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Movers And Shakers

Naomi Oreskes

A Science Historian takes on climate-change skeptics and fights off their attacks

by Sarah Everts
December 20, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 51

Credit: Courtesy of Naomi Oreskes
Credit: Courtesy of Naomi Oreskes

A common strategy shared by climate-change deniers is to exaggerate the inherent uncertainty of science research as a way to delay policy action. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The same strategy of doubt was used to delay policy on smoking, acid rain, the ozone layer, and secondhand smoke in the U.S., according to science historian Naomi Oreskes.

Oreskes has discovered that a group of three Cold War-era physicists—S. Fred Singer, the late Frederick Seitz, and the late William A. Nieremberg—orchestrated the doubt-mongering on all of these issues. How these physicists came to have so much influence on science policy matters such as cancer, public health, and environment, which are completely outside their areas of expertise, is meticulously described in “Merchants of Doubt,” a book Oreskes cowrote with Erik M. Conway.

Oreskes, a history of science professor at the University of California, San Diego, got her Ph.D. jointly in geology and history. She’s rapidly becoming one of the country’s most influential science historians. At November’s annual meeting of the History of Science Society—the discipline’s premier science association—coffee-break buzz around Oreskes’ work transitioned into a packed audience at her presentation.

As an academic, Oreskes is interested in scientific consensus and, most recently, how scientific consensus is undermined by people who have never published a peer-reviewed article on topics about which they loudly voice opinions in the media and in high-level policy-making circles, including the White House. Politically motivated and with financial support from vested industries, these merchants of doubt successfully negate the consensus of thousands of researchers by offering themselves as expert counterpoints.

It’s a winning strategy. Their challenges to the weight of evidence that cigarette smoking causes cancer meant that “it took 50 years and millions of people dying of tobacco-related diseases” before policymakers took action to tax cigarettes, add warning labels on packages, and establish smoke-free public spaces, Oreskes says. “We can’t wait 50 years for climate-change policy,” she says. “The melting of the Arctic ice is irreversible. The longer we delay, the more irreversible the damages are.”

A key to the problem is the so-called white-coat phenomenon, Oreskes says. Merchants of doubt get heard because the media and public don’t distinguish areas of scientific expertise; they don’t realize that a weapons physicist is not an expert on climate modeling or cell biology, she says. Another problem is that merchants of doubt push for publication of their opinions in major media outlets, whereas scientists with appropriate expertise make rebuttals in peer-reviewed journals or on the websites of scientific associations—places the public and most policymakers don’t visit regularly, if ever.

“I think scientists used to think that it was the responsibility of science journalists to set the record straight, and they would get mad at science journalists for not doing ‘their jobs,’ ” Oreskes says. “But I think the scientific community has realized that this is not a realistic expectation. Scientists have to be on the forefront of explaining their work, because nobody knows it better than they do. We are starting to see that happening. It’s just unfortunate that it’s taken so long, because a lot of damage has been done. It’s going to be very hard to undo.

“I do think the scientific community dropped the ball on the climate-change issue,” Oreskes continues. “But I’m a little hesitant to blame them because I feel like it’s blaming the victim,” she says.

Oreskes has also documented how the few scientists who did try to set the record straight experienced major personal attacks in the media and faced financially devastating legal suits. Not unsurprisingly, Oreskes is now also being targeted. One attacker, for example, “called me a ‘liberal conspirator who’s trying to bring down global capitalism,’ ” she tells C&EN. Worse are the threatening calls to her home and allegations sent to her university aiming to discredit her. “I’ve now become subject to the same types of harassment and vilification that we describe in the book,” she says. “I knew that this was likely to happen, but it is still very unpleasant to have to deal with it.”

Despite the risk of retaliation, Oreskes thinks more scientists should be more vocal about the science consensus on climate change in public arenas. She also suggests that litigation is an option, noting that the tobacco trials of the 1990s are how science prevailed over tobacco industry interests.

She points also to a successful court case brought against the Environmental Protection Agency by the State of Massachusetts. “This is a very significant case because the Supreme Court, which is not packed with liberals and environmentalists, did find that the law does empower EPA to control carbon dioxide as a pollutant.”

The most important point, however, is that scientists have to take action against scientific misinformation masked as skepticism, particularly the current climate-change issue. “You can’t ignore it. This public policy issue is too important.”



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