28 July 2008

Petitioning on climate, part 2

Part 2 here requires a little specialized knowledge, namely that there is a broadly based scientific professional society relevant to climate issues in the US; it is the AGU http://www.agu.org, and they have a class of members who have been recognized for their consistently high quality work (Fellows). The American Meteorological Society, http://www.ametsoc.org, is relevant of course, but is primarily meteorological with only a modest number of oceanographers, glaciologists, hydrologists, ... particularly as compared to the numbers the AGU has. On the other hand, AGU includes space physicists, mineralogists, ... as well, which takes us afield from climate. I'm a member of both societies, so you could call it specialized knowledge to know about them. But these organizations are easy enough to find if you set out looking.

In part 1, we looked a bit at whether the numbers of signers was large. The petition project itself, and even more those who quote it, wants us to believe that there is 'a lot' of scientific opposition. But it turns out that most of the signers are nonscientists, much less scientists in something relevant to climate; worse, the numbers are actually quite small compared to the sizes of the fields they were mass mailing to. Junk mail rate.

For part 2 here, let's look to see whether many of the people in the AGU have signed. We'd want to do a later check whether it was mineralogists vs. atmospheric scientists, but it's a start. Since the AGU has about 50,000 members, I didn't want to try checking the whole list. But AGU fellows are a limited population. Unfortunately, it turns out that the 0.1% I mentioned was how many can be inducted per year. Ouch. There are quite a few more Fellows than I was thinking. Nevertheless, I started checking alphabetically.
Last names beginning with A: 0 of 41 fellows have signed
Last names beginning with B: 0 of 91 fellows have signed

As this is tedious and error prone (just how many 'Browns' are there? yikes. Names like Grumbine are much easier!) I turned to the list of 2008 fellows (not yet included in the full list). There are 51 new members. Checking the names there, I found 2 name matches, but ... Well, the names that matched are Charles R. Bacon and James W. Kirchner. But the Fellow Bacon is working in California and the signer Bacon is in Michigan, while the Fellow Kirchner has a PhD and the signer does not. So we're to 0 of the 51 new Fellows. (I'll note that it isn't a requirement that a Fellow, or AGU member, have a PhD. What matters is doing good work in the area (Fellow) or be studying or have studied the area (member).)

0 of the 183 AGU Fellows I've checked so far have signed the petition. If you'd like to assist the check, please do; send your results to me at plutarchspam at aim dt com. AGU's listing of fellows is at http://www.agu.org/inside/fellows.html The Petition Project's listing of signers is at http://petitionproject.org/gwdatabase/Signers_By_Last_Name.php And, by all means, do recheck my tallies for what I've checked so far.

The real point, though, is that the petition project has tried to mislead us, not the exact numbers. They want us to believe that engineers, doctors, and veterinarians (among other things) are scientists; they're not. They want us to believe that the number of signers is not 'a few', but as I've shown in parts 1 and 2, using only information that requires no special study, it in fact is only a few -- under 1% of the people they consider eligible have signed (in the areas I've checked, to be sure, but I did hit the largest groups). They want us to believe that the petition is about science, but the petition itself doesn't ask any scientific questions (check it out, pay attention to that major weasel word 'catastrophic'), and its main conclusion is actually about signing political agreements -- not science. And ... well, quite a few things, including that being dead is no bar to being on the list. Edward Teller, signer of their sample form, has been dead since 2003.

What should a citizen do when trying to figure out where the science is on climate change? It'd take forever to go through every document on every site and read every book and then apply this sort of method to it. My take is that sources which mislead me on basic things that I can check probably don't suddenly get more accurate in the areas that I can't. If it's a major project of the organization (as opposed to some loose cannon shot off his mouth), then that organization (or that loose cannon) is an unreliable source. This project is a major effort (later spun off to its own project and web domain ) of the http://www.oism.org/, and several of its staff (of 6 faculty and 7 regular volunteers) are the major people involved in the petition project. Your call as to loose cannon vs. institution, but it's several loose cannons from a small group.

That weeds out a couple of web sites and a few people as dubious sources, which doesn't really gain us a lot in a world with millions (billions?) of web sites and billions of web pages.

But we can go another step and consider folks who cite the petition project as showing what the project claimed. As I've shown, it doesn't take much research to find that the project's claims don't match what is really there. So, people and sources that cite it uncritically are at least not doing homework on what they cite to me. I do mention a number of things in chatting with a friend over a beer that I've never researched (life being short already) but that I just heard somewhere. Fine. But it does mean that in those areas I'd be a poor person to try to learn the topic from. Not that I (or those petition-citing sources) are bad folks, but we haven't done homework in those areas. Doing a web search on '31,000 scientists' brings up a ton of hits (something like 40,000). On the first two pages citing the petition uncritically (or even enthusiastically) are:

Cites as an 'exclusive', not an editorial. Bob Unruh
blog, Noel Sheppard.
Dennis Avery

As best I can see, none are editorials or opinion when at news outlets.

I'll start a summary of unreliable sources, probably at my web site rather than here. Please do suggest other candidates, to the same address. To be a candidate, the site or person must: make an error that can be detected by a nonspecialist -- on an important point to his argument (a primary dubious source), or, cite a primary dubious source uncritically. Not all errors count; for example, in my first paper a word was supposed to be 'parameter', but it got published with 'satellite'. An error, but it didn't affect the argument about ice sheets. For now, it also doesn't count that one person using highly specialized methods detected an error in another highly skilled person's work. I'm going for that citizen level where people can throughly check things out for themselves. That's why, for instance, I have so many links here and the notes are excruciatingly long. Check everything out yourself. If you think I'm wrong, send me your reasons why, with at least equal care to what I've done.


Philip H. said...

A good thorough analysis, and it does, essentially, disprove the petitioners claims (at least within accepted scientific practice of what constitutes proof). Sadly, you won't convince too many people. Why? Because this isn't a fight about facts an d figures, its a fight about fears. Those opposed to AGW are afraid of many things - more government regulation, criminal prosecution and civil legal liability, the human social aspects of the world moving beyond their individual control, technology. Your stellar analysis will not assuage their fears. And sadly, until someone does, they won't look at the facts and listen to reason.

James Wimberley said...

"My take is that sources which mislead me on basic things that I can check probably don't suddenly get more accurate in the areas that I can't."
The more concise Latin tag used by lawyers is : falsus in uno, falsus in omnnia. That is, a witness caught out in one lie is completely discredited. It's not a psychological truth; liars tell the truth most of the the time. But the principle is an essential heuristic for assessing the reliability of strangers in any field.

Robert Grumbine said...

Jamesw corrected himself to falsus in unum, falsus in omnia or falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. He mentioned that counts on google seem to favor the latter, but I think the former (accusative case, he notes) is the more correct Latin. Have to check with my daughter.

As he notes, liars tell the truth most of the time. A talented liar can tell 'the truth' all the time. He just doesn't tell you all of it.

kcsphil I'll agree and disagree. On the agree side are things like the fact that I know going in that Arthur Robinson and company will never change their mind regardless of what I write. Folks as far gone as that, I can't do anything with. On the other hand, I do know that there are a surprisingly large number of people who have never done any thinking to speak of one way or the other. Today they're pro-this and tomorrow (after someone scared them in that direction), they're anti-this. I'd prefer they be aiming there because they know what they're looking at.

In a different side of the matter, I'll disagree with you. That is, I have some experience (not enormous) with folks who are committed to a position on science based on some nonscience concern. Frontal 'you should change your mind because ...' never works there. What can work, though, is aiming them at a source which explains the science involved in detail, and without reference to the thing they're concerned about.

An astronomy student of mine, for instance, was a young earth creationist by religion. By the end of the class, she understood the science and how some people reconcile their religion with the science.

This is the model I have in mind, in part, with this blog. Also that others can use it as a reference when they're talking to someone like my student -- a place that provides the gory details. But it takes the more confrontational types to make that reference to here ("Since you say you're interested in the science but quote that petition, take a look at (link here) and tell me what he did wrong scientifically.") I think quite a few people don't even know that their opposition is for nonscience reasons.

Robert Grumbine said...

Coment from Anonymous last night (26 Aug 2008). Not well supported, and anonymous. If either of those had been otherwise, I'd have let it straight through. As it is, a few bits:

I'm lost as to what significance you place on the famous Edward Teller being dead. His signature is marked with an asterisk signifying that he is no longer alive, and the Petition Project web site clearly states "Thousands of signatures were gathered in a campaign during 1998-1999. Between 1999 and 2007, the list of petition signatories grew gradually, without a special campaign". Are you implying his signature was forged after his death in 2003?

Not at all. Just that a) dead people's opinions on current events are not very useful.
b) more interesting is how few dead people they acknowledge. General population in the US has a mortality of about 9 per 1000, per year. Across a decade, the 17,000 signers of 1997 suffered only 47 deaths, if I remember my asterisk count. That's a rate of 0.27 per 1000, per year -- 33 times better than the general population in spite of the fact that the signers would have to average older. We'd expect actually more like 1600 signers of the original petition to have died. For a petition that is all about showing 'a lot' of opposition, losing 5% through mortality is a problem. c) I infer that they're equally careful about updating records of people who have changed their mind in the last 10 years.

Anon managed to find 2 AGU fellows who had signed (Cain and Hubbard)

It would seem as if this blog entry's goal is to cast doubt on the Petition Project's fundamental motivations, and that no thoughtful AGU scientist would be caught dead signing it.

Do respond to what I actually wrote. I examined the A and B fellows, plus new inductees. C and H are not A or B. I noted as well that people were welcome to go through additional letters of the alphabet and send in the results (plutarchspam at aim dot com). By all means, go through all of C and let me know the result.

Robert Grumbine said...

The anon above turns out to be 'iMETart guy'

Unfortunately, he again didn't respond to what was actually written. (No question was raised about whether those two people had signed.)

He also didn't read that I was making a systematic count. The question was not whether any AGU fellow had signed, but whether many had. The point of the petition is to show that there is 'a lot' of scientific 'opposition'.
After going through the entire list of new Fellows, and the first two letters of the alphabet, and going 0 for 183 in finding people who'd signed, I opened the floor for contributions.

He's still welcome to contribute the C's. As it is, even with his selected additions, there are only 1% signers -- still junk mail rate, as for the doctors and engineers.

Regarding Teller, your explanations a, b & c would have mitigated any thoughts by the casual reader of an implication it was forged. Many might otherwise make an association with artificially inflating political voter registrations.

If someone wants to strain that hard to decide as you did, there's little I can say about it. What I'd said was ... being dead is no bar to being on the list. Edward Teller, signer of their sample form, has been dead since 2003.
And then take another look at point a in the comment above.