Oreskes’ Inability to Keep Her Mouth Shut & the Big Ben Santer Problem

Naomi Oreskes seems to increasingly take on the appearance of the kind of braggadocio we encounter in grade school or high school, where everyone who socializes with this person is awed by their really impressive-sounding feats for the first several times …. until finally somebody exclaims, “wait a minute, that isn’t what you told us last time,” which then prompts someone else to say, “that’s right, plus that other claim you made earlier isn’t the same as what you said just now.”

In one of her barely weeks-old retellings of her tale about what brought her into the global warming issue, she made her problem incrementally worse.

Regarding Oreskes’ ‘discovery odyssey’ of how she learned who the supposedly fierce attackers were of her 2004 Science paper on the alleged scientific consensus for man-caused global warming, I’ve covered how that narrative line has a fatal problem in three prior posts, here, here, and here. But before I dissect Oreskes’ other “Santer” narrative angle, let’s briefly review the basic “Conway” timeline angle she tends to predominantly tell:

  • she was prompted by huge praise of a single slide quantifying an informal ‘scientific consensus survey’ in her February 2004 AAAS “George Sarton Memorial” presentation to elaborate on that study in an official paper published in the December 2004 issue of Science magazine (she states the presentation title at the 3:12 point of this 2015 video interview; the “one sensational slide” at the 4:38 point).
  • she was supposedly mercilessly attacked by skeptics of man-caused global warming after her paper’s publication, but couldn’t guess why.
  • at a subsequent science conference in Germany – she never mentions the basic date of it – a fellow science topic presenter named Erik Conway approached her during the Q & A session after her own presentation, alerting her that one of her attackers (Dr S Fred Singer in one narrative version) was the same person who attacked another scientist over the ozone depletion issue.
  • Oreskes and Conway compared notes about these ‘attackers’ and did some additional examination of them, and mutually decided they needed to write a book which exposed how the ‘attackers’ operated under the same disinformation tactics used by the tobacco industry when it hired shill experts to spread doubt about the harm of cigarette smoking.

The fatal credibility problem with this “Conway” narrative is that the German conference where Oreskes met Conway took place in July 2004. Conway told her about an ‘attack’ happening five months in the future. My July 26, 2016 blog post offered various examples of this particular narrative from Oreskes, in which she never mentions the name of Lawrence Livermore atmospheric scientist Ben Santer. Following those examples in that post, for the purpose of asking where and when she met Conway, I included a distinctly different narrative in which she only briefly mentions Conway while speaking longer about her encounter with Dr Santer. Oreskes apparently uses this “Santer” narrative angle far less often. Besides the two new ones below in this post, here’s one more within this January 10, 2018 article.

To fully illustrate the crippling faults with this other “Santer” narrative angle, I’ll start with the 2015 video interview I featured in my July 26, 2016 blog post, but with different key words highlighted. Starting at the 9:20 point, after being asked if she was attacked at the college where she was a professor, Oreskes describes the ‘attacks’ resulting from the publication of her December 2004 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.”

Got that?

  • ‘attacks’ came after her December 2004 paper was published.
  • a Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleague told her to talk to Ben Santer about that.
  • Santer likely told Oreskes his interpretation of ‘attacks’ against him were both the June 25, 1996 Wall Street Journal op-ed Frederick Seitz wrote (mentioning Santer’s name only once) regarding a questionable alteration of what was supposed be a final version of an IPCC Chapter report, and the July 11, 1996 WSJ followup letters by Seitz and by Dr Singer (Singer’s letter never mentions Santer’s name at all).
  • then, with no explanation, Oreskes met Conway who provided some kind of link to ‘attackers’ of the concern over ozone layer depletion.
  • a time gap intervened where Oreskes alone connected Seitz to the tobacco industry, prompting her to call Conway about it and the necessity to write a book on this whole series of discoveries.

Move forward from 2015 to this March 16, 2020 audio interview, where she speaks of what happened immediately after her December 2004 paper was published, beginning at the 47:37 point:

… I started getting attacked … hate mail, threatening phone calls … I was horrified, like no idea what was going on, it was really scary… I got sick, I mean, I got a lawyer … I mentioned it to a colleague, oh you must know Inez Fung .. I was at some meeting with Inez, and I just mentioned that this was happening, and she said to me “you need to call Ben Santer,” and I didn’t know who Ben Santer was at the time … so I called him up and said .. Inez Fung said I should talk to you about what’s happening to me, and Ben, it was like the floodgates opened, he started telling this whole story about how he had been attacked by Fred Seitz and how it was just like the tobacco industry .. that he had never talked to anybody about .. nobody cared, it was like this terrible thing he had suffered through in silence .. one thing led to another, I met Erik Conway, and Erik had the same story about what happened to the ozone scientists .. so we started comparing notes and we decided there was a story that needed to be told

Got that now?

  • ‘attacks’ still came after her December 2004 paper was published.
  • the the Scripps Institution of Oceanography colleague was Inez Fung.
  • Ben Santer told how the ‘attack’ by Frederick Seitz was just like attacks orchestrated by the tobacco industry.
  • Santer “had never talked to anybody about” this ‘attack,’ which apparently nobody actually cared about anyway … except apparently for the fortuitous lone exception of Oreskes’ Scripps colleague Inez Fung.
  • Oreskes didn’t call Conway to say they needed to tell this story, they mutually decided to do so after comparing notes.

No mention of meeting Conway at a German conference or learning about his big revelation at that place, they just met … somehow. Is her memory incorrect on when they decided to write a book? Perhaps. But there’s two larger glaring problems with her tale there.

First, whether looking into Inez Fung’s Berkeley Atmospheric Sciences Center page or her UC Berkeley Earth & Planetary Science page, or one at Wikipedia about her, she has no association with the UC San Diego Scripps Institute.

Second — nobody cared about the attack on Santer?? It’s possible that Santer “never talked to anybody” about the ‘attack’ because plenty of other people spoke about the details for him, most notably Ross Gelbspan’s pages 78 to 81 labeled “attack on Santer” in his widely promoted 1997 “The Heat is On” book, which detailed the so-called ‘attacks’plural, the 1996 U.S. House briefing one that he witnessed in person* and the subsequent ‘attacks’ in the Wall Street Journal (*his year-earlier date for the briefing in his endnotes is a typo). A prominent 1996 article at The Nation (PDF pg 3 here) also covered the ‘WSJ Santer attack’ … separated by only a few sentences from Gelbspan’s favorite (albeit worthless) leaked memo phrase.

There’s more, actually, but I’ll have to unravel Oreskes’ particular narrative additional about what Santer knew and when he knew it in a future blog post.

Let’s set that aside and move forward ten days from Oreskes’ March 16, 2020 interview to this March 26, 2020 podcast interview starting at the 5:23 point or seen within the podcast’s transcript:

… So I published this paper in a peer reviewed scientific journal. Al Gore’s staff came across it, picked it up and Al– I’m on first name basis with him now .. he put it into his slideshow. He started talking about it, and when a film, an Inconvenient Truth came out, the study is in the film.
.. So when that happened .. I started getting hate mail. I started getting threatening phone calls. I started getting death threats … it was actually a rather frightening time in my life … But I started talking to some scientific colleagues about what was happening.
And several of them said to me. You need to talk to Ben Santer .. the victim of absolutely unprincipled vicious attack in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
.. So I started talking to him .. one of the things he said to me was, that was really weird about what happened to him was that when he started reading about the tobacco industry. That was the sort of uncanny similarity that what was happening to him seemed a lot like what the tobacco industry had done.
.. meanwhile, I had been doing some research, finding out more about the people who were attacking me .. I said, well, Ben, this isn’t just a coincidence. These are the same people. And so I started to realize that there was this bigger story about organized and systematic attacks on scientists … there was this big story that Ben’s story, my story was just the tip of a much bigger iceberg. And that iceberg included the ozone story. And that’s how I started working with Eric Conway because he had worked on the history of ozone science and one thing led to another, and pretty soon Eric Conway and I realized that there was a big story to be told here.

Wait … what? In the span of just ten days,

  • Oreskes now clearly says the attacks against her December 2004 Science paper began after Al Gore showed her 928-to-0 comparison in his “An Inconvenient Truth” movie, which opened in major US cities in late May 2006.
  • Inez Fung, one single colleague, now becomes several colleagues suggesting she should talk to Santer.
  • Santer read something about the tobacco industry and perceived the ‘attacks’ on him resembled activity out of that industry.
  • somehow, with no explanation for it, Oreskes starts working with Conway, both realizing they had ‘a big story’ after she by herself realized she had ‘a big story.’

Gore’s lecture/slide presentation in some form dates back to the ’70s, but what’s the probability that frightening amounts of hateful attacks arose against Oreskes during the year before the movie’s release, considering ratio of ardent supporters vs. haters among the small number of attendees for his presentations? His more widely shown movie might have gotten some reaction from haters, but wouldn’t most or all of the hate be directed at Gore himself? Plus, Oreskes’ comparison figure of opposing papers is easy to see in the movie, but the citation source is only partly viewable for a fraction of a second, as seen in the best available shot from the DVD version.

Would scores of ‘attackers’ spend lots of time finding out what the complete citation was, where to find the publication, who wrote it, and what her address and phone number was?

That isn’t the point here. The problem is Oreskes’ abrupt shift from her saying the most frightening, stressful event in her life occurred not as a result of the magazine publishing her paper, but instead from Al Gore’s publicity of it.

By this point, would anyone be surprised to see her splitting the difference on the ‘attacks’ simultaneously arising from the magazine 2004 publication and Gore’s 2006 movie publicity? In a New York Times October 27, 2014 interview, she does exactly that, while also:

  • casually mentioning meeting Conway
  • saying nothing about Santer’s role
  • and saying this all didn’t result from a big audience reaction to a single slide in her AAAS “George Sarton Memorial” presentation, but instead from research destined for her oceanography book

The problems don’t end there. The author of that October 2014 NYT interview is the same person who interviewed Oreskes in October 2019 ….. in which the 2019 interview featured the more elaborate science conference meet-up narrative about Erik Conway and no mention of Gore at all.

If that interviewer had been an objective, responsible journalist, she would have exclaimed, “Wait a minute, that isn’t what you told me last time!

When a person genuinely experiences particularly troubling events, the memories are almost always quite vivid, and the person can consistently retell the story over a span of decades, and can self-correct understandable lapses with the benefit of a calendar or other memory aids. “When you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” in other words.

The question looms ever larger now: why are Naomi Oreskes’ narratives about what brought her into her Merchants of Doubt work so unacceptably inconsistent?
There’s more – “The Big Ben Santer Problem, Pt 2: The Gelbspan Connection