Climate Science Commentator Charles Nagy explains how the Oregon Petition creates an illusion of scientific argument by using the language of expertise and ignoring relevance.

There are very good reasons why elite tennis players do not employ golf coaches to train them. It is not that golf coaches are not experts, it’s that they are experts in the wrong things. If you had high blood pressure and were suffering from shortness of breath, would you go to your dentist or a cardiologist? Both have studied medicine. Both have the equivalent of a doctorate. But you would have to be an idiot to consult your dentist regarding your heart problems – whilst your dentist is undoubtedly an expert in some medical matters, he or she is an expert in the wrong things.

This seems so straightforward and non-controversial there should be no point in highlighting it. However, over the past 30 years or so, many right wing “think” tanks have been set up – mainly funded by the fossil fuel industry – who have recruited a series of scientific “experts” to help cast doubt on the science of Global Warming. In doing so, they have taken advantage of the general public’s ignorance over what actually constitutes a scientific “expert”.

Whilst the public are generally comfortable with expert opinion in sports or medicine, or other non-controversial areas, they seem to be a bit hazy on scientific expertise. For example, for the past 30 years or so, there has been a meme circulating the internet that about 30,000 scientists disagree with the main scientific consensus that Global Warming is happening. It is called the “Oregon Petition”, and you will see it regularly trotted out to counter any new report on the overwhelming number of Climate Scientists who agree that Global Warming is a serious danger to humankind.

There have been probably at least 10 scholarly, peer reviewed, studies by different researchers showing that at least 90% or greater, of climate scientists agree that Global warming is happening, is dangerous and is human caused. This has been met with a furious wave of denial from the above mentioned “think” tanks where they use dubious statistical methods to try to undermine these results. The fact that all these studies are by different researchers, using different methodologies and have all been peer reviewed (the gold standard in scientific studies), seems to have escaped them. It is possible that one or two of them were perhaps flawed in some way, but all of them reporting the same results, and all of them wrong?

But back to the “Oregon Petition”. In addition to trying to discredit these legitimate scientific studies, someone decided to set up a website where you could express your opposition to, and refusal to accept climate science; if, and it’s a big if, you are a “scientist”. So how do you get to prove your scientific expertise? Ah, well there is the rub. You simply tick a box! There is validation that you actually have the degree you claim, in the discipline that you nominate? In fact, on the petition there is a Dr Gerri Halliwell (of Spice Girls fame), plus most of the cast from the TV show MASH.

And apart from signatories with bogus credentials, there is no attempt to weed out people with no relevant experience. So someone who is a medical doctor, or engineer, or say, even a psychologist, could sign and be equally counted. So not only may the “scientists” on this petition not have the expertise they claim, but they are also – more often than not – experts in wrong things, if indeed they are experts at anything.

Nothing wrong with not being an expert, of course – most of us are not – but to be an “expert” from a scientific point of view, you must meet minimum requirements to demonstrate scientific expertise:

  • You need to have obtained qualifications in the relevant area. (Typically Phd level)
  • You need to have published research papers in the relevant area.

The key point here is relevance. Being a Chemist major in inorganic chemistry, does not qualify you to comment on Climate Science.

That is the bare minimum, but it is also nice if you have relatively extensive publications over an extended period in this area of expertise.

Moreover, Climate Science is also somewhat more involved than other scientific disciplines. Whereas Physics tends to be compartmentalised, where you can make significant headway by concentrating in one tightly focused area (like solid state physics, for example), Climate Science is much broader. To be a Climate Scientist, you need to be across several disciplines. For example, a working knowledge of Meteorology is required, plus Oceanography, plus atmospheric physics, plus paleoclimates (linking to geology), plus Glaciology, and a non trivial understanding of statistics, to mention just a few things. Hence when you see someone like William Happer (Trump’s new climate guru), whose expertise is in Adaptive Optics, you can safely dismiss the thought that any opinion he might have on climate change is based on his expertise.

But back to the Oregon petition. It is obvious that there has been no attempt whatsoever by the originators of this petition to establish the background or expertise of its signatories. Nor that they have expertise that is relevant. In fact, the vast majority don’t. There has been no attempt to check if they even have qualifications in anything – by uploading relevant degree documentation for example – let alone anything relevant.

In contrast, the scientific studies the Oregon Petition purport to debunk are all concentrated on actual published research, which proved that the scientists involved had the qualifications required to make an informed assessment. Plus, these studies were reviewed by scientists qualified in the relevant areas, (peer review), and checked to make sure that there were no methodological problems with their analysis, so the results were as robust as they could be. Hence, the Oregon Petition is totally worthless and without merit. (And if you still have problems understanding why, please go back to paragraph one).

For more info:

Analysis of the Oregon Petition

The actual Petition, should you wish to sign.

The numerous scholarly papers establishing the level of scientific consensus on Global Warming


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