Science, politics and confusion

When prominent scientists begin to publicly sound warnings about climate change, people tend to notice.

And that can be a problem, said Naomi Oreskes, the co-author of “Merchants of Doubts,” which describes how a handful of distinguished scientists have sown falsehoods about issues ranging from tobacco to global warming.

“It is a huge problem because of the damage they have done,” said Oreskes in an interview prior to a talk Thursday at the University of Connecticut that drew a capacity crowd of about 200.


Naomi Oreskes (photo/Matthew Perkins)

Oreskes, a science historian at the University of California at San Diego, said during her public talk that a small group of scientists have caused significant confusion about climate change.  She cited a 2006 ABC News poll that indicated that up to two-thirds of those polled felt that the science was still unsettled.

Major science organizations say that the evidence is overwhelming that human activity is causing the earth to warm.

Oreskes said that a group of prominent scientists are spewing “hogwash” by distorting science and continuing to suggest that there is no consensus.

In the interview, she said, “What is nefarious about it is that they play on their credentials as scientists.  These guys were all distinguished scientists.”  But she says that when they begin taking public stands on climate change and other controversial science and environmental issues, they rarely are speaking from their areas of expertise.  Few have also ever done any research in the areas where they are raising concerns.

The simplest test is to challenge them, she said, by asking them what they have published in scientific journals on this area in the last five years.  In most cases, she added, the answer would be “nothing, absolutely nothing.”

Oreskes and her co-author Erik M. Conway in their book challenge the credentials of four key prominent scientists: Frederick Seitz, a former president of Rockefeller University and the National Academy of Science; Robert Jastrow, who founded the Goddard Institute for Space Study; William Nierenberg, a physicist who was the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; and Fred Singer, a physicist and another leading pioneer in the space program.

The authors accuse the four and sometimes others of misrepresenting the science on a range of controversial issues over the years, from the dangers of tobacco and second-hand smoke, the causes of the ozone hole over Antarctica and the degree of hazard from the pesticide DDT and from acid rain.

Only Singer is still alive although defenders of the four contend that the men only engaged in essential debate about important scientific by offering what were sometimes unpopular or unwelcome viewpoints.

One of the accusations against Oreskes is that neither she nor Conway tried to get the other side by interviewing Singer or the colleagues of the deceased scientists.

Oreskes in the interview responded that she and Conway are historians who prefer to get their facts from historical documents, and they only resort to interviews to fill in the gaps.  She said the documents laid out a clear path of misleading and false statements.

To guard against such tactics, Oreskes said “the public has to be more intelligent consumers, but it is difficult.”  She called on journalists to be more aggressive in challenging the credentials of scientists and to better understand the science of climate change and other hot-button issues.

The science community also has a role to play. “I think the scientific community should have spoken up much more when these things were going on,” Oreskes said.  Unfortunately, “they just stood by.”

In some cases, when she asked scientists why, they would give answers such as “we knew it was garbage and so we just ignored it.”  Oreskes said that kind of answer is unacceptable on important public policy issues such as climate change that are now impacting the world, and will be for generations.

Oreskes also took a moment at the beginning of her talk to recognize Gene Likens, who is now a research biologist at the University of Connecticut.  Likens is cited in Oreskes book for his struggles in the 1980s in getting a White House-created scientific panel to recognize the hazards of acid rain.

Oreskes was appearing at UConn as part of the university’s Edwin Way Teale lecture series on environmental issues.  The next Teale speaker on Dec. 8 is Daniel Esty, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, who will be speaking on how to integrate energy and environmental policies.

Bob Wyss is a UConn journalism professor, and his students, Chelsie Axelrod, Amy McDavitt and Courtney Robishaw, contributed to this story.