Science Bypass: The petition to deny climate change at the APS

John Mashey has written a very thorough write up (executive summary and conclusions bellow) on the recent petition to deny basic climate science directed at the APS. A petition that despite intense effort only managed to get 0.45% of APS members to sign it; slightly better than junk mail response rates.

Specifically the petition wanted to overturn the APS’s position statement on climate change which sates:

Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes.

The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring. If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

This position is in line with the IPCC the National Academies of Science from Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA, the American Meteorological Society, American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of America, the Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, thousands of peer-reviewed journals, and others.

In fact no scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of the human influence on the recent climate.

Obviously the APS rejected the petition and re-affirmed its stance on climate change. But the APS was not the primary target of the petition. The target was decidedly less scientific; it was the media, who (spurred in large part by the noise generated by the denialosphere) gave the petition far more coverage than it deserved (none) based on its scientific merits (also none).

such campaigns, often mounted, not to convince scientists, but to create and maintain doubt in the public.

Thankfully John Mashey’s very detailed analysis shows beyond any reasonable doubt how such petitions are nothing more than an attempt at science bypass. They are not the grassroots efforts they may seem at first blush, but rather a targeted effort spread by a tightly-connected, dedicated core group, that are not even experts in the subject at hand. John Mashey compares this to:

A patient has serious heart problems, and top cardiologists strongly recommend a quad bypass. If a tiny fraction of the world‘s brain surgeons sign an ―open letter saying that cardiologists are ignorant of heart disease, they might be right, but only the most wishful-thinking patients would listen.

Yet the writers of such petitions wants to believe that they represent a sea-change within the scientific community .

Science Bypass

Anti-science Petition to APS from folks with SEPP, George C. Marshall Institute, Heartland, CATO
John R. Mashey
JohnMashey (At)
November 11, 2009

Executive Summary

The American Physical Society (APS) was petitioned by 206 people, about 0.45% of the 47,000 members, to discard its climate change position and declare decades of climate research non-existent. The Petition was “overwhelmingly” rejected, but this anti-science campaign offers a useful case study. The Petition signers‟ demographics are compared to those of APS in general. Then, the social network behind the petition is analyzed in detail, person by person for the first 121 signers. This might seem a grassroots groundswell of informed expert argument with the existing position, but it is not. Rather, it seems to have originated within a small network of people, not field experts, but with a long history of manufacturing such things, plausibly at the Heartland Institute‘s NYC climate conference March 8-10, 2009. APS physicists can, do, and will contribute strongly to solving the 21st century‟s conjoined climate+energy problem, but this petition was a silly distraction, and rightly rejected. However, its existence was widely touted to the public.

Ideally, science should inform public policy, and sometimes does, but science may lead to policies some find undesirable for financial, ideological or other reasons. The (simplified!) ideal flow of science in informing policy is at the left, at the right is the approach preferred by a few others. Effective tactics to bypass science were invented for tobacco companies in 1954 and practiced for decades to generate doubt and delay. They are applied here by some of the same people who helped those companies, including those involved with SEPP (S. Fred Singer), the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), the Heartland Institute, and/or the CATO Institute, usually several. Signers so involved (16 of the first 54, 18 total,) are shown in gray on the next page. All 11 “supporters” were/are likewise involved.

Science bypass is familiar to people involved with PR, lobbying, politics and those few scientific disciplines facing well-organized attacks, but simply alien and confusing to many scientists. This paper offers a case study to help people understand the tactics, as APS is unlikely to be the only target of such campaigns, often mounted, not to convince scientists, but to create and maintain doubt in the public…


As a group, the signers have written very little findable peer-reviewed climate research. Some have written books, websites and other pieces, some of which show fervent passion to prove mainstream climate science wrong. The demographics are very different from that of APS.

Without being able to prove the exact connections, it is fairly easy to find strong past associations and plausible connections to recognize an act of a dedicated social network willing to support anti-science, not as a grassroots movement by physicists.

The data offers strong hints that politics and ideology may have more influence on signing than does normal science. Even those who write books and do lectures often cite outright pseudoscience of the poorest quality, which requires serious suspension of disbelief.

Finally, this Petition is a direct descendant of the PR approach outlined for the cigarette companies in 1954, and long practiced by SEPP, GMI, Heartland, and CATO, entities clearly, if not so obviously, involved in this Petition.

Read the whole thing if you want the details; they are there in abundance.

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