Historian of science Naomi Oreskes, now at Harvard, first came to my attention 20 years ago, when she and two co-authors argued in Science that "verification and validation of numerical models of natural systems is impossible." In The End of Science, I cited the Oreskes et al. paper when I challenged the claim that computers will revolutionize research into so-called complex systems.
Oreskes is best-known today for Merchants of Doubt, co-written with historian Erik Conway of Caltech. As described by merchantsofdoubt.org, the 2010 book reveals "how the ideology of free market fundamentalism, aided by a too-compliant media, has skewed public understanding of some of the most pressing issues of our era," including tobacco, pesticides, strategic missile defense, acid rain, the ozone hole and global warming.
The book, which packages rigorous research in fiery rhetoric, inspired a documentary, Merchants of Doubt, which debuts at The New York Film Festival this week, and which I saw in a press screening. I highly recommend the book and documentary, which reveal how disturbingly easy it can be for unscrupulous spin-meisters to dupe journalists and the public.
I also recommend The Collapse of Western Civilization, an Oreskes-Conway collaboration published last summer. It is a work of fiction that, considering its grim conceit, is surprisingly breezy, even funny. Writing in 2393, a Chinese scholar tries to explain how centuries earlier the U.S. and other affluent, industrialized nations—although repeatedly warned by scientists about the consequences of fossil-fuel consumption—failed to take steps to prevent catastrophic climate change. The book is worth reading just for the savagely ironic ending.
I recently had an email exchange with Oreskes about her work:
Horgan: You recently co-wrote a work of science fiction, The Collapse of Western Civilization. Is that an implicit acknowledgement that conventional modes of discourse aren't sufficient to engage the public when it comes to the potentially disastrous consequences of climate change?
Horgan: What are your hopes for the documentary Merchants of Doubt? Do you see any risks in allowing your book to be adapted for the medium of film?
Oreskes: My hope is that the film will reach people whom the book didn’t reach. Film has a much greater reach than print does. A successful book on a serious topic can reach thousands or even tens of thousands of people, but a successful documentary can reach millions.
Film is a very different medium than print. It has great potential for emotional—even visceral—impact, but for that very reason one has to be careful not to push the audience too hard. A documentary can easily become heavy handed or seem preachy. And you can’t put nearly as much information into a film. Information that would seem quite reasonable in a book can quickly wear out an audience in film.
One reason we chose to work with Robby Kenner is that he knows how to make a point without clobbering his audience on the head. He’s a very skillful filmmaker—he proved as much with Food, Inc. So I think our work is in very good hands.
Horgan: In a 1994 Science article, you and co-authors raised questions about the validity of "numerical models." Do you still have those same concerns? Do they apply to current climate-change models?
Oreskes: Yes, of course. This is one reason I’ve always thought I was a particularly good person to defend climate science! I’ve long been interested in the limits of scientific information, and I’ve long been on record as someone who thinks critically about the basis for scientific claims. My first book, The Rejection of Continental Drift, examined a group of respected scientists who rejected a claim that we now accept as established fact.
As you note, our 1994 paper in the journal Science took a critical look at numerical simulation models. It’s never been my view that we should trust science uncritically. I’ve always been interested in the questions: How do we know when to trust science? How do we distinguish between healthy and corrosive skepticism? In short, how do we judge scientific claims? The latter question is particularly important. I’m interested both in how scientists judge each other’s claims—and come to agreement or not—and how we as lay people can judge that science. In climate science, the case for the reality of anthropogenic climate change does not rest solely (or even primarily) on climate models. If it did, I’d be a skeptic too. I still believe what I wrote in 1994: models are a tool for exploring and testing systems. Their primary value is heuristic. But together with other lines of evidence they can be part of a persuasive scientific case. Or not.
Horgan: Have postmodern/social constructivist critiques of science enabled attacks on climate-change forecasts, as Bruno Latour and others have suggested?
Oreskes: Ah. This is a tricky question. Of course, skeptics and contrarians can, and in some cases do, take advantage of post-modern ideas; some skeptics are very creative and ecumenical in their use of sources. But with all due respect, I think Bruno has given himself a bit too much credit! Our work shows that the tobacco industry was way ahead of the postmodernists. They were already deconstructing science in the 1950s. And the climate change contrarians and deniers modeled their efforts on tobacco, not Derrida.
Horgan: Journalist Chris Mooney and communication scholar Matthew Nisbet argued in Science in 2007 that scientists should become more adept at "framing" their research to sway public opinion. Do you agree? Is framing just a euphemism for "spinning"?
Oreskes: That’s a good question. But I don't think so. Spinning implies distorting the truth: spinning something so that you can’t actually see what it is. Framing is something we all do all the time. When I construct a lecture, I frame the topic according to the themes I want the students to appreciate and understand. I do think that scientists need to think a bit more about how they present their work. Facts don't “speak for themselves.” We have to speak for them, about them, with them. And that means choosing a frame.
A good example of this has to do with the facts about recent global warming. Contrarians have claimed that there is a “pause” or “hiatus” in the warming. This claim is false. The 2000s were hotter than the 1990s which were hotter than the 1980s, which were hotter than the 1970s, etc. So far the 2010s are on track to be hotter still. The overall trend is up and up and up.
So how does anyone claim that there is a “pause”? The answer is by cherry picking the data, starting in 1998, which was an anomalously hot year. This is the most basic statistical no-no. If environmentalists did the opposite--chose an anomalously cold year and claimed that warming had accelerated--scientists would immediately dismiss that as bogus. And yet, scientists have accepted the contrarian framework, and written papers “explaining the pause.” Some of these papers, if you read them, actually say there is no pause, yet they use the language offered up by the contrarians. Others are actually trying to find an explanation for something that is statistically bogus; in other words, that does not actually exist. What is true is that the rate of warming is not constant, and the rate of warming in the 2000 was less than the rate in the 1990s. That might be something worth trying to explain, or not. But if so, you should say that is what you are doing: Explaining variations in the rate of climate change. So, yes, Mooney and Nisbet are right. Frames matter.
Horgan: Do you ever despair that, in a world in which everyone spins, truth becomes irrelevant?
Oreskes: All the time.
It feels especially surreal to be attacked for trying to explain science. Since when did it become radical to believe that there were facts about the natural world, and that science works to get at those facts, as best as possible? You asked about postmodernism; it used to be considered radical to doubt science. Now I am accused of being a radical for defending it. There’s definitely a “through the looking glass” feel about all this.
Horgan: You're critical of the media for its reporting on the climate change debate, and more particularly for giving equal time to skeptics. Given how some environmentalists have exaggerated the risks of nuclear power, population growth and genetically-modified foods, isn't some skepticism toward dire climate-change forecasts justified?
Oreskes: You are conflating scientists with activists. Of course, activists on all sides may exaggerate the evidence to support their views—they may get carried away with their passion and conviction—and they may over-interpret the available data. But that’s not the right comparison. Where are the scientists who exaggerated the harms of GMOs? I don’t think you will find very many. If journalists are reporting on scientific questions, they should be talking to scientists (or maybe people like me who study them!). If there is a real debate in the scientific community on an issue of public interest, then by all means cover that debate. But don’t set up a phony debate by putting a scientist against a representative of the oil industry!
If journalists want to cover the politics of an issue, then, sure, bring on the activists and let them have it out. Balance Greenpeace with the American Petroleum Institute (API). Balance Brookings with CATO. Or balance the American Wind Energy Association with the American Coal Board. But don’t balance the National Academy of Sciences with API. One is a scientific society, the other is an industry trade group. Balance is a political concept, not a scientific one. It really has no place in science.
As for nuclear power, given what we’ve seen at Chernobyl and Fukishima, as well as the still unresolved problems of nuclear waste disposal (including the recent explosion at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), I'd say the claim that environmentalists exaggerated the risks might want to be revisited.
Horgan: You suggest that critics of catastrophic global warming scenarios are driven by money or ideology rather than science. Aren't there some critics—Freeman Dyson comes to mind, or even Bjorn Lomborg--whose concerns are primarily scientific and ethical?
Oreskes: We researched a group of important individuals—the men who launched climate change denial in America—and their own writings made it clear that their motivation was primarily ideological. They believed that they were protecting and defending the free market system, and the political freedoms that they believed were inextricably tied to free market economics. Other people and other groups have other motivations. Some are clearly driven by money. (It’s not hard to guess why the CEOs of coal companies challenge the scientific evidence of climate change.) Some people are lonely. Some crave the limelight. Quite a few critics are people who, for whatever reason, have a grudge against the scientific community. They think they haven’t got the credit they deserve for the work they've done, or that their views are not taken as seriously as they would like. So, when CATO or AEI come calling and say, “We take you seriously. We will listen to you. And, more than that, we’ll get others to listen to you, too,” for some people that is pretty tempting. As for Freeman Dyson, I’ll just note that in the 1970s, he believed in climate change. In fact, he was one of the first people to pay serious attention to the issue. Someone should ask him why he changed his mind. Better—they should ask him—where is the evidence that caused you to change your mind?
Horgan: What is your view of "neo-greens" like the founders of the Breakthrough Institute, who challenge conventional environmental thinking?
Oreskes: There’s nothing wrong with challenging conventional thinking, but the solutions and alternatives you put forward have to make sense.
Horgan: My friend Lee Vinsel, a science and technology studies scholar at Stevens Institute of Technology, complained last year that you, Chris Mooney and others who emphasize the "politicization" of science imply, simplistically, that "there are good guys, and there are bad guys, and we know who they are." Care to respond to Lee?
Oreskes: I think that is a gross over-simplification of our work. He really should read (or re-read) Merchants. He might also consider spending a few days with the tobacco legacy documents. He might have a different view after that.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics.