Voodoo Scholarship

Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes has just published an article in Environmental Research Letters–ERL–which is supposed to show that ExxonMobil mislead the public on climate change.  Professor Oreskes who has earned the reputation of being an academic character assassin and supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund which has been funding anti-ExxonMobil initiatives.

She first gained notoriety with her book Merchants of Doubt which attempted to discredit the reputations of three well respected but deceased scientists who could not defend themselves—Fred Seitz, Bob Jastrow, and Bill Nirenberg.  Their crime was to challenge climate orthodoxy with  scientific reasoning that has not been refuted scientifically.  The George C. Marshall Institute, which these three scientists founded, published a critique of her book–Clouding the Truth: A Critique of Merchants of Doubt-GCMI.  The conclusion of that critique says all that needs to be said about the Oreskes research model,“Merchants of Doubt is long on innuendo and short on evidence or compelling logic.  It fits well with Mark Twain’s classic observation about the gathering facts and then distorting them as the gatherer desires. If it were not for the attack on the Institute’s founders who cannot now defend themselves, the book could be dismissed for the partisan history it is”,

The methodology used by Oreskes in the Harvard article is essentially the same used by her and John Cook in the attempt to demonstrate a scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming. The technique is known as content analysis.  The PEW Research Center says that “Content analysis has been defined as “the systematic, objective, quantitative analysis of message characteristics.”.  In a short piece on the technique by UC Davis, it is pointed out that content analysis “describes what is there, but may not reveal the underlying motives for the observed pattern (‘what’ but not ‘why’)”.  Oreskes started off knowing what she wanted to conclude and then structured her review to support her preconceived opinions.  A self fulfilling prophecy lacking the required objectivity!

The weakness of her work and the technique of content analysis was laid bare in critiques of the surveys on the so called scientific consensus.  A Canadian organization, Friends of Science, reviewed several studies, including Oreskes and Cook’s, that claim a 97% consensus among among scientists that human activities are the primary cause of climate change.  Its conclusion bluntly stated, “The deconstruction of the surveys that follow shows the claim of a 97% consensus is pure spin and ‘statisticulation’ – mathematical manipulation” and “there is no 97% consensus on human-caused global warming as claimed in these studies. None of these studies indicate any agreement with a catastrophic view of human-caused global warming”. That conclusion was shared in an article in Popular Technology titled, 97 Articles Refuting The “97% Consensus.

 In her article, Oreskes concludes that “ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials.  Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil mislead the public.”  Research on climate science is intended to advance knowledge while advertorials are intended to communicate on public policy issues. The criterion for judging them should be whether they are based on a solid foundation.

Oreskes and her climate orthodoxy colleagues assert with certitude that human use of fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming over the past 50 or so years.  But, that is not consistent with the state of science.  In its most recent report, the IPCC lists a number of climate factors for which knowledge is limited. And, its range of climate sensitivity, which has steadily been reduced, varies by a factor of 3. Hardly a basis for certitude. A National Academy of Sciences report stated, “ Because there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward).  Reducing the wide range of uncertainty inherent in current model predictions of global climate change will require major advances in understanding and modeling of both (1) the factors that determine atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and (2) the so-called “feedbacks” that determine the sensitivity of the climate system to a prescribed increase in greenhouse gases.”.  Those advances have not taken place.

In addressing policy proposals that were based on greater certainty than actually exists, it is quite reasonable to use advertorials to focus on uncertainty and the economic consequences of implementing those policies.  Oreskes points out that ExxonMobil and Mobil before the merger ran advertorials in the New York Times every week from 1972 to 2001. But, it was Mobil that ran weekly ads before the merger in 1998. But, that didn’t deter her from assigning guilt to ExxonMobil.   Surely, if the advertorials were outside the bounds of legitimate discourse, the Times, given its position on climate change, would have rejected them or used its editorials to dispute them.  It is also telling that Oreskes’ article covers advertorials starting in 1972 which was well before climate change/global warming became a major public policy issue.  In the 1970s, the oil industry was concerned about price and allocation controls, divestiture, and energy independence issues.  This is another point demonstrating that Oreskes was simply looking for any way to support her biased, preconceived point of view.

There are only two possible uses for this article—a case study of how not to do content analysis and as liners for bird cages.  Harvard should be embarrassed!










Author: billo38@icloud.com

Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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