Debunking Oreskes part 2: The wicked “handful of scientists”

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26 Responses

  1. Brad Keyes says:

    Make no mistake: Oreskes is engaged in a one-woman war on Western epistemology. In a sane world she’d be either pitied or despised as an anti-intellectual lunatic but in this world, her post as a Harvard Professor gives her the power to do a lot of damage to the understanding of a generation of students.

    Have you seen her cretinous definition of knowledge—elsewhere, I think in an essay—as:

    “what counts as knowledge is the ideas accepted by the fellowship of scholars”

    ?

    ROFL. Not for Naomi the proper, millennia-old concept of knowledge as justified true belief.

    I hardly need to point out that Oreskes is a creature of the climate movement. And since the climate alarmists are in the awkward position of having no evidentiary justification for the “truth” they want us to “believe,” real epistemology is an inconvenience to them. And it’s one that they have no qualms about trampling over to achieve their political goals. Oreskes is nothing more than the “respectable, legitimate” pseudo-academic “face” of their cunning plot to replace evidence with consensus. And what a repulsive face it is.

    By the way, you might like my post Consensus… what is it good for?

  2. dagfinn says:

    Well yes, “replacing evidence with consensus” is perhaps a succinct way of expressing the same idea as when I say, “knowledge, evidence and expert opinion are used interchangably in a way that makes them seem to be identical.” I don’t think it’s new, though. I’ve seen it in politicized science before.

    • Brad Keyes says:

      “I’ve seen it in politicized science before.”

      I’ve heard rumors. (In which fields/hypotheses have you seen it?) It’s sad.

      Dishonestly attempting to pass off consensus as a counterfeit for evidence in a particular field is one thing. But I wonder: has there ever been a time when a Harvard Professor of the History of Science teaches the Medieval doctrine that this is the way science should work? In other words, has there ever been an explicit academic assault on scientific epistemology itself? Or is Oreskes a new phenomenon?

      • dagfinn says:

        “Is Oreskes a new phenomenon?” Good question. I don’t know. Scientific consensus is such a politically useful idea that I wouldn’t be surprised if someone had said similar things before about how science should work.

  3. Iceman says:

    On the consensus issue I suggest reading Ben Pile. The problem is no one really defines it. A consensus without a subject.

  4. Well done, Dagfinn:-)

    Changing the “definition” of words seems to be a favourite pastime of those on the “hockey stick” team and their cheerleaders and supporters, does it not?!

    But that aside, a few years ago – on the heels of yet another of the BBC’s Richard Black’s rather convoluted consensus “discussion” – I attempted to gather some quotes pertaining to this so-called “consensus”.

    FYI, during the course of this exploration, I compiled some quotes from Mike Hulme (aka Mr. Teflon, in my books), long-time IPCC-nik, Richard Klein, Oreskes, Greenpeace, Union of Concerned Scientists and others, including the “UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability”.

    Pls. see: http://hro001.wordpress.com/2012/02/06/of-consensus-and-the-weakness-of-plastic-pillars/ if you’re interested:-)

    • dagfinn says:

      Thank Hillary. And yes, that is interesting. I’m sure you’re aware that there is also a lot of material on the issue of consensus at Judith Curry’s blog.

  5. Thanks for the kind words over at WUWT, and glad to tip you about Oreskes’ tie-in to Ross Gelbspan. Trust me on this, she potentially is a key figure in the Gelbspan-Gore accusation against skeptics, I have her tagged in 4 of my blog posts, two specifically all about her: http://gelbspanfiles.com/?tag=naomi-oreskes

    As I said at the end of the first of the latter two posts, “What sets Oreskes apart from other repeating Gelbspan’s accusation is not what she repeats, but is instead what she says about the ICE memos and people having a direct association with the memos after they were leaked.”

    If you could among all your own studies of Oreskes, please keep an eye out for any time where she explains an association with Desmogblog, or anything where she mentions her initial fixation with the Western Fuels ICE memo set. She probably offers more unguarded moments of truth in such instances.

    • dagfinn says:

      I’ve only read the one book. Desmogblog is not mentioned; I’ve searched the ebook for it. This is the only mention of Western Fuels: “In the early 1990s, he [Patrick J. Michaels] had worked as a consultant to the Western Fuels Association—a coal mining industry group—to promote the idea that burning fossil fuels was good, because it would lead to higher crop yields as increased atmospheric CO2 led to increased photosynthesis and therefore increased agricultural productivity.”

  6. One more thing, on Dr Singer and the 2nd smoke deal: I’d heard about him “denying” the harm of cigarettes way back in 2008, but basic searches to find where he ever said any such thing eluded me, but plentiful results came in for this Desmogblog smear: http://www.desmogblog.com/no-apology-is-owed-dr-s-fred-singer-and-none-will-be-forthcoming The big hitch for Desmog is that they apparently never read their own evidence, since in one of the tobacco.org docs ( http://tobaccodocuments.org/lor/92756807-6876.html pg 6) of a draft of Dr Singer’s paper, he says as plain as day “The health risk from smoking is not the focus of this paper. Instead, this paper explores the EPA’s analysis of ETS or second hand smoke….In brief, EPA makes certain assumptions about ETS which are then used to buttress EPA’s scientific and economic conclusions. Moreover, the science as presented is insufficient…. In the process, it has engaged in both scientific overreach and regulatory overreach….”

    Much like the claim that ‘skeptic scientists are paid to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact’, pretty much all of the 2nd hand smoke diatribe against Dr Singer is based on garbage that the accusation promoters hope nobody will actually read.

    • dagfinn says:

      I’m a little bit confused by this. I’m not sure how the statement about “the health risk from smoking” is relevant to Desmog’s point. On the other hand, I see that Singer is not listed as author, only as reviewer.

      • That is precisely the point, the evidence Desmog cited as ‘devastating’ proof that Dr Singer denied harm from smoking was NOT there, no less than the same manner in which the ‘evidence’ that Michaels or anyone else was paid by Western Fuels to lie and misinform is NOT there. The entire Merchants of Doubt book serves to be little more than a vehicle to cobble all of the other ‘denier’ insinuations into something that could be tied into ‘industry-bought global warming denial’, but as you’ve discovered, it fails to deliver on its individual components, and I point out how it implodes on its truly weak end where it tries to insinuate there’s a quid pro quo arrangement between skeptics and industry. The only reason why Oreskes succeeds at all is because no one she encounters on her side dares to question her work.

    • dagfinn says:

      I found this when googling some of the info. Not directly relevant, but looks kind of interesting. http://www.tobaccoharmreduction.org/pol/marlow.pdf

  7. Joshua says:

    Interesting excerpts from and interview with Seitz:

    I can’t imagine that R.J. Reynolds wanted you to do any specific research on the links between tobacco and cancer. Did they?

    No. I was asked at one point to see if I could find a group that would look into this question: How serious is cancer? The answer has actually been known for a long while. …

    Did this institution do any direct studies linking tobacco and cancer?

    I took it for granted. People are educated enough that they knew it was a hazard.

    This was at the same time that the tobacco companies were also skeptics who also claimed that scientists didn’t know; that there was still some doubt.

    Yes. Well, that wasn’t the case here.

    Did it bother you that they were using skeptics who said that science wasn’t sure?

    The blame for smoking should be placed upon smokers. … If they buy them, it’s their responsibility.

    But as long as the tobacco companies could say that science wasn’t sure, that there were skeptics, then the consumer could reasonably say, “Well, we don’t know.”

    I don’t know where you’re getting. The evidence was out; it’s been out for over a century. Remember, the French used to call cigarettes “coffin nails.” My father drilled this into my head, although I became a smoker.

    But you know that in the ’60s, the tobacco companies very clearly said that there wasn’t a direct linkage. It took a long time for them to say —

    The people wanted to believe that; it was their own doing.

    But do you think that was also political on the part of the tobacco companies?

    Well, they wanted to keep up sales.

    Was it irresponsible on the part of the tobacco companies?

    It was irresponsible on the part of the smokers. You see, you have a situation, again, somewhat like that you described. Wasn’t it wise to stop smoking even though it may be only a tenth of a percent chance? And yet people didn’t.

    Although I could make the same argument about the carbon emissions: Even if there was a 10 percent chance, should we not do something about that?

    Yes, you could. It’s a little different, however. In one case, you affect the health of the economy; the other case, you affect the person’s health. Each of us should look after our health. …

    I wanted to know if you got a stipend from R.J. Reynolds.

    Well, we got travel expenses; that was all, as I remember.

    Just travel expenses, although there are company documents, now public, that say you actually got more than travel expenses. You got about $65,000 in the time of that relationship.

    Quite possible. At the time, if it was true, [it was] just cash flow-through; I had other problems.

    But those documents say that money went in your pocket.

    Possible.

    And you don’t remember that?

    No.

    But you remember travel expenses?

    Yes.

    Did that relationship shape your ideas about smoking? … In terms of science, you were very much against those studies that were beginning to link secondhand smoke and cancer. … Have you changed your mind about secondhand smoke since then?

    No. I think if you were to smoke a cigarette in this room, I wouldn’t be at hazard.

  8. Joshua says:

    Also interesting:

    http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/cgi/getdoc?tid=uyr65d00&fmt=pdf&ref=results

    Now keep it in mind, as you read this document – where at the end Seitz is introduced, that in the interview above, Seitz says, in response to the following question:

    Did this institution do any direct studies linking tobacco and cancer?

    I took it for granted. People are educated enough that they knew it was a hazard.

    And in response to this question:

    This was at the same time that the tobacco companies were also skeptics who also claimed that scientists didn’t know; that there was still some doubt.

    He said the following:

    Yes. Well, that wasn’t the case here.

    Curious, don’t you think?

    • dagfinn says:

      Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see anything significant here beyond what I’ve already discussed based on Oreskes and Conway. If that’s what you’re suggesting.

      • Joshua says:

        The historical document makes it quite clear that Seitz was well-aware that he was employed by people who knowingly downplayed the evidence supporting a link between smoking and cancer and deliberately worked to undermine the validity of that evidence despite the implications to health outcomes in hundreds of millions.

        Yet his argument is that they weren’t accountable for having done so, and that educated people knew of the hazard (did he think that his employers were not educated?).

        Yet, he argued that it “wasn’t the case here” [wasn’t the case that there still was some doubt] even though as the document shows, he was introduced (and hired) by someone who said that claims of such a link were “scientifically unproven.”

        When asked if the tobacco companies acted irresponsibly, he answers that smokers were irresponsible – as if the two would necessarily be mutually exclusive, and as if downplaying solid scientific evidence (that he says educated people should have known about, evidence that had been out for decades) isn’t “irresponsible.”

        IMO, his actions are of someone who is ducking responsibility for supporting a disinformation campaign about the risks posed by smoking. Defending someone with such a history, in the context of the public disputes about climate change, seems significantly counterproductive, IMO.

  9. dagfinn says:

    The document seems to be consistent with Merchants of Doubt. “All of the chosen studies addressed legitimate scientific questions, some that mainstream medicine had neglected—like the role of emotions and stress in somatic disease. All the investigators were credentialed researchers at respected institutions. Some of the work they were doing was pathbreaking.”

    I interpret his statements in the interview as saying that the studies he was responsible for were not about smoking and cancer and therefore they were not drawing any conclusions either way about it. As for “knowingly downplayed”, he seems to be arguing that there was no point in downplaying it, that it was an exercise in futility. “The evidence was out; it’s been out for over a century.” It’s a bit hard to tell from an interview that doesn’t necessarily give a coherent picture of his thinking.

  10. Joshua says:

    ==> “I interpret his statements in the interview as saying that the studies he was responsible for were not about smoking and cancer and therefore they were not drawing any conclusions either way about it. ”

    ???

    He said more than that in the interview. Again, he indicated that no educated person would doubt that there was solid evidence for the link between smoking and seriously deleterious health outcomes, and that the evidence had been known for decades. Yet as the document shows, he was well-aware that he was being employed by people who knowingly downplayed the validity of that evidence. So he says that he knew that there was valid evidence of the harmful effects of smoking, in fact that there was no doubt that such evidence existed (among educated people) yet he sought employment from people who he knew deliberately promoted misinformation about that evidence, and further has gone on to dismiss them for being responsible for deliberately promoting evidence for harmful health impact to hundreds of millions of people.

    ==> “he seems to be arguing that there was no point in downplaying it, that it was an exercise in futility.”

    1) He argued that no one who was educated would doubt the evidence. Yet he clearly knew that well-educated people, in fact, the people who were employing him to do research, said there wasn’t valid evidence.

    2) He wasn’t arguing simply that it would be an exercise in futility to downplay the evidence. After wrongly indicating that no one educated would doubt the evidence (something that the document demonstrates he knows wasn’t true) – quite to the contrary. he rationalized his employers knowingly spreading misinformation about the evidence with the justification of that’s what you’d expect from someone trying to make money.

    • dagfinn says:

      There may be some element of rationalization in his response. But I really don’t think you can analyze an interview this way. You just can’t expect every word to be precisely considered. And when you say “misinformation” — every advertiser puts some amount of spin on the facts. It’s a far cry from the kind of deception that was eventually uncovered, such as the fact that the tobacco companies had in fact done research that showed nicotine was addictive and kept it hidden.

      Anyway, none of this has much bearing on the big picture and the totally misleading impression given by Oreskes and Conway.

      • Joshua says:

        ==> “There may be some element of rationalization in his response.”

        Heh.

        ==> ” And when you say “misinformation” — every advertiser puts some amount of spin on the facts.”

        Spin on the facts? So you’re offering the same rationalization that Seitz did?

        Again, Seitz indicates that the link was obvious, well-founded in evidence, known for decades, not doubted by anyone educated – yet the people that employed him to research the impact of smoking stated quite explicitly that there was no validated scientific evidence to show a link.

        Sorry, Dagfinn, but your logic doesn’t hold up.

        Either Seitz thought at the time that there was no valid evidence, in which case his repeated subsequent statements that the evidence wasn’t in doubt (as an explanation for why he wasn’t hired to produce misinformation) are meant to mislead.

        Or he did think that the evidence was solid, and so he then he clearly knew (as shown by the document I linked) that the people who employed him to do research were promoting misinformation, and then later claimed that he didn’t know that.

        And you see no difference between any old advertiser putting a spin on facts, and a company that produces a toxic substance deliberately promoting information that downplays evidence of harmful health impact to hundreds of millions from their product, or actually outright, knowingly, promotes misinformation that there are no such harmful health impacts?

        Dagfinn, do you seriously think that such an argument could possibly be productive towards disentangling the cross-over between ideology and vested interests with the question of whether ACO2 ennisions are potentially harmful?

        ==> “Anyway, none of this has much bearing on the big picture and the totally misleading impression given by Oreskes and Conway.”

        I’m not talking here about the “impression” they give. Impressions are quite variable depending on the person being impressed. I am talking about your argument about Seitz.

        You are rationalizing his arguments even though they are clearly fallacious.

        • dagfinn says:

          “Dagfinn, do you seriously think that such an argument could possibly be productive towards disentangling the cross-over between ideology and vested interests with the question of whether ACO2 ennisions are potentially harmful?”

          It’s not an argument in the logical sense at all. It’s about trying to understand how Seitz was thinking when he said that, and knowing that he was only human and that an interview is a rather unreliable source if you want to apply rigorous logic. And last but not least, giving him the benefit of the doubt as I have done with Oreskes and Conway also. I have been careful not to speculate too much on their motives.

          Disentangling the cross-over between vested interests and ideology is always difficult and will easily lead you astray. What is clear in the case of climate change is that the money is overwhelmingly on the CAGW, alarmist side, and that’s a problem. It would be better if it were more balanced.

    • Brad Keyes says:

      Joshua,

      1) He argued that no one who was educated would doubt the evidence. Yet he clearly knew that well-educated people, in fact, the people who were employing him to do research, said there wasn’t valid evidence.

      There is no contradiction there.

      First, Seitz said educated people didn’t doubt the link. This is NOT to say that educated people (like “the cigarette companies”) didn’t DOWNPLAY the link—in other words, intentionally LIE about what they knew in order to trick the uneducated into smoking. The latter doesn’t require doubt, it just requires psychopathy.

      Secondly, he admitted that “the cigarette companies” were downplaying the link, but insisted “that wasn’t the case here.” To me this seems to be a claim that even though some, or most, cigarette companies were disinforming the public, R J Reynolds was NOT; or at least the division he worked for at R J Reynolds was NOT.

      (What else could “but that wasn’t the case here” signify??)

      The only way you can make a case for hypocrisy is to equate

      “the cigarette companies”

      with

      “the people employing him to do research.”

      Otherwise, you have no evidence that the actual people who interviewed, approved, hired and paid him were complicit in the aforementioned campaign of disinformation. They may well have been, but nothing Seitz says is an admission to this effect. On the contrary, his qualification (“but that wasn’t the case here”) seems to have precisely the opposite meaning, though it’s sadly ambiguous.

      2) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that some other division at R J Reynolds was indeed disnforming the public, something that certainly isn’t clear from this interview:

      How would that incriminate Seitz, exactly? (Morally or legally.)

      Why would he need to “rationalize his employment” at a company that was doing evil things if he himself wasn’t participating in those evil things? Would you expect the janitor at R J Reynolds to feel guilty? Would you expect the cleaning staff to apologize? The window cleaners? The signmaker? The guy who sold them their computers? The guy who installed the computers on-site? The architect who designed their corporate HQ?

      What, exactly, is the radius of guilt and where, exactly, do you draw the perimeter?

      What makes you think that by blaming the consumer, Seitz wasn’t sincerely expounding his libertarian philosophy?

      Remember, Seitz himself was guilty of smoking. So it was hardly self-exculpatory of him to put the responsibility for smoking on the smoker (and therefore himself), is it? It may have been WRONG or even OFFENSIVE to do so, but it wasn’t SELF-SERVING, psychologically speaking, was it?

  11. Bob Smith says:

    At worst, Seitz may be the lone true example of a tainted scientist in Merchants of Doubt. It’s hard to say based on the dialogue that Joshua is focused on.

    But notice the unstated premise: Smoking tobacco is bad therefore anyone who does research for a tobacco company is bad.

    There’s real evidence that people overestimate the danger of smoking. Suppose 25% of smokers are killed by their habit, but the scientific, political, and public “consensus” is that 50% are killed. A scientist whose research supports the correct number, 25%, is not a villain, he’s just the proverbial messenger.

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