30 Nov 2019

Naomi Oreskes- can we trust scientists?

From Saturday Morning, 11:05 am on 30 November 2019

Should we trust scientists? It's a complicated question and the answer isn't completely straightforward, but it's a wager that's likely to benefit us.

Professor Naomi Oreskes is an American historian of science at Harvard University. She's particularly interested in how the media cover big scientific subjects like nutrition and climate change.

Her 2010 book Merchants of Doubt (co-authored with Erik M. Conway) looks at the scientific 'debate' over climate change and the tactics people use to destabilise the scientific consensus.

Naomi Oreskes in Copley Park in 2017

Naomi Oreskes in Copley Park in 2017 Photo: Naomi Oreskes

In her latest book she asks Why Trust Science? In it she offers a spirited defence of why science matters, and why it should be protected in the face of increasingly politicised attempts to undermine it.

Based on a series of lectures she gave at Princeton University, the book also includes critical responses from scientists, philosophers and historians who take issue with some of Oreskes' ideas.

Prof Oreskes says that evidence suggests, in general, that most people still do trust science on many, if not most, matters. But there are some which are flashpoints of distrust - climate change being one of the worst.

“We do have a crisis where we have compelling scientific evidence of an extremely grave and imminent threat and yet we’re going about as if nothing is happening. Part of the reason for that is broad, widespread misunderstanding of the science in the US which is partly being generated by a deliberate attempt to create confusion about the issue.”

Her previous book Merchants of Doubt looked at how a handful of scientists, a tiny percentage, who disagreed on DDT, tobacco harm and acid rain were able to influence the discourse. Part of how they did that was targeting journalists who felt they needed to get across both sides of an argument.

“In that book we were trying to show that in fact, these people did not represent the consensus of scientific evidence. In the new book I talk about what is the consensus of scientific evidence and what it means to say there’s a consensus and why should we think that the consensus of evidence is likely to be a good basis of decision making, not the views of a handful of lone wolf dissenters.”

She says the book is not a call for blind trust in science, which she admits can have perishable truths, but she says scientific consensus is the best bet we have in getting towards the truth.

“What we find, in general, looking at 400 years of scientific history is that in most of the cases where we think scientists went wrong, we find that there actually wasn’t a consensus. So, where there is real substantive debate inside the scientific community then that is something to which we need to pay attention.”

Prof Oreskes says climate change scientists have been subject to a politically motivated campaign of disinformation by people who are not, in fact, credible scientists with work published in peer-reviewed journals, but instead belong to think tanks set up to advance the agenda of big business and politicians.

“The scientific community has had a very hard time knowing how to respond to that, because scientists aren’t trained in rhetoric, they’re not trained in communications, they’re not trained in journalism and so they have been really stymied about what to do.

“The response of the scientific community has been to provide more and more science, more and more facts, more and more evidence. If you look at the IPCC reports, for example, they get longer and longer and longer, they get bigger and fatter and jammed filled with facts and it doesn’t work because they’re not up against a factual problem, they’re up against a political problem.”

Her favourite example of science gone wrong is the ‘limited energy theory’. It stems from a late 19th century theory put forward by a scientist from the Harvard Medical School that women should not be educated.

“He argued that this was a deduction from thermodynamics - the law of the conservation of energy - because if women worked hard in their studies and developed their grey matter, then they wouldn’t have enough energy for their reproduction function, their uterus would shrink.”

She says the scientist had no evidence for the theory and it came from studying seven self-selected students who were already suffering from headaches and other problems.

“By current-day standards, it was an incredibly unscientific claim but it was deeply influential, mainly because of his authority as a prominent physician at the Harvard Medical School.”

Prof Oreskes says there was no scientific consensus to his theory and in fact there was pushback from other prominent scientists. She says it’s an example of how we should look for consensus.

Going back to climate change, she says the widespread conversation and calls to reduce or eliminate red meat consumption are just starting to be met with industry ‘experts’ who are coming out with claims that red meat consumption is good for you, or even essential.

“I’m pretty confident this is not a coincidence; that as people are focussing on red meat as something that’s very important in relation to climate change and that we really do have agency over, and can control in our own lives, the beef industry is fighting back and trying to tell us that it’s really good for our health to eat red meat and that’s just not true.”

Prof Oreskes uses the example of Pascal’s Wager as a way to think about climate change. Pascal’s Wager relates to the question of whether there’s a God. He reasoned that he could live his life without believing in God or following religion, but risk burning in hell for it. So, he wagered that it was a safer bet to believe in God and observe Christian faith than risk eternal damnation.

She says we can think about climate change the same way. There’s a very remote possibility that the scientific consensus is wrong, but we risk catastrophic results if they are right. Furthermore, the answers to climate change are ones that would make the world a better place to live anyway.

“The cartoon I use in my book is the one where a scientist has given a big lecture about all the things we can do to fix climate change and someone in the audience says, ‘what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?’”.

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