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.

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

            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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