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May 25, 2017
Environment@Harvard

Epistemological Questions about Science

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When Naomi Oreskes was working on her Ph.D. in geology at Stanford, she stumbled across a class called “Growth of Scientific Knowledge.” Determined to be a broad-minded scientist and take advantage of all that Stanford had to offer, she enrolled. 

A young assistant professor named Peter Galison—now Pellegrino University Professor in History of Science and Physics at Harvard—taught the course. “He was teaching in the philosophy department, but what he was teaching was really history,” says Oreskes. “And that was my eureka moment where I thought, ‘Oh, this is my field.’” Not only did it combine her interests, but it also meant that all of the enjoyable pursuits she had come to think of as distractions—like her interest in writing and the humanities—were now considered strengths. 

Oreskes’s science interest came early. She collected bugs and rocks as a child, encouraged by her father, a biochemist, but eventually discovered during her undergraduate studies that there were only two disciplines that would allow her to spend time outdoors: geology and biology. “I took a field biology class where the professor was a dragonfly expert, and we actually went out in the field counting dragonflies. I have to say, it didn’t seem that exciting,” she says with a laugh. “So I ended up in geology.”

After her Ph.D., she began to focus on epistemological questions about scientific knowledge: “How do we know what we know? And what does it take for scientists to say, ‘Yes, we have enough evidence to say that this is so?’” She took deep dives into the research histories behind plate tectonics and continental drift, which would eventually result in her first two books. In the early 1990s, as she started work on a book on oceanography, she came across a research team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography that had started working on climate change in the 1950s. “The climate science piece kind of took over the project,” says Oreskes. “And then it took over my life.” 

In 2004, she published a paper in Science titled “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” the result of a survey of more than 900 research papers—the first of what would become a groundswell of similar analyses. The subsequent attacks from dissenters made her curious: why were people denying well-demonstrated science conducted by respected scientists? “What I really didn’t understand at the time was the depth and nefariousness of the effort to undermine science by people whose interests were threatened,” she says. “And it was that discovery that made me realize that I had to put the oceanography book on a back burner—this was more urgent.” Her next two books, both co-written with fellow science historian Erik Conway, were Merchants of Doubt, which detailed industry-funded campaigns by dissenting scientists and conservative think-tanks to muddle scientific consensus, and The Collapse of Western Civilization, a fictional future vision of the impact of unabated climate change. 

She maintains an active public voice in the scientific community, encouraging scientists to act as “sentinels.” “Scientists see the threat, we understand it—and we understand it in a way that other people are unable to because of our expertise,” Oreskes says. “We have a crucial role to play.”

— Dan Morrell

This profile originally appeared in Environment@Harvard: Volume 9, Issue 1

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