The Island of Doubt

Naomi Oreskes is hot and bothered

Naomi Oreskes, the researcher who could find not a single peer-reviewed climate science publication that disagreed with the consensus that humans are largely to blame for global warming, defends herself against a pathetic attempt to show that she was wrong. (thanks Stranger Fruit.) But in her list of reasons why we shouldn’t pay attention to her detractors, there is sad and completely unnecessary little example of the ad hominem logical fallacy:

6) The author is a medical researcher. As a historian of science I am trained to analyze and understand scientific arguments, their development, their progress, etc., and my specific expertise is in the history of earth science. This past summer I was invited to teach a graduate intensive course at Vienna International Summer University, Vienna Circle Institute, on Consensus in Science. I do not know why a medical researcher would feel qualified to undertake an analysis of consensus in the earth scientific literature.

Now, while I have no problem casting aspersions on someone who clearly doesn’t have the expertise required to tackle a specific scientific problem — I wouldn’t know where to begin when it comes to quantum chromodynamics, for example — this particular example isn’t exactly on that level.

What Oreskes did was perform a database search of the literature and count references to certain phrases and words. I would say any competent medical researcher should be able to manage that much. Sure, she’s well-read on earth science literature, and her 2004 paper was a major contribution to the battle against anti-intellectual global warming denialism, for which we should all be grateful. I know Al Gore is. But I think it fair to say that you don’t need a PhD to do this kind of thing.

Such arguments won’t serve her well. Fortunately, the rest of her case — basically that her work was grossly misrepresented — easily demolishes the notion that there are lots of contrarian climate literature out there. I suspect she whipped off her response in a moment of passion. Note her seventh point, incorrectly numbered the second (6), is also a bit on the touchy side:

6) Contrarians have been trying to refute my work for three years. A previous claim, also circulated and cited by Marc Morano, was subsequently retracted by its author.Evidently it has taken them three years to find some one foolish enough to try again.

So take a deep breath next time, before getting all hot and bothered, Ms. O.

But read her entire case. Especially if you’ve wasted precious second of your life reading silly coverage like this one.


  1. #1 Marion Delgado
    September 6, 2007

    James, I think you are probably inaccurate here. I believe the word searches were to generate the population of papers, not make all the judgments on their status.

    Oreskes did more than that. She did an informed analysis of a long run of papers – and her field is, roughly, history/sociology of science. That’s actually a very important discipline – Henry Bauer’s “The Myth of the Scientific Method” explains why as well as anything.

    She was tracking how and when consensus emerges, and her criteria for saying something was supporting the consensus or neutral or contradicting it was robust. The last time refuting/supplanting her work was tried, the hack doing it had to admit he was ignorant and fraudulent in equal parts in making the all-important distinctions here. Schulte’s lack of knowledge of what the issues are, what would be a supportive document, what would be contrary, truly neutral (it seems even if someone wrote a paper talking about how to ameliorate a 5 degree temperature rise, Morano’s legions, including Schulte, would call that neutral. And they’d call anything that agreed with 5 out 6 of the IPCC’s points on something “contradictory” ) etc. is important.

    I took that to be Tim Lambert’s point when he had his blog commenters mark up batches of reports since 2003 as supportive, neutral or contradictory. I.E., it’s as meaningful as what Schulte did – not very!

    I would be much more comfortable if Oreske had listed a bunch of climate scientists she consulted throughout the process who’d be willing to sign off on her criteria and conclusions, frankly. To go the other way seems pointless. Indeed, that they had to have a medical researcher do that – and that they have to get the basement Cheetoh gang out doing their “surface station analysis” should be a clue to the true believers that they’re not on the consensus side.

    Also, if the twit doesn’t want to drag in his utter lack of qualification to be doing this? He perhaps shouldn’t START the damn thing this way:

    Fear of anthropogenic ‘global warming’ can adversely affect patients’ well-being. Accordingly, the state of the scientific consensus about climate change was studied by a review of the 539 papers on “global climate change” found on the Web of Science database from January 2004 to mid-February 2007″ [emphasis mine]

    I see that and I immediately want to know if he’s an AIDS denialist or agricultural DDT booster or what have you.

  2. #2 Marion Delgado
    September 6, 2007


    Paul Rosenberg, commenting on Andrew Dessler’s Grist blog, speaks for me.

  3. #3 John Mashey
    September 22, 2007

    1) If you check out DeSmogBlog, or Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, John Lynch’s Stranger Fruit, you find that E&E on Sept 20 said they’d declined to publish Schulte’s paper.

    2) If you backtrack into the Benny Peiser attempt, that got refuted by Lambert, yielding an indication that it does take some domain expertise to evaluate the abstracts. Lambert then showed that Schulte had plagiarized Monckton’s use of Peiser’s (error-filled) results, and was sufficiently unknowledgable to notice the errors, i.e., fell into same problem as Peiser.

    3) Dr. Oreskes has hardly being hot and bothered: she wrote a quick reply to John Lynch, who asked to post some version on his website.
    Then she went away on a trip, and the action has been from other people who get irritated at this junk.

    4) Finally, if you look at
    you may note:

    B.Sc., First Class Honours: Mining Geology, The Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, University of London, England. 1981

    Ph.D. Graduate Special Program in Geological Research and History of Science, Stanford University, 1990

    I happen to know both of these schools fairly well: IC is often called “MIT of the UK”, and my town is next to Stanford, whose PhDs are not usually considered dummies.

    It’s also worth checking out her employment history, including oceanography and studies of modeling, and years at Dartmouth as a in Earth Sciences.

    Finally, what doesn’t show up is that I’ve heard her talk to a receptive audience of climate scientists, some *very* senior. She may be especially interested in history of science, but she knows this domain pretty well.