Naomi Oreskes

Picture of Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is an historian of science at Harvard University, but she is best known for her efforts to promulgate the conspiracy theory that corporations are corrupting science by buying off prominent researchers. Her evangelism culminated in a book and companion documentary called Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes claims to be a fierce defender of the scientific method, but a closer look at her work shows that she only defends science when it validates her cultural beliefs. Younger scholars not steeped in the belief that science academia must be a progressive, anti-corporate bastion have thoroughly debunked Oreskes’ hypocritical assault on the scientific community.

Oreskes: Consensus Matters…When it Supports My Views

Oreskes eagerly declares that the public should trust scientists, and has made a career out of defending scientific consensus. She argues that scientists deserve our trust because they have accrued a “collective wisdom” that should guide us as a society towards the truth. But she is really just a fair weather fan of expert wisdom. She denies the scientific consensus on nuclear energy, crop biotechnology and medicine. On those issues, despite what experts say, Oreskes claims that technology is “…almost always a two-edged sword. It does some things for us very well but it often creates other different problems.”

If we can only trust expert opinion selectively, there must be another method for determining who is telling us the truth when it comes to complex science topics. Oreskes claims that she has answered this difficult question: she claims she knows how to “distinguish a maverick from a crank.” Using geologist Alfred Wegener as an example, Oreskes argues that mavericks don’t abandon the scientific method; they continue to publish research and try to convince their colleagues that their counter-consensus views are correct.

She then insists that articles which might undermine her beliefs about the severity of climate change not be published in academic journals, so they don’t have the appearance of legitimacy.

“… to advance a clear political agenda”

While her point about persisting with a counter-consensus is true, it is ironic because in Wegener’s day Oreskes would have been first in line against him. Moreover, her distinction between a maverick and a crank doesn’t explain why she only rejects science that counters her cultural and political opinions. Her war on “ExxonMobil scientists” – she labels everyone in America in research who defies her beliefs as such – and her work creating the #ExxonKnew conspiracy on Twitter means that she considers every researcher who disagrees with her a crank, which includes a long list of eminent scientists.

Such blatant hypocrisy hasn’t been lost on commentators familiar with Oreskes’ work, either. Writing at Huffington Post, environmental journalist David Ropeik pointed out that Oreskes “does just what she has made her name criticizing in Merchants of Doubt … selectively citing scientific experts to support her view of ‘the facts’ … to advance a clear political agenda.”

Oreskes’ Contradictory Stance on the Freedom of Information Act

Oreskes has protested the use of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests against climate scientists she agrees with, going as far as advising them on how to spin their responses when their emails are taken without their permission: “The most important thing you can do,”  she told an audience of academics during a 2013 lecture, “is talk to people who have been in the same situation…“It’s about a much bigger political issue that you’re caught in the crosshairs of.” To help prevent freedom of information about people who support her political views, Oreskes has worked alongside lawyers who specialize in blocking and stalling FOIA requests.

But when the targets of these legal witch hunts are her enemies, Oreskes praises disingenuous industry-funded trade groups and politically sympathetic reporters who smear scientists by taking their emails out of context to make her point about corruption. In 2014, for example, the corporate-funded trade group Organic Consumers Association and its attack subsidiary US Right To Know began abusing FOIA to steal the emails of prominent researchers they wanted to discredit.  The scientific community responded to this obviously partisan attack with overwhelming disapproval. Oreskes, however, jumped into the fray on the side of the activists, much to the frustration of academic scientists who usually share her political views.

Attacks on Command

When the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) published an infographic ranking the quality of science journalism produced by major media outlets, Oreskes went on the attack, calling ACSH “an anti-science trade group.”

Oreskes cited no evidence to support such “gaslighting” for her activist followers, and ACSH scientists responded to her criticism the very same day. The Council’s president Hank Campbell also pointed out in response that Oreskes has no problem with partisan groups she supports taking money from corporate donors, even though all of them take anti-scientific stances on a variety of topics. And she has no problem getting paid to give talks for those groups – as long as the industry money is funneled through them and she can’t be implicated for accepting it directly.