Signing’s the easy part

Where’s their research?

A screenshot taken from a website that purports to list the names of 31,487 scientists who—when the petition was initially posted in 1998—urged the U.S. government to reject the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

A screenshot taken from a website that purports to list the names of 31,487 scientists who—when the petition was initially posted in 1998—urged the U.S. government to reject the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Few of the signatories have a background in climate science.

Those 30,000 scientists are back.

Actually, they never went away. Climate change denialists have been claiming for nearly two decades that there is a list of thousands of “scientists” who consider climate change a myth if not a hoax.

It came back to the news pages last week when a site called YourNewsWire swallowed it whole and published a report, prompting the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site Politifact to run a piece titled “No, 30,000 scientists have not said climate change is a hoax.”

At issue is a website known variously as the Oregon Petition, the OISM Petition and the Global Warming Petition Project that purports to list the names of 31,487 scientists who—when the petition was initially posted in 1998—urged the U.S. government to reject the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The petition they signed read, in part: “The proposed limits on greenhouse gases would harm the environment, hinder the advance of science and technology, and damage the health and welfare of mankind. 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. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

The petition was posted by the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine in Cave Junction, Oregon. The OISM was founded by biochemist Arthur B. Robinson, former chair of the Oregon Republican Party and a four-time U.S. House candidate. Robinson is a former president of the Linus Pauling Institute who was forced out by Pauling and the institute’s board of directors.

It appears that the signatories to the petition were contacted when the OISM sent signature cards to mailing lists of various professional groups. The petition originally had 17,000 signatures, but in 2007, another push for signatures was made, raising the total to 31,487. One consequence of these dates is that the signatories did not have the benefit of many subsequent years of evolving science and of most scrutiny of the climate science process by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Some of the signatories have told interviewers they would not, in view of later science, sign the petition today. In 2011, geologist Larry Joe Garside, a former University of Nevada, Reno instructor, told us, “I’m not sure that I would sign that again today. I’d have to review it. I think I still actually doubt if we have all the information on causes, but I don’t doubt that we have global warming.”

Another consequence of those dates is that a substantial number of the signatories are deceased.

The signature requirements were fairly loose, encouraging those not in the climate field to sign. The petition says only that signers “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 the signatories were poorly vetted, leading to such distinguished scientists as Charles Darwin, Ginger Spice, I.C. Ewe, John Grisham, Michael J. Fox, Frank Burns, B. J. Honeycutt and Benjamin Pierce signing.

By some estimates, only 39 climate scientists are included on the petition.

Even the total number of signatures, while it may sound impressive to the layperson, is not great. The U.S. Department of Education reported during the Bush administration (2008) that since the 1970-71 school year, 10.6 million science graduates have taken degrees of the kind called for by the OISM criteria. The website Skeptical Science says that means the Oregon Petition’s 32,000 total out of 10 million would be approximately three tenths of one percent.

We first dealt with this topic six years ago (“Everyone’s a scientist,” Jan. 13, 2011) when we reported that 346 Nevadans had signed the petition, “though it appears that few if any of them are climate scientists.” We reported then that at least 21 were medical doctors (we have since identified a twenty-second), two were veterinarians, and a further sampling included a retired research geologist, a recently graduated immunologist, a urologist who founded a John Birch Society chapter, a deceased political figure named Greg Millspaugh, a physicist, and a Robert C. Broadbent who was not the well known Clark County political figure or the former Washoe County legislator of that name.

The Politifact article, by Jon Greenberg, found that the “use of the word ’scientists’ is misleading, since a signatory need not be a scientist today and need not have done more than earned a bachelor of science degree in any field. The actual number of climate-related specialists is about 12 percent of the total. And these are not currently confirmed signatories as the list has been circulating since 1998.” Politifact gave the petition a ranking of “Pants on fire” for its reliability.

Nevada names

In view of the renewed attention to the petition, we ran some checks on an additional sampling of Nevada names on the petition. This is not an easy task, as researchers have pointed out, because the OISM does not list anything but the bare names—no affiliations, often no middle initials, that would aid in vetting the signatures.

We particularly checked unusual names on the list, to reduce the chances of confusing the Nevada signatures with other people of the same names.

A Durk Pearson is a science fiction writer. He graduated from MIT with a triple major in physics, biology and psychology.

Kent Redwine, now deceased, was a chemist with bachelor and doctoral degrees from UNR.

Ralph D. Mulhollen is a Gardnerville geologist.

Bertrand Chiasson, deceased, was a chemist.

Jason Abel has a B.S. in civil and environmental engineering from the University of Utah.

Timothy J Bray is an orthopedic surgeon in Reno.

Penio D. Penev is a mechanical engineer.

Peter J. Giddings may be Pete Giddings, the San Francisco weathercaster who worked in Reno for two years. His website does not list a college degree in meteorology or any other field, though he worked in combat weather operations in the Air Force for four years. In any event, meteorology and climatology are different fields.

One thing that was striking about our sample was how many of the Nevada signatures came from mining industry figures. When we tracked their employment, they were not generally from coal mining—which has an unsurprising hostility to climate science—but from firms like Newmont that engage in precious minerals mining or other non-coal exploration.

Larry D. Kornze is a geological engineer with a B.Sc. and P.Eng (a Canadian credential of professional engineer) who has worked for Goldex Resources.

Thomas R. Kalk was with Homestake Mining in 1984.

Robert C. Horton, deceased, was a mining engineer and director of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Richard G. Laprairie worked for Consolidated Zeibright Gold Mines and holds numerous mining claims.

Mary Korpi is retired from Newmont Mining Corp.

UNR environmental chemist Glenn Miller said there is a sense of common-interest among all kinds of mining, which may explain the large number of non-coal mining figures. He said, “They look at the broad view of the entire industry.” In addition, he said, even western minerals mining uses huge amounts of energy—“Crushing rock is an expensive, energy intensive process”— which makes them concerned about the costs that could come from some remedies to climate change, such as energy taxes designed to hold down carbon use.

But he also said there is a generational change going on in mining, as younger figures come on the scene and respond to the accumulating science. “I have seen papers produced in mining that basically said, ’We need to start cutting energy use,’” Miller said. That is a type of evolution that has been going on in a number of fields, such as ranching.

Few of the figures in our sample have a background in climate science. Nor did we find any evidence that they function as scientists—doing original research or publishing reports of their research, with one exception—a report in a mining-related journal.

Other internet organizations that have previously challenged the claims of the petition include Snopes and Skeptical Science.

The petition has become something of a nuisance in another way. Some publications have experienced readers who load the entire 31,487 signatures into reader comments.