Pesky Oreskes

by | Mar 3, 2008

And so to the 2nd (and quite possibly the final) part in our mini-series of posts about videos that really annoy us: “The American Denial of Global Warming

We find ourselves somewhat obsessed with this one. It’s a lecture by Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at the University of California, San Diego, that’s been doing the rounds for a while. It’s a polemic against US climate sceptics, who Oreskes believes are ideologically and financially motivated individuals, who have successfully impeded the dissemination of the “scientific message” about global warming.

Oreskes kicks off with statistics from a recent poll which suggest that “72% of Americans [are] completely or mostly convinced that global warming is happening” and that “sixty-two percent… believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. This shows, says Oreskes, that “the scientific message is getting through to the American people.” Except that it doesn’t. Because the message that “life on Earth” hangs in the balance, such that it faces “major disruptions” unless we take “immediate and drastic action” is not a scientific one. You certainly won’t find it in any IPCC reports. Two minutes into a lecture about how climate sceptics misrepresent the the science for political ends, and Oreskes has herself done precisely that.

Her next offering is an “unequivocal” statement from the IPCC TAR (2001):

“Human activities… are modifying the concentrations of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions”

But here is the entire paragraph, from which she quotes selectively:

Human activities — primarily burning of fossil fuels and changes in land cover — are modifying the concentration of atmospheric constituents or properties of the surface that absorb or scatter radiant energy. The WGI contribution to the TAR—Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis—found, “In the light of new evidence and taking into account the remaining uncertainties, most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” Future changes in climate are expected to include additional warming, changes in precipitation patterns and amounts, sea-level rise, and changes in the frequency and intensity of some extreme events.

“Most” and “likely”. “Unequivocal”. Spot the difference. Undaunted, Oreskes quotes the IPCC’s 1995 Second Assessment report to show that “in fact, the scientific community had actually already come to a consensus that global warming was beginning to happen in 1995”:

“The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human impact [sic] on global climate”

And here is the full section from which she quotes:

Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long term natural variability and the time evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.

In 1995, the scientific consensus, if that is what the IPCC represents, was little more than “we don’t know”. But, according to Oreskes, the consensus is even older than that. She quotes from a press release that announced the publication in 1979 of the US National Research Council’s Charney Report:

A plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use

which is, she says, a

very clear statement of what it was that scientists felt they had come to understand. In short, there was already a consensus in 1979 that global warming would happen. And that it was not a small issue.

See what she did there? The fact that a 1979 press release used the word “consensus” (or more specifically, the words “indicates a consensus”) means that, in 1979, there was a consensus. Hey, it’s easy this history of science.

And who needs a consensus anyway? Lyndon B Johnson didn’t. His message to congress in 1965 (“in the days when politicians actually listened to scientists” says Oreskes) that “This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels” demonstrates the gathering political momentum, she says. But here’s Johnson’s quote in its original context:

Air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Entire regional airsheds, crop plant environments, and river basins are heavy with noxious materials. Motor vehicles and home heating plants, municipal dumps and factories continually hurl pollutants into the air we breathe. Each day almost 50,000 tons of unpleasant, and sometimes poisonous, sulfur dioxide are added to the atmosphere, and our automobiles produce almost 300,000 tons of other pollutants.

Johnson’s 5,500 word message contained just that one reference to carbon. And nothing about climate change. It talks instead about clean air, disposal of waste, pesticides, that sort of thing. But Oreskes makes it look as though anthropogenic climate change was high on the political agenda 40 years ago.

The scientific case really firmed up, she says, in the 1970s. And importantly, she insists, the science was not yet politicised. She cites three studies, including one from the JASON Committee in 1979, which was commissioned by the US government amid a fuel crisis to analyse the environmental repercussions of a switch from oil to coal. The report featured an early climate model. The abstract of the paper says:

Calculation with this zonally averaged model shows an increase of average surface temperature of 2.4 deg for a doubling of CO2. The equatorial temperature increases by 0.7 K, while the poles warm up by 10 to 12 K. Effects of the warming of the climate are discussed.

Burning coal would exacerbate the problem, they concluded. We resist the temptation to shout “it’s all about oil”. And of course, Oreskes is guided only by the cold, hard facts of science. She presents a graphic from NOAA, to show how the JASON report’s predictions have been confirmed by subsequent data:

This graphic does more than merely support the model, she says – it shows that the prediction has come true to a “startling degree”:

They also predicted an effect which we now call ‘polar amplifaction’; that the effect would be greatest at the poles, maybe as much as 10-12 degrees incre
ase in temperature at the poles, for doubling of CO2. So, in other words, four or five times as great as the global average. Well, I want to jump ahead in my narrative for just a moment, because it’s not that common that scientific predictions actually come true. Or at least not that often that they come true to a high degree of specificity. But this is an example of a prediction that has come true to a startling degree. So this is a map recently released by NOAA that shows the mean surface temperature increase compared to a base period 1951-1980. But not just average for the whole world, but showing you how the changes are different in different regions. So the global mean increase for this period, or now, compared to this period is half a degree centigrade. But look at the polar regions; look at Alaska. The increase in Alaska is 2.1 degrees. That’s four times the global mean. That’s exactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979.

“[E]xactly what the JASON Committee predicted in 1979” our collective arses. Were Alaska representative of the entire Polar regions, she might have a point. But it isn’t. Most of the Northern Polar region’s temperature anomaly is +1.2-1.6 or +0.8-1.2. And we can see there is just one small area of the Southern Polar region which is warmer than the global mean. Oreskes has selected an unrepresentative worst-case to support her point. From the evidence she presents, it would be equally justified to argue that the model predictions were wrong to a “startling degree” on the basis that parts of Africa, Asia and South America have seen temperature rises as big as those in Alaska. (And remember that the 2D projection used in the figure artificially increases the apparent size of Alaska compared to the Tropics.)

Anyway, the story goes that the Charney and JASON reports, among others, grabbed the attention of the White House. The IPCC was established in 1988, and in 1992 George Bush Sr. signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which set the stage for the Kyoto Protocol. Mother Nature was going to be OK. Except that then it all started to go horribly wrong. Oreskes wonders why:

If scientists understood in 1979 that global warming was going to happen, and if they knew by the early 1990s that it was starting to happen, and if our first president Bush signed the framework convention, why are we still here, in 2007, still arguing about whether global warming is even happening?

This question is the subject of the second half of Oreskes’ talk. In her own words, “the first half of this talk was about the truth; the second half is about the denial”.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year or so, really trying to understand what has happened here in the United States in the past fifteen or twenty years and I believe the answer is explained by one very strange poll result. The fact is that although the American people are now convinced that global warming is indeed happening, more than half the American people still think that scientists are still arguing about it.

This apparent contradiction is not, says Oreskes, the result of disagreements between scientists (as we can see do exist) and/or disagreements between the scientific predictions and observations (ditto). Nope…

We, the American people, think that scientists are still arguing about it because this is in fact what we have been repeatedly told.

That is to say that what the American public are being told is false, and they believe it, and this belief is reflected in the poll. Oreskes says that the sort of falsehoods peddled

include that there is no proof – that the science is uncertain. That there’s no consensus – that scientists are divided. That if warming is happening, it’s not anthropogenic, it’s just natural variability. If it is anthropogenic, it isn’t necessarily bad. That we can adapt to any changes that might occur. And that controlling greenhouse gases emissions would cost jobs, harm, or even destroy the U.S. economy.

Having just failed so spectacularly to prove the robustness of the consensus, Oreskes might wonder why anyone should find any of these challenges particularly outlandish. (And how can there possibly be a scientific consensus that we cannot adapt to any changes that might occur, or that controlling greenhouse gas emissions would not cause economic harm?) But instead, she asks: “When did scientific uncertainty become a political tactic?” (When surely a more pertinent question for an historian of science is: When did certainty start having anything to do with science?)

She tells us that the history of denialism is as long as that of the consensus on climate change. And at the heart of the denial industry is the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

The Institute was founded, according to Oreskes, to defend Ronald Reagan’s plans for the SDI “Star Wars” project. Members of the GCMI would make public statements in the mass media, to show that scientists were not “unified in their opposition, but in fact were arguing about it”, and would threaten to sue under a Fairness Doctrine that required balance in the media at the time. She asks:

If you have 6500 physicists opposing a program [SDI], and three supporting it, then what kind of balance would it be if you gave equal time to the three?

By the 1990s, however, the cold war was over, leaving the GCMI without a purpose. They employed their skills instead to casting doubt on the mainstream science of global warming, says Oreskes. To illustrate the point, she shows a graphic from a 2004 study by Boykoff and Boykoff of global warming press coverage between 1988 and 2002.

There is a number of problems with this approach. First, the study looked at only four publications – NY Times, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Such prestige publications are far more likely to report cutting-edge, controversial research, and are more likely to seek a counter opinion so as not to insult their audience. Second, this shows just one level of media bias – of which there are many (like which research gets covered in the first place. And indeed, the Boycoff study is not without it’s own biases. For example, it tells us on page 1 that, “The continuous juggling act journalists engage in, often mitigates against meaningful, accurate, and urgent coverage of the issue of global warming.”) Third, the study looks for agreement between the thrust of an article and the “consensus position” that AGW is real and is happening. In which case, a story reporting James Hansen’s claim that global warming will “result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century” will be put in the AGW dominant/exclusive categories, while a story along the lines of “global warming unlikely to cause significant problems to New York City in the near future” will find itself in one of the sceptic categories – even though the latter is closer than the former to the IPCC position. The statement “global warming is happening” simply isn’t sophisticated enough itself to provide anything meaningful to measure statements by. The analysis lacks any measure of how far a story departs from the IPCC – in either direction. Fourth, it assumes that the “global warming is happening” side has not engaged with tactics of its own. Yet, as we can see, the unsophisticated “global warming is happening” statement can turn barking mad statements about climate science into truth, while assigning informed caution to the “denier” camp. Is that n
ot a tactic? It certainly looks tactical. And, of course, the message that we’re all going to die, because something really really horrible is about to happen is also a tactic – one that we have referred to here as “the politics of fear”. Such tactics ask us to suspend our judgement because the consequences are just too great. Yet Oreskes shows that, if we suspend judgment, anything can pass as evidence. Fifth, Oreskes uses the statistics from the report with no historical perspective. Another graphic from the same study reveals the more interesting picture that, from about 1996, the number of “balanced” articles is roughly equal to the number of stories which push the AGW line:

Oreskes then says that it is an irony that the Reagan Administration had been dismantling the Fairness Doctrine, “which it viewed as unnecessary government intervention in communication markets”. Huh? Yes, it is ironic, but only because it undermines her own argument that there is a cabal of Republicans bent on distorting the scientific message.

“As the science became firmer”, says Oreskes, the “attacks became harsher and more personal”. She highlights a “highly personal attack” against IPCC lead author on the 1995 IPCC SAR, Benjamin Santer, by Frederick Seitz (GCMI Chairman), William Nierenberg, and S. Fred Singer, who, in an open letter to the IPCC…

accused Santer of making “unauthorized” changes to the IPCC reports to downplay doubts, make science seem firmer than it was

That’s a personal attack? As it happens, it is true that Santer made changes to the report subsequent to its approval, but before its publication. The letter claimed that Santer had removed the following three clauses, which had been agreed to by the authors, reviewers and governments:

“None of the studies cited above has shown clear evidence that we can attribute the observed [climate] changes to the specific cause of increases in greenhouse gasses.”

“No Study to date has positively attributed all or part [of the climate change observed to date] to anthropogenic causes.”

“Any claims of positive detection of significant climate change are likely to remain controversial until uncertainties in the total natural variability of the climate system are reduced.”

This “personal attack” was neither groundless nor personal. Santer took responsibility for the changes, though it emerged that he had been “prevailed upon” to make the chapter consistent with the Summary for Policymakers (a point acknowledged by Fred Singer). Oreskes goes on to claim that the alteration was legitimate and within the peer-review process, as though it were the final word. But as Fred Seitz has pointed out:

Dr. Santer says that “IPCC procedures require changes in response to comments,” Of course they do, but not after the governments have accepted the final draft. The fact is that someone connected with the presentation of the published version — presumably Dr. Santer and others — rewrote basic technical material in Chapter 8 with the result that scientific doubts about man-made global warming were suppressed. Clearly, governments will have to look elsewhere than the IPCC for sound science on climate change.

Whether or not the revision was legitimate in terms of the IPCC process, it reveals something rather murky. Oreskes, meanwhile, sets the legitimate dispute up as an attempt to smear honest scientists, who had no questions to answer. She then proceeds to tell us “who Fredrick Seitz was”… Beginning with his academic credentials, and a few of his career highlights, culminating in his last paying job…

In 1979, Fredrick Seitz became an advisor to the R.J. Reynolds Corporation. His job was to direct a medical research program to confound the links between tobacco and cancer. Between 1975 and 1989 RJR Nabisco Company, the parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco spent $45 million on this program. And from 1978 onwards, Seitz was its director. The focus of the program was to (quote) identify highly promising young investigators who are underfunded at present, and to fund them to do research that could be then used to argue that the scientific evidence was uncertain.

The next few minutes are spent going over old documents and speeches to show that the point of the scientific research was to build a case against litigation in the US courts. The important thing about this, Oreskes says, is that it shows that science was used not to show how tobacco was safe, but to create reasonable doubt. She then moves on to Fred Singer, and his work in challenging various “consensus” positions on environmental issues, and “defending tobacco”. Her point, it seems, is to show that in the cases of acid rain, CFCs, and environmental tobacco smoke, these men used the same argument: the science was uncertain, concerns were exaggerated, technology will solve the problem, no need for government interference. This is what Oreskes calls the “Tobacco Strategy”.

But why would they do this – attack science, defend tobacco – Oreskes wonders. It’s politics, she says. They are against regulation. It’s the ideology of laissez-faire. Earlier in their careers, when these men were working to defend Regan’s SDI program, they were driven, according to Oreskes, by anti-communism. They object to regulations and environmental laws because they represent “creeping communism”. Testing the men’s actions and words against the maxim that “extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”, Oreskes concludes that it is indeed vice that Singer and Seitz are engaged in. They do not “make a political argument on political grounds”, she complains, and they “disguised a political debate as a scientific one”. She charges them with misrepresenting the science, confusing the American people, and, in the case of climate change, delaying political action on one of the most pressing global issues of our time.

To find support for her Tobacco Strategy theory, Oreskes simply takes debates about acid rain, secondhand smoke and CFCs, and divides each into two positions such that, with the benefit of hindsight, one is necessarily false, and the other is necessarily true; she polarises the debate so that it can be cast as a reasonable position versus a ridiculous one. From this vantage point, she can claim that a strategy has been in place throughout. But what debate with a scientific element to it wouldn’t be about how well understood the science is? Which one of these debates hasn’t involved exaggerated claims from alarmists? And what demands for regulation have not been met by opponents that it is not necessary. The Tobacco Strategy is a rather mundane observation about the nature of arguments. Yet Oreskes gives it enough significance to paint a picture of a conspiracy. As we have argued before, this search for geometric congruence between “denialist” arguments comes at the expense of meaningful moral or political analysis. And by the same token, it could be argued just as easily that demands for acting on the best scientific evidence and scientific opinion makes bedfellows of greens and the eugenicists of the early-mid 20th century.

In Oreskes’ world, a warm Alaska is enough to prove the 1979 theory of Polar Amplification, a single graph from a biased study is enough to show that the media is dominated by a secret political agenda, and the dealings of two dodgy scientists is apparently enough to undermine the good work of climate science in the eyes of the public – a public that she sees as an unthinking, uncritical mob who just sit there swallowing any old rubbish that is thrown at them. Oreskes accuses others of “distorting science”, ”
tactics” and “political motivation”. But her argument is all three. She lies to show that others have lied. She distorts the science to show that others have distorted the science. She points to others’ political agendas to conceal her own. She does not search for agreement between scientists about theories, and she does not look for agreements between theories and observations to prove a consensus. It doesn’t matter to Oreskes what the science is, or whether it can be verified, nor even if it is consistent. She is only interested in consensus. And consensus is about politics, not science.

But despite the onslaught from the influential denialists, the fact remains that – according to Oreskes’ own figures – 62% of the US public “believe that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”. If any distorted message is getting through to the American poublic, obviously it does not come from the denier camp. Oreskes’ problem is not that science gets distorted for political ends, but that that distortion is not always in the direction that she would prefer. One can only assume that Oreskes would be happier only if the message that was getting through was even more unrepresentative – and even more hysterical – than it already is.


  1. john a. bailo

    I keep thinking of Einstein. Did he go around forming PACs and making movies to sell Relativity?

    Or was it so beautiful, so elegant, so right that everyone accepted.

    AGW is a terrible theory. That’s why people have to be oppressed into believing it, and the arguments have become 99% polemic and 1% science.

  2. redleg

    An expert on the history of science qualifies as an expert scientist. Not only that, a climatologist with expertise in climate change. Dang, I knew I shouldn’t have wasted my time taking physics, math and chemistry when I could have been taking history courses.

  3. Anonymous

    This lady didn’t do her homework. The late John Daly showed that there was no evidence for any global warming at over 200 rural and remote weather stations upto ca. 2001.

    GO:, scroll down and click on “Station Temperature Data”. It would really nice if someone would bring all of his temperature-time series plots upto date.

    You should a link to his site.

    -=-Harold Pierce Jr

  4. Hans Erren

    Oreskes is rewriting history: Reminds me of 1984.

  5. littleblackduck

    Boykoff and Boykoff study, eh? I guess I have some reading to do. So it gets published in Global Environmental Change. Wonder if it would have passed scrutiny if it had been submitted to a Communications Journal? (trick question – it wouldn’t)
    I love how ‘industry’ funding can be dismissed as bias but Boykoff’s wiki page shows a near obsession with ‘oppression’ and left-wing causes.
    Funny how some AGW-ers argue that only climate scientists can argue legitimately about climate, but anyone can do a media study? As someone with a BA in Communications, I’m offended :P)
    Also, I don’t remember use of the term ‘prestige press’ in any of my course material, and yet they don’t qualify the use of that term in their paper.
    I’ll of course have to finish reading it myself before judging its relative merits.

  6. Lotharloo

    Funny how you accuse Oreskes of misleading statements while you do exactly the same:

    When Oreskes quotes, ““Human activities… are modifying the concentrations of atmospheric constituents … that absorb or scatter radiant energy … [M]ost of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas emissions”, her quotation is accurate and she actually emphasizes the word likely. She then goes on to say that the result of the decades of research was essentially the change from the word “likely” to stronger words.

    Next, you say, “See what she did there? The fact that a 1979 press release used the word “consensus” (or more specifically, the words “indicates a consensus”) means that, in 1979, there was a consensus. Hey, it’s easy this history of science.” which is another misleading statement. She was demonstrating that the scientists were actively researching global warming for decades and she was right. You cannot dispute that claim so you make up a strawman that she claimed there was a consensus on global warming.

  7. cbp

    I’m sorry this analysis is flawed right from the start.

    You say:
    >> Because the message that “life on Earth” hangs in the balance, such that it faces
    >> “major disruptions” unless we take “immediate and drastic action” is not a
    >> scientific one. You certainly won’t find it in any IPCC reports.

    What nonsense – this is all over the IPCC reports:

  8. Editors

    Lotharloo and cbp join us from anger-management guru, Tim Lambert’s “deltoid” blog.

    This probably explains the difficulties they are having.

    Lotharloo. We thought what Oreskes left out was interesting. On your second point, Orsekses was not using the word “consensus” refer to research, but instead to agreement between scientists. Your complaint is pretty feeble.

    So too is cbp’s. Thatns for the link. It does speak about species loss. But it doesn’t talk about it in anything like the terms necessary to make the claim that “life on earth hangs in the balance”.

    An answer to Oreskes new bedtime story will be here soonish.

  9. cbp

    >> It does speak about species loss. But it doesn’t talk
    >> about it in anything like the terms necessary to make
    >> the claim that “life on earth hangs in the balance”.

    Well, firstly “life on earth hangs in the balance” appears to be words, not Oresek’s, although I could be wrong – it’s certainly not what you quoted in your article.

    Orsekes’s quote (itself just a quote of a survey):
    “…that life on Earth will continue without major disruptions only if society takes immediate and drastic action to reduce global warming”

    After 20 seconds of Googling the IPCC’s WGII I find things like:
    “By the end of the century, 43% of 69 tree plant species studied could become extinct in Amazonia”

    “Thomas et al. (2004) show, for the year 2050 and for a mid-range climate change scenario, that species extinction in Mexico could sharply increase: mammals 8% or 26% loss of species”

    …these certainly seem like ‘major disruptions’ to ‘life on Earth’ to me…

    And after another quick scan, I find table SPM.6 from the Synthesis which says emissions would need to peak sometime before the middle of the century to limit temperature rises to under 4 degrees (with a peak by 2015 to achieve less than 2 degrees warming)… I think most would agree that some degree of ‘drastic action’ is going to be required to achieve a peak in emissions within this time frame, particularly while we have guys like you running around, would you not? Or perhaps you have some proposal in your blog archive whereby ‘non-drastic’ action could achieve such a reduction?

  10. Editors

    “43% of 69 tree plant species studied”

    There are a great many more than 69 plant species.

    “species extinction in Mexico could sharply increase: mammals 8% or 26% loss of species”

    That’s not quite what it says.

    “… that species extinction in Mexico could sharply increase: mammals 8% or 26% loss of species (with or without dispersal), birds 5% or 8% loss of species (with or without dispersal), and butterflies 7% or 19% loss of species (with or without dispersal).”

    “Dispersal…” The species can move, but the study counts them as “extinct” if they’re “dispersed”. And it counts them as extinct just from Mexico. So if they hop over the border… they’re still “extinct”.

    The number of species studied in Thomas 2004 was: mammals 96, birds 186, butterflies 41. So Thomas 2004 talks about the extinction of between 8 and 26% of 96 mammal species – so between 7.6 and 25 species of mammals; and between 5 and 8% of 186 bird species – so between 9 and 15 bird species; and between 7 and 19% of 41 butterfly species – so between 2.9 and 6.15 butterfly species.

    Thomas 2004 continues…

    “Many unknowns remain in projecting extinctions, and the vlaues provided should not be taken as precise predictions. Analyses need to be repeated for larger samples of region and taxa, and the selection of climate change scenarios need to be standardized. ”

    It’s definition of “species” is: “Within each region we use only data for endemic species”.

    So, the study is already confined to looking at rarer species.

    There are many reasons not to take Thomas 2004 at face value.

  11. cbp

    There may be various good arguments in regards to Thomas 2004 and Miles 2004, as one would expect for any preliminary predictions of the future, but criticizing a studied sample on the simple basis that it is a just sample is disingenuous.

    8%+ extinction rates, even if they be local extinctions of endemic species, is still a major disruption, like it or not.

    The point is, it’s science, and it’s in the IPCC report. You’re article pretends that it’s not.

    BTW. There’s plenty more of it too, with some much higher numbers. Here’s a whole table full of it:

    I would note that most of the scenarios reference in that table are based on the relatively conservative estimates of temperature increases – which we are not at all on track to achieve.



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