By Justin Gillis, The New New York Times, June 15, 2015
The job interviewer scrutinized the young American geology student sitting across from him. She was about to graduate from the Royal School of Mines in London, and was trying to break into a field long unwelcoming to women.
What, he wanted to know, might she have to contribute to the geology of mining? Naomi Oreskes had a simple answer: “I want to find an ore deposit!”
She wound up in the Australian outback in the early 1980s — not to search for deposits, exactly, but to help work out the complex geology of one that had just been found. It would eventually become one of the world’s largest uranium mines.
Yet, in time, prospecting for ores could not hold her interest. Today, from a professorship at Harvard University, Dr. Oreskes is still in the mining business. But rather than digging for minerals, she tunnels into historical archives, and she is still finding radioactive nuggets.
Dr. Oreskes is fast becoming one of the biggest names in climate science — not as a climatologist, but as a defender who uses the tools of historical scholarship to counter what she sees as ideologically motivated attacks on the field.
Formally, she is a historian of science. Informally, this diminutive woman has become a boxer, throwing herself into a messy public arena that many career-minded climate scientists try to avoid.
She helps raise money to defend researchers targeted for criticism by climate change denialists. She has become a heroine to activist college students, supporting their demand that universities and other institutions divest from fossil fuels. Climatologists, though often reluctant themselves to get into fights, have showered her with praise for being willing to do it.
“Her courage and persistence in communicating climate science to the wider public have made her a living legend among her colleagues,” two climate researchers, Benjamin D. Santer and John Abraham, wrote in a prize-nomination letter in 2011.
Dr. Oreskes’s approach has been to dig deeply into the history of climate change denial, documenting its links to other episodes in which critics challenged a developing scientific consensus.
Her core discovery, made with a co-author, Erik M. Conway, was twofold. They reported that dubious tactics had been used over decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to subjects like acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change. And most surprisingly, in each case, the tactics were employed by the same group of people.
The central players were serious scientists who had major career triumphs during the Cold War, but in subsequent years apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism, and government regulation with tyranny.
In a 2010 book, Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway called these men “Merchants of Doubt,” and this spring the book became a documentary film, by Robert Kenner. At the heart of both works is a description of methods that were honed by the tobacco industry in the 1960s and have since been employed to cast doubt on just about any science being cited to support new government regulations
Dr. Oreskes, the more visible and vocal of the “Merchants” authors, has been threatened with lawsuits and vilified on conservative websites, and routinely gets hate mail calling her a communist or worse.
Complaints about some of her research were filed at her previous employer, the University of California, San Diego, though never upheld. In leaked emails, one of the men she has targeted in her writing, the physicist S. Fred Singer, complained that she was protected at that institution by “a mostly feminist mafia.”
Who is the woman at the center of this whirlwind?
Born in 1958, Dr. Oreskes grew up in Manhattan, displaying keen musical abilities as well as an interest in following her father into scientific research. A high-school and college boyfriend, Jonathan Pershing, recalled watching her practice a piece of piano music endlessly until she nailed it. “She has always been incredibly intense,” he said.
She started at Brown University, but finished her undergraduate geology degree abroad, at the storied Royal School of Mines. A former faculty member, Richard H. Sibson, said the British educational system at the time was characterized by “benign neglect” of students, but he grew fond of watching this brash young American solicit a good education.
“She reminded me of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon, stalking the corridors with a metaphorical softball bat on her shoulders, looking for faculty to slug if she thought we weren’t doing our jobs,” Dr. Sibson said.
After graduating with high honors, she won a job in 1981 as a young field geologist for Western Mining, an Australian company developing a site called Olympic Dam. The geology there was so complex that after three years she decided to return to the United States to pursue a doctoral degree at Stanford University as a way to better understand it.
But she felt a growing desire to plunge into more fundamental questions about the nature and history of science.
She established her career as a historian with a book-length study examining the role of dissent in the scientific method. As she put it a few months ago to an audience at Indiana University, she wanted to wrestle with this question: “How do you distinguish a maverick from a crank?”
Her subject was Alfred Wegener, the German scientist who proposed in 1912 that continents drifted around the earth. Initially rejected, his idea was revived decades after his death to become, in a modified form, the theory of plate tectonics.
Dr. Oreskes found that Wegener had been treated badly, particularly by American geologists. But he did not abandon his faith in the scientific method. He kept publishing until his death in 1930, trying to convince fellow scientists of his position, and was finally vindicated three decades later by oceanographic research conducted during the Cold War.
As she completed that study, Dr. Oreskes sought to understand how science was affected not only by the Cold War but by its end. In particular, she started wondering about climate science. Global warming had seemed to rise as an important issue around the time the Iron Curtain came down. Was this just a way for scientists to scare up research money that would no longer be coming their way through military channels?
By the early 2000s, she and her husband, Kenneth Belitz, had two daughters, and she had taken a permanent faculty position at San Diego, where she would stay until Harvard recruited her in 2013.
At the time, the widespread public impression was that scientists were still divided over whether humans were primarily responsible for the warming of the planet. But how sharp was the split, she wondered?
She decided to do something no climate scientist had thought to do: count the published scientific papers. Pulling 928 of them, she was startled to find that not one dissented from the basic findings that warming was underway and human activity was the main reason.
She published that finding in a short paper in the journal Science in 2004, and the reaction was electric. Advocates of climate action seized on it as proof of a level of scientific consensus that most of them had not fully perceived. Just as suddenly, Dr. Oreskes found herself under political attack.
Some of the voices criticizing her — scientists like Dr. Singer and groups like the George C. Marshall Institute in Washington — were barely known to her at the time, Dr. Oreskes said in an interview. Just who were they?
She had connected by then with Dr. Conway, an official NASA historian who, working on his own time, helped her dig into some important archives. It did not take them long to document that this group, which included prominent Cold War scientists, had been attacking environmental research for decades, challenging the science of the ozone layer and acid rain, even the finding that breathing secondhand tobacco smoke was harmful. Trying to undermine climate science was simply the latest project.
Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway came to believe that the attacks were patterned on the strategy employed by the tobacco industry when evidence of health risks first emerged. Documents pried loose by lawyers showed that the industry had paid certain scientists to contrive dubious research, had intimidated reputable scientists, and had cherry-picked evidence to present a misleading picture.
The tobacco industry had used these tactics in defense of profits. But Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway wrote that the so-called merchants of doubt had adopted them for a deep ideological reason: contempt for government regulation. The insight gave climate scientists a new way of understanding the politics that had engulfed their field.
Following Dr. Oreskes’s cue, researchers have in recent years developed a cottage industry of counting scientific papers and polling scientists. The results typically show that about 97 percent of working climate scientists accept that global warming is happening, that humans are largely responsible, and that the situation poses long-term risks, though the severity of those risks is not entirely clear. That wave of evidence has prompted many national news organizations to stop portraying the field as split evenly between scientists who are convinced and unconvinced.
The themes in “Merchants of Doubt” have hardly gone unchallenged, though, and the protests have not always originated on the far right. A vigorous objection has come from the family of William A. Nierenberg, one of the scientists singled out for criticism in the book. Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway accused Dr. Nierenberg of weakening two major scientific reports that he led in the early 1980s, one on acid rain and one on global warming.
Dr. Nierenberg died in 2000, but his son, daughter and son-in-law have compiled a detailed critique contending that the historians misrepresented Dr. Nierenberg’s activities. “If you read her writing on the subjects I am familiar with, you know less about the topic than before you started,” Nicolas Nierenberg said in an interview
A former staff officer at the National Research Council who helped oversee the preparation of the global warming report, John S. Perry, also said he felt that Dr. Oreskes had been unfair to Dr. Nierenberg. “That sort of bothers me, because her book ‘Merchants of Doubt’ is otherwise so good,’” he said in an interview, adding that in his view the 1983 climate report stands up to scrutiny even in hindsight.
Dr. Oreskes has disputed the specific complaints raised by the Nierenberg siblings, but she did say in an interview that she somewhat regretted the tone of one article on Dr. Nierenberg — a paper that compared him to Dr. Pangloss, the character in Voltaire’s “Candide” who is optimistic about the future to the point of delusion.
“I concede that the tone was somewhat aggressive,” Dr. Oreskes said. “We were still working out the argument at the time. But we stand by every fact in that paper.”
Dr. Oreskes’s critics have taken delight in searching out errors in her books and other writings, prompting her to post several corrections. They have generally been minor, though, like describing a pH of six as neutral, when the correct number is seven. Dr. Oreskes described that as a typographical error.
In the leaked emails, Dr. Singer told a group of his fellow climate change denialists that he felt that Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway had libeled him. But in an interview, when pressed for specific errors in the book that might constitute libel, he listed none. Nor did he provide such a list in response to a follow-up email request.
He said he had consulted with lawyers about suing Dr. Oreskes, but had ruled it out.
“I decided it was too expensive and too time-consuming,” Dr. Singer said. “She could probably outspend me. She’s made an awful lot of money out of this book and out of her lectures.”
Informed of this remark, Dr. Oreskes laughed aloud. “If I had wanted to make money, I would have stayed in the mining business,” she said.
However much she might be hated by climate change denialists, Dr. Oreskes is often welcomed on college campuses these days. She usually outlines the decades of research supporting the idea that human emissions pose serious risks.
“One of the things that should always be asked about scientific evidence is, how old is it?” Dr. Oreskes said. “It’s like wine. If the science about climate change were only a few years old, I’d be a skeptic, too.”
Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway keep looking for ways to reach new audiences. Last year, they published a short work of science fiction, written as a historical essay from the distant future. “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future” argues that conservatives, by fighting sensible action to cope with the climate crisis, are essentially guaranteeing the long-term outcome they fear, a huge expansion of government.
The far right is unpersuaded, of course. People pushing climate denial on the Internet regularly issue new attacks on Dr. Oreskes, who is no longer surprised by them.
“Most people would think it’s a bad thing to be a lightning rod, and I cannot say I enjoy it,” she said. “But remember, the whole purpose of a lightning rod is to keep people safe.”