Is Naomi Oreskes Using the Same Merchant of Doubt Tactics She Criticizes?

There is a lot of hypocrisy in the way Naomi Oreskes attacks four renowned climate scientists.

            The book Merchants of Doubt by Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes is described as


“The troubling story of how a cadre of influential scientists have clouded the public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political and economic agenda.”

It makes a damning case against corporations, principally in the tobacco and chemical industries, for knowingly distorting scientific evidence to protect economic interests.

      But Oreskes herself is now engaging in similar behavior, cherry-picking and distorting scientific evidence to cloud the public understanding of scientific facts to advance a political agenda. In an opinion piece in The Guardian, Oreskes attacks four world renowned climate campaigners as “deniers” ... because they argue that nuclear power must play a role in decarbonizing energy production, and they don’t believe renewable energy alone will be enough to stave off serious climate change. Here’s how Oreskes uses the loaded language of denialism;

“A strange form of denial that has appeared on the landscape of late, one that says renewable sources can’t meet our energy needs.”

“We probably won’t get very far if the alternatives to fossil fuel — such as renewable energy — are disparaged by a new generation of myths. If we want to see real solutions implemented, we need to be on the lookout for this new form of denial.”

            Oreskes has been roundly criticized for her ad hominem and polarizing use of "denier" semantics. (See Michael Specter’s How Not to Debate Nuclear Energy and Climate Change)

            But she must also be taken to task for intellectual hypocrisy. She does just what she has made her name criticizing in Merchants of Doubt, knowingly playing fast and loose with the evidence, and selectively citing scientific experts, to support her view of “the facts” in a way that clouds public understanding of scientific evidence in order to advance a clear political agenda.

            Oreskes’ piece focuses on the old-school environmentalist support for "natural" energy — solar, water and wind — and knee-jerk opposition to human-made nuclear, a values-based, simplistic, and counterproductive either-or dichotomy. But her essay is riddled with tactics right out of the Merchants of Doubt playbook.

            To support her argument that “we can transition to a decarbonized economy without expanded nuclear power, by focusing on wind, water, and solar, coupled with grid integration, energy efficiency and demand management,’” she cites “numerous high-quality studies, including one recently published by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University,“. It’s entirely fair to cite evidence to make one’s case. But Oreskes certainly also knows, but fails to mention, that many high-quality studies refute Jacobson’s work, and that many of the world’s most respected energy experts believe that solar and wind alone can’t do nearly enough to combat climate change. She is purposefully “using influential scientists” to cloud public understanding of the evidence.

She accuses the four climate scientists of proposing that “the only way we can solve the coupled climate/energy problem is with a massive and immediate expansion of nuclear power." That’s distorting the truth, and professor Oreskes knows it. Those scientists, James Hansen, Kerry Emanuel, Tom Wigley, and Ken Caldeira, argue that nuclear needs to be a major part of an energy solution, but not the only part. In fact in the letter they published in 2013 advocating for nuclear energy, they advocate for renewables as well:

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.

In another glaring half-truth about the evidence, Oreskes argues against nuclear power because it requires government subsidies, but dishonestly neglects to mention that solar and wind rely on subsidies too. (I couldn't have put panels on the roof of my home without them.) And she ignores the basic truth that subsidies are a common tool that helps society accomplish things that solve problems, like establishing the electric and hybrid car industries.

Repeating old-school environmentalist dogma, she attacks U.S. government support of nuclear energy because that support was intended “... to prove that the destructive power unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be put to good use.” Inaccurately associating nuclear energy with nuclear weapons is blatant manipulative dishonesty intended to cloud public understanding of scientific evidence to pursue a political agenda.

She also repeats the common fear that nuclear energy “carries the spectre of catastrophic risk.” That’s another denial (oops!) of well-known scientific evidence. Based on 70 years' worth of study of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world’s experts in radiation biology agree that exposure to even high levels of radiation poses only a surprisingly small human health risk. (A-bomb survivors had an increased lifetime cancer death rate of two-thirds of 1 percent.) What’s happened to people and the environment around Chernobyl and Fukushima has confirmed that nuclear radiation just doesn’t do nearly as much environmental damage as is widely assumed. This evidence is far more robust than the evidence professor Oreskes cites to support her case that renewables alone can decarbonize electric power. It is disingenuous to ignore such evidence, unless you’re trying to influence what people think (cloud their understanding of the evidence) to advance a political agenda.

To be fair, professor Oreskes is only doing what all advocates do, picking and choosing and emphasizing the facts that help her make her case. And she’s not doing it for personal gain, as are the Merchants of Doubt she rightfully criticizes. But it is hypocritical for her to criticize those Merchants for doing harm when her own tactics mirror what she criticizes, and when the effect of her distortions are also potentially harmful. Public beliefs shaped by such distortions, especially the ones that play to people’s fears, lead to public policies that don’t do the public the most good. Continuing to promote excessive fear of nuclear energy may support the tribal goals of some old-school environmentalists, but it impedes the global battle against the real enemy professor Oreskes is concerned about: climate change. 

We should protest when corporations behave this way. And we should protest when our scientists and academic experts do it too.

photo by Getty Images, Kris Connor

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.