From the New York Times (June 15, 2015)
The job interviewer scrutinized the young American geology student sitting across from him. She was about to graduate from the Royal School of Mines in London, and was trying to break into a field long unwelcoming to women.
What, he wanted to know, might she have to contribute to the geology of mining? Naomi Oreskes had a simple answer: “I want to find an ore deposit!”
She wound up in the Australian outback in the early 1980s — not to search for deposits, exactly, but to help work out the complex geology of one that had just been found. It would eventually become one of the world’s largest uranium mines.
Yet, in time, prospecting for ores could not hold her interest. Today, from a professorship at Harvard University, Dr. Oreskes is still in the mining business. But rather than digging for minerals, she tunnels into historical archives, and she is still finding radioactive nuggets.
Dr. Oreskes is fast becoming one of the biggest names in climate science — not as a climatologist, but as a defender who uses the tools of historical scholarship to counter what she sees as ideologically motivated attacks on the field.
Formally, she is a historian of science. Informally, this diminutive woman has become a boxer, throwing herself into a messy public arena that many career-minded climate scientists try to avoid.
She helps raise money to defend researchers targeted for criticism by climate change denialists. She has become a heroine to activist college students, supporting their demand that universities and other institutions divest from fossil fuels. Climatologists, though often reluctant themselves to get into fights, have showered her with praise for being willing to do it.
“Her courage and persistence in communicating climate science to the wider public have made her a living legend among her colleagues,” two climate researchers, Benjamin D. Santer and John Abraham, wrote in a prize-nomination letter in 2011.
Dr. Oreskes’s approach has been to dig deeply into the history of climate change denial, documenting its links to other episodes in which critics challenged a developing scientific consensus.
Her core discovery, made with a co-author, Erik M. Conway, was twofold. They reported that dubious tactics had been used over decades to cast doubt on scientific findings relating to subjects like acid rain, the ozone shield, tobacco smoke and climate change. And most surprisingly, in each case, the tactics were employed by the same group of people.
The central players were serious scientists who had major career triumphs during the Cold War, but in subsequent years apparently came to equate environmentalism with socialism, and government regulation with tyranny.
In a 2010 book, Dr. Oreskes and Dr. Conway called these men “Merchants of Doubt,” and this spring the book became a documentary film, by Robert Kenner. At the heart of both works is a description of methods that were honed by the tobacco industry in the 1960s and have since been employed to cast doubt on just about any science being cited to support new government regulations.