Integrity of Science

AGU Epilogue 2: Deflecting Disinformation

There was one particularly good talk we weren’t able to blog on Thursday. Between media magnets Jim Hansen and Vice President Al Gore, we caught a terrific talk from Dr. Naomi Oreskes entitled “Deflecting Disinformation about Climate Change.” More science, Oreskes finds, has only a limited effect of erasing Americans’ doubts about climate change. Knowing the true nature of the problem – namely an organized two-decade-plus misinformation campaign – will lead scientists and advocates in the right direction.

A TIME magazine/ABC News/Stanford University poll finds that while 85% of Americans believe climate change is happening, 64% “think scientists disagree with one another about global warming.” Doubts matter, Oreskes emphasized, because views on scientific consensus predict individuals’ level of concern and willingness to act.


The “Public Understanding of Science (PUS)” is a deficit model, according to Oreskes. “Because we have a deficit model, we give a supply-side response.” More information. More education.

Unfortunately, polls show these efforts have limited effect. Oreskes believes this is because the deficit model is wrong. The source of the problem is a “deliberate disinformation campaign” that dates back to the early ’80s and is directly connected to the campaign to muddle the connection between tobacco and cancer before it.

Interests vested in not acting to curb carbon emissions have spent more than 20 years challenging science by sowing doubt. This strategy was effective in delaying legal and civil action against big tobacco, and it has been exceptionally effective in preventing action against climate change. The two fields have little in common scientifically, but legally, reasonable doubt is reasonable doubt.

As an example of the tobacco-climate disinformation connection, Oreskes highlighted the work of Frederick Seitz. A former paid permanent consultant for the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company (and National Academy of Sciences President) who worked to confuse the tobacco/cancer connection, he has since become a leading skeptic of human-caused climate change. So if an Inhofe-led climate hearing bears any resemblance to a scene from “Thank You for Smoking,” well, you have your answer.

“The strategy to sow doubt continues today … when it comes to the cause and effect relationship between temperature and climate dioxide,” said Oreskes.

While her talk lacked much in the way of concrete efforts to combat this disinformation campaign, her point was refocusing the motivated audience’s away from the “deficit science model” and toward the real sources of confusion.

Oreskes concluded with the warning, “The forces of denial are much more organized now than they were 15 years ago.”