How Naomi Oreskes Discovered the Roots of Climate Change Denial

Apr 7, 2015

Scientist, historian, and author, Naomi Oreskes.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Science historian Naomi Oreskes stumbled upon what has become one of the most contentious facts of our time: the nearly unanimous consensus that humans are causing climate change. She subsequently uncovered a small group of scientists who’ve helped sew doubt about climate change, the ozone hole, even the link between smoking and lung cancer.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. In 2004, she was working at University of California San Diego*, researching a book about ocean science in the 20th century, when she decided to fact check her understanding of climate science. She'd been learning about oceanographers working on the issue as early as the 1950s, and wanted to be sure her perception of the current state of things was accurate. As a scientist and historian, she was a bit more thorough in her efforts than most would be. She sifted through nearly one thousand scientific studies and tallied whether or not they supported the theory of human-caused climate change.

What she found surprised her. The consensus was far stronger than she'd realized - nearly unanimous, in fact. Among scientists, there was no doubt that humans are causing climate change. Like any good scientist, Oreskes published her findings in a scientific journal (one of the most prestigious). Then, Al Gore mentioned her study in his movie, An Inconvenient Truth.

Oreskes says the response was even more shocking than the finding, itself, had been. She received hate mail and threats. She felt demonized, and it took a toll - both physically and emotionally.  

But, being a scientist and a historian, Oreskes decided to try to get to the bottom of what was happening to her. What she eventually uncovered was a small group of people, some of them prominent physicists, who had a long history of targeting science (and scientists) that they felt would - if true - necessitate government actions that would, in turn, threaten a free market.

Oreskes published her experience and her research in a 2010 book she co-authored with Erik Conway, called Merchants of Doubt. It’s now been made into a documentary film by the same name. It is a surreal story that connects Cold War science and politics to present-day climate change denial. Oreskes shared her thoughts on the role of the media in perpetuating a fabricated climate change debate, and the role of scientists in counteracting it, with Living Lab. Take a listen.

*Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Naomi Oreskes was working at Stanford University. Oreskes earned her Ph.D. from Stanford University.