Saturday, September 13, 2008

Nierenberg and Oreskes

I first noticed the activities of Dr. Naomi Oreskes when I was doing research for the Nierenberg prize at the Scrippps Instititution of Oceanography. We were awarding the prize to Dr. James Hansen and I was looking for some historical information on my father Dr. William A. Nierenberg. What I found was very surprising.

In congressional testimony on December 6th 2006 Dr. Oreskes testified that

"In 1983 the National Academy formed a committee chaired by physicist William Nierenberg to look in greater detail to look at the issues raised by the Jason and Charney reports. The Nierenberg committee accepted their scientific conclusions , but declined to view global warming as a problem, predicting that many adverse effects would be adequately remedied by technological innovation driven by market forces."

I knew that my father had been critical over the years of the certainty expressed by many climate scientists, but I had never heard about this issue, so I decided to get a copy of the report. I initially found an article in the NY Times that had been printed the day after the report was published, and in reading that article it didn't seem to be in line with the comments in Oreskes' testimony.

The 1983 report "Changing Climate" is not available on line, but I was able to get a copy from the SIO library. After reviewing the report I was unable to find any justification for Oreskes' remarks to congress. Also the committee was clearly not formed in 1983, but rather in 1980 at the request of the US congress under then president Jimmy Carter.

UPDATE: May 2010, "Changing Climate" is available on line now so you can see for yourself.

I wrote Dr. Oreskes to get clarification of the basis of her remarks. She was unable to point me to anything specific in the report, but rather made vague references to technology being mentioned. She also said that she had other source materials and was working on a paper on the topic.

I asked Dr. Oreskes whether she would let me review a copy of the paper prior to publication, but she declined. She offered to let me know when the paper would be published, so that I could ask that a rebuttal be printed in the same edition.

Several months later I discovered that Dr. Oreskes had published a non peer reviewed paper at a web site for "working papers." I asked her whether this was the paper she was referring to in her earlier emails, and her response was "yes but it is not yet published." I considered this an inadequate response since in the modern era posting something on the internet is certainly publishing it. In any event I expected her therefore to let me know when it was "published."

Meanwhile I, along with Victoria Tschinkel, and Walter Tschinkel began working on a response to the internet published paper. This took quit a bit of time since virutally all of the source material that Oreskes et al use is not available on line and had to be retrieved from archives. I was quite shocked to discover that much of the material had been paraphrased in ways that changed the meaning, or which misrepresented the original document. I can only assume that the authors didn't think anyone would get access to the original material.

In the mean time two things happened. The Oreskes et al article was published, without Dr. Oreskes ever notifying me. When I recently wrote her an email asking abou this she chose not to reply. Second an article in the London Times online was published. This article was bylined by Dr. Oreskes, but it was factually completely incorrect.

"So Reagan commissioned a third report about global warming from Bill Nierenberg, who had made his name working on the Manhattan Project developing America’s atom bomb."

(As a side note although my father was proud of the work he did on the Manhattan project prior to receiving his PhD, I don't think any historian credits him with "developing" the atom bomb.)

But Dr. Oreskes own paper Oreskes et al stated that the Carbon Dioxide Research committee was formed by the National Academy in October of 1980. This is prior to Reagan being elected president. And other facts in her own paper make it clear that work on putting this committee together had proceeded for some time. So much like her congressional testimony, and I would argue her paper, Dr. Oreskes chose to ignore the facts that she already knew, in order to paint a misleading picture.

We asked the site that published Oreskes et al on the internet for the opportunity to publish a response, but they said that they didn't allow that. So we decided to publish the paper here for now.

UPDATE: May 2010, As you will see later on my blog, the Sunday Times published a correction to their story. Also the BBC is in the process of publishing a set of corrections to a segment of "Climate Wars" that they based on information from Oreskes.

Link to my web site containing the Oreskes et al 2008 critique


crandles said...

I am sure that you feel that your critique is justified.

I am not sure about some of the language you have used. For example on page 3 there are a couple of "There is no evidence...". Are you really sure that this is true? Could this ever be said? A more reasonable, if weaker, thing to say would be:

After diligently searching, x, y, z, Oreskes et al, its citations and such correspondance with Oreskes as she has allowed, we were unable to find any evidence...
All the relevant evidence we found suggested ....

A minor point
In the abstract I would suggest changing "In this paper" to "In that paper" as this paper might mean your own critique.

Nicolas Nierenberg said...


I'm not sure I understood the first sentence, as we would not have published it had we felt otherwise.

Thank you for your feedback on the paper itself. I think those are good points and we will look at how incorporate them.