Home > Economics - General > The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology

The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology

May 3rd, 2010

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[1] 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.

Here’s the Wikipedia article, a further debunking from DeSmogBlog and here’s my own investigation from 2002. Some basic points

* “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.

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  1. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 9th, 2010 at 11:40 | #1

    Michael – I was in Hong Kong a couple of weeks ago. The smell was bad. It is kind of like what you would get if somebody in your street was burning a pile of car tires. However it has nothing to do with CO2 and global warming. And in fact I’d rate it a much higher priority than AGW given the likely impact on human health.

  2. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 9th, 2010 at 11:44 | #2

    p.s. How is my comment about John Quiggin off the mark? I think it’s spot on the mark.

  3. Ernestine Gross
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:04 | #3

    TerjeP (say Taya), you ought to retract your statement about Professor Quiggin and apologise humbly and at once.

    I revise my statement on this thread that I also considered you honest and fairminded. That I don’t agree with your 19th century + Luffer curve economics is not news.

  4. Michael of Summer Hill
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:09 | #4

    TerjeP (say Taya), according to the Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department, CO2 emissions accounted for approximately 85% of the total GHG emissions, 12% were methane (CH4), with the remainder 3% is from Nitrous oxide ( N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6). Furthermore, in 2006 the carbon footprint of Hong Kong was just under a third of Australia’s 18.4 and rising.

  5. Freelander
    May 9th, 2010 at 14:28 | #5

    @TerjeP (say Taya)

    You are right regarding HK and the situation is a legacy of the British. Amongst other things, the British didn’t put in a proper sewerage system. Sewerage goes untreated into the sea. The crowding is also a legacy of the British. The car tire smell might be a new thing and I wouldn’t be sure about the source. But too regularly you can get a sewerage smell and I am sure that is probably a reason the place is not so good for the health. A pity, because otherwise there is a lot to like.

  6. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 9th, 2010 at 15:34 | #6

    EG – be specific. Which statement do you think I should retract and apologise for. A quote would help.

  7. jquiggin
    May 9th, 2010 at 15:39 | #7

    Terje, I must say that as the owner of this blog, I’ve been puzzled by the willingness of propertarian/libertarians to violate my property rights, for example by using sockpuppets after being banned. I’ve commented on this quite a few times in the past.

    Now you’ve explained it. Anyone who doesn’t take the propertarian/libertarian line on property has no entitlement to property rights of their own and can therefore be robbed by propertarian/libertarians whenever the opportunity comes up. That clarifies a lot of things, including who not to leave unsupervised in the vicinity of my possessions.

  8. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 9th, 2010 at 17:37 | #8

    John – so my example of stealing an axe to save children in a burning house offends you? If that is the comment that you take as an endorsement of theft than you’re drawing a long bow. And as I said you as a social democrat are a rampant supporter of theft so you don’t occupy any moral high ground.

    And for clarity I have never used sock puppets here or at any other blog and what other libertarians may or may not have done isn’t my responsibility. Shall I blame you for all the bad things done by other people called John or does personal responsibility count for something? I must say your collectivist impulse is disappointing even if not overly surprising.

  9. jquiggin
    May 9th, 2010 at 21:02 | #9

    I’m responding to this , in combination with your obvious willingness to countenance/excuse/assist in theft and fraud, provided they are directed against targets of whom you disapprove.

    I’m not blaming you for the actions of other libertarians, merely observing, with some disappointment, that you are no better than the rest. Please go away and don’t come back.

  10. Freelander
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:03 | #10

    What has long been clear, to me at least, is that being a libertarian involves being free to choose not only your facts and your own criteria for rationality, but your own framework of morality as suits your current situation. Labour markets are not their only target for flexibility.

  11. Jarrah
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:35 | #11

    “Please go away and don’t come back.”

    I really hope you reconsider, JQ. It seems a bit disproportionate. And I’m not even clear on what Terje is supposed to have done. You also claim he is “no better than the rest”, but I’d suggest that is not the case, not by a long shot.

    Freelander, you’re not even trying to make a rational argument any more. You should go over to Catallaxy if you just want to trade insults.

  12. Alice
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:47 | #12

    @Jarrah
    I think some already here learnt their trade there.

  13. Alice
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:50 | #13

    @Jarrah
    And Jarrah – its not Freelander…and I note you are always first to defend other delusionist libertarians.

  14. John H.
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:51 | #14

    @Jarrah

    Agreed Jarrah, in my experience Terje is certainly one of the more moderate and pleasant people to deal with on blogs. I know, I’ve been arguing with him for years!

  15. Jarrah
    May 9th, 2010 at 22:56 | #15

    Alice, you should decamp to Catallaxy as well. It’s more your style too. Though of course you’d get ripped to bits, because they’ve had more practice (and better competition).

  16. Michael of Summer Hill
    May 9th, 2010 at 23:09 | #16

    Crikey Jarrah, what about this ‘Libertarian philosophy does not suggest that you have a God-given right to write comments on another person’s blog’. More like fascism.

  17. Alice
    May 9th, 2010 at 23:33 | #17

    @TerjeP (say Taya)
    Terje – Ive been here through most of your posts on climate science and its quite clear that you actively (and I mean actively) peddle attacks on climate scientists and that you actively posted JQ s comments on climate science on hostile rubbish blogs – which was deliberately designed to call up the worst and rudest types to drop in here. You will deny this but thats par for the course. Your actions were insidious.

    I agree with the 255 members including 11 nobel laureates that put their name to that letter (which Michael posted qt 2#). I live here and I am heartily sick of the liberalist views that seek to batter other peoples rights generally and their rights to the facts and the science. “Science” conducted by genuine scientists, not frauds, charlatans and phonies like Monkton and Plimer and the stream of utter rubbish that pours out of the IPA. The highlight of my week was the rent resource tax so some of their directors, with their blatant links to the mining industries, get hurt where it counts…to them. Only in their wallet…because the whole purpose of AGW delsuionism is so big mining and big oil can hide from their responsibilities to the rest of us. Its an artifice. A nicely funded artifice similar to the actions by big tobacco for decades.

    This country is for all of us and not for those who purport to be libertarians yet push the vested interests of a narrow few directors and a narrow few companies who already do very nicely at the cost of the great majority. You can cover up your motivations with the expression “libertarian” but what you really mean is you a are prepared to give up everyone elses freedom to acquire honest information to pursue lies in support of nothing but a narrow political objective for the few.

    McCarthyism is alive and well and being fed by the same types now that fuelled the hatred and vindictiveness of that era except that now its about scientists. There is no hope of any advance with these sort of illeducated bog stubborn un innovative non productive views. Thank goodness you are an increasingly sidelined minority. Ill can list the names. There ought to be a honour roll. Ive been listening and reading lies, written by the shrill, for years courtesy of the Murdoch press.

    Libertarians and their friends on the hard right dont have a positive policy suggestion between the lot of you that doesnt hand feed and give concessions (or should I say “libertarian freedoms”) to the heavy hitting oligopolistic mining and polluting industries and their cashed up directors (bagmen) who donate to the likes of IPA..so it can pour out a stream of vicious vexatious lies about real academics…in concert with like minded structures in the US.

    I live here too and I wish you would all go drop into the nearest mining slurry pit where you belong. You have no respect for the truth and no recognition of good economic policy of the type from which we, as a nation, will prosper in the long run. Not a ounce of economic sense between you and no sign of any economic arguments – just dogma. You make it up as you go along, call upon a bag of nasty personal insults (Fran also excels at this tactic) and then you claim “Oh but Im moderate really…” “I dont know what I said”. You feign ignorance when called on for evidence.

    Give us all a break from the lies. Give us all a break from the sneaky obfuscations you hide them behind. You are only here to use JQs blog as a platform because people read it – a platform to disseminate “McCarthyist” style delusionist anto science propaganda (nasty divisive propaganda). There is a also a checklist approach. We are all “libertarian” now but we are all anti science and pro nuclear and we dont have a single other solution to offer. Why – because your puppet masters in the mining industry and their friends in conservative politics and their trashy publications tell you the formula… and you all jump.

    Some freedom youve got.

  18. Ernestine Gross
    May 9th, 2010 at 23:37 | #18

    Jarrah :“Please go away and don’t come back.”
    I really hope you reconsider, JQ. It seems a bit disproportionate. And I’m not even clear on what Terje is supposed to have done. You also claim he is “no better than the rest”, but I’d suggest that is not the case, not by a long shot.
    Freelander, you’re not even trying to make a rational argument any more. You should go over to Catallaxy if you just want to trade insults.

    A rather awkward way of supporting Freelander, I’d say.

  19. Jarrah
    May 10th, 2010 at 00:15 | #19

    Ernestine, I don’t understand what you mean. Freelander has a record of playing the man, not the ball, and as such should retire to Catallaxy where I know (from long experience) that sort of commenting is encouraged, and not clutter up JQ’s blog with content-free insults. No support was implied, or intended.

  20. Freelander
    May 10th, 2010 at 00:44 | #20

    Jarrah, If people do not wish to engage in rational argument and do otherwise only engage in ‘playing the man’, there is little else to trade. Also, only a fool argues with a fool, hence, when a fool identifies themselves you cannot expect to get further with them with rational argument. However, experience indicates that fools do not like humiliation. And even fools seem to recognise when they have been humiliated even if they can’t recognise when they have lost an argument. If you humiliate the fool you can precipitate a measure of self reflection, and that is far more effective in getting them to recognise the absurdity of what they refuse to be rational about than any rational argument can be.

    I like that you note that those at Catalleprosy have a tendency for not having a constant eye ‘on the ball’. (Not that I have had more than a glancing look at that site.) I am not surprised by this, as they are, after all, libertarians. And libertarians do, tend to have one or two failings. Although practised in trading insults, they do, unfortunately, lack a certain creativity. Insults are boring if they are not entertaining. And if entertaining they are so much more effective.

  21. Freelander
    May 10th, 2010 at 00:45 | #21

    Also, sometimes content-free is in they eye of the beholder.

  22. Jarrah
    May 10th, 2010 at 01:05 | #22

    Freelander, you appear to be defending yourself by claiming that you are forced to ignore substantive debate because others do so first. What, then, of your propensity to start insulting exchanges (see your comment at #10) without attempting to grapple with disputed issues? As for myself, I take pride in giving interlocutors on this blog ample opportunity to come to grips with my arguments without pre-judging their objections, so you have no excuse not to do the same.

    There is also an implication by you that your opponents are fools and unreachable by reason, therefore deserving only ridicule. You are free to form that opinion, but I contend that my arguments are not foolish and have solid evidential backing (as does everyone save trolls :-) ). I put it to you that my record on this blog supports this declaration, and the onus is on you to PROVE your comments regarding people’s unwillingness to “engage in rational argument”.

    “I am not surprised by this, as they are, after all, libertarians.”

    Actually, the majority are right-wingers. But I’ll allow this mistake, since you have had only “a glancing look at that site”.

    “And libertarians do, tend to have one or two failings. ”

    Everyone is an imperfect creature :-)

    “Although practised in trading insults, they do, unfortunately, lack a certain creativity.”

    I disagree. I would point you to some choice examples, except most of them have been lost in the three (?) Great Database Crashes. Nevertheless, a cursory scan of Catallaxy’s archives will give you plenty of examples of highly creative and cutting insults. Bird, CL, THR, Birdlab, Soon, myself, even JC… we could all teach you a thing or two. If you have the guts, come on over and present your opinions for dissection.

  23. Freelander
    May 10th, 2010 at 02:46 | #23

    I wasn’t defending myself. The points I make may apply to myself by providing a rationale but that is really beside the point. There is no onus on me to prove anything, particularly to people who are unable to distinguish rational argument from strings of non sequiturs (and I note more than one in your post above). I hardly need to jump higher hurdles than others choose to jump themselves. At least to some, I am happy to assume, what I said requires no further explanation.

    Sometimes, also, and I say this evenhandedly, the results of self assessments, particularly of ones own behaviour, are in the eye of the beholder. And those eyes only.

  24. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 10th, 2010 at 04:42 | #24

    Please go away and don’t come back.

    It is you’re bat and ball so farewell then.

  25. TerjeP (say Taya)
    May 10th, 2010 at 04:44 | #25

    Damn.

    you’re -> your.

  26. Michael of Summer Hill
    May 10th, 2010 at 06:51 | #26

    TerjeP (say Taya), should have desisted carrying on. Now say ta Ta.

  27. Robert in UK
    May 10th, 2010 at 07:05 | #27

    John,

    I’m a long time reader and admire your blog. I respect your right to run it as you wish. But I think you’re being a bit hard on Terje here. He might not be open minded enough to admit that he has made a mistake on this issue, but I admire him for constantly posting and discussing these issues with you when so few of his colleagues are willing to. I think this issue makes you (understandably) angry, and that you may have over-reacted slightly. I think this forum is better for having Terje contribute to it.

    Having said that: Terje, I do wish you would just admit the theft was wrong. Trying to compare the efforts of a team of dedicated climate scientists with a burning house is tortuous at best. It makes you come across as either daft or wilfully contrary.

  28. Freelander
    May 10th, 2010 at 08:05 | #28

    By the way, Jarrah, I understood exactly what Ernestine meant as it was implicit in your post. Also, you have characterised my post @#10 as an example of an insulting exchange. I thought I was simply making factual observations. I admit the facts not reflecting well on libertarians. Although I thought these facts self evident as they are based on common experience, if you want I will provide some support (or at least indicate where support can be found).
    Libertarians tend to have their own facts as they suit, their climate change denial presents plenty of evidence there. Similarly, evidence for the comments on criteria for rationality (of arguments, for example) and the flexibility of libertarians own standards evaluating their own behaviour have also been amply been provided in the so-called climate change debate.
    In addition, there are difficulties in playing the ball when the opponent has no ball in play (or their ball is their own imaginary figment). The question of anthropogenic climate change has long been resolved. Libertarian climate change deniers, in their denial, hold no ball. The only issue is their behaviour, and why they persist in the variety of behaviours they display. In this context how can one not address the issue in the manner you imply, as climate change deniers are the issue, not climate change?

  29. Ernestine Gross
    May 10th, 2010 at 10:05 | #29

    Yes, Freelander, you understood what I meant. Jarrah accused of not making a ‘rational argument’, while you were stating your observations, which implies that Jarrah was chosing a concept of rationality.

    By the way, I have made observations which correspond to your description @10. I am not sure whether the observed behaviour is confined to libertarians. I’ve observed similar behaviour from people who claim to be experts in (non-IT) communications with an academic background in English literature or law (not practising) . I don’t know there political ‘views’. I am suggesting the topic of this thread may be of interest by itself.

  30. Ernestine Gross
    May 10th, 2010 at 10:07 | #30

    Please insert “you” after accused, line 1 and replace “there” with ‘their’ in the second line from the bottom.

  31. Freelander
    May 10th, 2010 at 11:28 | #31

    @Ernestine Gross

    Yes. Sophistry is not limited to libertarians. Being adept at English Lit or Law, and having learnt tricks that can work on those not used to the constraints of logic or unused to self critical reflection seem to be highly remunerated skills, particularly in the political and business arenas. Although they seem successful devices for mass persuasion, pity that so many who use them aren’t even aware how inadequate they are when used as devices for coming to correct conclusions.

  32. May 10th, 2010 at 11:53 | #32

    @Robert in UK

    Yes.

    The best thing would be for Terje to acknowledge that he was talking rubbish and that he had painted himself into a corner and wanted to apologise. It’s interesting what happens when one adopts a fundamentalist position — in this case on property — and it then intersects t=with your desire to keep business deregulated — which explains Terje’s mixed feeling on AGW.

    Granting his error and apologising might take a stronger stomach than he has of course.

  33. Tony G
    May 10th, 2010 at 14:41 | #33

    Fran 9 times out of 10 economists get it wrong and this is another one of those many occasions. JQ is delusional if he thinks it theft. Anything let loose in cyberspace is fair game for anyone smart enough to retrieve it, only a dick-head would think it is a secure environment.

  34. gregh
    May 10th, 2010 at 15:02 | #34

    @Tony G
    Whether the environment is secure or not has little bearing on the charge of theft except where the alleged thief has reasonable cause to believe the item was abandoned ie was not owned. You can’t enter an unlocked house and take other people’s property without being, in fact, a thief. Similary if one is smart enough to hack into a bank and steal savings electronically one is a thief to almost all people other than yourself TonyG.

  35. jquiggin
    May 10th, 2010 at 15:28 | #35

    Given that this episode is a relative aberration for Terje and that I’m still tolerating Tony G for no good reason, I’m going to step back a bit. Terje, take a week off and reflect. Anything suggesting that social democrats are automatically thieves who have no moral standing will result in a permanent ban. And if you can’t bring yourself to admit error on the email theft, I’ll request you to steer clear of this topic in future.

    If those terms are acceptable, you can resume commenting, consistent with the comments policy, in a week’s time.

    I’ll declare this thread closed now. No more comments please.

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