31,478… 13,245… 152 OISM "scientists" can't be wrong

robinsonIn early 2008, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) published their Petition Project, a list of names from people who all claimed to be scientists and who rejected the science behind the theory of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming (AGW). This was an attempt to by the OISM to claim that there were far more scientists opposing AGW theory than there are supporting it. This so-called petition took on special importance coming after the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fourth Assessment Report, and specifically the Working Group 1 (WG1) report on the science and attribution of climate change to human civilization.

The WG1 report was authored and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists with varying expertise in climate and related fields, and so having a list of over 30,000 scientists that rejected the WG1’s conclusions was a powerful meme that AGW skeptics and deniers could use to cast doubt on the IPCC’s conclusions and, indirectly, on the entire theory of climate disruption. And in fact, this meme has become widespread in both legacy and new media today.

It is also false.

According to the Petition Project “qualifications” page, “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.” The fields that are considered “appropriate” by the OISM are as follows:

  • Atmosphere, Earth, and Environment fields: atmospheric science, climatology, meteorology, astronomy, astrophysics, earth science, geochemistry, geology, geophysics, geoscience, hydrology, environmental engineering, environmental science, forestry, oceanography
  • Computers and Math: computer science, mathematics, statistics
  • Physics and Aerospace: physics, nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, aerospace engineering
  • Chemistry: chemistry, chemical engineering
  • Biochemistry, Biology, and Agriculture: biochemistry, biophysics, biology, ecology, entomology, zoology, animal science, agricultural science, agricultural engineering, plant science, food science
  • Medicine: medical science, medicine
  • General Engineering and General Science: engineering, electrical engineering, metallurgy, general science

oismpet-smThe OISM’s qualifications for being a “scientist” are expansive, and as such there are a number of questions that have to be answered before we can take this list seriously. What expertise does a nuclear engineer or a medical doctor or a food scientist or mechanical engineer have that makes them qualified to have an informed opinion on the cause(s) of recent climate disruption? How many of these names are working climate scientists instead of science or math teachers or stay-at-home-mom’s with engineering degrees? How many of these people has actually published a peer-reviewed paper on climate? How many people took a look at the card that served as a “signature” (click on the image to see a larger version) and realized that they could lie about having a science degree and their deception would never be discovered?

At this point it’s literally impossible to know because the names and degrees on the list cannot be verified by anyone outside the OISM. We can only take the OISM’s word that they’re all real names, that all the degrees are correct, and so on. This does not stand up to the most basic tests of scientific credibility.

Unfortunately, the OISM’s list has had its credibility fabricated for it by individuals and groups as diverse as Steve Milloy of Fox News (see this link for a S&R investigation into the background and tactics of Steve Milloy), L. Brent Bozell of conservative “news” site Newsbusters and founder of the conservative Media Research Center, Benita M. Dodd of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, the libertarian/conservative site American Thinker (a site that has regularly failed to fact-check their AGW posts), conservative commentator Deroy Murdock (who works on Project 21 with the wife of one of Steve Milloy’s long-time associates), RightSideNews, Dakota Voice, Dennis T. Avery of the Hudson Institute, Lawrence Solomon of the Financial Post, Michelle Malkin, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, to name just a few of the better known. As a result, the OISM’s petition has been elevated to a level of credibility that is arguably undeserved.

While it’s not possible to test the validity of OISM list directly, it is possible to test the conclusions that have been drawn from the OISM list. Specifically, we can test what percentage the 30,000 “scientists” listed on the OISM petition represent when compared to the total number of scientists in the U.S. And we can then compare that to the percentage represented by the 2000 IPCC AR4 WG1-associated scientists as compared to the estimate number of U.S. climate-related scientists.

According to the OISM website, anyone with a Bachelor’s, Master’s, or Doctorate of Philosophy in a field related to physical sciences is qualified as a scientist. In addition, the OISM sent the petition cards pictured above only to individuals within the U.S. Based on this information, we can us the OISM’s own guidelines to determine how many scientists there are in the U.S. and what percentage of those scientists are represented by the OISM petition.

The U.S. Department of Education tracks the number of graduates from institutions of higher education every year, and has done so since either the 1950-51 or 1970-71 school years, depending on what specifically the Dept. of Ed. was interested in. This data was last updated in the Digest of Education Statistics: 2008. We’re specifically interested in the number of degrees that have been awarded in the various scientific disciplines as defined by the OISM in the list above. This information is available in the following tables within the 2008 Digest: 296, 298, 302, 304, 310, 311, and 312. Table 1 below show how many graduates there were in the various categories defined by the Dept. of Ed. since the 1970-71 school year (click on the image for a larger version). The numbers have been corrected to account for the fact that PhD’s will usually have MS degrees as well, and that both are preceded by BS degrees.


As you can see, Table 1 shows that there were over 10.6 million science graduates as defined by the OISM since the 1970-71 school year. This is a conservative estimate as illustrated by teh 242,000 graduates in biological and biomedical sciences from 1950-51 through 1969-70 alone, never mind the 166,000 engineering graduates, and so on. Many of these individuals are still alive today and would be considered scientists according to the OISM definition thereof.

The OISM website lists how many signatures they have for scientists in each of their categories. Given the number of graduates and the number of signatures claimed by the OISM, we can calculate the percentage of OISM-defined scientists who signed as referenced to the total. These results are shown in Table 2 below.


In other words, the OISM signatories represent a small fraction (~0.3%) of all science graduates, even when we use the OISM’s own definition of a scientist.

However, as mentioned above, it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether a veterinarian or forestry manager or electrical engineer should qualify as a scientist. If we remove all the engineers, medical professionals, computer scientists, and mathematicians, then the 31,478 “scientists” turn into 13,245 actual scientists, as opposed to scientists according to the OISM’s expansive definition. Of course, not all of them are working in science, but since some medical professionals and statisticians do work in science, it’s still a reasonable quick estimate.

However, it’s not reasonable to expect that all of those actual scientists are working in climate sciences. Certainly the 39 climatologists, but after that, it gets much murkier. Most geologists don’t work as climate scientists, although some certainly do. Most meteorologists do weather forecasting, but understanding the weather is radically different than understanding climate. So we can’t be sure beyond the 39 climatologists, although we can reasonably assume that the number is far less than the 13,245 actual scientists claimed by the OISM.

13,245 scientists is only 0.1% of the scientists graduated in the U.S. since the 1970-71 school year.

We can, however, compare the number of atmospheric scientists, climagologists, ocean scientists, and meteorologists who signed this petition to the number of members of the various professional organizations. For example, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) has over 55,000 members, of which over 7,200 claim that atmospheric sciences is their primary field. The OISM claims 152 atmospheric scientists. Compared to the atmospheric scientist membership in the AGU, the OISM signatories are only 2.1%, and this estimate is high given the fact that the AGU does not claim all atmospheric scientists as members.

The AGU hydrology group has over 6,000 members who call hydrology their primary field. The OISM list has 22 names that claim to be hydrologists, or 0.4%.

The AGU ocean sciences group claims approximately 6,800 members. The OISM has 83 names, or 1.2%. And again, given that AGU membership is not required to be a practicing ocean scientists, this number is inflated.

The American Meteorological Society claims over 14,000 members and the OISM claims 341 meteorologists as petition signatories. That’s only 2.4%.

It’s clear that the OISM names don’t represent a significant number of scientists when compared to either the total number of science graduates in the U.S. or to the number of practicing scientists who work in likely relevant fields. But that’s not all.

Over recent years, various organizations have set out to estimate just how widespread the supposed “scientific consensus” on AGW actually is. Two recent efforts were conducted by the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University and by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The STATS survey found that 84% of climate scientists surveyed “personally believe human-induced warming is occurring” and that “[o]nly 5% believe that that human activity does not contribute to greenhouse warming.” The STATS survey involved a random sampling of “489 self-identified members of either the American Meteorological Society or the American Geophysical Union” and it has a theoretical sampling error of +/- 4%.

The Pew survey was taken in early 2009 and asked over 2000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) their opinion on various scientific issues, including climate disruption. 84% of AAAS respondents felt that “warming is due to human activity” compared to only 10% who felt that “warming is due to natural causes.” The AAAS has over 10 million members, and the results of the survey are statistically valid for the entire population with a theoretical sampling error of +/- 2.5%.

84% of 10 million scientist members of the AAAS is 8.4 million scientists who agree that climate disruption is human-caused. 84% of the climate scientists (conservatively just the members of the atmospheric science group of the AGU) is, conservatively, 6,000 scientists who have direct and expert knowledge of climate disruption. The 13,245 scientists and 152 possible climate scientists who signed the OISM petition represent a small minority of the totals.

The IPCC AR4 WG1 report was written and reviewed by approximately 2000 scientists. If we assume that the 20,000 AGU members who claim to be atmospheric scientists, ocean scientists, or hydrologists represent the pool of potential experts in climate science in the U.S., then approximately 10% of all climate scientists were directly involved in creating the over 1000 page report.

That compares to less than 1% of all OISM “scientists” who mailed a pre-printed postcard.

Ultimately, The OISM petition will continue to rear it’s ugly head until its fabricated credibility has been thoroughly demolished. Social conservatives and libertarians, each of which has their own ideological reasons to push the OISM petition, have been effective at keeping the “30,000 scientists reject warming chicken-littleism of IPCC” meme circulating throughout conservative media outlets, even as climate disruption-focused media have worked at limiting the damage from the OISM petition. But given the fact that the science supporting a dominantly anthropogenic cause for climate disruption is overwhelming, it’s only a matter of time before the OISM petition wilts in the heat.

22 replies »

  1. Might be kind of interesting for the author to post the scientifically valid empirical data that proves that man-made carbon dioxide is the sole cause of the variations in global temperatures. And then, just for giggles and grins, the author can post his explanation for the downward trend in temperatures that has occurred since the start of the 21st century WHILE the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has continued to increase.

    Instead of repeating the same tired, media driven claims about the the number of “scientists” who supposedly authored the key section of IPCC AR4 WG1 (Chapter 9 for those who actually care about the facts). Which was, according to data readily available on the IPCC AR4 website, 52.
    And, instead of explaining why comments provided to the 52 authors, again readily available on the IPCC AR4 website, were summarily dismissed by the authors…

    • I recommend you read the last 18 months worth of my Weekly Carboholic columns and the comments therein (esp. my arguments with AGW denier Judy Cross – there’s massive amounts of data there), my detailed debunking of over 20 of the most common denier arguments and the massive associated comment thread, my co-blogger’s post on John Coleman and the associated comments there too, and my post on the difference between weather and climate. Then get back to me.

      There’s a lot more to the IPCC than just Chapter 9, seeing as attributing climate change to human activity cannot occur without a deep understanding of what’s happening as described in Chapters 1-8. As for the complaints I’ve read about the web about how few people explicitly endorse all the IPCC’s conclusions, or even all of just Chapter 9’s conclusions, those complaints show a complete lack of understanding of how science works. If 10 claims are made and a scientist supports only 9 of them, then our example scientist doesn’t wholly support the claims and will say so. Which is why complaints like this are one example of how you lie with statistics.

  2. The catastrophic AGW claim is a very strong assertion that a substantial amount of global warming is due to man’s emissions of CO2 due to the use of fossil fuels and that this has catastrophic consequences. It further generally proceeds to claim that drastic curtailment of fossil fuels is necessary to avoid catastrophe. This is both a scientific claim and an economic claim. The economists are key to measuring the scale of any catastrophe and providing a response to that catastrophe should there be one. In addition, if the climate science is definitive and the general public is to be subjected to job loses, financial losses, and lifestyle changes, do you not think that the scientific argument for great AGW effects should be presented to and understood by most scientists? It is completely appropriate that general scientists and economists should make their opinions on catastrophic AGW known.

  3. Hi Brian.
    Nice work. On my website I’ve been tallying signers of a wide range of petitions and open letters both for and against action on climate change;, and collecting stats on how much they’ve published on climate and how widely cited they are.
    I’m writing up why I had to skip the OISM petition (way too long list, names only makes it tedious to track who might actually have published, very few qualified on climate). Check out my site for another take on who the climate ‘skeptics’ actually are, and how much (or how little) they’ve published.

    Jim Prall
    Toronto, Canada

  4. Hi, I thought I might cross post a comment I made on Kate’s excellent Climatesight blog.
    Before I reproduce the comment, I recognise that your “relative percentages” is another powerful argument to downplay any misplaced significance that people may attribute to the OISM; maybe if we launched a similar petition to “all scientists”, but worded to back up the IPCC/mainstream climate science view, we would get 3.2 million signatories…

    However, maybe we have all been missing something very simple. The petition is worded in a particular way and attached is a pseudo-scientific paper – that others have shown was made to look like it was formatted as a contribution to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Most scientists or those with a science degree that was not particularly relevant or with little knowledge of climate science would have looked (or just glanced) at this “paper” which looks “sciency” and taken it as read that there were credible publishing scientists who disputed the alleged consensus view (as presented in the wording) that there is “proof” that AGW will lead to “catastrophic warming”. As scientists, they would know all about uncertainty and so they would sign the petition because the straw man position presented of consensus climate science in the OISM wording has no “uncertainty” in the language. Legitimately, James Hansen could have signed it!

    Here’s my comment:
    Pointing to the few Mickey Mice, Gerry Halliwells and dead people in the OISM petition is all very well, but still a very large number of legit scientists, or those with science degrees, signed it.

    What the Oregon petition proves is that scientists, or those with science degrees, are at least as vulnerable to being misdirected as the general public. Indeed, possibly more so. A degree or qualifications in one scientific field does not seem to bestow a universal ability to spot what’s wrong or right in another field.

    In psychic research it is pretty much standard knowledge that a fake psychic can more easily fool a scientist than a non-specialist – a scientist is looking for a rational explanation of the phenomena they see in front of them (which includes possible unknown powers), whereas the magician is skilled at making an effect happen that looked like it happened for one reason but was actually accomplished by another (deceptive) method.

    As far as the OISM petition goes, I have already pointed out elsewhere that the operative deception in it is that one has to sign that there is “no proof” that AGW will lead to “catastrophic warming”. Indeed there is no proof nor will there be until after we have finished the experiment by which time it would be way to late to do anything. Climate scientists themselves could almost sign the OISM.

    What AGW science gives us is major probabilities with small uncertainties but the carefully crafted misleading words of the OISM sucked the average “non climate scientist” in.

    The sceptic denier crowd use the OISM and similar in a deceitful way. To the public, they trumpet that this very large number of scientists don’t believe we’re in certain proved danger (which we’re not – just almost certain danger) and the public – like people watching a magician who don’t know he’s a magician – take this to mean that most scientists (far, far more than practising climate scientists) say there is no real problem – move along, nothing to worry about here.

    The deceit of the OISM is both in the wording and how it is presented and used.

  5. You know…this type of things seems just typical. I don’t know why there’s even any debate on this issue anymore. I live in Michigan, and it’s pushing into the 70’s here in the beginning of November. The summer was hot as heck.

    Even the migratory patters of bids is being impacted. My husband is a hunter and opening day of the goose season was a joke because it was in the mid-70’s so the geese stayed happy and warm up in Canada and didn’t even bother to come down this way until the season was almost over. It’s getting hotter people! You can see this yourself, you don’t need any fancy charts and graphs, nor do you need “experts” to put some type of blessing on the diagnosis before we do something about it.