With science “denialism” still running rampant in American society, scientists and historians spoke last Friday at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting about this phenomenon and their encounters with uninformed doubters and personal attacks.

Their careers range from climate science, to the history of science and of tobacco smoking, to evolutionary biology. Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, began by pointing to the phrase “doubt is our product” from a 1969 tobacco industry document that was part of a huge release from lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s. Oreskes and her co-author Eric Conway used the phrase for the title of their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt — but, she said, selling doubt is only half the picture.

Ideology and Politics Behind Doubt

“Just as important is the question, why do people buy doubt?”


The “doubt is our product” memo (source: Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, University of California at San Francisco).

Speaking specifically of the systematic campaign to create doubt in climate science, Oreskes said she’s found it’s not just about money. “It’s driven to a large extent by ideology and politics,” she said, especially around questions of personal freedom, personal choice, and free-market capitalism, and often not a matter of scientific literacy.

These types of disagreements have been seen for decades, in controversies about ozone depletion, acid rain, the harms of smoking and of second-hand smoke, the long debate of creationism versus evolution, and even denials of cosmology’s Big Bang.

And there’s no doubt science denialism swings both ways, with some on the left side of the political spectrum organizing anti-GMO (genetically modified organisms) protests and legal petitions, or opposing fluoridation of drinking water, to anti-vaccination advocates. Often the perceived threats include Big Corporations in addition to, or instead of, Big Government.

“We have a science,” Oreskes said about climate science, “that, whether we want it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we ever anticipated it or not…we have become a lightning rod for debates about the role of government.”

A List of What Was Learned

Also speaking at last Friday’s session, titled “Understanding Why People Reject Sound Scientific Information and How Scientists Can Respond,” was climate scientist Ben Santer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

In the mid-1990s, Santer accepted the position of Convening Lead Author for Chapter 8 of the IPCC’s science document for the Second Assessment Report (SAR), on the detection and attribution of climate change.

“I had no idea how my life would change,” he said.

Benjamin Santer

Santer recalled three days of intense meetings in Madrid in November 1995, as the parties tried to hash out an agreed wording that summarized the scientific findings. After hours of debate they settled on twelve words: “The balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”

A few months later, Santer said, he was blindsided by a letter in the Wall Street Journal by Frederick Seitz, titled “A Major Deception on Global Warming.” Seitz certainly had scientific prestige — he was a pioneer in solid state physics and a former president of the National Academy of Sciences, who then went on to consult for corporations like Dupont, Texas Instruments, and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. In 1984 he was the founding chairman of the George C. Marshall Institute, which has been sowing doubt about climate science ever since.

Seitz’s opinion piece made the very serious charge of corruption of the peer review process:

…more than 15 sections in Chapter 8 of the report — the key chapter setting out the scientific evidence for and against a human influence over climate — were changed or deleted after the scientists charged with examining this question had accepted the supposedly final text.

Few of these changes were merely cosmetic; nearly all worked to remove hints of the skepticism with which many scientists regard claims that human activities are having a major impact on climate in general and on global warming in particular.

Santer led a long list of climate scientists who wrote a letter in response, defending the chapter’s review process, to which Seitz replied, writing “…Santer, and possibly others, made major unauthorized changes in a key technical chapter of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report after that report had been accepted by governments.”

A few weeks earlier, the Global Climate Coalition, an oil industry front group that has since disbanded, accused Santer of “scientific cleansing.” It was a particularly charged accusation that paralleled the “ethnic cleansing” campaigns of the Bosnian War that was roiling Eastern Europe, and it naturally brought up memories of the earlier term “racial cleansing” that was part of Hitler’s Germany.

Santer: Scientists ‘Builders…Not Destroyers’

Santer said he spent a year and half defending himself and the chapter, a time that included threats made against his family.

Reflecting on the experience, Santer presented a list of ten things he had learned from those trying times and from dealing with contrarians since. They included:

  • “Not everyone is accessible to reason.”
  • “If you have a voice, use it.” Santer said “climate scientists no longer have the luxury of remaining silent.”
  • “Hoping the bad stuff simply goes away is a poor coping strategy — sometimes you have to fight.”
  • “You’ll make enemies, but even more friends.”
  • “Respond to criticism with sound science.” Santer said that some of the 1995 criticism was valid. It drove him and colleagues to dig deeper into the science, which resulted in a number of “fingerprint studies” that show the human influence on different aspects of the climate system, such as cooling of the stratosphere and the rise in height of the tropospause, both of which are observed.
  • “Don’t just preach to the choir. Engage audiences who mistreat or deny scientific findings.”

Santer finished his list with “Declare your values — who you are and what you stand for.”

Near the end of his talk, Santer noted that one could spend their entire career responding to bad science, when most scientists enter their field for the joy of understanding. He noted he was “very uncomfortable” talking about his experiences, as it brought back some bad memories and anger.

Despite those who try to present him as someone who’s suffered — as a tragic figure — Santer said, “I don’t see myself as a tragic figure, at all.”

“The word that comes to mind is privileged. How cool is it to be able to go to work every day and learn something about the climate system? I can still do that…

“To me, that’s the real distinction between the folks in this room and what you might call the forces of unreason. They’re not builders. They’re not advancing understanding. They destroy. That’s their focus, not truly contributing to advancing the boundaries of scientific understanding.”

Topics: Communicating Climate