Skip to main content

Naomi Oreskes – are the merchants of doubt still selling?

Naomi Oreskes at the Cabot Institute. Image credit: Hayley Shaw.
With breakthrough science finding and new technologies emerging every day, one major issue for the scientists is to convince the public to embrace the novelties. However, despite more and more effort being put into public engagement, the credibility of science is still staggering. One of the biggest frustrations, surprisingly, comes from some fellow scientists. They deny the existing consensus of the science world and incite doubts in the public minds. Last Thursday, Naomi Oreskes gave a fascinating Cabot Institute/Bristol Festival of Ideas seminar about the agenda of these doubt merchants and their reasoning behind these agendas.  This blog highlights key parts of her talk.

In her talk, Naomi took climate change as a key example. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) was established as a greenhouse gas in 1850, and the burning of fossil fuels was proved to be an emitter of CO2 at the beginning of 20th century. In 1965, after years of intensive observation and recording, Keeling demonstrated the constant rising of CO2 in atmosphere and a prediction of global warming was made at the same time. Serious discussions about global warming in 1970s led to a consensus in the National Academy of Science (NAS) of USA which described global warming as a threat and suggested immediate actions to curb the trend. The effect of warming was consequently recorded in 1988, which confirmed the worries of scientists and prompted the creation of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Since its first report, IPCC has made it clear that global warming is happening, and it is caused by the increase of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere as a result of human activities. In 2004, after analyzing 928 papers published in peer reviewed journals between 1993 and 2003 related to climate change, Naomi found that none of them disagree with IPCC’s conclusion. Nowadays, 72% of Americans believe that global warming is happening and 62% thinks positive interference needs to be taken.

Nevertheless, some American politicians and think tanks still claims that there is no scientific consensus on global warming, and actively campaigns against it. Among all the think tanks denying global warming, George C. Marshall Institute is the most prominent one. Founded by three famous physicists Fred Seitz, Robert Jastrow and Bill Nierenberg, Marshall Institute has played significant roles in stimulating public doubts against scientific findings on issues like ozone layer, acidic rain, DDT, and most importantly, smoking. Seitz, who was affiliated to tobacco company R.J .Reynolds, along with Fred Singer, a rocket scientist who worked for Phillip Morris, voiced their disapproval against FDA’s conclusion which calls second hand smoking a carcinogen. They claimed that there were still space for debate on the tobacco issue and FDA’s finding is inconclusive, and this strategy (“tobacco strategy”) is now used by the same group of people in their lambasting towards EPA on global warming issue.

Besides the obvious economic connection, Naomi argues that the reason for these people to act in such way may be even deeper. After the WWII, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman led the movement of neo-liberalism, argues for free-market and less government control. This ideology was massively popularised in 1980s by UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US president Ronald Reagan, and was absorbed by the Conservative camp. Under the historical background of Cold War, such ideology becomes more appealing to the Conservatives, as they believe that personal freedom is dependent on economic freedom. With this kind of mind set, Global Warming and Tobacco Control both seem to be conspiracies of socialists who try to tighten the government control on civil liberties, and it will be a slippery slope and eventually morphs the West into Soviet Union.
Knowing the reasoning behind these antagonists, it will be easier to tackle the problem. Of course, as the battlefield is the public opinion, the most fundamental work still lies with science communicators and science public engagements, which shoulders the responsibility to pass on scientific findings into public’s visible range. Besides that, controlling greenhouse gas emission does not always have to be in an anti-free market fashion. The creation of carbon credit and its trade market is a great experiment, which opens a possibility outside sometimes crude legislations. After all, climate change is a burning issue which needs immediate attention and action from the whole of human society. While the debate of climate change is no longer a scientific one, but a political one, it is worth recruiting political wisdom to think beyond the science, and come up with a package of solutions to minimise the obstacle for us to act upon it.
---------------------------------------------
This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dan Lan, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Dan Lan

Popular posts from this blog

Are you a journalist looking for climate experts? We've got you covered

We've got lots of media trained climate change experts. If you need an expert for an interview, here is a list of Caboteers you can approach. All media enquiries should be made via  Victoria Tagg , our dedicated Media and PR Manager at the University of Bristol. Email victoria.tagg@bristol.ac.uk or call +44 (0)117 428 2489. Climate change / climate emergency / climate science / climate-induced disasters Dr Eunice Lo - expert in changes in extreme weather events such as heatwaves and cold spells , and how these changes translate to negative health outcomes including illnesses and deaths. Follow on Twitter @EuniceLoClimate . Professor Daniela Schmidt - expert in the causes and effects of climate change on marine systems . Dani is also a Lead Author on the IPCC reports. Dani will be at COP26. Dr Katerina Michalides - expert in drylands, drought and desertification and helping East African rural communities to adapt to droughts and future climate change. Follow on Twitter @_k

Urban gardens are crucial food sources for pollinators - here’s what to plant for every season

A bumblebee visits a blooming honeysuckle plant. Sidorova Mariya | Shutterstock Pollinators are struggling to survive in the countryside, where flower-rich meadows, hedges and fields have been replaced by green monocultures , the result of modern industrialised farming. Yet an unlikely refuge could come in the form of city gardens. Research has shown how the havens that urban gardeners create provide plentiful nectar , the energy-rich sugar solution that pollinators harvest from flowers to keep themselves flying. In a city, flying insects like bees, butterflies and hoverflies, can flit from one garden to the next and by doing so ensure they find food whenever they need it. These urban gardens produce some 85% of the nectar found in a city. Countryside nectar supplies, by contrast, have declined by one-third in Britain since the 1930s. Our new research has found that this urban food supply for pollinators is also more diverse and continuous

#CabotNext10 Spotlight on City Futures

In conversation with Dr Katharina Burger, theme lead at the Cabot Institute for the Environment. Dr Katharina Burger Why did you choose to become a theme leader at Cabot Institute ? I applied to become a Theme Leader at Cabot, a voluntary role, to bring together scientists from different faculties to help us jointly develop proposals to address some of the major challenges facing our urban environments. My educational background is in Civil Engineering at Bristol and I am now in the School of Management, I felt that this combination would allow me to build links and communicate across different ways of thinking about socio-technical challenges and systems. In your opinion, what is one of the biggest global challenges associated with your theme? (Feel free to name others if there is more than one) The biggest challenge is to evolve environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive cities. The following areas are part of this c