Naomi Oreskes on How to Write about Science

Naomi Oreskes on climate change, politics, and advice for science journalists

Naomi OreskesPhotograph by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

History of science professor Naomi Oreskes talks about climate change the way one might expect of both an earth scientist and a historian. “Science has to be part of the conversation on climate change,” she says, “but it’s not the whole conversation. At this time, I actually don’t think it’s the most important piece. There’s a basic issue of justice here, and we desperately need economists and sociologists and philosophers and artists to be heard.” Her humanist instincts allow her to move a wide audience in a way most scientists never achieve. Her work has helped broaden the public’s acceptance of climate change as an issue of scientific consensus rather than debate, and for taking up this public mantle of climate change advocacy, she will be honored with the Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication this winter. Oreskes recently talked to Harvard Magazine about the climate-denial industry, the political role of scientists, and writing about academic research for a wide audience.

Oreskes insists that she never intended to become a “climate-change warrior.” In 2004, when she was researching how scientific consensus and dissent emerge, she published “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” a review of the scientific literature that made clear the widespread agreement among scientists that climate change is real and created by humans. One journalist, she remembers, thanked her for the article; every time he wrote about climate change, he told her, readers accused him of bias for not covering the contrarian side, and her paper helped him show that there was no legitimate contrarian side.

Then she became the target of attacks herself. “So I ended up trying to figure out why I was being attacked for publishing a fairly straightforward analysis of the state of scientific discussion, and what I discovered was a remarkable story, which at the time was not understood. There was an organized climate-change denial network—a group of people and think tanks largely funded by the fossil-fuel industry, who were deliberately trying to persuade the American people that there was a big scientific debate about climate change.” In hindsight, that network might agree that it erred in targeting a historian of science who was also a good writer. In 2010, she published Merchants of Doubt, about the strategies used by the tobacco, fossil-fuel, and other industries to undermine the authority of scientists. The book captured a wide audience at a moment when climate change was gaining acceptance as an issue of public concern.   

It isn’t just the business interests of the fossil-fuel industry that drive climate denial, Oreskes stresses. “It’s also about an ideological argument about the role of government. This is partly why it resonates with a lot of people who don’t necessarily have stock in ExxonMobil.” Anti-government ideology has made climate denial particularly hard to counter, she believes, because its purpose is to politicize science, and scientists don’t like to be political. “Imagine you’re a science professor and you want to teach factual information. But if you stand up in class and say climate change is real, you can be accused by your students of being political in the classroom. I have been accused of this.”

Should academics become more comfortable, then, taking moral and political positions related to their work? There’s been a move among economists, for example, to think more seriously about questions of distribution and fairness. Oreskes answers in two parts. “I think economics is different because all the social sciences are engaged with questions about society,” she argues. “For many years, the economics profession tried to put forward the idea of economics as a value-neutral science. I think that was intellectually erroneous. I don’t think you can have a discussion about the distribution of goods and services that isn’t at least in some ways implicitly involved with creating a just world.” The natural sciences, she argues, are different because scientists can answer empirical questions in a way that doesn’t diminish moral questions. “If we’re asking, ‘Has the planet warmed up?’ that’s a question about the chemistry of the earth, and it can be answered with empirical data and it can be separated from the question of what we should do about it. I think it’s important for scientists to be clear in their minds about that separation.”

Questions about the moral and civic dimensions of climate change are for other thinkers to answer, Oreskes suggests. “Much more we’re seeing people in the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, realizing that we need to hear their voices. Ultimately, if you ask, ‘Why does climate change matter?’ The answer gets back to questions of our values and the common good. Climate change matters because people are getting hurt, because people are going to lose their livelihoods and communities, because the people who will be hurt the most are not the people who created the problem.”

In this respect, Oreskes says she’s often been misinterpreted. “Sometimes people think that because I am very publicly engaged in discussing climate change, that means that I think all scientists should be,” she says. “But that is not my view. We need some scientists to explain the science, but most scientists just want to do science, and that’s fine. Moreover, if we start getting into the moral questions, well, scientists are not necessarily the best experts.”

On some level, it appears that climate-change denial is diminishing among politicians who wish to be taken seriously, or is, at least, becoming less acceptable than it once was. That may appear to be true, she says, but denialists understand that the debate is a moving target, and adjust their arguments to the political climate. Even if it’s less acceptable to deny climate change outright, that is a separate question from whether the nation is prepared to do anything about it. “There was a time when the tobacco industry denied that tobacco was harmful. Then they said, ‘OK, there’s some harm, but people are grown-ups, and they can decide for themselves.’ We see the same thing to some extent with climate denial. People first said there is no climate change. Then they said it’s not caused by people. Then they said there is climate change and it’s caused by people, but it would be too expensive to fix.”

“Donald Trump has said publicly that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese in order to undermine our economy,” Oreskes adds.  His widespread appeal might support the theory that the group she calls “merchants of doubt” has weakened the legitimacy of science in the minds of ordinary Americans. Still, she complicates the narrative that the public is mistrusting of academics: “Public-opinion polls show that the American people still overall trust science and scientists much more than they trust politicians or business leaders.”  

A frequent writer for the public, Oreskes has reflected a great deal on the role of the media in people’s understanding of academic research. It can be difficult even for responsible journalists to write about a single study or idea without overstating its significance. What might writers do to be more honest in their reporting? Is it ever legitimate to write a news story about a single study—a practice that’s pervasive in the media, including this magazine? “In a perfect world, the answer would be no,” she responds. “On some level, it is irresponsible. But there’s tremendous pressure to do that. Scientific knowledge is never based on one paper, not even the most important papers in the history of science.”

Reporting on isolated studies can not only create confusion about the intellectual process, but also undermine faith in the process itself. If the press embellishes one study and its findings are later repudiated, as often happens, that can create the impression (potentially ripe for exploitation by merchants of doubt) that scholars are always changing their minds. To science writers thinking about these questions, Oreskes offers the following advice. Beyond the need to contextualize a study even more than seems necessary, journalists should also consider it a duty to challenge editors who ask for a dishonest story. If that means taking more time than the writer has been assigned, she jokes, that’s okay, because “science stories are rarely emergencies.” 

Read more articles by: Marina N. Bolotnikova

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