Historian Hunts for Motives Behind Climate Change Doubt-Mongering: A Q&A with Naomi Oreskes

Historians in the News

Naomi Oreskes is a science historian, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and co-author (with Erik Conway) of "Merchants of Doubt," a book that examined how a handful of scientists obscure the facts on a range of issues, including tobacco use and climate change. Her seminal paper in the journal Science, "Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," challenged – back in 2004 – the notion that climate change science was uncertain. Her work has documented the spread of doubt-mongering from an industry practice to a political strategy.

Dr. Oreskes did her undergraduate work at the Royal School of Mines in London and received her graduate degree from Stanford University. With her husband, Ken Belitz, and daughter, Clara, the family lives in San Diego. Her older daughter, Hannah, attends Stanford.

Question:  Somewhere between your undergraduate and graduate degrees, you became interested in the history of science. What drew you to that field?

Answer: I was always interested in the human side of science, especially why people disagreed about evidence, and the strong  - yet divergent -  opinions that my professors had about what constitutes good science. Beyond that, it is a long story.

Q:  What attracted you to the climate change deniers?

A: I fell into this. I was working on the history of oceanography, and came across the work of Roger Revelle, Dave Keeling and others who’d been working on climate change since the 1950s. I came to understand that the scientific basis for understanding anthropogenic climate change was much firmer than most people knew. That led to my 2004 work, which led  to me being attacked. So we started digging and found direct links to the tobacco industry....

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