Imagine that 11,000 doctors tell you that you are dying of cancer…

When I looked at the stats of my previous post a couple days ago, I noticed that there were quite some visits coming from Twitter. However, when I looked at the tweet linking to my post on my own twitter account, I didn’t see that many views and hardly any engagements, so only few clicked the link. These stat views definitely didn’t come via my own tweet. This prompted me to search for the distribution of the link to my previous post on twitter.

I quickly found some twitter accounts that picked up the link to my previous post. Two of them were interesting, these are both replies on tweets about (alarmist) articles from the Guardian and the Independent.

This is the tweet that originated from the Independent:

The tweet stated that a sane person would not need more convincing than the 11,000 scientists backing up the “report” (it is actually a viewpoint). He took the list of 11,000 “scientists” as a confirmation that we are in a climate emergency (and maybe even are too late already). I am pretty sure that the tweep didn’t look at that list…

The tweet about the Guardian article is even more interesting:

It is interesting because it is a new variation on the doctor’s analogy. It is stated a bit differently this time. It is stated that you should imagine that you were told that 11,000 doctors got together and tell you that you are dying of cancer, would you then want a second opinion? Something tells me that also this tweep didn’t look at who signed the petition list…

Is that comparison appropriate?

Before I dive in and see who actually signed the list, let’s look at the comparison itself. It suggests that this petition on a climate emergency is on par with a gathering of 11,000 doctors who claim in unison that you have cancer, so it would be crazy to ask for a second opinion. It suggest that those 11,000 scientists investigated/have the knowledge that there is a climate emergency, just as those 11,000 doctors are able to diagnose cancer in a patient.

There are several problems with that petition list as seen in previous post. Initially, there were 11,258 names on the list, but after an additional validation process, 34 invalid names were removed. Mostly duplicates, but also some dubious signatories. The authors were left with 11,224 signatories on their list. However, I still found duplicates and also non-scientists (like shop-keepers, IT personnel, administration, technicians, zoo keepers and so on). The fact that these signatories are still on the list means that their vetting process is grossly insufficient. It could also be that they don’t want to prune the list too much (if they would remove the entries according to their own vetting process, they would end well below 11,000 signatories).

The vetting process also was, according to the lead author, suppose to remove all the entries without a position or a institution. There are however still 1,050 entries without a position or an institution on that list.

There were also quite a bunch of students on that list. I found 973 entries with the word “student”, mostly PhD or MSc candidates. Not exactly the the type of researcher who I would think have done the research whether or not we are in an emergency.

From the ones that declared a position, there were a bunch that only said something like “researcher” (255), “professor” (302), “associate professor” (174), “lecturer” (34) or “full professor” (24), but didn’t mentioned in what specifically. It is not sure whether these are the experts that have effectively researched that we are in an emergency.

Most signatories had a degree in Biology, Zoology, Ecology or Geology, but there were also areas of expertise not related to climate like psychology, social sciences, political science, Agriculture, Medical sciences, law, business, economy, linguistics, musicology,…

Surprisingly, only 147 had a (self-declared) climate related position…

It is also not clear why those people signed the list. People, also scientists, put their name on a petition for various reasons. Did they read the viewpoint paper and understood it? Did they actually investigate the subject? Or did they just supported a cause they thought was just? Or maybe they could have vested interest? It is not possible to know from the information they gave.

It is also not clear whether someone went through the list and checked whether the signatories actually exists (probably not, knowing that their vetting system seem to be highly deficient).

Let me be very clear: when a oncologist investigates me and comes to the conclusion that I have cancer, then I am pretty sure that I don’t need a second opinion. Let alone when there are 11,000 of them saying so, then I don’t need a 11,001th opinion. I think it is the wrong question whether I would have a second opinion. In a situation where 11,000 students, lawyers, activists, technicians, administrators, economists, biologists, ecologists, musicians and other unspecified signatories tell me that I have cancer, I most probably would not value their advice.

There is also a big difference between an oncologist and a climate scientist. The oncologist is trained specifically to find and treat cancer, based on a century of accumulated experience in the field. Many thousands, maybe even millions, of patients were treated already and it is clear what works and what not. Only a few decades ago, cancer was basically a death sentence. Currently, depending on the type of cancer, one has a decent chance of being successfully treated and surviving it.

Contrast this with a climate scientist, who has only one “patient” (Earth), studying a complex, coupled, chaotic system with very few reliable historical data (more sparse and spatially incomplete the longer one goes back in time). They don’t have experience of treating the patient (heck, they might not even know whether the patient is ill or not), let alone that they know what works and what doesn’t work. It is also a field that has been politicized, meaning that it is not so clear what the motivation behind climate science communication actually is.

This viewpoint paper and the petition is most probably created to impress the public and policy makers, maybe even to slash decent. Similar to the consensus papers, it seems politically motivated and it is presented as something that it isn’t. Looking at the widespread and uncritical broadcasting of this message in the (social) media and the two tweets in particular, the strategy seemed to have worked.


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