Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the History of Science and is an affiliated professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
FM: One of your primary areas of research is agnotology. What is agnotology?
NO: Agnotology is the study of ignorance, and by that we mean ignorance broadly construed.
It can be active ignorance, so people who are deliberately trying to mislead us like advertisers, marketers, propagandists, the tobacco industry. Or it could be inadvertent. So, a big part of my research looks at how when we focus our research attention on one area, it can cause us to neglect or ignore other things around us.
FM: What’s an important area where agnotology is at work right now?
NO: Everywhere. I mean, we are bombarded with disinformation all the time, and social media didn’t create it, but it certainly has made it worse.
FM: Of the nearly nine books you’ve published, which is your favorite?
NO: Oh, that’s easy because your first book is like your first child. Now, don’t tell my children I said that.
My first book is my favorite because I think there’s a way in which you pour your heart and soul into a first book. And so my first book is about a question that’s still near and dear to me even now 20 years later, which is, “How do scientists know when they have enough information, enough evidence of sufficient quality to say, ‘Yes, we know this to be true’?” So it’s really a fundamental question about scientific truth.
FM: Which do you think is most important?
NO: That’s an impossible question to answer. I mean, if you asked me which book has sold the most copies, or is the most well known, then the answer is obviously “Merchants of Doubt.” That’s the book that if people know who I am that would be the book for which they know me.
This happened just last week. Someone comes up to me, who’s clearly post-college age, and they have a battered copy of Merchants of Doubt and they said, “We read this in college, would you please sign up for me?” And that’s always fun. And I’ve had people say, “Yeah, I became an environmental scientist because I read Merchants of Doubt.”
FM: In an appearance on “Facing The New Reality” for the 2023 Climate Week New York City Opening Ceremony, you highlight the entanglement between damage from uncontrolled climate change and economic growth. And yet, many people are still very committed to the current structure of the world economy and have a personal incentive to enhance their lives under it. Is it possible to pursue finance or buy into the current economic system while combating climate change?
NO: Well, I think that’s the question of the hour.
I was supposed to go to the Reuters Impact Summit in September. I couldn’t go for personal reasons, but the panel I was supposed to be on was “Is sustainable capitalism an oxymoron?” And I think that is really the crucial question, because if we can’t figure out some way to align our economy with our ecology, then we’re gonna be in big trouble. And we’re already seeing that — what economists call the “external costs,” the damage from climate change, the damage from biodiversity destruction. These things are increasing by the day, and we’ve seen now many, many billions of dollars in damage from extreme weather events far more than in the past.
The IMF estimates the external costs of fossil fuels is something like $1.5 trillion every year.
I wouldn’t say don’t go into banking or finance or economics, but go into them and figure out how to change our models to account for this, so we don’t destroy everything we care about. I mean, after all, what is the point of wealth? The point of wealth is to live a good life, but increasingly people are not living a good life because of climate damage.
FM: You also say that we should be angry at the people who have knowingly put us in our current climate crisis and are making a profit doing so. What do you do with your anger?
NO: I channel my anger to action. That’s my motto. A lot of people think anger is bad — “Oh don’t get angry.” I disagree with that. I think justified anger is good, but it has to be channeled in the right places.
Who are the people who are responsible for this?
We should be angry at those people and then we should channel into action — political action, social action, personal action.
FM: What do people most often get wrong about climate change denial?
NO: When I first started working in this area, which is now 20 years ago, most people thought climate change denial was based on ignorance, that it was a lack of education. People just didn’t understand. It was scientific illiteracy. And so they thought if you just explain the science more clearly, then that will solve the problem. Well, we showed that was not true. And in fact, there are polls that show that among climate change deniers, amongst people who are registered Republicans, the more educated they are the more likely they are to be climate change deniers. It’s a very sad thing for a professor to admit but more scientific education doesn’t solve the problem.
I think it’s more of a mixed landscape now. One of the things that people get wrong now is the idea that the fossil fuel industry could be a trustworthy partner.
These are the people who made this problem. To me, saying we should work with them would be like telling a battered woman she should try to make amends with her husband.
FM: In a line of work where you often look at the negative consequences of human contributions, what things restore your faith in humanity?
NO: Nothing. Just kidding.
We want there to be positive things. We want to hear optimistic stories. There’s so much pressure especially in the United States, to be optimistic.
In a way, that question really annoys me. In a way, it distracts attention from the core thing, which is recognizing what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed. The real question should be, “How can we fix this problem as rapidly and effectively as possible?” And that’s where I try to always bring the conversation back to the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use.
FM: You’re a professor in the History of Science Department now, but before that, you were trained as a geologist. How has that training affected the way you approach history now?
NO: I think my background as an earth scientist informs my sense about the importance of the notion of planetary limits. A lot of people don’t like the idea of limits. Again, Americans especially.
I mean, we have so much American iconography around the idea of, you can do anything you want.
And obviously, there’s something appealing about believing you live in a world of possibility, and I don’t want to be the one who says, “No, actually you don’t.”
But in some deep way — a way that, for me, has roots in my own scientific training — there is a limit to what the planet can take.
FM: As a geologist, what is your favorite rock?
NO: I think I said Labradorite when I was asked that question the other day.
Labradorite is an incredibly beautiful mineral. It refracts light internally due to the crystal structure, and it creates these beautiful shades of blue.
I have another favorite rock. It’s banded fluoride.
The radioactivity causes crystal defects which causes the light to refract into these different interesting colors.
At the end of the day, part of the reason I do the work I do is because I want to protect the amazing natural beauty of the world. And a lot of people, when they think about protecting nature, they think about animals and plants, which are good too. But they forget the minerals are beautiful, too.
FM: You collaborated with composer Yvette Jackson on “Doubt,” a musical composition inspired by the doubt surrounding the science of climate change. What role do you think music and art should play in climate change?
NO: Most people think science is either boring and uninteresting, or they think it’s above their heads and it’s not accessible.
Scientific data rarely has an emotional impact on people. And generally people don’t act, especially if you’re asking people to change how they’re living, how they’re behaving, how they’re thinking, if you just give them dry scientific information.
So what does make people change their views, or act? Usually in some kind of emotional impact, and that’s where art comes in. Part of the way art works — whether it’s music, fine arts, painting, sculpture, drama, theater, whatever — it’s because there’s an emotional connection.
FM: In your Scientific American piece, “The Public Wants Scientists to Be More Involved in Policy Debates” you talk about calls for scientists to abandon the protections of being “apolitical” and contribute to urgent debates like gun control. What do you imagine the successful implementation of this to look like?
NO: I want to be clear, I’m not calling for all scientists to necessarily get involved in policy or political debates. That column came out of work I do with my postdoctoral fellow here, Viktoria Cologna, who’s here visiting from Europe.
She found in her work that a lot of scientists, particularly in the United States, think that it’s extremely important that they not get involved in policy decisions because they feel that if they do, people will see them as politicized, not objective, and therefore it will undermine public trust in science. But that’s an assumption that many scientists have made without data.
One thing I always say is that scientists, when it comes to thinking about science, most scientists are incredibly unscientific.
What she found was that the people in her survey, both in the United States and in Germany, more in Germany than the United States, actually do want scientists to be involved in policy. They see scientists as people who have important and useful information, and so they want scientists to be involved in shaping policy in those areas where they have expertise.
FM: How does your interest in feminism inform your work as a historian of science?
NO: Most of my work is not explicitly about women’s science, and most of my work is not explicitly feminist. But I am of course a feminist because as Rebecca West said, ‘Otherwise, I’m a doormat.’ As a woman in science starting in the 1970s, I certainly experienced more than my fair share of sex discrimination, condescension, inappropriate comments, you know, the whole nine yards, right?
When I was in grad school, I certainly read a lot of feminist philosophy of science.
These women thinkers were influential in my thinking, partly to put my own experience into context, so that I understood that what I was experiencing was not just a personal problem. I mean, one of the original models of American second-wave feminism was, the personal is political.
It’s really easy to feel isolated and to blame yourself to feel like it’s my fault because I’m not working hard enough. Or it’s my fault because I’m wearing the wrong clothing.
But no, it’s not your fault. This is a structural problem. It has to do with the assumptions that other people make about you. And so having that kind of intellectual framework was very empowering.
Also it got me thinking about the ways in which assumptions don’t just influence how we treat other people. They also influence how we understand the world at large.
None of us are just brains in vats. And those experiences influence what questions we think are important to ask, what kinds of answers we find compelling, what kinds of evidence we prefer.
FM: If you could teach a class on anything, what would it be?
NO: Well, I can teach a class on anything.
That’s the piece of my job for which I am most grateful. The intellectual freedom I have here to teach.
I like to mix it up. Teach some old things that are still important and good, but add some new things. So I’m teaching a course called “Burning Books, Fighting Facts.”
Looking at the whole question of ‘Why do facts threaten people, and what do people do when facts threaten them?’ It’s not real pretty, but it’s an important part of understanding life and culture.
FM: What’s something you wish most people knew about you?
NO: Sometimes when I’m talking to people who don’t know me, I’ll make a point of dropping into the conversation that I used to be a mining geologist. That surprises them and destabilizes some of their assumptions about what sort of person I must be if I’m a feminist historian of science who fights climate change denial. I’m not anti-capitalist. I’m not anti-mining. I think you know, we all benefit from the material goods that we get out of raw extraction of stuff from the earth. I don’t view the Earth as a temple that can’t be utilized. But I do feel that that has to be balanced and tempered with the things we talked about at the beginning of this interview. There are planetary limits, and that infinite consumption has really serious negative consequences.
— Associate Magazine Editor Ciana J. King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.