September 23rd, 2013 .

Truthiness Strikes Back

Pat Morden

Recently a friend sent me a link to a website about climate change. Well, it was actually about how climate change concerns are not real science but rather the result of an evil conspiracy. The site included a reference to the Oregon Petition.

The Oregon Petition to the United States government urged politicians to reject any policies based on concerns over global warming and in particular the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (which you will remember the U.S. did not sign). It was organized and circulated by Arthur Robinson, president of the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Past National Academy of Sciences president Frederick Seitz wrote a cover letter endorsing the petition. According to Robinson, the petition had over 31,000 signatories, including more than 9,000 PhDs.

Very impressive and highly credible, right? Makes you want to run right out and buy an SUV.

Turns out, the truth is a little more complex.

Let’s start with Frederick Seitz, who sounds like a scientific heavy hitter. Seitz was an American physicist of some repute – until he was hired by the makers of Camel cigarettes to head their Medical Research Committee. In this position Seitz directed millions of dollars to researchers who coincidentally found no link between tobacco and serious health problems. He did serve as president of the National Academy of Sciences in the 60s, but the Academy finally disassociated itself from him in 1998 over an article denying climate change that was deliberately designed to look like an NAS (peer-reviewed) journal article.

And the thousands of scientists who signed the petition? Many of them were engineers, doctors and scientists in fields other than climatology. The list also included fictional characters from M.A.S.H. and Star Wars, Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, Charles Darwin, and someone called I.C. Ewe. In 2001 Scientific American took a random sample of 30 of the 1,400 signatories claiming to hold a PhD in a climate-related science. Of the 26 they were able to identify, 11 said they still agreed with the petition, including one active climate researcher, and two with some relevant expertise. Based on the results, the journal extrapolated a core of about 200 Doubting Thomas scientists – a respectable number but a drop in the bucket when compared with the many thousands who are deeply concerned about climate change.

Frankly, I was stunned by how quickly this apparent brick wall of scientific opinion turned to smoke. As communicators (and as human beings) we don’t automatically know truth from truthiness. But we do have a responsibility to try to separate the two. With the Internet offering both in massive quantities, that takes time, a critical mind, and some common sense. It’s worth the extra effort.




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