comes close).

What’s more disturbing is that it continues to get traction in press accounts and policy circles. Given the volume of climate research over the past ten years that has affirmed the IPCC’s conclusions on global warming, one has to wonder how many of the petition’s original signers would do so again.

Can “31,000 Scientists” Be Wrong? You Betcha. 1 December,2008Craig Miller

2 thoughts on “Can “31,000 Scientists” Be Wrong? You Betcha.”

  1. I think that column was based on a number of good-faith misunderstandings. I’ve put her in touch with John Mashey, so – assuming I’m right in my interpretation – you should expect her future columns on climate to be of a different breed.

  2. The editors at San Francisco Chronicle should know better. Shame on them.

    The paper should hire more intelligent and knowledgeable editors. For them to be so clueless on this issue by now is inexcusable.

    As NASA Director Dr. James Hansen points out, the current politician-proposed reactions to global warming are stupid and entirely counterproductive.

    Tell Barack Obama the Truth – The Whole Truth

    The science indicates that action is needed, but we need to be careful and make productive, sane responses. He advises us that we don’t have time to get this wrong.

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Craig Miller

Craig is a former KQED Science editor, specializing in weather, climate, water & energy issues, with a little seismology thrown in just to shake things up. Prior to that, he launched and led the station's award-winning multimedia project, Climate Watch. Craig is also an accomplished writer/producer of television documentaries, with a focus on natural resource issues.

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