The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology
One problem with the recent discussion of epistemic closure (or, in my preferred terminology) agnotology ( (that is, the manufacture and maintenance of ignorance) on the US political right is that a lot of it has been discussed in fairly abstract terms. However, there is a fair bit of agreement that climate change is both a key example, and that the rightwing construction of a counternarrative to mainstream science on this issue marks both an important example, and a major step in the journey towards a completely closed parallel universe of discourse.
Climate change as a whole is too big and complicated to be useful in understanding what is going on, so it is useful to focus on one particular example, which does not require any special knowledge of climate science or statistics. The Oregon Petition, commonly quoted as showing that “31000 scientists reject global warming” not only fits the bill perfectly but was raised by Jim Manzi in his critique of Mark Levin.
So, it provides a useful test case for understanding the agnotology of the right.
The Oregon Petition has been around since the 1990s, so it’s had plenty of time to to be checked out. A 1998 version attracted 17000 signatures, and a subsequent effort in 2008 brought the total to 31000.
* “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 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
These points are easy for anyone to check, and have been so widely reproduced that a majority of the top hits on Google are debunkings. Yet, until Manzi’s takedown of Levin, I’m not aware of anyone on the conservative side of politics who has criticised the petition. On the contrary, it has been uncritically reproduced time after time (here, here, here, and a long list (with a further thorough debunking here)
To put it simply, you would have to be either a fool or a liar to suggest that this exercise had any credibility. Yet as far as I can tell, Jim Manzi is the first person on the right to offer overt criticism of this exercise, and the reaction he received suggests he will probably be the last. But the reactions Manzi received certainly give us some insight into the agnotological processes at work on the right. Essentially no-one (feel free, as always to point out exceptions) cared at all about the facts of the matter: are there really 31 000 scientists who dispute mainstream global warming theory? Rather, most of the responses amounted to circling the wagons in one form or another.
The best way to understand the rightwing approach is in legalistic terms – the aim is present advocacy for the general proposition “We are good, people who are Not Like Us are bad”. Since this is advocacy rather than analysis, it’s OK to present only evidence that supports your case, and to obfuscate or ignore disconfirming evidence. And, as in standard legal argument, it’s OK to argue simultaneously for multiple, mutually inconsistent hypotheses, as long as they all support the same final conclusion.
To switch analogies, it’s like a game of basketball scored in talking points. Fouls (in this context, talking points which get discredited) are just part of the game, with the object being to get away with as many as possible on your side, and to draw as many from the other side as possible (of course, this objective is subordinate to the overall goal of scoring as many points as possible).
So, with something like the Oregon petition, the archetypal rightwinger would simultaneously advocate all of the following:
* The petition shows that 31 000 scientists reject AGW (lots of examples above)
* There is no scientific consensus supporting AGW, so even if lots of the petition signatories aren’t really scientists, the main claim behind it is correct (see, for example, here)
* The scientific consensus supporting AGW is wrong, and its proponents are dishonest, so its OK to present non-scientists as scientists if that will promote the truth Here, particularly in comments
* AGW is being used to promote statist policies, so, even if the hypothesis is true, it should be criticised in order to undermine support for such policieshere
* Even if policies like emissions trading schemes aren’t really statist, and are a response to a real problem, they have been put forward by environmentalists and liberals (people who are Not Like Us) and must therefore be opposed by any means necessary. (implicit in just about everything written on this topic – can anyone locate an explicit version of this?).
Although this example is particularly clear-cut, it’s not atypical. Look at rightwing discussion of almost any topic (any environmental issue, health care in the US, Obama’s personal history, WMDs, effects of tax cuts and many more) and you’ll find factoids doing the rounds even though five minutes with Google would show that they are absurdly wrong.
This kind of thinking is by no means unique to the contemporary right. But it is ubiquitous, and the staying power of the Oregon petition indicates way. Even the silliest claim, once made part of the canon must be defended to the last. In extreme cases, there is the option of dropping an utterly discredited talking point and then saying “we never said that”. This is one thing the Internet has made much harder, with the perverse result that obstinacy in error has become more entrenched.
Since it’s usual to claim some kind of symmetry in these things, I’d invite examples of similar things on the left. To lay down some ground rules, I’m looking for simple, and obviously false, factual claims, not leftwing beliefs about complex issues that you might think are held in the face of strong contrary evidence (that is, to take the analogy above, things like the Oregon petition, rather than AGW ‘scepticism’ as a whole). Also, I’m not interested in beliefs held by some fringe groups on the left, but only in claims that are generally accepted by mainstream liberals/progressives/social democrats, or at least widely stated and never repudiated.
fn1. All of this applies to the large section of the Australian right, particularly in the commentariat, that takes its cue from the US. However, for the right as a whole, the process is rather less advanced here.