An unofficial transcription of a part of “The Drum”, on ABC TV, with John Barron hosting a discussion with Waleed Aly, Chris Berg, Naomi Oreskes and Tom Switzer, last Tuesday:
John Barron: Now to a book which, rather happily, draws together a couple of the stories we’ve been looking at today: tobacco and climate-change. In Merchants of Doubt, Professor Naomi Oreskes reveals [if you accept her conspiracy-theory—a better choice of word would be “asserts”] that scientists favoured by the climate-change-sceptics are not only using the playbook from the tobacco industry’s defence against health lawsuits back in the 1970s, in many cases it’s the same scientists that wrote the playbook: they’re back. Naomi Oreskes is in Australia to attend this week’s Sydney Writer’s Festival, and she’s with us on “The Drum”. Welcome.
Naomi Oreskes: Thank you. Nice to be here.
John Barron: Now first of all, who are these shadowy, or not-so-shadowy figures, that the scientists that were involved with big tobacco in the ’70s and are now in the climate-change denial business today.
Naomi Oreskes: Well, in our book, Merchants of Doubt, what we asked the question was, who are these scientists who say there’s no global warming, that it’s just caused by natural variability? And we were able to, through historical research, trace these people back to their origins in a think-tank created in 1984 called the George C. Marshall Institute. But, even before that, we found that the key people in the story including the founding chairman of the board of the Marshall Institute, a man by the name of Frederick Seitz, had worked in the 1970s and ’80s with the US tobacco industry.
John Barron: Now, are these scientists who have legitimate, honestly-held doubts in the finest Rigorous Traditions of Science, or are they in some way compromised or corrupted?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, I don’t know if I would put it exactly either of those. I mean, they were real scientists, that’s partly how they had credibility, it’s partly why people listened to them. They were physicists, Frederick Seitz was a President of US National Academy of Sciences, so they were real scientists, and that was key to the story. But, of course, that was what the tobacco industry had recognised, that if their claims that the science regarding tobacco was uncertain—that we didn’t really know if tobacco was hazardous—for that claim to be credible it wouldn’t really do for a tobacco industry executive to say it, because most of us would be smart enough to realise that was not a credible claim. But if they could find scientists, prestigious scientists, who would say, “Well, we’re not sure about the the science,” that would have much more credibility with the public, and especially with the journalists. because a lot of this was about targeting journalists. So the tobacco industry actively recruited scientists to support their position about tobacco; and, subsequently, we see the Marshall Institute and other groups actively recruiting scientists to claim that there’s no global warming.
John Barron: Talk a bit about the rôle of the media, whether it was in the ’70s with tobacco and cancer or in more recent times with climate-change, the media tends to either want to give both sides of the argument equal air-time to set up a conflict on a panel show or, maybe just, to be fair and balanced. In some cases, though, the media organisations have proprietors or editors who have taken a view, that are trying to push an agenda. What did you find?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, so, both of those; so, one of key things we talk about in the book is how the tobacco industry and then later these other organisations, like the Marshall Institute, have a conscious and explicit strategy to exploit the media ideal of balance. They know that journalists want balance. [!] They know that journalists want to present both sides of issues, and they know that journalists want to be objective; and so they exploit that, and they say, “Well, we have another view, you need to give us equal time for our position.” And because journalists don’t realise that their view is not in fact supported by real science, journalists succumb to this. And so the exploitation of journalists is really a key part of this strategy; and, again we saw that in tobacco debates back in the ’70s and ’80s, and then we see the same strategy being used throughout the 1990s, into the present day, with respect to climate change and a host of other issues as well that we talk about in the book.
John Barron: Interesting example in the papers here in Australia today: on the one hand, The Sydney Morning Herald, in reporting on comments from one of the top UN officials on climate change was reporting along the lines of “there is growing body of evidence to suggest that the climate change is responsible for the extreme weather events that have led to floods and hurricanes and so on.” The Australian, owned by Rupert Murdoch, was reporting slightly differently, saying—using the same quotes—but with headlining along the lines of you know, “there’s no proof that these floods in Queensland and elsewhere are linked to climate-change.” Same quotes being used, very different stories, very different headlines.
Naomi Oreskes: Yeah, and the mantra, “there’s no proof,” was really invented by the tobacco industry, and this is one of the things we talk about in the book. So, early on, the tobacco industry realised that this was a very effective strategy because, of course, it was true, because in science you can never really prove anything, you can never—it’s not, science isn’t like mathematics or logic, you can’t prove something is true. What you can simply do is evaluate the evidence and say what is the most reasonable expectation or explanation based on what we know, based on the laws of physics and chemistry, based on all of the evidence. And so, today, we have a situation where climate scientists have predicted for a long time that global warming would lead to an increase in extreme weather events: they predicted floods, they predicted hurricanes, they predicted cyclones, and now we are seeing all of these things that were predicted ten, twenty, thirty years ago, or even longer—all of these things are coming true. So the most reasonable explanation is that, in fact, scientists have correctly understood the laws of nature and that this is in fact evidence for the very things that we should expect. But, of course, Rupert Murdoch and others can say, as the tobacco industry did before them, “there’s no proof”—and they’re not lying when they say that; but they are giving the public a very distorted view of the scientific evidence.
John Barron: Tom Switzer, to you on this as well; how would you characterise your approach to climate change and mankind’s rôle in it, because it’s not as simple as being sort of a denier or a sceptic, you’ve looked at this in some depth?
Tom Switzer: I try not to get too bogged down on the science, because I’m not an authority on it, but I would describe myself as an agnostic on the science. I think that there is still a lot of uncertainly, although I readily concede there has been some warming of the planet over the last twenty or so years. But, interestingly, in the IPCC models, there is a great deal of uncertainty, because the rate of the warming has not increased to the extent that the IPCC models suggested it would in the 1990s; there has been some tapering off. Now, to the extent that that’s true, that does lead one to believe that there is more uncertainly. But, on the issue of one-sided media campaigns—look, I think the Australian media have done themselves a disservice. Day in and day out, in this country, we have front-page news stories, broadcast on the ABC, about the carbon debate. And yet, with the exception of about two, maybe three columnists, the news of the Canadian election has hardly been mentioned, and this is a significant result. This was a Canadian, conservative Prime Minister gaining seats on the back of opposing a carbon tax or an ETS. Now, this was significant news for Australia, because Canada and Australia have very similar types of economies—they’re very resource-rich—and this hardly got picked up at all in the mainstream press. Now, that was a classic case of how, that your argument goes both ways. And I would argue that, in this country, especially during the time of ’07 and ’08 and ’09, it was conducted in a heretic-hunting and anti-intellectual environment where sceptics were hardly heard; and, indeed, it was not only impermissible to question the science, a lot of the time, it was impermissible to question the response. You know, I think this debate can go both ways.
Naomi Oreskes: May I respond to that?
John Barron: Of course.
Naomi Oreskes: I can’t understand really what you mean when you say, “I’m an agnostic.” I mean, to me to say that you’re an agnostic— Excuse me, I listened to what you said so, please, let me speak.
Tom Switzer: Yeah, sure.
Naomi Oreskes: To say you’re agnostic about the science to me only makes sense if you in fact have not been paying attention or don’t understand the science, because the scientific evidence is now overwhelming, and anyone who’s paid attention to it, anyone who understands it, anyone who understands the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere knows that scientists predicted climate change from increased green-house gases and deforestation going back to the 1950s. They have built models—of course, models are representations of the natural world, they are not the world itself—so, of course, there will always be uncertainties about the details, but the overall picture is overwhelmingly clear, and it’s exactly what scientists have predicted. And if you talk about the IPCC forecasts—my graduate-students and I have studied this—we’ve looked at what these scientists have predicted on this issue over the past fifty years, and we find that in most cases scientists have actually underestimated the change: we see sea-level rising faster than predicted; we see overall global temperatures rising faster than predicted; we see sea-surface temperatures in the Caribbean rising faster than predicted. So, if anything, scientists have been conservative on this issue! And now we are seeing the changes all around us.
Tom Switzer: In your book, do you focus on any kind of scandals that have been affiliated with the IPCC, such as the glacier-gate, do you talk about that?
Naomi Oreskes: Well, that happened after our book was finished. But I think the so-called glacier-gate was a typographic error. The IPCC reports are thousands of pages long. In any human activity, in any human institution, of course, there will be some mistakes. I’m sure there are some mistakes in your work too, but you haven’t had teams of people—
Tom Switzer: Of course, but I’m not—
Naomi Oreskes: Excuse me, but you haven’t had teams of people scouring it. I actually think that the fact that the IPCC report is thousands of pages long, and the only errors that were found—
Tom Switzer: It was a pretty significant error—
Naomi Oreskes: No, it was a typographical error!
Tom Switzer: No, it was more than that; it was based on dodgy research, from a travelling document, c’mon—
Naomi Oreskes: No, studies have showed that in fact it was a typographical error—
Tom Switzer: Please—
Naomi Oreskes: So—no, not please—it was a typographical error—
Tom Switzer: The IPCC Chairman nearly resigned over the matter! This was a pretty serious issue, wasn’t it, Chris?
Naomi Oreskes: Excuse me, the IPCC chairman was the choice of the Bush administration—
John Barron: Let’s take a time out on that particular point because there’s a more, philosophical issue I’d like to get your thoughts on, Waleed. Do you think that, given that, as Tom says, he’s not a scientist—I’m not a scientist, we do have a scientist here [referring, laughably, to Prof. Oreskes], but most of us are not scientists—, are people more inclined to believe one side or the other? Conservatives seem to be more sceptical, progressives seem to be more willing to accept the fact [!] that we need to do something about man-made climate change. You can almost sort of, you know, pick it by post-card or political affiliation.
Waleed Aly: You can go further. What I found interesting is that often you can match someone’s attitude to the science of climate-change with their attitudes on social issues as well. There’s this really interesting mix. What I think that demonstrates is that, for most people, this is not about the science at all: they will cherry-pick the scientific discourse that suits their purposes, whether it’s from a blog or it’s somewhere else, or from a paid scientist; but they will shape the scientific data that they get or they choose to match their overall world view...
UPDATE (by Deadman): See “Secondhand Smoke, Lung Cancer, and the Global Warming Debate”, by S. Fred Singer, at American Thinker, from 19 December, 2010—which John Barron (or anyone else at the ABC) could have read before interviewing Prof. Oreskes, if he were a journalist who wanted “to present both sides of issues” or who wanted “to be objective” and not a biassed, awarmist shill:
The tobacco smoking issue has also become a favourite tool for discrediting climate skeptics. A prime example is the book Merchants of Doubt by Oreskes and Eric Conway, which attacks several well-known senior physicists, including the late Dr. Fred Seitz, a former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Society, and (most recently) Rockefeller University.
No matter what the environmental issue—ozone depletion, acid rain, pesticides, etc.—any and all scientific opposition based on objective facts is blamed on an imagined involvement with tobacco companies. None of this is true, of course. Oreskes and Conway claim to be academic historians, yet they have consistently ignored factual information, have not bothered to consult primary sources, have never interviewed any of the scientists they try to smear, and generally have operated in a completely unprofessional way.
Oreskes’ and Conway’s science is as poor as their historical expertise. [...] As an aside, when not engaged in smearing scientists by linking them to the tobacco lobby, Oreskes’ and Conway’s book claims that opposition to environmental regulation of greenhouse gases and other “pollutants” is based on anti-communism!
The ultimate aim of these attacks, at least in my case, has been to discredit my work and publications on global warming. I am a nonsmoker, find SHS to be an irritant and unpleasant, have certainly not been paid by Philip Morris and the tobacco lobby, and have never joined any of their front organizations. And I serve on the advisory board of an anti-smoking organisation. My father, who was a heavy smoker, died of emphysema while relatively young. I personally believe that SHS, in addition to being objectionable, cannot possibly be healthy.
So what is the truth about SHS and lung cancer? I am neither an oncologist nor a chemical toxicologist, but I do know some statistics, which allows me to examine the EPA study without bias. I can demonstrate that the EPA fudged their analysis to reach a predetermined conclusion — using thoroughly dishonest procedures. EPA “scientists’ made three major errors: 1) They ignored “publication bias.” 2) They arbitrarily shifted the statistical “confidence intervals.” 3) They drew unjustified conclusions from a risk ratio that was barely greater than 1.0. […]
So what does it all mean? The issue is not whether SHS be healthy; it obviously is not. One issue is the use of the “tobacco weapon” to attack the credibility of climate scientists—in place of using scientific arguments. It bespeaks of the desperation of those who don’t have any valid scientific arguments and wish to avoid public debate. (Imagine, if you will, Oreskes attacking the validity of the notorious “hockey stick” temperature-curve by linking its author, Michael Mann, to tobacco company Philip Morris, instead of describing his faulty use of statistics.)
The other issue is the conduct of science and the integrity of the science process: the intrusion of government political agenda—worthy or not—on the way science is done and reported to the public. The corruption of science in a worthy cause is still corruption, and it has led to its further corruption in an unworthy cause—the ideologically driven claim of anthropogenic global warming.
UPDATE II (8 June, 2011): See also “Naomi Oreskes, Conspiracy Queen”, by Norman Rogers, at American Thinker, and Nicolas Nierenberg’s ’blog, particularly here.
UPDATE III (21 June, 2011): See “Science and Smear Merchants” by S. Fred Singer, at American Thinker:
UPDATE III (24 June, 2011): See “Circuitous attempts to smear AGW skeptic scientists”, by Russell Cook, and also JoNova’s “Oreskes’ clumsy, venomous smear campaign: busted”.Professor Naomi Oreskes of the University of California in San Diego, claims to be a science historian. One can readily demonstrate that she is neither a credible scientist nor a credible historian; the best evidence is right there in her recent book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, coauthored with Eric Conway. Her science is faulty; her historical procedures are thoroughly unprofessional. She is, however, an accomplished polemicist, who has found time for world lecture tours, promoting her book and her ideological views, while being paid by the citizens of California. Her book tries to smear four senior physicists – of whom I am the only surviving one. I view it as my obligation to defend the reputations of my late colleagues and good friends against her libelous charges.
Oreskes is well-known from her 2004 article in Science that claimed a complete scientific consensus about man-made global warming; it launched her career as a polemicist. Her claim was based on examining the abstracts of some 900 published papers. Unfortunately, she missed more than 11,000 papers through an incorrect Internet search. She published a discreet “Correction”; yet she has never retracted her ideologically based claim about consensus. Al Gore still quotes her result, which has been contradicted by several, more competent studies (by Peiser, Schulte, Bray and von Storch; Lemonick in SciAm, etc).
Turning first to the her science, her book discusses acidification, as measured by the pH coefficient. She states that a pH of 6.0 denotes neutrality (page 67, MoD). Let’s be charitable and chalk this off to sloppy proofreading.
Elsewhere in the book (page 29), she claims that beryllium is a “heavy metal” and tries to back this up with references. I wonder if she knows that the atomic weight of beryllium is only 9, compared to, say, uranium, which is mostly 238. A comparison of these two numbers should tell anyone which one is the heavy metal.
Her understanding of the Greenhouse Effect is plain comical; she posits that CO2 is “trapped” in the troposphere – and that’s why the stratosphere is cooling. Equally wrong is her understanding of what climate models are capable of; she actually believes that they can predict forest fires in Russia, floods in Pakistan and China – nothing but calamities everywhere – and tells climate scientists in a recent lecture: If the predictions of climate models have come true, then why don’t people believe them? Perhaps because people are not gullible.