Naomi Oreskes: Should Scientists Serve as Sentinels?

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During her Annual Meeting plenary address, Naomi Oreskes emphasized the importance of providing context in addition to facts when communicating science. | Atlantic Photography

BOSTON – Naomi Oreskes has a question for scientists that many have been asking themselves already: should they speak up on politically sensitive topics, or should they let the facts of their research speak for themselves?

In her plenary address at the 2017 AAAS Annual Meeting, Oreskes said facts alone do not speak very well without context when it comes to issues such as climate change. Scientists should consider themselves as sentinels, she said, responsibly raising the alarm to government officials and others about what the data show and even offering possible solutions to science-based problems.

Oreskes, a professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of earth and environmental sciences at Harvard University, is the co-author with Erik Conway of Merchants of Doubt. The 2010 book demonstrates how a handful of scientists in league with U.S. tobacco companies sought to discredit the science on smoking dangers and those tactics are being repurposed today by those who doubt human activities are driving climate change.

About 97% of climate scientists agree that recent global changes in climate are caused by human activity and the impact of climate shifts are already being felt across the planet. But few of them are eager to go beyond stating the facts about climate change, even in the face of denial and suppression of these facts.

“We are worried if we speak up in public, beyond the confines of scientific publications and scientific meetings, that we will be viewed as advocates, or activists and that this will politicize our science and that we will lose our credibility,” Oreskes explained.

But even if a scientist does decide to speak out, she needs to do more than deliver the data, Oreskes said, since people who do not believe in human-caused climate change are doing so because of the implications of it on their political beliefs and values.

“And in my opinion,” she said, “you cannot answer a question about values by letting the facts speak for themselves.”

Several studies have shown that beliefs about climate change are strongly connected in the United States to political affiliation — and not education level or exposure to information, Oreskes said. Between 70% to 80% of Democrats accept the facts of climate change, while only half of Republicans accept the same facts. Highly educated Republicans are the most likely group of all to dismiss some aspect of human-caused climate change, Oreskes said.

[Associated Image: Atlantic Photography]