Things got unpleasant today in the climate-change world—of all places—when tensions between Naomi Oreskes and son John Cook came to a boil, the boil came to a head, and a shower of pus macerated everything in the proverbial vicinity.
Cook’s work, said Professor Oreskes at a conference this morning, was a “slavish imitation” of her own and a “copycat crime [against scholarship]” that has yet to contribute a single new idea to pseudoscience.
The alt-historian and sci-fi novelist, who is best known for her 2004 failure to discover any dissensus in the climate literature, was speaking at a Harvard round-table event on the problem of non-consensual science on campus.
It was a seemingly innocuous question from the audience that pricked the festering abscess of filial ill-will: was Oreskes familiar with Dr José Duarte’s views on Cook2013, the questioner wanted to know?
John Cook is the pen-name of Oreskes’ son by punitive psychologist Prof. Stephan Lewandowsky. In 2013 John started The Consensus Project in an attempt to verify the result that had launched his mother’s career nine years earlier. (Instead he found that dissent had grown from zero to 3%.)
José Duarte, a research psychologist, famously effused that the resulting paper was “audacious,” “unique” and “a future textbook example of scientific scams.”
But Oreskes was having none of it.
“It’s hard to say this without sounding elitist, but Duarte is full of crap,” she said today. “I defy him to name a single rule of science broken by John—one precondition of valid subjective rating studies—one principle of statistical hygiene—that wasn’t already broken, by me, nine years before.
“Women are systematically written out of the history of bad science, and I’m sick of it,” she thundered, to widespread nodding and applause.
“Men in this field have it so much easier. I have to work at being unattractive; it’s a whole regime. John just wakes up like that.”
When the clapping had died down, the audience member pressed the question. What had Duarte gotten wrong, exactly, she asked?
“I don’t even know where to begin,” began Oreskes.
“‘They never reported inter-rater reliability,’ Duarte gasps—as if it’s some kind of new low in the history of consensuology.
“Oh noes, he says! ‘We can’t have political activists rating scientific abstracts on their implications for their own cause. This is unprecedented. Unprecedented, I tell you!’,” Oreskes paraphrased mockingly.
“Has this guy even read Oreskes04? Or am I just invisible, as a female writer?
“‘No one ever does studies like this; it’s too absurd and invalid,’ claims Duarte.
“Really? Because the editors of Science didn’t seem to think so back in 2004, did they? It’s hard to say this without sounding elitist, but does anyone seriously expect an obscure rag called Environment Research Literature [sic] to have higher standards than Science?
“Listen: John is my son, and I like him, but he hasn’t had an original pseudoscientific thought in his life,” she continued. “Without my article—the template that proves the kind of shit you can get away with in a consensus study, with complete impunity—he’d never have had the brains to go half as far, let alone the gonads.”
Today’s outburst is by no means the first indication we’ve seen of the resentment between Oreskes mère et fils.
In 2013 Dr Oreskes took legal action in relation to a consensus-denying diagram her son had created for his debut textbook on climate science. The graph—which depicts a scientific “consensus” of just 40% on man-made global warming [AGW] in 1996—was found capable in law of the imputation that Oreskes’ 2004 study was grossly inept at best, systematically biased against skeptical papers at worst. It could therefore give rise to a reasonable inference that Dr Oreskes had carried out her study fraudulently so as to supply former Vice President Gore with an “argument” for man-made global warming.
The case was settled out of court for what Dr Oreskes would only describe as “a healthy two-figure sum.” Her attorneys expressed satisfaction with the damages, whose “value reflects the destruction of our client’s renown for probity and competence multiplied by the number of people who’ve bought the offending book.”
But hopes that the pair had put their differences behind them were in vain. The prestigious journal Scientific Opinion was last year forced to apologise (and fire its design director) over a Photoshopped cover image that appeared to bring John and Naomi together. In reality—the journal later admitted—they’d refused to sit in the same room.
We spoke to friends of the Oreskeses’, who confirmed that the intergenerational animus has been suppurating for years.
“John’s been a disappointment to Naomi and Steve for a long time,” one source told us. “First he decides to major in solar physics, despite knowing that the sun has no effect on the climate. Then, after drawing cartoons for ten years, the prodigal son finally returns to the family business and starts a climate blog—but what does he do first? Turns his back on his heritage by abandoning a perfectly good surname [Oreskes-Lewandowsky].”
“What Naomi can’t forgive is Cook2013,” said another family friend, referring to the high-impact consensus paper lead-authored by John Lewandowsky-Oreskes.
“Five years ago, when you asked the average climate scientist what single piece of evidence persuaded them to join the consensus, the answer was ‘Oreskes04.’ What scientist could resist that kind of peer pressure?
“OK, a normal scientist could—but a climate scientist? Not so much.
“But nobody even talks about Oreskes04 anymore. Today, when you ask a [climate] scientist how they know AGW is real, they’re more likely to cite John’s 97 percent [consensus] than Naomi’s hundred. Cook2013 is the most-downloaded paper in all 80 Institute of Physics journals. Naomi has been eclipsed, and she knows it.
“Imagine that. Imagine knowing your own child was having the kind of success you never could. What mother would want that?
“OK, a normal mother would. But a vindictive gorgon like [Prof. Oreskes]? Not so much.”
The sour-grapes theory seems to be a common theme. As another longtime Oreskes acquaintance put it:
“It’s important to realize that she’s now, what, 72? 74? I think it’s important that journalists especially understand that one-woman anti-science jihadists 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 their own children steal their limelight.
“So I think we’ve seen that phenomenon here.” ■
Prof. Oreskes has angrily contacted us to further disown John. “I have no son,” she tells us, throwing him under the bus once and for all. “Literally. I don’t have a son. John Cook isn’t my son.”