The Humanist Interview with Naomi Oreskes Applied Science and the Merchants of Doubt

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science and an affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. She is the coauthor, with Erik M. Conway, of Merchants of Doubt, a book that lays bare the massive disinformation campaign surrounding climate science. The 2010 book has just re-emerged as the basis for a documentary of the same name, now opening in theaters across the nation. Just before its debut, I asked Oreskes about the book and its subject. The interview, conducted by email, has been lightly edited. ​​You’re a scientist and a historian of science—how then did you become interested in the relatively recent phenomenon of what you call the “merchandising of doubt”?

Naomi Oreskes: In the early 2000s, I was working on the history of oceanography (a book I am now trying to finish!) and came across the work of oceanographers who were concerned about anthropogenic climate change as far back as the 1950s. I started to learn more about it, and one thing led to another and I wrote my 2004 article on the scientific consensus on climate change. After the 2004 paper came out, I started getting attacked, and, well, one thing led to another and I ended up putting aside oceanography and writing, with Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt. The book makes it clear that casting doubt on lifesaving science is not exactly new. What’s changed since the tobacco industry began its stealthy campaign to undermine the Surgeon General’s report on smoking?

Oreskes: The big change is the role of the media, think tanks, and the Internet. When the tobacco industry first began its campaigns of confusion, there was no Internet and few think tanks. Indeed, they invented the Tobacco Institute as a means of hiding their disinformation work under the guise of scientific research. Today, there are dozens of think tanks that do this work, and it is spread far and wide by cable news and the Internet.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics Has inducing public doubt of science itself become an applied science?

Oreskes: Yes, indeed. One of the things we discovered in doing our research was the amount of research these folks do! Market research, focus groups, and so on. They are very smart and organized and even scientific in the way they study and apply what works and what doesn’t. You and your co-author start your book with the story of the slandering of Ben Santer, a government scientist who has done much to establish the human causes of global warming. Yet, Santer is hardly alone. James Hansen, Michael Mann, and many climate scientists have had their reputations savaged in the media, and, as you point out, the slanders remain just a Google search away. Is there any precedent for these kinds of attacks on scientists?

Oreskes: As we say in the book, science has always had the capacity to disrupt the status quo, and therefore disturb those in power. We all know of Galileo more because of the way the ruling authorities of his day tried to suppress his work more than most of us know what work he actually did. In the 1950s, Robert Oppenheimer was attacked because of his ambivalence about the hydrogen bomb. So this is not new. But again, the Internet, cable TV, and certain aspects of American culture have made it far easier to attack scientists and harder for scientists to undo the damage when it occurs. Some might argue that there was a time when science had too much authority—that people simply accepted government claims that nuclear bomb tests posed no health threats, or that a Swine flu epidemic was imminent, for example. Do “doubt campaigns” gain traction because of healthy public skepticism?

Oreskes: There are two different issues here. Certainly, it is possible for scientists (or any experts) to have too much authority, and sometimes scientists have lacked humility. Erik and I have never argued that citizens simply have to passively accept what scientists tell us to do.  We think there are important distinctions to be made between scientific findings, policy recommendations, and political action.

The first is the domain of science, the last the domain of democratic politics, and in the middle there is a complicated and difficult grey zone. But you also have to remember that just because a warning does not come to pass does not mean it was false. Sometimes people say, “Oh, scientists warned us about the ozone hole, but now everything is fine!” as if this were a reason not to worry about climate change. Things are fine with respect to ozone because we listened to scientific advice and acted upon it.

And as for nuclear bomb tests, while it’s true that government officials and some scientists closely linked to government gave false reassurances, it is also true that other scientists warned us strongly. This is why the issue of consensus is so important. If scientists are divided, or telling us that something might not be right with government or industry assurances, that is something to which we need to pay attention. Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was influential in alerting the non-reading portion of the public to climate change, but in the end it became part of the political sorting that grips our nation. Will the documentary Merchants of Doubt have a different trajectory?

Oreskes: We certainly hope so. One reason the film features Bob Ingliss, former Republican congressman from South Carolina, is because he is such a powerful spokesman for why conservatives need to take this issue seriously and not fall into denial. Denying the problem does not make it go away. This is why, at the end of the film I stress that if you want to avoid big government interventions, you should be very concerned to make sure there is no further delay, because the longer we wait to address this problem, the more difficult it gets to solve with individual or private sector initiatives. Have attacks on you for positions you’ve taken had any deleterious effects on your career or personal life?

Oreskes: The attacks have not hurt me professionally, but they did take up time, and they were personally hurtful, especially at first. At one point I became ill from the stress. But once I started doing the research that led to Merchants of Doubt and understood the situation, that made all the difference. That, and support from colleagues like Sherry Rowland, Stan Glantz, Ben Santer, Mike Mann, and others who have been the target of similar attacks, or Don Kennedy, who has been a witness to this for many years.  Indeed, I am in some pretty distinguished company there. Looking beyond the book and film, recent research suggests that the effects of climate change will soon amplify and make themselves even more apparent. What are your expectations for the response of our nation and others?

Oreskes: It’s very hard to say. We’ve already had several climate-related extreme weather events, but so far those have not moved the political needle very much. I certainly hope that it doesn’t take a disaster to wake us up from our slumber. But only time will tell.