October 21, 2013
Voice on Climate Change Moves to Harvard
U. of California at San Diego
By Jenny Rogers
Naomi Oreskes never intended to become a spokesperson on climate change or science. Then she published an essay in the journalScience in 2004, in which she laid out the broad scientific consensus that global climate change is occurring, and that it is affected by human activities.
Now the woman who brought the world that message has moved from the University of California at San Diego, where she was a professor of history and science studies for 15 years, to Harvard University as a professor of the history of science and an affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences.
“I was just ready for a change,” she says of her move this summer. She had considered environmental jobs but decided she wanted to stay in academe and focus on the history of science. “It was a conscious decision to hold onto that core.”
Janet Browne, chair of the department of the history of science at Harvard, says she and other members of the hiring committee were impressed with Ms. Oreskes’s expertise and “engaging” way of teaching.
“Naomi is extremely famous in our small community” of science historians “and indeed famous outside of it,” Ms. Browne says. “She is widely respected and regarded as a terrific public spokesperson for the value of what we do.”
Ms. Oreskes, who is 54, earned a Ph.D. in geological research and the history of science from Stanford University in 1990. After starting out as a geologist, she quickly became interested in how scientific consensus forms. She found a niche in the history of science, eventually specializing in cold-war-era and contemporary scientific work.
Her 2004 analysis of climate-change studies was cited in An Inconvenient Truth, a 2006 documentary in which Al Gore warns of the consequences of global warming. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, written with the science historian Erik M. Conway, stirred more controversy. In it, theyargued that certain scientists obscured the truth in order to discredit sound scientific findings on the risks of smoking, global warming, and other issues.
Supporters of those scientists have fought back in numerous articles and Internet postings that dispute the value of Ms. Oreskes’s own work. A document on the Web site of the Heartland Institute, a think tank with libertarian leanings, calls her stand on climate change “an anti-science position akin to witchcraft.”
Ms. Oreskes says she is not an advocate for any policy but not a “bystander,” either.
“I don’t shy away from what I consider to be the intellectual implications of my work” on climate-change consensus, she says. “If anything, I’m an advocate for understanding why this issue is important.”
To make decisions, she says, policy makers should understand “where there’s scientific consensus and where there isn’t.”
A former colleague, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, says Ms. Oreskes’s departure was a loss for San Diego. “She is one of the few who talk about contemporary science,” says Mr. Ramanathan, a professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography there. “She comes to a conclusion, and she doesn’t shy away from saying it in the strongest sense possible.”
Ms. Browne says Ms. Oreskes has been “brave” in her open exploration of the moral foundation of science. “We are absolutely with her in feeling that if there are things that need to be said, we should be saying them.”
At Harvard, Ms. Oreskes is teaching a graduate introductory course on the history of science and finishing a book on the history of cold-war oceanography. She has noted that oceanographers were among the first to find evidence of global warming.
She is also deep into her latest research project, in conjunction withMichael Oppenheimer, a professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University, and Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies, bioethics, and philosophy at New York University. They are studying how scientists evaluate one another’s work for large-scale assessments that have influenced environmental-policy decisions, such asthe reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Or, as Ms. Oreskes puts it, “How do scientists make sense of what they know on behalf of other people?”
The question of scientific assessment is “so interdisciplinary,” she says. “Science, policy, jealousy, competition—it’s a great, great topic.”
There is potential for her to become involved in other interdisciplinary work at Harvard. Ms. Browne hopes Ms. Oreskes might do research into marine and naval technologies during the cold war and eventually teach a course with Ms. Browne on the history of the earth.
Ms. Oreskes looks forward to seeing how her research evolves.
“If we knew everything, we could close our books and lock our doors and say this project of science is done,” she says. “Obviously, that’s not the case.”