On June 24th Prof. Naomi Oreskes (University of California, San Diego) visited Denmark to give two ISSP lectures. The first was a small and exclusive lecture on “Science and the Public” given to a limited audience at SDU. The second was a large public evening lecture held in Copenhagen about her new book “Merchants of Doubt”; almost 200 people showed up for a rich and engaging discussion.
Just a week before Prof. Naomi Oreskes’ visit to Copenhagen, almost 80 people from academia, policy-making and industry had been
discussing the idea and implications of Scientific Social Responsibility (SSR) at a conference in Copenhagen organized by ISSP, SDU, ATV, CBS and DEA. One of the conclusions there was that when a scientist comes across results valuable for society he or she has an obligation to pursue them. Another conclusion was that scientists are obliged to speak up when they are in the privileged position of being experts on some issue discussed by the public. It did not take long for either of the audiences at the lectures to figure out that Naomi Oreskes is a woman who knows what she’s talking about and who takes such obligations seriously.
In her recent book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientist Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, written with Erik Conway, Oreskes has convincingly revealed how a series of free-market thinkers used their academic positions to deliberately exploit scientific uncertainty to raise doubt about climate issues, the health risks of tobacco, DDT, acid rain and the weakening of the Ozone layer despite scientific evidence to the contrary. This work behind the book formed the starting point for both of the lectures she gave while visiting Denmark, June 24.
Science and the Public
The first lecture was given at noon to a small audience of professors, heads of departments and others with a special role and interest in Science Communication at the University of Southern Denmark. Besides hearing about the difficult path that Naomi Oreskes had to travel in order to pursue the work behind her book, the audience also learned about and discussed at length the kinds of challenges scientists face when communicating ”bad news” or controversial insights to the broader public.
In a particularly interesting discussion, Prof. Oreskes pointed out that her experience was that when facing such challenges, relying on the facts alone will rarely prove to be enough. But one should not fall into the trap of defending one’s research as being in “opposition” to ever-existing scientific uncertainty. Instead one should frame encounters with any merchant of doubt as an encounter between scientific facts, pointing out how they support one’s claim rather than the opposing claim. In other words, one has to keep the focus on the weight of the facts relative to the opposing claims, rather than accept the debate being framed as facts against uncertainty.
Merchants of doubt
Despite competing with the World Cup soccer match between Denmark and Japan, the evening lecture in Copenhagen had to be movedto a larger room holding 195 seats. In front of a full audience, Oreskes gave a provocative and eye-opening presentation about the role of a series of free-market thinkers in the debate on climate change as revealed in her most recent book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientist Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. The lecture was organized in collaboration between ISSP, Dagbladet Information and University of Copenhagen.
With the kind of extremely well-documented historical facts and arguments characteristic of a historian of science, Oreskes’ lecture portrayed the ways in which the US climate debate has been deliberately manipulated by a small group of scientists exploiting scientific uncertainty as a means to achieve specific ideological goals. She also revealed how such manipulation in turn has been supported by specific political forces and industry through non-academic institutions and organizations, but emphasized over and over again that the motives have been ideological rather than financial.
While Prof. Oreskes herself was tempted to conclude on the debate following her lecture that the usual skeptics had stayed at home watching soccer, a more likely conclusion seemed to be that even if any skeptics had attended the facts were just too overwhelming to cast into doubt and the audience too skilled now in spotting the usual strategy of such skeptics. Thus the following debate shaped into a series of commentaries about parallels and additional factors shaping the Danish debate on climate change, as well as questions for further elaboration – a debate featuring several renowned Danish scientists, researchers and citizens active in the climate debate.
On behalf of all the organizers and Prof. Naomi Oreskes, ISSP thanks all those in the audience as well as those who helped out during the day.
You may read more about the content of the lectures by following these links:
Comments From Scientists
Regarding the U.S. context of the modern environmental movement after World War II, a development of interest for the science and the public debate might been revoked, namely the establishment of a SCIENTISTS INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC INFORMATION (SIPI) in connection with the periodical ENVIRONMENT in the 1960s. Biologist Barry Commoner was a leading force in that and has e.g. interpreted the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty stopping atmospheric nuclear tests among subscribers (not France, as we know) as the first victory of the environmental movement. Such developments must have been known for the circle of scientists, which Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conways book is about. Their activities must bee seen as reactionary endeavours to contain these progressive movements.
It is a massive and well-done undertaking of the two authors to have demonstrated, how these circles of scientists established a counter-discourse to the environment and health enlightenment movement. But the very subtitle ‘How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming’ may lead to an association that this smells of a conspiracy theory. Therefore, it is relevant that other researchers ditched another tunnel through the same landscape of obscurantism. By the way, Naomi told that she had received congratulations from one of them, Riley Dunlap. His research revealed a broader background: Since the 1970s until 2005, almost 150 book publications in English were found with titles under the general category of environmental scepticism.
Confirmed by these findings, communication analyst Robert C. Cox of the University of North Carolina held a keynote speech at a conference arranged by the European Environmental Agency at Lisbon on environment and the media in 2009. Here, in April month he warned against the erosion of public communication on climate issues brought about since 2007 by ‘citizen journalism’ in the U.S. being dominated by right wing net platforms substituting for reliable science journalism in print media. He could already tell that the position of president Obama at COP 15 in Copenhagen would be undermined by this lack of control on citizen (mis-)information.
The valuable contribution of Oreskes and Conway consists in this respect in their documentation of the anti-communist and generally right-wing orientation of a central group of protagonists of, what has assumed the dimensions of an intellectual epidemic – surprisingly just at those occasions, where insight is to be transformed into practical decisions. Scepticism is only part of the necessary critical theoretical distance to a dismal power play and one must have a flair for when scepticism becomes obscurantism – e.g. when scientific uncertainty and high urgency demand that action is taken precautiously.