The NY Times has a less than stellar record for science coverage (even by mass-media standards), so we were pleasantly surprised to find the following adult, nuanced story in the Gray Lady‘s pages. Veteran reporters Marcus Toynboyalé, Jeff Chambers and Steven Glass have taken a critical, unfawning look at the upcoming überpaper from Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University; the climate connection should be self-explanatory. Enjoy these excerpts. —Eds.
Hundred Detractors of Einstein Right Because 100 > 1,
Discovers Philosopher of Science
Using the latest scientific method, researchers have settled an age-old controversy.
One of the hoarier chestnuts beloved of deniers of evolution, vaccines and the climate is the story of Albert Einstein’s response to news that a hundred Third Reich scientists had excoriated his Theory of Relativity as “flawed.”
“Why a hundred?” the celebrity scientist is said to have retorted. “If I were wrong, one would have been enough!”
It’s a catchy line, and—as incredible as it seems today—a host of once-reputable thinkers have actually fallen for it over the years.
But a new study, to be published in Nature, will finally set the record straight and “send the zombie meme of Alfred Einstein, genius, back to the grave for good,” hopes lead author Naomi Oreskes.
“The history books are wrong,” denies the history denier and alt-historian, who teaches history at Harvard. “People often fall into the trap of viewing past centuries—the Newtonian age—through a modern [physics] lens, from the post-classical universe we live in today.
“What they don’t seem to grasp is that even if Einstein’s ideas later came true—they’re now consensus science!—it doesn’t mean Einstein was right when he peddled them,” explains Oreskes, a leading ex-scientist and climate-change fixture.
“Unlike science, history requires some—as it were—skepticism,” she continues, “because it tends to be written by the victors, who have no postgraduate [training in] historiography.
“I know—weird, right? What can I say: winners don’t do historiography. Who understands these laws of nature,” shrugs the historian of science.
Brass tacks: forget everything you’ve ever been taught. It seems it was the Nazis who got it right.
To understand why, I’ll need to learn more about what scientists call the science of consensus. That’s why I’ve come straight to the cramped, paper-strewn office of one Naomi Oreskes. I’m a journalist, and for a journalist like me it’s an unmissable chance to study at the feet of the horse itself.
Few genii in history can claim to have added an entire discipline to human knowledge. Isaac Newton single-handedly gave us the science of optics. Richard Feynman not only discovered the world of quantum electrodynamics but mapped most of the territory himself. And rounding out this exclusive list, it was a petite, unassuming geologian named Naomi who taught us all we know about a new field she dubbed simply Consensuology.
“Science works by weight of opinion,” Oreskes tells me in her intimate salon in the bowels of Harvard Sci Hist.
“How do we know the Germans were right?” she continues, though something tells me the question is Socratic.
“Because that’s what knowledge is: it’s the ideas accepted by the fellowship of experts. And the voice of the experts was effectively unanimous1: ‘Nobody but Albert Einstein believes Albert Einstein’s science [denial]!’
1 For a scientist effectively is effectively the same as actually, Prof. Oreskes clarified in a subsequent email. “We often think of science as an exact science,” she writes, “but that’s a myth.”
The germ of the article came to Oreskes one afternoon as she sat immersed in the “reams” of fascist propaganda she’s been studying for an unrelated project.
“When I blew the dust off a first-edition Hundert Autoren gegen Einstein [‘A Hundred Authors Against Einstein’] and reverently teased her covers ajar, it was like a thunderbolt. I’ve got two or three bookcases of totalitarian literature in my study—the rhetoric of every slave state, dark age and dystopian dictatorship you care to name—but this was a keeper.
“I devoured [the Meisterwerk of thinly-veiled Judenhass] in a single sitting. The small hours flew by unheeded. Daybreak crept up unbidden. And I don’t even understand German. That’s what’s so clever about A Hundred Authors: you don’t really need to, in a way.
“The math does itself.”
She remembers feeling a deep sense of duty to rehabilitate Hundred’s reputation. But she also knew that debunking an idea as ingrained as the urban meme of Einstein-as-misunderstood-genius would take all the intellectual gravitas she could muster. So she asked her teen daughter to cover her lecturing commitments for the week while she hit the phones, calling in favors from the creme of academe.
Albert Einstein, a German-Jewish amateur famous for his lifelong efforts to spread doubt about established physics, first came to notoriety in 1905 with four head-on assaults on science. Not for Einstein the hard slog of academic advancement, grading papers, securing a patron for his ideas or running the gauntlet at scientific conferences.
“He just went ahead and published whatever uncredentialled ‘theories’ popped into his head,” explains Oreskes.
“A bit like certain mining executives and retired TV weathermen today,” she adds obliquely.
What surprised the Harvard historian most was the level of popular credence in Einstein’s ideas at the time, as expressed in contemporary newspaper articles, radio broadcasts and even jazz lyrics—”pretty much everywhere but the legitimate literature,” as she puts it.
For Oreskes it’s been a stark lesson in the media’s addiction to conflict—a phenomenon academics call the False Balance Doctrine.
“I was a little appalled. So you know, [on one side] we have scientists from all around the world [sic]—experts who’ve been researching these topics for decades—and then on the other side we’ve got, you know, one guy,” she says with a snicker.
“And this is presented in the media as if it’s a kind of level playing field! But in reality it was, you know, thousands [sic] to one.”
Prof. Oreskes blames the heroic trope of the lone genius.
To be sure, she says, there are rare cases—very rare—when a contrarian with no publishing record to boast about can overturn thousands of scientist-years’ worth of accepted evidence.
To take the obvious example, the Nobel physicist and Presidential Science Advisor Michael Mann was just a freshly-minted PhD when he and two equally-obscure coauthors overthrew the false consensus on Medieval temperatures—an orthodoxy seconded by archaeologists, historians, geographers, oenologists and even a tiny handful of climate scientists, though ultimately based on nothing more solid than the word of a few hundred monks and chroniclers who happened to be alive at the time.
But such cases are the exception, emphasizes the novelist and leading biographer of Alfred Wegener, who says she can’t even think of a second example.
“More often than not, Galileo syndrome turns out to be glorified Dunning-Kruger [disease], I’m afraid.
“It’s hard to say this without sounding elitist, but I know Michael Mann—and you, Mr Einstein… are no Michael Mann,” she says.
Oreskes’ finding debuts next month, in a paper written in collaboration with 24 academics she proudly calls “my collaborationists.” Nature, the prestige science glossy, will devote its coveted cover to what it hopes is a bet-settling, best-selling verdict on history’s most overrated physicist.
At first, admits the decorated scholar, she was pessimistic about working with son and coauthor John Cook, a blogger at the University of Queensland.
“I’m a historian of science, trained to analyze the history and development of ideas,” says Oreskes with the unpretentiousness of someone simply listing the facts. “I was invited to teach a graduate course on Consensus in Science at the Vienna Circle Institute’s Vienna International Holiday University. A graduate course.
“On the last night of that magical summer, at the Wienerseptemberbeginnenfest [Masked] Ball, I was feted by actors, archdukes and admirals. Princes asked me to dance.
“Who the hell was John Cook? Don’t get me wrong; he was my [bastard] son [by psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky], and I liked him.
“But come on. He was a bad cartoonist who’d studied undergrad physics ten years ago. Could he really be trusted to crunch a hundred years of scientific history—when he wasn’t too busy cosplaying with that little wife he runs around with—and come up with the desired answer?
”I know it makes me a terrible mother, but I genuinely thought: thank god that kid inherited my [good] looks, because he sure didn’t get my [good] IQ.”
Her doubts evaporated after spending a few minutes with Cook, who was on a North American tour to promote the latest page of his anti-skeptical blog Skeptical Science. Oreskes, mère et fils, clicked at once. They were an academic dream team, each partner contributing something unique: Naomi’s natural, selbstverständlich authority and John’s unthinking, robot-like worship of authority. They soon attracted other high-powered intellects to the project. (Lewandowsky himself would even sign on, making it a veritable family reunion.)
Nature was so impressed by the collective credibilitas of The Collaborationists that it took the unusual step of actively soliciting their anti-Einstein piece. The publishers even borrowed a leaf from rival magazine Science’s book, quietly introducing a new ‘Essays’ section just so Oreskes et al. could bypass the time-consuming and academically-dubious tradition of refereed scrutiny.
Soon the all-star authorial cast had hashed out a basic outline of the question, the methodology and the conclusion they wanted to reach. One last round of haggling over the language of the findings, and they had the green light to begin research.
‘Einstein Considered Wrong,’ henceforth OLCSSMFHHNVPWTRVJSGOMLSM2016, feels like the paper Oreskes was born to write.
That the authors are able to get the right answer at all is thanks to her discovery, in 2004, that majority opinion wasn’t as meaningless as the overwhelming bulk of scientists claimed—a revelation that not only shattered 300 years of received epistemology but sparked a quantum leap in the convenience and speed of the scientific process itself. Oreskes’ Method, colloquially known as ‘science by consensus,’ has changed forever how research is done in countless fields. Whether you work on global average temperature measurement, ice-cover estimation, sea-level modeling or even climatology, chances are you can now establish the truth of hypotheses—such as man-made global warming—that had eluded conventional standards of evidence for centuries.
Prof. Oreskes is the first to admit a number of fields—like the non-climate sciences—still aren’t sold on her methods. (Despite overwhelmingly voting Democrat, scientists are so conservative, neophobic and reactionary they make your local Amish community look like visitors from the future.) But with climatology shaping up as the first scientific success story of the 21st century—the academic-curiosity-turned-minor-cottage-industry was worth $12bn in grants last year alone—it’s only a question of when, not if, the benefits of science by consensus are eagerly adopted by all. It’s a thrilling thought for science-lovers everywhere: how long before the big questions in genetics, solid-state physics, even string theory are routinely decided by telephone survey?
“There’s no reason it can’t happen this decade,” projects Oreskes.
Naomi Oreskes has nothing but praise for her coauthors.
She can’t remember their exact names, but enthuses effusively about their combined citation clout and individual “trustworthiness,” a virtue synonymous—in the peculiar moral argot of the climate wars—with loyalty, omertà and a fanatical zeal for evangelizing the word of science that can sometimes threaten to border on the near-religious.
For John Oreskes-Lewandowsky, better known by his blogonym John Cook, the chance to work with the “Empress of Consensus” was a dream come true.
“Mom’s ideas were a natural fit to solve the Einstein problem,” Cook told us. “Consensuology cuts through the eternal question—How can so many Nazis be wrong? They can’t!—like scissors through the Gorgon’s [sic] knots.”
The opportunity to catch up with his dad and doctoral sponsor, Prof. Lewandowsky, only sweetened the deal.
Every schoolchild knows the story. Deep in denial of how outnumbered and outcredentialled he is, Einstein resorts to a deflectionary joke: “If I were wrong it would only take one of them.”
“Nonsense,” responds Oreskes. “One [Nazi’s] opinion wouldn’t have been enough. Science works by overwhelming consensus, not deadlock.
“We scientists have a saying,” says the philosopher and historian: “Science is not a debate.”
For John Cook, Einstein’s total misunderstanding of the logic of scientific discovery is sadly unsurprising.
“This just illustrates, I think, how people who’ve achieved a certain fame in one domain—say, science—generally aren’t worth listening to when it comes to that domain—say, science.”
Clearly, then, a single Nazi wouldn’t prove anything—but Oreskes and team went further. “We wanted to know: how many Nazis would be the right number [of Nazis]?”
Using a method they call mathematics, the researchers were able to determine a precise answer—nineteen—reflecting the threshold we accept for reasonable doubt in science today (p = .05).
“So wasn’t 100 a case of overkill?” I suggest.
“Hang on,” snaps Oreskes. “It’s easy to pass judgment in retrospect. But if the climate wars have taught us anything, it’s that—when you’re dealing with minorities—the real danger is underkill.
“And who knows? Perhaps [the Nazi Party] understood this too. Records are sketchy but I like to think, somehow, that they did,” she muses with a wistful smile.
Oreskes likens it to the current debate.
“Medically-illiterate laypeople often ask me why we have to keep picking on [climate] contrarians. ‘Isn’t a 97:3 ratio good enough,’ they ask? ‘Isn’t it a bit fascistic to obsess over a dissenting fringe?
“‘Can’t we stop fighting climate-change denial and start fighting—I dunno—climate change or whatever?’
“But of course, that would be like taking half a course of antibiotics!”
”We all know science isn’t about being right,” I say, choosing my words carefully, “but wasn’t Einstein—if I can put it this way—right?”
“Look, obviously the universe no longer obeys Newtonian laws, and nobody reputable is claiming it does. You’re using a straw man [argument],” Oreskes scolds, with an abortifacient glower that reminds me how an out-of-work miner rose to the post of climate-epistemology swami to US Presidents, European Commissars and Vicars of Christ.
“Relativity might be real today,” she hammers on, “but that doesn’t justify Einstein’s one-man war on physics a hundred years ago—let alone the irreverent way he went about it, does it? As cracks did begin to open up in the consensus model of the universe over the course of the 20th century, these were acknowledged—and corrected for—by the legitimate scientific community.
“Not by some entry-level patent clerk in Zürich,” she adds derisively, without sounding elitist.
“As nature gradually became less and less classical, so too did the weight of expert consensus gradually shift. Today only a tiny minority of disproportionately-vocal ‘scientists’ would disagree with modern physics.
“When the facts change, scientists change their minds! What do you do?” asks Oreskes, dripping with disdain. “Huh? What do you do?”
“But hang on,” I stammer in my own defense, “aren’t there groups on the internet who’d argue [that] non-Newtonian phenomena like relativity and the photoelectric effect were already real as far back as 1905, when Einstein first began promoting them?”
Oreskes, however, gives such revisionism short shrift.
“ROFL,” she counters. “As a trained historian of ideas, I can tell you there’s zero documentary evidence [for that]. Are we really supposed to believe there was a global plot by the entire scientific community to keep these aspects of the universe a secret until 1905?
“Then again, that’s the defining trait of quacks and pseudo-historians everywhere, isn’t it: conspirac[y theor]ies,” sighs the blockbusting author of Merchants of Doubt, rolling her eyes without looking elitist.
“We have a saying in science,” says Cook, who works in communications: “All opinions are not created equal.”
So The Collaborationists decided to dig deeper, quantifying the qualifications, citation scores and publication records of the Hundred in detail.
It was no easy task—Allied firebombing had destroyed much of the documentary trail.
“Most of this stuff has been incinerated,” says Oreskes, choking with emotion. “It’s a literal Holocaust.”
But the hard work paid off with an exciting finding: when you tallied up the credentials of the mainstream scientists they outweighed Einstein not by 100:1, but by almost a hundred and fifty to one.
“This was a game-changer,” recalls Oreskes. “It meant that, just by picking and choosing our methods post hoc, we could get an ever better conclusion.”
Especially overrated, according to the new study, are Einstein’s four papers of 1905, the ‘Miracle Year’ in which we’ve always been taught he single-handedly revolutionized physics.
“People love to talk about them,” says Prof. Oreskes, “but I actually used my historical sleuthing skills to look at the science of the papers. Or, to be exact, the sociological praxis.”
(Science is a social program, she explains.)
Remarkably, it turns out they weren’t even peer-reviewed.
“As I explain in my novel Merchants of Doubt, that makes them opinion pieces—nothing more. And I don’t even have to read them: they fail the most basic test for anything that pretends to be science.”
Even more damningly, she discovered, the editor of Annalen der Physik—the journal that agreed to act as mouthpiece for Einstein’s homegrown theories—was a personal friend.
“In a strategy reminiscent of climate contrarians today, Einstein relied on nepotism [to get into the literature]!” she says, using the Latin root word for pal review.
Einstein’s sidestepping of the proper channels was the most incriminating discovery for author Stephan Lewandowsky, a leader in the resurgent field of punitive psychology.
“These days, that kind of grey literature would ‘belong in the dustbin,’ as someone famous once put it,” says Prof. Lewandowsky, apologizing for not recalling the exact source.
“Peer review is literally the instrument by which scientific skepticism is pursued,” explains the Bristol, UK-based cognitive scientist—a point climate deniers have forced him to make more than once.
“Einstein might have been on to something—anything’s possible—but without the scientific skepticism you only get from the approval of two to three coworkers, he was just setting himself up for self-delusion.”
Detractors of the latest science disagree, insisting that “the instrument by which scientific skepticism is pursued” is called the scientific method. But Lewandowsky dismisses their claims, pointing out that they often have corporate links.
“These people have been pursuing, and plotting against, me and my science in the shadows since 2013, when I set out to prove that their ideas go hand in hand with [imagining] conspiracies—and succeeded,” he says.
“Apparently various secretive interests didn’t take too kindly to that, because my work then came under attack from a concerted campaign of critical examination.
“It got so bad that my editors [at the journal Frontiers in Psychology] rang me in the dead of night—lunchtime, their time—sobbing and hysterical, saying Steve, we’re sorry, we don’t have the courage to stand up for academic integrity any more. I had to send my lawyers down to make a deal with them: the journal would withdraw my paper for the ethical violations [I’d committed], and I’d insist [on my blog] that they’d been ‘gotten to’ by a shadowy, multibillion-dollar cartel of science deniers.
“So no-one lost any face,” he recounts. “Which was damn good, because in science all you’ve got is your dignity.
“In hindsight, we got lucky. This time. But what about the next retraction? And the next? These [subterranean] entities won’t rest until I feel embarrassed.”
Lewandowsky has never been able to get a good look at the interests that are out to get him; in a 2014 statement to UK police he could only describe them as wearing vests.
“While Albert Einstein wasn’t as bad as today’s anti-scientists,” says Lewandowsky, the contrarian physicist’s tactics “were certainly an early example of what I’ve dubbed Illegitimate Insertion.”
(This controversial concept has no agreed-on definition, but scientists who’ve been victim to it describe feelings of intense violation, shame and transparency.)
And it isn’t a fringe view: even his son, coauthor and doctoral protégé John Cook agrees.
“You might say there’s… a consensus [among the study’s authors]!” says the former illustrator, illustrating why he’s now a highly-paid science communicator.
“On consensus!” he adds with impeccable comic timing, just as I’m recovering from my initial paroxysm of laughter.
The story has a sad footnote.
At the time of his death in 1955, Einstein still refused to accept the growing scientific consensus that climate change—or ‘global cooling,’ as it was then called—was on track to be worse than Mussolini. The ageing physicist appears to have stridently blocked his ears, insisting the only thing as dangerous as Fascism was the risk of a nuclear disagreement between two or more nations.
Without sounding elitist, Oreskes chalks the 76-year-old’s “ideas” up to senility.
“It’s important to realize he was now… 90? 92?,” she explains.
“Scientists are people like everybody else. They get lonely, they crave attention—and especially scientists who have been very famous in their earlier period of life—and sometimes it’s hard for them when they start to lose the limelight so I think we see that phenomenon [with Einstein].”
There were some legitimate concerns about the Newtonian model by the 1930s, and Oreskes is the first to acknowledge this.
“And if [these issues] had been raised respectfully, the self-correcting mechanisms of science would have dealt with them. But Einstein used minor discrepancies—not even noticeable at everyday velocities—to imply they somehow invalidated 300 years of classical physics!”
This bad faith is probably what antagonized the legitimate scientists who had dealings with Einstein, she believes. They felt attacked, and their science disrespected.
“How would you feel if your life’s work was disbelieved? As scientists, they never signed up for that. We see the same kind of bullying today. Science deniers demand toleration of their views, yet they never seem to feel any obligation to agree with the majority in return—you know, the folks who actually know their stuff.
“While nobody can say what the word ‘science’ means,” adds Oreskes, “I did hear a pretty convincing guess once. An astronomer acquaintance of mine once defined it as ‘the belief in the knowledge of experts.’ When I heard that I was all like, dude, that totally captures what I’ve always imagined [science] probably is.”
It’s easy to forget—which is why Oreskes reminds me—that for centuries, the very idea of a science of and by consensus was universally ridiculed as Not Even Word Salad, a punchline synonymous with the crassest, most Medieval sort of scientific illiteracy. Until, that is, she announced its existence in the pages of Science barely a decade ago.
To schoolchildren and associate lecturers in the history and philosophy of science alike, the third of December, 2004 is one of those magic dates to be learned by rote, like February 3, 1952 or March 21, 1810.
Oreskes, though, remembers it simply as The Day the Laughter Died. Overnight, a jocular oxymoron would become a metaanalytic term of art. You’d have been forgiven for thinking the world’s 2,500 best scientists—the United Nations’ IPCC—had voted to replace “er” and “um,” the most frequent words in the English corpus, with “scientific” and “consensus.”
And humanity owed its Big Idea to exactly one human: her.
Reached for its comment on our story, Harvard University would only state that Prof. Oreskes was hired on merit.
“Had a better candidate applied, she or he would have gotten the Professorship,” reads a terse press release by the venerable institution today.