Simple Sam & his Dubious 31,000

Posted on June 17, 2010


1.  Simple Sam Gets a Perfect Score.

I told Simple Sam that if he wishes to participate in the debate about climate change in a role beyond that of my favourite and dearest comic foil, first he has to invest his big oil kickbacks (just a joke, Sam) in some soft soled slippers, and second, he has to do some real research.

And clop-clop, here comes Sam (who never listens) slippering down the hallway with a copy of the Oregon Petition under his arm.

Oh, Sam.

I know what this is about.  255 scientists from the United States’ National Academy of Sciences, including 11 Nobel prize winners, sign an open letter defending climate science, dismissing denialists and climate contrarians, and urging immediate and decisive action on climate change, and of course Simple Sam wants to make a reply.  And his reply is ….

“31,000 scientists signed this petition,” says Sam.

So soon, and already so wrong.

“What do you mean wrong?” asks Sam.

Wrong in numbers.  Wrong in who signed.  Wrong in whether they signed.  Wrong in assuming that this was a real petition.  Wrong in assuming that any one thing was agreed to.  A number and four words, and wrong five times—a perfect score, Sam.

“What do you mean?” asks Sam, not looking pleased.  “How can I be wrong five times?”

2. Stop the Petition I Want to Get Off.

Let’s start with the number 31,000, Sam.  It includes everybody who ever signed this petition and the petition has been around for a long time.  It started off at 17,000, as you might recall.  That was in 1998.

Remember 1998?  That was two presidents ago.  That was before Al Gore was elected and George W. Bush was selected.  That was last century, right before the hottest decade on the human record.  The George W. Bush presidency happened in between, and he is now old news.  In 1998 would any of the petition signers have predicted Obama for president?  Had any of them even heard of him?  And today already Obama’s presidency is starting to show signs of wear.

It’s 2010 now, Sam, not 1998.  How can you expect me to take seriously 17,000 signatures collected 12 years ago?  How are they supposed to represent scientific understanding now?

And since when is that how we conduct polls?  Shall we take old election results and add them into current results as well?

Also, some of the people who signed that petition are now dead, Sam.  One or two didn’t live into the twenty-first century.  I know they probably excised Dr. Spice Girl from the list of signers by now.  And most of the fictional and cartoon characters who signed have been taken out as well.  But I’m not sure if the tenders of the list have been quite so scrupulous in taking people off the list if—for instance—in the interim they have died.

You get your name on this petition, Sam, and even death won’t get it removed.

So that 31,000 figure?  It’s meaningless.  Because there is no way that the managers of the petition can guarantee that the first 17,000 signers, for instance, have not changed their minds in the last 12 years.

They can’t even say how many of them are still alive.

3.  Instant Scientist, No Water Necessary

Then there is the question of defining who a scientist is, and what you have to do to prove it.  According to the Oregon petition, all you need to qualify as a scientist is a bachelor’s degree in a wide range of subjects.  A recent analysis shows that there are 10.6 million people in the US—still alive, presumably—who fit within that category.

And actually, the way the “petition” is conducted, you could forgo qualifications altogether if you like.  I imagine the fictional characters did, and Dr. Spice Girl too.  That’s because in the less-rigorous scientific world of climate change deniers, all you needed and all you still need to prove you’re a scientist is to tick an appropriate box on your ballot.  Tick a box—instant scientist!  You don’t even need to add water.

These people at the Oregon Petition are evidently quite trusting about the scientific qualification thing.  Naïve even.  A little hard to understand considering the ribbing they got in relation to the, um, existence-challenged signatories.   But even if you add eyelashs, blush and soft-soap lighting to naïve, it doesn’t always make for endearing in the hard, picky world of real science.

Sorry, Sam, I don’t think it’s cute.

4.  You Can’t Agree to a Lie.

“But what if they are scientists?” insists Sam, stubbornly setting his chin.

It still doesn’t help you, Sam, because the circumstances of the petition—examined either as a poll or as a scientific study—invalidates the results.

“It does not,” says Sam.

Social scientists—and other people too—have pointed out that the way you frame a question influences the results.


Don’t believe me?  Answer this poll.

Question 1:  Do you think the Constitutional rights of the Aboriginal people of Canada should be honoured?  Yes or no.

“No,” says Sam.

Question 1.a:  If no, are there other Canadian groups who should have their Constitutional rights taken away?  Please specify.  (Eg., women, pregnant women, Jews, Asian immigrants, homeless people, liberals, the deaf, etc…)

“This is a set up,” says Sam.

Congratulations, Sam, you pass the test.  It was a set up, as you say.  Now let’s discuss the Oregon Petition.

The question of how you frame a question, and under what circumstances a question is asked, is relevant, Sam.  When the Oregon petition was sent out it was accompanied by a paper typeset to resemble a paper “in a format that is nearly identical to that of scientific articles published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”   In fact, the accompanying article—which questioned the science of global warming—had never been, and never would be, published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  It contained conclusions unsupported by any science, not even by the sources cited in the paper, and it contained bad science unjustified by any evidence.

However, its inclusion with the petition would have the effect of lending legitimate scientific credibility to arguments which did not possess that credibility.  Persons might have been influenced to sign the petition for reasons which had nothing to do with the legitimate science of climatology.

“Are you saying that the people who wrote the letter and accompanying article were not legitimate?” asks Sam.  “One of them used to be president of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Glad you brought it up, Sam.

Consider the following document:


April 20, 1998

The Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is concerned about the confusion caused by a petition being circulated via a letter from a former president of this Academy.  This petition criticizes the science underlying the Kyoto treaty on carbon dioxide emissions (the Kyoto Protocol to the Framework Convention on Climate Change), and it asks scientists to recommend rejection of this treaty by the U.S. Senate.  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.

The petition does not reflect the conclusions of expert reports of the Academy.

In particular, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) conducted a major consensus study on this issue, entitled Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming (1991,1992).  This analysis concluded that ” …even given the considerable uncertainties in our knowledge of the relevant phenomena, greenhouse warming poses a potential threat sufficient to merit prompt responses. … Investment in mitigation measures acts as insurance protection against the great uncertainties and the possibility of dramatic surprises.”  In addition, the Committee on Global Change Research of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the NAS and the NAE, will issue a major report later this spring on the research issues that can help to reduce the scientific uncertainties associated with global change phenomena, including climate change. ”


You see, the concern of the NAS in 1998, and the concern I have now, is that the people who signed this document might have thought, and reasonably might have been misled into believing, that it was accompanied by a legitimate scientific paper setting out legitimate climate change science.  Even the people who promote the Oregon petition admit that most of the signatories to the petition were not climate scientists.  Thus, a fair number of them didn’t really have any way of judging the science except as it might have been placed in front of them.

And what was placed in front of the signatories, along with the petition, was a letter bearing the signature of a former president of the National Academy of Sciences.  (A president who had gone to Cloud-Cuckooland by way of the tobacco-denial industry, but the signatories were unlikely to know that.)

And what was placed in front of the signatories was a document wearing the uniform of a prestigious scientific paper from a prestigious scientific organization.  If you get a paper accepted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that’s big stuff in the scientific world.  It shouts legitimacy.

Given those well-documented circumstances, the first 17,000 signatories to this petition were fundamentally lied to.   Without the lie, there might been far fewer signatures.

So.  Remove the lie, and what is left?  Nothing that anybody can point to with certainty.  Remove the lie and the first 17,000 signatures disappear.  Legitimately disqualified.

As for the other signatures….

Well, Sam, just how many worms do you need to find in your apple before you decide not to bite into it again?