December 16th, 2014


Professor of History of Science and Director of Graduate Studies, Harvard University

Founding Editor, Climate Progress

Climate Scientist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Chair of the National Advisory Council, National Center for Science Communication


Do you believe in climate denial? To hear climate scientists tell it, there is a war being waged on science by government opponents and special interests, designed to fuel skepticism and discredit their work in the eyes of the public.  Two of them told their stories recently at The Commonwealth Club.

Ben Santer of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory says that being a climate scientist today feels “a little scary.” He’s been targeted by congress and threatened with referral to the Justice Department; threatening emails from strangers have filled his inbox. Michael Mann, a professor of Meteorology at Penn State who has written on the climate wars, tells of having his emails hacked and used out of context to malign him, his colleagues and climate research. “I see that as a direct assault,” he told the audience.  
“Not just on us, but our children and grandchildren, who stand the most to lose if we fail to act in time.”

Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes has charted the history of climate denial, which, as she explains it, has its roots in the final days of the Cold War.  Physicists who had previously used their degrees to downplay the dangers of tobacco use now turned their attention to the climate awareness movement. “And not just climate science,’ she continues.  “Acid rain, the ozone hole, the role of pesticides in harming the environment, they begin to challenge the scientific evidence on all of these issues…and they pursued that strategy successfully for more than 20 years.”

Oreskes says such spin doctoring is designed to distract the public and cast doubt on the scientific evidence of global warming.  “This is about an organized campaign to undermine the work that we do and to make people think that the science is unsettled.”  

It’s a technique that goes back to the Greeks, says Joe Romm, author of ‘Language Intelligence.’  “The key to being persuasive,” he says, “is to be memorable.  And modern social science basically shows the stuff that's easier for you to remember, you're more likely to believe is true.”

But how good are scientists at being persuasive? Popular wisdom has them squirreled away in labs, focused on the pursuit of knowledge yet collectively tongue-tied when it comes to championing their work.  Oreskes says the notion that scientists can’t communicate with the public is a fairly new one -- as is the idea that the public isn’t aware of, and hungry for, their information.

“In the late 19th and early 20th century there was a great tradition of scientists reaching out to the public,” she relates. “The British Association had public meetings in which thousands and thousands of ordinary British citizens would come to hear lectures on geology.  Thousands of people would come to hear Michael Faraday lecture on electricity and magnetism.” Twentieth century scientists, she says, frequently published best-sellers, which were gobbled up by the public; one of her favorite examples is William Bowie, who also had a Sunday radio program on geodesy – the study of the shape of the earth.  “Now, if you can make geodesy fun,” Orestes laughed, “you can make anything fun!”

As to the question of whether social activism can discredit a scientist’s reputation, Oreskes dismissed that notion out of hand.  “Some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century became very active after 1945,” she reminded the audience, “I don't think anybody ever said that Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity lost credibility because he spoke up about the dangers of atomic weapons.”

Fast forward to the 21st century: how to counter the pervasive message that the science of climate change is “inconclusive?”

Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education agrees with Romm that “the best way to communicate is to tell a story.” Conveying a personal message, she says, resonates with listeners, whether you’re at a cocktail party or in a public forum.

“When you go on that talk show, when you go to that school board meeting or that congressional hearing, you tell the stories.  You try to make that personal connection just like you would if you were an accountant or a plumber or a ballet dancer.  It's nothing that's specific to scientists,” she continues, “it's specific to people who want to get something accomplished.  You have to talk in the language of the people that you're talking to.

“You've got to repeat your message frequently, have it come from a trusted source, have a message that assuages the concern of the person that you are trying to convince, and then the science has a chance to be heard.  

And getting the science heard, I think, is what we're all about.”


- Anny Celsi
December 16, 2014
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California