Climate and Closure

May 3, 2010

John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber offers this fascinating connection of the “Oregon Petition,” which allegedly offers 31,000 scientists who reject global warming, with the discussion that has been all the rage among (primarily) the right-wing intelliblogigentsia on “epistemic closure.”

Here’s the Wikipedia article, a further debunking from DeSmogBlog and here’s my own investigation from 2002. Some basic points

  • “Scientist’ In this petition means anyone who claims to have gone to university (initially, they had to claim some study of science subjects). The number of actual (PhD with published research) scientists who reject any part of the mainstream consensus on climate change is far smaller (Wikipedia provides a list of such scientists who have at least one published article). The number of such scientists with relevant expertise, who are not obvious cranks, ideologues or hired guns, is small enough to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
  • The petition and its reporting are dishonest in obvious ways (fake PNAS style, misreporting of the content) etc
  • The promoters, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine are obvious fruitcakes

I particularly appreciate the following observation, as I think it’s true. The standard defense is a sort of tu quoque, which makes it all the more refreshing that the discussion about epistemic closure is happening primarily among the right.

To avoid thread derailment, I’d like to defer to a separate thread (coming soon, I promise) the main rightwing response, which is a tu quoque, that is, that the left (here meaning Democrats and everyone to their left) is just as bad. I don’t believe there is anything comparable to the Oregon petition, but I want to leave this for a separate debate.

Instead, I’d like to end with the rhetorical question of whether, given the extent to which the US rightwing movement relies on the deliberate promotion of ignorance, anyone, regardless of their philosophical views on conservatism, libertarianism and so on, can associate with this movement and maintain any intellectual integrity. The converse question for the left, is whether there is any benefit in engaging intellectually with anyone who is, in the end, promoting ignorance and dishonesty by virtue of their affiliations.

For non-regular readers of Crooked Timber, but for climate scientist readers familiar with the Oregon Petition, you may be interested in heading there to participate in the discussion.

Finally, William Saletan offers what I take to be sage advice on how to avoid bubble think. Essentially, he offers the same tips that I propose all of my students should follow, but it should help to bear them in mind. My favorite? “5. Seek wisdom, not victory.”


  1. Ben – Sorry for the off topic comment, but I saw a blog post which struck me as of interest to you.


    As a discussion of morality, how and whether it should be quantified or agreed upon, it struck me as somewhat philosophical.

    • Awesome. Thanks. I completely missed that.

  2. In my opinion, both the IPCC appeal to authority, based on the number of scientists who wrote and reviewed the AR4, and the call to authority based on the 31,000 person list you write about above, both lack persuasion.

    The more people who believe something doesn’t make it more true.

    Either side in the AGW debate can be 100% wrong, or partially wrong, no matter how many people in authority agree with either side.

    So I agree with you, the 31,000 person list is not persuasive.

    • Ah, but there’s a real difference between the two.

      Review is not an appeal to authority, and the IPCC was not engaging in any such action; it was, instead, a census of the most informed opinion which could be found.

      The Oregon Petition, on the other hand, was an appeal to authority, epistemically suspect in the first place and rendered totally risible by the dishonesty of its promoters.

      I believe what you were presenting us with here is what the philosophy types refer to as a false equivalence, in damning both the Oregon Petition, an uncontrolled and fundamentally mendacious censussing of the qualified with a horde of the unqualified, and the IPCC review process, a structured formal process utilizing the best available expertise gained over collective decades of experience and application to the very field that they were being queried about, as pretty much or a muchness.

      • Lars is spot-on. RickA’s response is a variant of one of the standard views listed in the original post, namely, that since AGW is (or might be) wrong, it’s OK to lie about the credentials of opponents.

      • The IPCC consistently refers to its more than 500 lead authors and more than 2000 expert reviewers – which is used in the press as an appeal to authority.

        I agree that this appeal to authority is better based than the petition appeal to authority – but it is still an appeal to authority.

        As the climategate emails show, portions of the IPCC report were written by a small number of lead authors, who favored their own work over other work and ignored expert reviewers comments.

        So, it is not as if all 500 lead authors and each of the over 2000 expert reviews agreed with every sentence in the report – although it is often portrayed like that in the press (or even read every sentence in the report). Again, an appeal to authority.

        Personally, I think history will show that while AGW does exist, the portion of warming due to human activity will be shown to be smaller than currently touted – and the portion of warming due to natural variability will be shown to be larger than currently touted. But that is a personal opinion from a non-climate expert. Only time will shed light on this question.

        Also – Jonh Quiggin – I do not say it is ok to lie about the credentials of anybody.

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