A Conversation with Naomi Oreskes

Posted by on Oct 9, 2011

On September 30th, Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California, San Diego, came to Rice University as the first lecturer in the Cultures of Energy series. Her presentation, titled “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming” drew from her 2010 book of the same name, which described the scientist-headed movement to create skepticism around climate change. Before her presentation, Dr. Oreskes met with several undergraduates involved in the Cultures of Energy Initiative for a special question and answer session in a smaller, more intimate setting. During the meeting, Dr. Oreskes responded to student questions formulated after reading sections of Merchants of Doubt.

One question that Dr. Oreskes addressed concerned her comparison of Cold War politics to the current skepticism movement. Upon first beginning research with her co-author, Erik Conway, Dr. Oreskes found that the scientists casting doubt on climate change were highly educated, distinguished physicists who had worked on weapons and rocketry programs that were credited with winning the Cold War for the West. It was clear that their disputing claims did not arise from scientific illiteracy. Drawing on the articles, letters and publications that these scientists had written, Dr. Oreskes argued that there was a distinct political reason for the rejection of climate change evidence, namely a fear of increased government regulation if climate change legislation were put into place. Dr. Oreskes pointed out that it was some of these same scientists who had defended the tobacco industry due to similar concerns, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that tobacco smoking was harmful to both smokers and to those inhaling secondhand smoke.

Another student question concerned the “Climategate” controversy from 2009, in which thousands of e-mails and documents were hacked from a server and leaked to the Internet, which various news sources reported as proving that climate scientists were exaggerating the implications of global warming. Dr. Oreskes explained that the manuscript for Merchants of Doubt had just been finished when the Climategate story broke, and at the time, she was not ready to comment on an event where the details were still unclear. In retrospect, Dr. Oreskes said that the e-mails revealed the climate scientists as human beings–upset at the harassment and manipulation of their work that they had witnessed, the e-mails showed their anger at climate science detractors. Their emotional reactions, though, did not mean that the science they had produced was wrong. Though the e-mails did discuss a scientific article that the correspondents thought should not have been published, the fact that it was published and cited by the IPCC demonstrated that the scientists were still following accepted standards of scientific practice. Dr. Oreskes concluded that the e-mails in fact vindicated the scientists by showing the scientific community’s dedication to following such standards, despite their personal frustrations.

Finally, Dr. Oreskes speculated on some of the reasons that people have for denying climate science, suggesting that the detractors may not be principally concerned with the science involved, but rather with what the science might imply for future changes in lifestyle. She emphasized that the relatively comfortable, prosperous life that many in the United States enjoy, as contrasted with other parts of the world, is founded on the power of fossil fuels. As a result, the reluctance to accept climate science is understandable, though it does not change the fact that a reassessment of current consumption patterns are necessary. For Oreskes, fossil fuels truly did pave the way for advances in human prosperity, but insofar as they are no longer serving us well, the challenge today is to harness alternative sources of energy in spite of the unsettling uncertainties that they present us about the future.

Kay Fukui ’12 is an English major at Hanszen College.  She is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Humanities Research Center working on the Cultures of Energy Initiative.