Do Scientists Have the Duty to Speak Out?

17:14 minutes

The popular anti-terrorism slogan, “If you see something, say something,” asks citizens to speak up if they see a potential threat. But does that apply to scientists? If they see a risk to the planet, for example, should they say something about it? Naomi Oreskes, co-author of Merchants of Doubt and a science historian at Harvard, talks about scientists as science advocates. On the other end of the spectrum, she says, some scientists undersell the conclusions of their work, and this “scientific conservatism has led to under-estimation of climate-related changes.”

Segment Guests

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is the author of Why Trust Science? (Princeton University Press, 2019) and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010). She’s also a professor in the department of the history of science and an affiliated professor in earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Last week as negotiators in Paris were toiling over the details of the landmark climate agreement, Senator Ted Cruz held his own climate summit of sorts, a hearing about what Cruz called the quote “ongoing debate over climate science.”

TED CRUZ: Facts matter, science matters, data matters. That’s what this hearing is about. According to the satellite data there’s been no significant global warming for the past 18 years. Those are the data. The global warming alarmists don’t like these data. They are inconvenient to their narrative.

IRA FLATOW: The global warming alarmists he’s referring to are Secretary of State John Kerry, the media, and climate scientists. But my next guest says that many climate scientists, despite often being portrayed as alarmists, are actually under-playing their concerns, erring on the side of less rather than more alarming predictions. Erring, as she says, on the side of least drama. Are they then selling the public short by giving only their most conservative predictions? And if they are already seen as alarmists, do they have that much to lose by telling it as they see it? In other words, the popular anti-terrorism slogan, if you see something, say something, asks citizens to speak up if they see a potential threat. Does that apply to scientists too?

Naomi Oreskes is a co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, now a documentary film. She’s a professor in the history of science and earth and planetary sciences at Harvard. And she gave a talk on this very subject at this week’s meeting at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. She joins us from San Francisco on KQED. Welcome to Science Friday.

NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Do you find scientists afraid to tell what they really know or suspect?

NAOMI ORESKES: The short answer is yes, although I think the word afraid might not be really fair. Our research has really been focused on trying to answer the question, first of all, have scientists overstated the threat of climate change or not. Because that’s an accusation that’s often been lodged at them, that they’ve been exaggerating the threat, that they’re alarmists. So we wanted to answer that question on a factual basis. And the second part was, once we saw what was going on, to try to explain it.

And so what we found in our study by comparing predictions that scientists had made 10, 15, 20 years ago with what had actually happened in the climate system, we were able to answer that question, the first question. And we showed in our work that in fact scientists had not exaggerated the threat, that in most cases scientists had got the predictions right– within the error bars– or there was a systematic bias towards understating the threat. So what we showed was that actually scientists were if anything, they were either correct or they were understating the threat. There was no evidence to support the claim that they were exaggerating.

So then the second part was why would they do that. And I don’t think it would be fair to say that they’re afraid– I don’t think that scientists are cowardly people. But we argue that there were a number of factors that were contributing to this pattern.

IRA FLATOW: I want to push back a little bit on that from my own personal conversations with climate scientists over the year. Off the record they would tell me, you know, I think we’ve reached the tipping point, there are things that are going to have great consequences that we can’t go back on. And I would say to them, why didn’t you say these things. And some of them would say to me, well, I’m afraid of causing a panic in the public.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well certainly that’s true for some people. And I didn’t mean to imply that that was never the case. Certainly the sense that it’s important not to overstate the threat lest you cause panic, that’s not just climate scientists who feel that way. Seismologists deal with that issue all the time. So I think scientists are mindful of the fact that from a social and public point of view there can be some risks if people overreact. But at the same time when it comes to climate change, there can be very profound risks if we underreact. Because if we don’t clearly explain what’s happening and make clear why these changes are potentially so damaging, potentially so frightening, and then people underreact, well then there’s hurt and harm that comes from underreaction if we fail to adequately prepare and adequately respond to the threat.

IRA FLATOW: Our number 844-724-8255 is our number. Talking with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the Merchants of Doubt. Back in the early days of the environmental movement, late ’60s early ’70s, in those days, there were very vocal scientists around, people like Paul Ehrlich– who is still here– Barry Commoner, Carl Sagan, people like that who spoke out in public forums. Do you think we need to have more scientists speaking out, speaking their minds?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well, I think yes, but not in that way. I think one of the problems of the 1960s was that there were a few number of very prominent, very charismatic, and very vocal scientists who came to stand in for the whole scientific community. And their personal views and their personal interpretations were sometimes taken as reflecting the views of the whole community and reflecting the peer reviewed scientific literature. Our work was not focused on what a few individuals were saying. We were focused on trying to understand what was published in the peer reviewed literature and how that science, the actual science, compared to the actual changes that were taking place in the world.

So I think it’s a bit of a problem for the scientific community if we rely too much on one or two charismatic leaders like Carl Sagan, or Steve Schneider, or Paul Ehrlich, and that in a sense our message is that the whole scientific community– or maybe not the whole community, some people are not personality suited to speaking up in public– but that the scientific community as a whole needs to be making an effort to communicate clearly to the public what our scientific results are telling us. So not our own personal opinions about what we’re afraid of, but what is the scientific evidence telling us about what’s happening in Greenland and Antarctica with sea level rise, with crop failures, with this California drought. That kind of information, the really factual information, not just about what we think is going to happen in the future, but what’s actually happening on our planet on this earth right now. Things that we can see, things that we can measure, things that we have in fact seen and measured.

IRA FLATOW: Do you feel this personally yourself about speaking out like you’re doing today?

NAOMI ORESKES: Personally that it’s important to do it? Yeah, that’s why I’m here.

IRA FLATOW: I mean is there a danger though for some scientists that they won’t be trusted if they speak out too much, if they exaggerate or crying wolf. Are they fearful of that too?

NAOMI ORESKES: Yeah, scientists are definitely afraid of that. And of course it’s really important to be clear we’re not saying that anybody should exaggerate. What we’re saying that our work shows is that people have actually understated the threat so that these fears about speaking out, these fears about crying wolf. And you’re absolutely right– we also did interviews with scientists, and many scientists expressed the fear that if they cried wolf they would lose credibility. So we’re not saying anybody should cry wolf or exaggerate the threat. We’re saying people should clearly communicate what we know. And what we’ve demonstrated is that there’s a systematic bias in the community the other way, that we’re actually understating the threat. So our argument is we should neither understate nor overstate. And we should understand the social pressures that have in fact led us to understate the threat up until now.

IRA FLATOW: And do they do this? Is the means to do this in their papers when they publish their papers, not to be overly conservative?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well that’s a very interesting question. And what we’ve argued in our work is that the first step in that direction is simply to be aware of the problem. Most scientists until we published this were not actually aware this was the case. I mean there were a few people who had suggested that it might be the case, and that was part of our picking up on the issue. But by and large, most scientists did not know that this was actually occurring. So what we’ve tried to emphasize, and what I talked about here in San Francisco on Monday, was to say if you’re aware of this tendency, if you become aware of the bias, then you can look out for it and try to avoid it.

IRA FLATOW: You heard the little cut we played of Ted Cruz in his committee meeting. Were any scientists that you know of of a great climate repute in any of those committee hearings? [INAUDIBLE].

NAOMI ORESKES: You know, because I’ve been here in San Francisco all week and following the COP proceedings, I wasn’t really looking closely at what Ted Cruz was doing. But certainly many climate scientists that I know personally have been the subject of the targets of attacks by people– well, by colleagues of Ted Cruz– like Lamar Smith from Texas, Representative Joe Barton. So it’s certainly the case that climate scientists have worked in a political climate of hostility, and pressure, and even intimidation. And so that of course is another factor that contributes to scientists wanting to keep their heads down, and we think probably also contributes to the underestimation, that there’s this tremendous hostile pushback from some members of Mr Cruz’s party.

IRA FLATOW: And you know oil is going way down, the coal industry and stock price is collapsing. If fossil fuel lobbying somehow disappeared, what would lawmakers say about not doing anything about climate change in this country?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well that’s a very important suggestion. Of course we know that one of the reasons it’s been so difficult to get sensible policy action on climate is because of this tremendous pressure and pushback from the fossil fuel industry and their other allies.

In my more recent book with Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization, we wrote a kind of science fiction parable of what could happen if we don’t take action. And we talk about what we call the carbon combustion complex. There are a group of industries in this country led by the fossil fuel sector, but also supported by other sectors that rely on inexpensive fossil fuels, that have pushed back very aggressively against any kind of sensible regulation. You mentioned the very low price of gas right now. This is really the perfect time to introduce a carbon tax, which virtually all economists agree would be the most sensible, easy, and efficient way to begin to discourage the use of fossil fuels and encourage the use of non-carbon-based fuels. A time when the price of gas is low is the perfect time to bring that in, because it wouldn’t hit people too harshly in the pocketbook and then to ramp that up.

And I think one of the most significant news items of the last couple weeks is not Mr Cruz spouting nonsense about climate science, but actually the fact that the province of Alberta, the home of the tar sands, they’ve just announced that they are going to introduce a carbon price of $20 a ton and begin to ramp that up over the coming years. That’s a hugely important step in the right direction. It’s a model for how it can be done. And it’s being done in a province that has a very, very heavy reliance on fossil fuels. So they’ve managed to negotiate with the fossil fuel industry and get them on-board to move in the right direction.

IRA FLATOW: In fact, if I remember, I want to get your take on what went on in Paris last week. There were, what, 120 companies that went there saying we’re behind you. We need to have–


IRA FLATOW: –some sort of regulation here.

NAOMI ORESKES: Right. And that’s terribly important. Because it’s a recognition that sometimes people want to say that the business community is against sensible regulation on climate. But that’s not true. A certain sector of the business community, mainly the fossil fuels sector, has pushed very, very aggressively against any form of sensible regulation. They’ve also funded disinformation campaigns. They’ve funded organizations that have attacked scientists. So there’s been this incredibly destructive and damaging activity on the part of some parts of the fossil fuel industry.

But on the other hand, you have many leading corporations, including Nike, and Walmart, and Goldman Sachs, who have said, no, we need sensible regulation, we need to move forward. This is in the interest of everyone, it’s in the interest of the world. And it’s in the interest of the business community to have a clear signal and a level playing field. Because if the regulations are sensible, and if they’re transparent, and if they’re the same in all 50 states, then we can respond and we can move forward in sensible ways. What we can’t do is respond if we don’t know what the regulations are going to be, or if they’re going to be overturned in lawsuits, or they’re going to be fought by certain sectors. So you have these very courageous business leaders– Paul Polman of Unilever has been really fantastic on this issue– saying the time has come for sensible regulation. And honest businesses realized that this is actually in the interest of the vast majority of people.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Naomi Oreskes, co-author of the book the Merchants of Doubt. Let’s see if we can go to the phones and take a couple of calls before we run out of time. Let’s go to Davis in Orleans, Massachusetts.

DAVIS: Yes, hi Ira, thanks for taking my call. My question to you and your guest is quite simple. I’m wondering if in the climate change debate, particularly with the presidential debates happening, are climate scientists becoming perceived as liberals?

NAOMI ORESKES: Well that’s a great question. I think it’s really a tricky one. The anthropologist Ashley Montagu once said a long time ago that reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Part of the reason this issue has been so difficult for so long is because the reality of climate change tells us that we have a problem in our economic system, and that problem is that our prices– the price we pay for fossil-based fuels, carbon-based fossil fuels– doesn’t reflect the external costs, the damage that those fossil fuels do in the world. And so that means that climate change in many ways is an economic problem. And it’s an economic problem that requires the government to step into the marketplace to do something, such as impose a price on carbon. And that idea, that the government needs to play a leading role, is very anathema for many conservatives in this country. And so when climate scientists say we have to do something about this climate problem, that’s perceived by many people as being a liberal position.

And it’s put scientists in a very difficult place because they don’t want their science to be politicized, because many clients scientists are not actually liberals on other matters. I mean climate scientists are very diverse and have a very wide range of views. But they’ve been typecast as being liberals. And then that’s part of the reason why it’s generated hostility among people like Mr Cruz.

IRA FLATOW: Is there any way when you talk about scientists really not being too conservative in reporting their findings, do you have any message for scientists out there about what to do from now on or how to cope with that.

NAOMI ORESKES: Well it’s very tricky. I have a couple of messages. The first message falls out immediately from our work, which is simply accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. The job of a scientist is to do the best job that he or she can do in understanding the natural world, to report that as accurately as possibly, and to communicate it as accurately as possible. That’s not an easy task, but that is the task of the scientific community. So that’s my main message.

But my second message now going forward is a little different. And we talked about this on Monday at AGU as well. To some extent I think the time now has come for scientists to turn over the conversation to economists, and political scientists, and engineers. Because really what the message of COP is. You know Arnold Schwarzenegger said this many years ago here in California– we know the science, we see the threat, and we know the time for action is now. He said that a decade ago. So it’s still true today. And that’s the message of COP. This is really no longer a scientific question, it’s an economic, social, political, and engineering question. And so I think it’s very important for scientists to continue to do their work. We have tremendously important work we need to do monitoring what’s happening with the ice sheets. But in terms of the solutions and the going forward, I’d really like to see a lot of this conversation now handed over to people who can really move us into that conversation about solutions.

IRA FLATOW: Well they have picked up the ball. They know where the money is. And certainly in states that are wind energy states they’re making a lot of money. And the companies that know that there’s no more ice in the North Pole in the summertime are talking about profiting from that. So I think your message is beginning to be heard. I think corporations are picking it up. I want to thank you for taking time to with us today. And good luck to you.

NAOMI ORESKES: Thank you. It’s a pleasure being with you. And I hope you’re right.

IRA FLATOW: Naomi Oreskes is co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, and now a documentary film. And she’s a professor in the history of science and earth and planetary sciences at Harvard.

Copyright © 2015 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of ScienceFriday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our polices pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies.

Meet the Producer

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.