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7 Jul 2014

Naomi Oreskes on the roots of climate change denial

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is a historian at science who teaches and does research at Harvard University.  She is the author, with Erik Conway, of the excellent The Merchants of Doubt: how a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming.  We caught up by Skype to talk climate scepticism, science and the relationship between the two.  I started by asking who the ‘Merchants of Doubt’ are, and why she felt compelled to research and write about them.

“The Merchants of Doubt were a small group of people, mostly scientists, mostly older physicists, who had created common cause with think tanks and the fossil fuel industry to challenge the scientific evidence of climate change. We wrote the book because we stumbled across the story, we didn’t set out to write a story about climate change denial.

Eric and I are both historians who were working on other problems in the history of science. I was working on the history of oceanography, he was working on the history of atmospheric science. We stumbled across the story of these prominent physicists who had become climate change deniers. But Eric had also found materials related to the denial of the scientific evidence of the ozone hole and it was the same people.

We thought that was a little peculiar, so we started digging and discovered that not only had those people challenged scientific evidence of ozone depletion but also acid rain. Also in the big 5 was that they had denied evidence on the harmfulness of tobacco. When we found that link to the tobacco industry, which as most people know was convicted of criminal conspiracy to commit fraud against the American people, we thought that was an important story so we started digging and that’s what led to the book. [Here is a video of a talk Naomi gave around the time of the book’s publication]

The book’s subtitle is ‘How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming’ but to what extent can those people truly be called scientists? Where does the distinction lie between a scientist and a pseudo-scientist?

This was one of the really difficult things about this book, and about how to tell the story. It’s the same thing that makes it difficult to deal with. These people were scientists in a sense that they had PhDs in science, they had published scientific research, they had prominent positions of power and influence in the American scientific community.  But they were not experts about climate change.

One of the things we say in the book is that this is part of the reason they were able to fool so many people. They drew on their scientific credibility to make claims that the people and the press found credible. This is the part of the book where we really do fault the press. In most cases, the press never pointed out that these people were actually all-purpose contrarians, that they really didn’t have expertise on climate change or tobacco and that they were really exploiting their scientific credentials in a way that was quite misleading, in a way that was merchandising doubt.

It helps to explain why it worked because it’s a subtle point. If it were really coarse and really crude, if these guys were just shills for the coal industry and were on the payroll of the coal industry, you could have pointed that out and everyone would have said “oh well, obviously”. But this is much more subtle and therefore a much more pernicious thing.

How can people spot this? What are the fingerprints? When you open the newspaper and read a story questioning some aspect of climate change what are the fingerprints to look for?

There are a few things to look for. One of the things I’ve noticed is very often journalists will write a story in which they’ll say “the majority of scientists say the globe is warming up” or “the IPCC says…” or the National Research Council or the Royal Society, they’ll identify who it is who holds this dominant position. But then they’ll say “however, some experts”, and very often those “some experts” are not actually identified. We’re not told who they are so that should be a red flag from the start.

“However some experts” should also be a red flag, because then the question should be raised, “well how many experts exactly?” Are we talking 49% of the scientific community, is there a really big split among scientists, or are we talking about a handful of doubters?  Very often they are talking about the handful of doubters. If you see an article in which it’s not made clear who these people are or how many of them there are, that should be grounds for suspicion.

From the point of view of the journalist, journalists have asked me so many times – what should we do? That’s always a tricky question for me because I feel like saying “you guys need to figure this out, you guys need to ask yourselves that question”. One thing that all journalists could and should do is just to ask some really basic questions up front from anyone who’s presenting themselves as an expert.

That is to say “what’s your PHD in?” “What have you published on this particular topic under discussion right now?” “Are you receiving funds from a third party with a vested interest?” Because if you were to ask those basic questions of the scientists, it turns out that Fred Seitz was receiving a lot of money from the tobacco industry. I don’t think he was doing it for the money. I think ideological and egotistical reasons played a bigger role in his own personal motivation. But the fact that he was being paid by the tobacco industry was a relevant piece of information.

 The fact that his PhD was in solid states physics was a relevant piece of information. The fact that he’d never published a peer-reviewed scientific article on climate change, to me that’s the most relevant of all. If journalists would just ask those three basic questions, they would realise very quickly who are the real experts and who are the doubt-mongers.

In an interview online that you have with sceptic Nick Minchin, you suggest he untangles the discussions about his responses on how to run an economy etc. from arguing about the science. While historically the sceptics you write about have had an impact, so have a number of independent bloggers, tweeters and so on. Where are they coming from?

with Nick MinchinIt’s becoming a complicated social phenomenon. It isn’t just one thing. The story we were telling in ‘Merchants of Doubt’ was essentially an origins story. We wanted to know where all this had come from in the first place and we were able to track it back. Every story has a beginning, and we were able to show that this story begins with the George C Marshall Institute in 1989, where they first shift their attention away from Cold War issues, having to do with national security, and onto environmental issues.  That’s the origins part of the story.

Since then of course it’s spread like a kind of disease. Nick is an interesting case in point because to me he was a kind of ‘Exhibit  A’ of exactly the type of thing we talk about at the end of the book, namely that The Merchants of Doubt conflated two very different problems. First is the factual scientific problem of whether climate change is happening and caused by human activities, and the second is the problem of what to do about it. These are two very different things.

Nick Minchin is just like the Merchants of Doubt we studied, because the reason he rejects the science is because he doesn’t want to do what he thinks will be required to do if climate change is true. Let me say that again: If climate change is true then there are certain things we may have to do. Nick doesn’t like those things.

He doesn’t want the government to intervene in the marketplace through a carbon tax or an emissions trading system, or whatever else it might do. And because he doesn’t like the implications of the truth, he denies and rejects the truth and finds reasons to question it. We call that ‘implicatory denial’.  We’re in denial because we don’t like the implications of the truth.

Nick is a perfect example of this because he’s a nice guy, he was fun to talk to, and when you really press him on it he actually admits that this is the case. I was upset with that ABC programme because we had this great exchange in which I said to Nick “you’re confusing two related but different things” and he actually said that that was true, he said that yes, he didn’t want the government to get involved in a big intervention in the marketplace.

So I said “well that’s fine, and that’s what we should be talking about, about how to solve this problem without taking away everyone’s personal freedoms”. It was a really great truthful, honest moment and of course the ABC didn’t use that in the film. That tells you something about what the press’s orientation on this issue is, at least in some cases.

There are some who argue, like Stuart Brand and Mark Lynas, that if the science on climate change is right then we should also therefore accept genetically modified food, nuclear power, geoengineering. What’s your sense of other lenses that we can look through such issues with beyond just the fact of scientifically establishing whether they work or not?

There are two question there. The first is – should we look at this problem through other lenses? The answer to that is of course absolutely yes, and this is the most important thing of all, we need to stop arguing about whether climate change is happening.  That shift is underway, but the problem is it’s been underway for 20 years and we keep slipping back.

But we need to shift the focus from the problem to the solution. There’s no question in my mind that that’s true. The extent to which people like the ones you mentioned, Stuart Brand and Mark Lynas are provoking us to discuss the solutions, that’s a very good thing and they’ve made a positive contribution.

On the other hand, I think to jump to the conclusion that the solution is nuclear power or genetically modified crops is, let’s just say, not supported by the evidence. One of the things about climate change and fossil fuels is that energy derived from fossil fuels was a super great technology and nobody expected it to do the damage that it’s ended up doing. One of the things we know about technology is that it’s almost always a two-edged sword. It does some things for us very well but it often creates other different problems.


I feel like if there’s any lesson from the history of technology it’s that. So anyone who thinks that nuclear power or genetically modified crops will solve this problem, it seems to me has only got one eye open. That’s what we talk about at the end of The Merchants of Doubt. We talk about this phenomenon which we call ‘techno-fideism’, faith in technology.

The Merchants of Doubt had that too. Their whole argument was the government didn’t need to do anything about climate change because markets would provide the technologies we needed. Bill Nierenberg made that argument explicitly in 1983, so that’s 31 years ago! Well here we are 30 years later, climate change is underway, we’re seeing the impact all around us and yet we still haven’t seen a strong market response and we’re still seeing the use and production of fossil fuels increasing rather than decreasing. So we know that the marketplace, left to its own devices, isn’t solving this problem for us spontaneously.

But now the question comes – should the government support nuclear power? Well, there’s a lot of problems with nuclear power. There have been a lot of extreme difficulties, including the very high cost of it. To say that this is going to solve our problems without engaging in a serious discussion about why nuclear power has not succeeded so far, that’s, as I said, discussing the issue with one eye closed.

What does this conversation really look like when you open your eyes wide open, both eyes, and you don’t succumb to techno-fideism but ask yourself a serious, honest question: “what do we know from history about the successes and failures of large-scale technological systems, and can we learn any lessons from that?”

The answer is yes, and it strongly suggests we will not solve this problem with some kind of massive reliance on nuclear power. Possibly modest reliance in certain cases, almost certainly not with large-scale reliance without serious costs.

One more thing about genetically modified crops. Again there’s no question in my mind that genetically modified crops could be useful for certain kinds of things. But the idea that they will solve this problem is naïve and ignorant in the extreme. Because look at the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was supposed to be the fantastic application of technology to solving a major human problem. And what happened?

Well it definitely helped. There was definitely very significant progress and we don’t want to downplay the progress that was made. But where are we today? Well 2 billion people on this planet are still hungry and they’re not hungry because we don’t have enough food. They’re hungry because we don’t know how to distribute and store and get food to the people who need it.  That’s not a problem of technology.  That’s a problem of human institutions.  

The techno-fideists focus far too much on the hardware and not nearly enough on what we could call the software technology. I don’t mean this in a literal sense, but software in the sense of support systems, distribution systems, the forms of governance that are needed to get food to people where they are without it being diverted. Even Norman Borlaug who was considered the father of the Green Revolution, said at the end of his life that he had overestimated the role of technology and underestimated the role of all these other social, institutional and cultural factors.

So is there a place for genetically modified crops? Probably. Is it going to be a magic bullet , a solution to this problem? I don’t think so.

You paint a picture of very influential people, very highly connected, very well resourced with credible scientific qualifications, with the ear of many powerful people. How on earth can we combat that?

One thing we can do is expose it, because when people see it for what it is they get it. People aren’t idiots, but we get confused and we get misled, especially when people are trying to confuse and mislead us. So number one is exposing it and that was of course what Eric and I were trying to do in the book, and we’re very gratified it’s received the reception it has.

I think the second thing is what you just suggested. To shift the conversation to the solutions and say “this is a very difficult, very challenging problem, but it’s not insoluble”. There are people who want you to think it’s insoluble for reasons of their own. There are also people who want you to think there’s an easy solution for reasons of their own. I think we want to resist both these impulses and say “it’s not easy but it’s not impossible”.

What does that look like? Conversation has not really begun in a serious way. There are places happening here and there, but a serious sustained discussion about solutions, we really need to have that conversation.

There are the people you talk about in the book and the Heartland Institute and these very well-backed, very vocal and influential climate sceptics. But I’m sure that you probably, like me, on Twitter and so on, get people who are armchair climate sceptics who do much the same job but presumably in an un-funded amateur capacity and they can be quite poisonous as Michael Mann and others experiences on a daily basis and quite possibly you do too. Where are those people coming from?

Quite right.  What has happened is this has spread like a kind of disease, and like any disease that’s now spread, it’s much harder to contain. This is one reason why deep in my heart I feel anger towards people like Bill Nierenberg and Fred Seitz because they started a kind of epidemic and now it’s out of control.

You’re absolutely right, all over the internet, Twitter, in the blogosphere there are all kinds of people, many of them are amateurs, self-motivated armchair climate change deniers. But one thing they all have in common is that in a sense they’re all like Nick Minchin. They don’t want climate change to be real because they don’t want to be told that they have to change the way they live. So there’s no accident that climate change denial is much more rampant in the United States than anywhere else in the world.


Americans use more energy and are more consumptive of material resources than anyone else in the world and by a lot. The average American uses 4 times as much energy as the average French person. It’s not just that we use more than impoverished Bangladeshis, it’s that we use more even than our fellow citizens in the advanced, industrialised wealthy nations of the world.

Climate change is a problem that seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with the American way of life. People don’t like that suggestion, especially Americans!  Americans live by the belief in American exceptionism, that this is in a way an ideal and wonderful country. I travel a lot and America is a great country. There are many things about this country that are great. I’ve lived in other places and I came back because at the end of the day, life in America is really good.

But there’s this sort of soft underbody of American life and it’s the consumption problem. A lot of people don’t want to admit that. They don’t want to talk about it. So when they hear or read the allegation that climate change is some kind of left-wing hoax, some kind of liberal or even socialist or communist hoax, that appeals to them and so they go looking for arguments that support their inclination to disbelieve in any way, so there’s a lot of confirmation bias. There’s confirmation bias on both sides of course, but one side has the scientific facts and the other side doesn’t. 

The above was edited from the full interview, which can be heard below: