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This is a pretty specific question – in the Wall Street Journal article dated January 27, 2012 entitled "No Need to Panic About Global Warming. There's no compelling scientific argument for drastic action to 'decarbonize' the world's economy." The article claims that 16 scientists argue against a need to react to climate change, including agreeing in writing to statements such as:

Candidates should understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.

The issue is not about whether their statements are true, but rather whether these 16 people are what could be considered "scientists", i.e. "one engaging in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge".

Would these 16 people qualify as what one would ordinarily call scientists? If so, is their expertise in a relevant field?

I ask because I would like to know whether the qualifications and reputability of these individuals lends any credence to their claims. e.g. are these the forerunners of scientific thought, or are they somewhat peripheral ideologues?

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A more interesting question (but less of a notable claim) would be: Are these 16 people scientists in a relevant field of study? –  Flimzy Jan 29 '12 at 1:41
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Also, what's the significance of 16 scientists, if thousands of other scientists around the world are claiming the opposite. The fact that they can count the number of scientists supporting such a point of view would lead me to not put too much faith into it. –  Kibbee Jan 29 '12 at 2:42
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@Flimzy: that should really be the question. For instance, being a Nobel prize for chemistry would not magically make one a virologist (any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is only partially coincidental :P). –  nico Feb 1 '12 at 20:32
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As a general point, which part of good skepticism involves the ad hominem attack on the author(s) and not the logical and actual critique of what they said? –  matt_black Feb 1 '12 at 23:28
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As a general point, which part of asking if the author(s) credentials are as impressive as they're made out to be involves an ad hominem attack? Bad things happen when you hire a highschool dropout to run your cat-cracking plant just because he says he has a degree in chmical engineering. catcracking.com/SeminarUSA/Papers.shtm Global warming? same issue, credentials matter. –  user951 Feb 6 '12 at 16:15
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2 Answers 2

up vote 20 down vote accepted

(Just an up-front statement for folks who may be new here.) First of all, the entire question of climate change has been addressed here quite throughly. Several times in fact. With several of the canards addressed as well. Those repeatedly as well.

The term scientist can be applied to anyone with a Bachelor of Science degree (a fact that has been abused before, see below). The article states that these scientists are (emphasis mine):

Claude Allegre, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Earth, University of Paris; J. Scott Armstrong, cofounder of the Journal of Forecasting and the International Journal of Forecasting; Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism, Rockefeller University; Roger Cohen, fellow, American Physical Society; Edward David, member, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences; William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton; Michael Kelly, professor of technology, University of Cambridge, U.K.; William Kininmonth, former head of climate research at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences, MIT; James McGrath, professor of chemistry, Virginia Technical University; Rodney Nichols, former president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences; Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer, designer of Voyager and SpaceShipOne; Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator; Nir Shaviv, professor of astrophysics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem; Henk Tennekes, former director, Royal Dutch Meteorological Service; Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists, Geneva.

In looking at that list, of those 16, I would say 5 are in a relevant field of study as Flimsy asked (this is my opinion only based on their stated titles, a slashdot post by [Tacroy]5 did a better analysis, I was trying to be generous for their sake). And again, just because an incredibly small number of scientists disagree on a subject and have the capital and clout to publish in a major newspaper does not lend any particular veracity to their claim. And since there are indeed a large number of climate scientists (by some estimates, 30,000 in the US alone), and that worldwide 97-98% agree with humans causing global climate change, I am surprised that the Wall Street Journal went with such a weak list. This seems to be an extension of the previous dissent list that was debunked.

In fact, OISM signatories represent a tiny fraction (~0.3%) of all US science graduates (petition cards were only sent to individuals within the U.S)

According to figures from the US Department of Education Digest of Education Statistics: 2008, 10.6 million science graduates have gained qualifications consistent with the OISM polling criteria since the 1970-71 school year. 32,000 out of 10 million is not a very compelling figure, but a tiny minority - approximately 0.3 per cent.

If anything, this article, along with all the dissent seems to be just the same as Project Steve instead of true scientific dissent. This is more sophistry to muddy an issue that has firm evidence supporting it, and people are attempting to play politics with science. The United States seems to be the worst nation on the earth for this type of manufactroversy.

I know it's a wikipedia link, however they are reporting just statements that are in the public record. The important thing to note is that these are statements of consensus from these organizations.

A question that frequently arises in popular discussion of climate change is whether there is a scientific consensus on climate change. Several scientific organizations have explicitly used the term "consensus" in their statements

American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2006: "The conclusions in this statement reflect the scientific consensus represented by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the Joint National Academies' statement."

US National Academy of Sciences: "In the judgment of most climate scientists, Earth’s warming in recent decades has been caused primarily by human activities that have increased the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. ... On climate change, [the National Academies’ reports] have assessed consensus findings on the science..."

Joint Science Academies' statement, 2005: "We recognise the international scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."

Joint Science Academies' statement, 2001: "The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognise IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes, and we endorse its method of achieving this consensus."

American Meteorological Society, 2003: "The nature of science is such that there is rarely total agreement among scientists. Individual scientific statements and papers—the validity of some of which has yet to be assessed adequately—can be exploited in the policy debate and can leave the impression that the scientific community is sharply divided on issues where there is, in reality, a strong scientific consensus.... IPCC assessment reports are prepared at approximately five-year intervals by a large international group of experts who represent the broad range of expertise and perspectives relevant to the issues. The reports strive to reflect a consensus evaluation of the results of the full body of peer-reviewed research.... They provide an analysis of what is known and not known, the degree of consensus, and some indication of the degree of confidence that can be placed on the various statements and conclusions."

Network of African Science Academies: “A consensus, based on current evidence, now exists within the global scientific community that human activities are the main source of climate change and that the burning of fossil fuels is largely responsible for driving this change.”

International Union for Quaternary Research, 2008: "INQUA recognizes the international scientific consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."

Australian Coral Reef Society, 2006: "There is almost total consensus among experts that the earth’s climate is changing as a result of the build-up of greenhouse gases.... There is broad scientific consensus that coral reefs are heavily affected by the activities of man and there are significant global influences that can make reefs more vulnerable such as global warming...."

The important thing to take away is that just because a few people have a loud platform for their appeals does not lend any greater credibility to their agendas.

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It seems to me that this way of trolling science is becoming quite common: see for example the 480 creationist scientists (out of thousands). It induces people to fall in the hasty generalisation logical fallacy. –  Sklivvz Jan 29 '12 at 9:55
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@Sklivvz I like that characterization, "Trolling Science" I may have to use it. –  Larian LeQuella Jan 29 '12 at 14:26
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@Sklivvz, just to strengthen your statement: the 480 creationist scientists (out of hundreds of thousands) - ref: Project Steve, as linked in the answer. –  Oddthinking Jan 30 '12 at 2:14
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For more info, Dr. Plait has an interesting reply on this whole trolling of science: blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2012/01/30/… –  Brightblades Jan 30 '12 at 19:28
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Haha! That was my post on Slashdot! Pity I don't get the reputation for it :) –  Tacroy Feb 2 '12 at 19:38
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The following is copied from a post on Slashdot. The poster clearly put a great deal of effort into this answer, but it is exactly on point and has supporting references.

Well, let's look at the sixteen climate scientists who signed this, shall we?

Claude Allegre, former director of the Institute for the Study of the Earth, University of Paris: Sounds reasonable, though it looks like the proper name for the "University of Paris" is the "Paris VI University", or "Pierre and Marie Curie University". Unfortunately, it looks like the man is kind of a crank, and he hasn't been the director of that Institute since 1986, which makes it weird that it's the one thing they list about him.

J. Scott Armstrong, cofounder of the Journal of Forecasting and the International Journal of Forecasting: That's pretty reasonable, but forecasting and climate science aren't exactly the same thing; forecasting is the study of what's going to happen tomorrow or next week in any topic, while climate science is trying to figure out what will happen in the next year or the the next ten years with the weather. Also, Armstrong's professional background seems to be primarily in advertising, not forecasting, and he hasn't actually published any papers on climatology that I can see.

Jan Breslow, head of the Laboratory of Biochemical Genetics and Metabolism, Rockefeller University: I'm not exactly sure what he's doing on this list, since presumably it's a list of climate scientists? I mean, just because he's a researcher in one field doesn't automatically qualify him in others; it's like taking your car to ten mechanics and ignoring what they say, then asking your doctor about it and following his advice.

Roger Cohen, fellow, American Physical Society: This dude seems to be a writer for the NY Times, and I can't seem to find anyone by that name on the list of Fellows of the American Physical Society [aps.org]. Maybe he received his fellowship before 1990? In any case, it doesn't signify much in terms of his ability to evaluate any kind of science; those fellowships are kinda prestigious, but they're handed out for all sorts of things.

Edward David, member, National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Sciences: What can I say? He's an electrical engineer. Would you trust him to diagnose a heart condition? An expert in one subject is not automatically an expert in all subjects.

William Happer, professor of physics, Princeton: What can I say? Damnit Jim, he's a physicist, not a climatologist! Sure, they're related - but would you trust this guy if he was talking on the way that chemists all over the world are trying to fool us about the mind control properties of fluorine? (as a side note, he's also a Fellow of the American Physical Society - why didn't they mention that?)

Michael Kelly, professor of technology, University of Cambridge, U.K.: This dude is kinda hard to Google because he shares a name with a fairly famous guitar company and a well-respected journalist (who died in 2003); however, it looks like he's done some pretty awesome work on semi-conductors. Unfortunately, that doesn't have anything to do with climate research.

William Kininmonth, former head of climate research at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology: Well, for one thing, he hasn't been the head of the ABM since 1998 (this seems to be a theme, you know?); for another, he's trained as a meteorologist, not a climate scientist. Just because they both deal with the weather doesn't necessarily mean that his word carries extra weight, but I do have to admit that he's one of the better signatories of this list.

Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric sciences, MIT: Lindzen is the most impressive name on this list, which makes me really wonder why he's in the middle. He's long been an outspoken skeptic of climate change, and is one of the few who really has a background in the stuff. He really should have been at the top, not the weird French dude who said that asbestos is harmless (even though it killed 22 of his students).

James McGrath, professor of chemistry, Virginia Technical University: Well, he's a chemist. That's not climate science. We've been over this.

Rodney Nichols, former president and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences: Stopped being the president and CEO of the NYAS in 2001. Is that really the best they can do? The administrator of scientific academy that doesn't even focus on climate?

Burt Rutan, aerospace engineer, designer of Voyager and SpaceShipOne: Look, Burt, you're great and all, but you're an engineer, you're not even a scientist.

Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. senator: With a background in geology. That's not climate. It's close, and a lot of geology departments are transitioning over to Earth Systems Science departments that do include things like climate, but Schmitt has a hardcore rocks-and-fossils kind of background.

Nir Shaviv, professor of astrophysics, Hebrew University, Jerusalem: Hey, astrophysics! That's closer than a lot of these other guys. Unfortunately, he's the dude who's been really pushing the solar variation theory of climate change, which has been shot down repeatedly.

Henk Tennekes, former director, Royal Dutch Meteorological Service: Well, he hasn't been the director of the RDMS for a long time, but I can't find out when he left. He also rejected the use of computers in medium-range weather forecasting, and supported this decision by referring to the Bible.

Antonio Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists, Geneva: He's a nuclear physicist! Awesome! But not climate!

In summary: There are “scientists” in here but not with the qualifications that would indicate a peculiar knowledge of climatology. On the spectrum from forerunners of climate science through peripheral ideologues, these individuals would seem to all fall decidedly towards the latter end.

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Again, even if they were all climatologists, it wouldn't matter. Science is not decided ad verecundiam. –  Sklivvz Jan 29 '12 at 16:51
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A cynic might argue that the weakness of the list reflects the fact that most money funding climate change is from governments and they are rarely going to award research money for any topic that challenges the consensus. This effect is bad for science (though it is a product not a cause of the consensus on climate change). –  matt_black Jan 29 '12 at 19:58
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It's a good point @matt_black. I doubt climate change is as much of a hoax as Piltdown Man, but it is worthwhile to bear in mind the systemic pressures for conformity. The one person on the list who seems qualified to carry this opinion is Richard Lindzen. I wonder what his story is. –  Brian M. Hunt Jan 29 '12 at 20:25
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@BrianM.Hunt - The point is these guys are pointing at the methods they are using and saying, "That is not scientific!" - They aren't saying its not worth worrying about so much as they are saying the science you are using to make decisions on is bad. That is not saying they are wrong just that they are inventing statistics, and picking corroborating data while ignoring a significant number of outliers. They are inventing metrics and claiming validity with out any proof. And they are ignoring historical data where they decide it doesn't matter arbitrarily. –  Chad Jan 30 '12 at 16:59
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