To be Credible, you must Keep Your Story Straight, Pt 2: “Oreskes’ timeline problem”

I’ll repeat with what I concluded in Part 1, but more succinctly: for an authoritative storyteller to mesmerize an audience, the story must never contain an element where the audience blurts out, “wait a minute, what you just said can’t be right,” otherwise whatever point there was to the story disappears at the exact same moment when the storyteller’s credibility implodes. Now, see how Harvard History of Science professor Naomi Oreskes’ inadvertently elicits that exact response from her audience, via her tale of the events which led her to explore the notion that skeptic climate scientists operate in a manner parallel to what ‘expert shills’ did for the tobacco industry.

Naomi Oreskes has on one occasion shortened her narrative about her discovery of corrupted skeptic climate scientist ‘doubt merchants’ to a single sentence:

After the 2004 paper came out, I started getting attacked, and, well, one thing led to another and I ended up putting aside oceanography and writing, with Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt.

The “paper” she refers to is her December 3, 2004 Science journal paper concerning a 100% consensus of scientific papers over the matter of human-induced global warming. Another interview of Oreskes expands the story, with some short details about her “Merchants of Doubt” book co-author:

We wrote the book because we stumbled across the story, we didn’t set out to write a story about climate change denial.

Eric and I are both historians who were working on other problems in the history of science. I was working on the history of oceanography, he was working on the history of atmospheric science. We stumbled across the story of these prominent physicists who had become climate change deniers. But Eric had also found materials related to the denial of the scientific evidence of the ozone hole and it was the same people.

We thought that was a little peculiar, so we started digging …

When Inside Climate News interviewed her, Oreskes spoke of what led her to the certainty of settled climate science and how people attacked her after the publication of her Science paper. It also offered some information about what her book’s co-author told her:

I mentioned to some colleagues that I was getting attacked, and Erik Conway said to me, “Naomi, the people who are attacking you, some of them are the same ones who attacked** Sherry Rowland over his ozone hole work.” I quickly found out that two of them—Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—had connections with the tobacco industry.

While these narratives are fine for establishing how Oreskes began her look into the world of skeptic climate scientists, they don’t mention when this situation began. But a New York Times interview leaves little doubt that this tip from her co-author occurred when the attacks were happening after the publication of her December 3, 2004 Science paper:

I published my finding in Science. The article was called “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”

It ignited a firestorm. I started getting hate mail. Letters arrived at my university demanding I be fired. …

Around the time this was happening, I met the Caltech historian Erik Conway. He’d come across material about the campaign to stop ozone depletion by curbing chlorofluorocarbons use. Erik said one of the people attacking me had done the same to Sherwood Rowland,** a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on ozone depletion.

Now we have the start of a timeline. The 2015 video interview I used in my prior post also aids in this timeline detail, from the 9:27 to 10:24 point, where she is clearly speaking about the attacks happening after she published her Science paper:

At that time, it was just personal, and so what happened then was I mentioned to a couple of colleagues what was going on, and one of my colleagues at Scripps, at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography said to me, “You should talk to Ben Santer, something sort of similar happened to him,” and that’s when I first got to know Ben and started talking to him, and that’s when the whole ‘Merchants of Doubt’ story started to unfold, that Ben told me what had happened to him, and then the pieces began to come together, because one of the people who had attacked Ben Santer** was Fred Singer, and he was one of the people who was attacking me. And then I met Erik Conway, and Erik had made the link to what had happened over the ozone hole, and then we started doing research, started digging a little bit, found this link for Fred Seitz back to the tobacco industry, and that I remember very clearly because I remember that day, I called Erik on the phone and I said, “Erik, we need to write a book.”

**Aside: Regarding what Oreskes characterizes a personal attacks against Santer: others have analyzed the situation, for example a 2008 Climate Resistance blog post which said (screencapture here to guide readers quicker to the passage deep within it)) about the 1997 Santer situation, “That’s a personal attack?” Arguably, the same remark could be posed regarding the verbatim text of a 1997 letter submitted to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society by Dr Singer and others about the Santer situation. Regarding the so-called ‘Singer attack of Sherwood Rowland’, I addressed that with verbatim text in my January 16, 2015 blog post, in which I dissected Oreskes’ assertion that Erik Conway “said one of the people attacking me had done the same to Sherwood Rowland, a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his work on ozone depletion.” Oreskes’ efforts to use these two situations as a way to imply Dr Singer is a ‘serial personal attacker’ is obviously open to question.

So, to summarize at this point: Naomi Oreskes published a controversial paper in December 2004, she says she attacked about it, one person suggested she should talk to Ben Santer, then she met Erik Conway ‘who connected more dots’. But where and how did she meet Conway?

Partial answers can be gleaned straight from Oreskes’ own website for the book she co-authored with Erik Conway, right at the top of the still-current FAQ page:

Erik and I met in 2004 at a conference on the history of meteorology, held in the little town of Weilheim, Germany. He was working on the history of atmospheric sciences, I was working on the history of oceanography, and we had both noticed that some of the people who were challenging the scientific evidence of global warming had previously questioned the evidence of stratospheric ozone depletion and the harms of tobacco. Then we found evidence connecting them to the tobacco industry, and we knew we had a story.

Basically a repeat of what Oreskes said in a September 2010 interview, including the bit about when she met her future book’s co-author:

The two who wrote the book met at a conference on the history of meteorology in Germany in 2004.

… “When we discovered that between 1979 and 1985 Seitz had coordinated the research program at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which invested US$ 45 million in scientific studies, we saw we had a good story.”

This recent Peter Wall Institute interview* compiles the narratives. I again highlight critical details in red and include a screencapture of the text:

Q: What inspired you and Erik Conway to write Merchants of Doubt?

A: We sort of discovered this story. I had published my 2004 paper The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change and soon after started to receive hate mail. Then, at a rather obscure academic conference, I was speaking about my research on a scientist named Gordon MacDonald who in the 1960s predicted that there would be manmade climate change. In the Q&A, it came up that I had been attacked, and I mentioned the name of one particular person who was attacking me and after the talk, Erik came up to me and said, the person who is attacking you is the same person who attached Sherry Rowland over the scientific evidence of the ozone hole.

[*3/20/17 Author’s addition: the above Wall Institute link has since been changed to this one here, plus as a bonus, Ms Oreskes retells this identical specific narrative in the December 2016 Rice University CENHS podcast interview here, beginning at the 37:40 point. At the 44:43 point, she compares herself to Erin Brockovich regarding this specific story]

To recap, for emphasis: Oreskes’ paper came out in December 2004, she was attacked afterward, she then spoke at a conference where she mentioned a name of one of her attackers, and in the conference’s Q&A session, Erik Conway approached her with tantalizing news. But in the other interview I quote, it said the Germany conference was in 2004. From this, it’s reasonable to guess the situation took place within the 28 days remaining in December.

In a combined search using the location, Weilheim, Germany, and Oreskes’ specific bit about what her presentation concerned, “research on a scientist named Gordon MacDonald,” material directly from the conference itself can be easily found (screencaptures here, here and here):

The world according to GARP: Scientific internationalism and the construction of global meteorology, 1961-1980 Erik M. Conway NASA Langley Research Center, Maryland, USA

From weather modification to climate change: The work of Gordon J.F. MacDonald Naomi Oreskes

International Commission on the History of Meteorology 5-9 July 2004, Polling Monastery, Weilheim, Germany, from beaufort to bjerknes and beyond

To quash any question of whether Oreskes – who has given repeat presentations several times – was speaking of another occurrence of this same presentation, we have the following from her own online resumé:

“From Weather Modification to Climate Change: The Work of Gordon J.F. MacDonald” International Commission on History of Meteorology, From Beaufort to Bjerknes and Beyond: Critical Perspectives on Observing, Analyzing, and Predicting Weather and Climate, July 2004, Weilheim, Germany.

One final time: Oreskes’ says she was attacked for her December 2004 Science paper after it was published, and at a subsequent conference where she mentioned the name of one of her attackers, Erik Conway approached her during its Q&A session to detail a similar prior attack.

But the conference took place in July 2004. This is where Oreskes’ audience blurts out, “wait a minute, what you just said can’t be right.”

There’s no graceful recovery here. If the truth is that Erik Conway and/or others told Oreskes about ‘corrupted skeptic scientists’ such as Dr S Fred Singer in mid-summer 2004, then she simply looks like she was waiting for an excuse to launch the kind of personal attack she despises. If she was informed about ‘corrupted’ skeptics after the publication of her paper, her narrative about the Germany conference and Conway’s “tip” looks like a cover story for where, when, and how she actually got the information. If she backpedals about being mixed up on the sequence of events, it’ll undermine a recent announcement that she “will be awarded the sixth annual Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication,” which also said, “Professor Naomi Oreskes is one of the world’s pre-eminent historians of science,” said award juror Ben Santer.”

Oreskes is not just a science historian. She was directly referred to by a top level IPCC climate scientist for proof that ‘organized climate denial’ exists, and currently receives praise from prominent politicians on the notion that ‘merchants of climate science doubt’ exist.

Lieu-Whitehouse-Oreskes

But how much longer can her credibility hold together, if even her own friends see her as someone who can’t seem to get historical facts correct about her personal situation, combined with her claims of being attacked by US Senator James Inhofe being undercut by her own words, and her apparent failure to fact-check elemental details surrounding a core set of evidence she relies on to indict ‘corrupt skeptic climate scientists’?