A new essay by Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes is set to overturn conventional wisdom about the climate debate within science, arguing that it exists.
Professor Oreskes—who made her name with a 2004 essay in Science showing the unanimity of the climate literature—now builds on that work by proving the opposite.
“This thing about the peer-reviewed literature being settled, that’s just false. I studied the scientific literature on climate change, and there’s all kinds of debate going on,” said the novelist on ABC Radio’s World Today.
“So the claim that scientists aren’t expressing dissenting views—that claim just does not hold up to scrutiny.”
Of the 928 peer-reviewed articles she examined, says Oreskes, it was “remarkable” how few endorsed the majority opinion of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a committee of policymakers and politicians purporting to speak for science. Three quarters of peer-reviewed studies disagreed with the IPCC, “either explicitly or implicitly.”
It’s that last qualification which is causing the most controversy. Not everyone is sold on Oreskes’ reasoning; one respected blogger on climate issues is mocking it as ‘the doctrine of Silence Equals Dissent.’
Oreskes doesn’t pretend her methodology is infallible—but it makes more sense than the alternative, she argues.
“Scientists can’t possibly waste time mentioning all the ideas we reject, can we? That doesn’t make a lick of sense,” she points out in a magisterial rebuke to her abusers.
“We’re too busy advocating the positions we believe in.
“Do you really think a biologist today is going to say in her Abstract: ‘we decided not to go with Creationism, Babylonian cosmogony, Lamarckianism, Intelligent Design, Lysenkoism, vitalism or spontaneous generation theory’? Of course not. It’s taken as read. If she did intend to argue in favor of ID, for example, she would have said so.”
But one critic not easily sneezed at is John Cook, the prominent debate denier and award-winning communicator of climate who recently taught an MMMOOOC on Climate Change Denial.
Cook won’t go as far as to accuse Oreskes of climate change denial—but then, he wouldn’t throw that charge at anyone.
“No one denies that climate changes! In fact, the most common climate myth is that past climate change means current global warming is also natural,” he explains, denying climate change denial.
“So, what is being denied by Oreskes? Quite simply, the scientific consensus that humans are disrupting the climate. A more appropriate term would be ‘consensus denial.’
“As we say at SkepSci, ‘science achieves a consensus when scientists stop arguing.’ It’s therefore disappointing when a once-competent geologist like Naomi comes out and claims, publicly, that scientists are still arguing.”
Cook views Oreskes’ statements more in pity than in anger.
“It’s important to realize that she’s now, what, 62? 65? I think it’s important that journalists especially need to understand, half-scientist half-historians are people too, just like everybody else. They get lonely, they crave attention, especially those who have been successful in their earlier period of life, and I think sometimes it’s hard for them when they start to lose the limelight. So I think we’ve seen that phenomenon here.”
Reached for comment, Oreskes was dismissive of Cook’s competence to take part in any debate about climate consensus.
“His own blog describes Mr Cook as a physics graduate,” she scoffed. “As a historian of science I am trained to analyze and understand scientific arguments, their development, their progress, et cetera, and my specific expertise is in the history of earth science. One summer I was invited to teach a graduate intensive course at Vienna International Summer University, Vienna Circle Institute, on Consensus in Science.
“It’s hard to say this without sounding elitist, but…
“I don’t know why an Australian cartoonist with a ten-year-old BS in physics would feel qualified to undertake an analysis of disagreement within the earth-scientific literature.”
The Oreskes essay will appear in next month’s Science (pending favorable peer review by three anonymous creative-writing lecturers).
The point of the exercise, she said, was “to try to debunk persistent claims on the part of climate skeptics that their research was somehow being excluded from the literature. Nothing could be further from the truth, we discovered. Skeptical arguments aren’t being suppressed—they’re everywhere.”
Oreskes sees it as a final nail in the coffin of climate skepticism.
“Once ordinary, rank-and-file skeptics find out how grossly they’ve been misled by the whole scientific gatekeeping-slash-censorship myth… well, that’s how cults die, isn’t it?” ◼︎
UPDATE: Readers have reminded us of Oreskes’ classic lecture against the credibility of John Cook’s “textbook,” which she finds guilty of all 5 Characteristics of Science Denial. Famously, one of the book’s infractions—Fake Experts—can be seen without even turning the front cover: