How scientists address dissent, money, trust, and being wrong | Interview with Dr. Naomi Oreskes

We met with Dr. Oreskes to discuss COVID-19 modeling, money’s influence on researchers, dissent among scientists, and much more. Enjoy!

How scientists address dissent, money, trust, and being wrong | Interview with Dr. Naomi Oreskes
"Hard to know for sure about what impact COVID-19 has had in people's views of science, because it's too soon to tell, and we haven't done the research to really know, but I think there are a few things we can say about it. So far as the evidence goes, it does not support the idea that COVID-19 has undermined trust in science; if anything, we have evidence that it's actually reinforced the idea that scientists do know what they're talking about, and the problem here is the politicians running it."” – Dr. Naomi Oreskes

Notable earth scientist Dr. Naomi Oreskes explores the history of dissent and consensus among scientists, questions of money influencing researchers, admitting one’s studies or theories are wrong, and making sense of the COVID-19 modeling. Professor of the history of science and an affiliated professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, Dr. Oreskes talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Find Dr. Oreskes’s latest book, Why Trust Science?, here.

See Dr. Oreskes’s Academic Influence profile

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Interview with Earth Scientist, Dr. Naomi Oreskes

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:26Disagreements among scientists

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have Professor Naomi Oreskes from Harvard University, who’s going to tell us just a little bit about what she does as a historian of science. And in particular, we had Michael E. Mann on the show earlier, and also somebody by his recommendation, a guy named John Christy , who was completely different.

And so, what do you make of the fact that there are at least a few scientists that completely disagree with a bunch of other scientists? How do you understand that as a historian of science?

"…it's good to have a diversity of views and science thrives on rigorous argument, debate, tough criticism."” – Dr. Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes: Well, as a historian of science, I find scientific disagreement to be completely non-problematic. Scientists are human beings, and any complicated issue, people will have different perspectives on it. And in any scientific discussion we can find dissenters, people who disagree, even science that is extremely well-established, we can find people who have a different view.

In fact, sometimes rather famous people may disagree from the mainstream. So, Albert Einstein , for example, who many people think of as the most famous scientist in the 20th century, one of the most famous scientists ever, he never accepted quantum mechanics. This is actually kind of a shocking thought, yet a lot of people don’t know that. So, the way I view it is that’s fine, it’s good to have a diversity of views and science thrives on rigorous argument, debate, tough criticism.

These are all normal parts of the scientific process, but the key thing that it’s important for ordinary people to understand is that sometimes in science after there’s been a lot of debate and discussion, scientists come to a consensus on a question.

So, despite Einstein’s opposition, the vast majority of physicists have come to a consensus that quantum mechanics gives us a good description of the universe, the subatomic universe, and that understanding has enabled us to do many interesting and important things like... Well, for example, atomic clocks and the technology that relies on quantum effects and we even now have quantum computing.

So, if we have to make a decision about an important public policy issue, that’s where consensus becomes important and as citizens, what we want to know is not what is the view of some one person, even if they’re famous, but what does the scientific community as a whole have to say about this issue? And particularly if it’s an issue like climate change, that at this point is extremely well studied, and scientists have been studying this issue in a serious way since the 1950s. This is not a new subject, and over the course of 70 years, they have come to an overwhelming consensus that climate change is real, that it’s happening, that it’s mainly caused by human activities, and that if we don’t stop it, it’s going to... Well, it’s already making hurricanes and wildfires worse, and if we don’t stop, it’s going to get a lot worse and a lot of people are going to get hurt.

And so if anybody tells you they don’t agree with that, well, they’re entitled to their opinion, but I’m not going to bet my house or my life or my children’s safety and security on that one dissenter, I’m going to bet on the whole stable of horses, I’m going to mix my metaphor here, we’ve got one lone horse off in the core of the field, and then we’ve got this whole stable, this whole race track of thoroughbreds, all of whom have come to the same place. That’s where I’m going to place my bets.

03:49Research science

Jed: Now, does it ever happen in the history of science, well, you use the illustration of dentists, but you could maybe imagine that in the illustration of dentists, that the whole dental practice gets to be to the point where in order for them to make the kind of money that dentists want to make and drive the cars that they want to drive, they maybe do more tooth extractions than they need to, or they recommend people for braces more than they need to. And then the whole group of scientists, or in this case, dentists, goes down a path that maybe is not the best for each individual patient.

Does that ever happen in the history of science, do you know of any examples?

Naomi: Well, in my book, I use the example of dental floss as an example of an argued or a mooted scientific question that is of pretty significant concern to ordinary people, and in this particular case, where the press really misrepresented what the state of scientific knowledge was. So, I do use an example from dentistry, but in general, I would say that dentistry is not a good analogy for science, for the simple reason is that dentists are not researchers, they’re practitioners.

So, when we talk about science, what we’re typically talking about is research science. So someone like Mike Mann is a research scientist, he’s part of a research community who are trying to answer intellectual questions about the natural world: How does the climate system work? How is the system changed if we change the chemistry of the atmosphere? And if the atmosphere warms up because we’ve put in more greenhouse gases which trap more heat, how does that influence other aspects of the climate system, like the generation of hurricanes.

So, these are all intellectual questions, and in the vast majority of cases, with some exceptions, most scientists have almost no economic or personal financial stake in the outcome. There may be an ego stake, there may be a sort of emotional stake, if you believe something for a long time, and now there’s evidence to say that you may have to change those views, but it’s very, very rare the scientist has a direct economic interest in a particular claim, unless maybe they’ve patented something, but then again, that’s a bit of a different issue.

So, I think the claims that... You know, some people have claimed that climate scientists are in it for the money. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. Every scientist I know who chose to have a career in science could have done something else and made a whole lot more money.

"So the idea that science is distorted by the personal financial interest of the community, I think, is really a red herring."” – Dr. Naomi Oreskes

I mean, personally, I was in the mining industry and practically every single person I knew in the mining industry thought I was nuts to go back and get a PhD. They all said to me, "Naomi, a woman in the mining industry, go get an MBA and you could become an executive. You could become a CEO, you’ll make so much more money if you go to business school." And I’m sure they were right, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So the idea that science is distorted by the personal financial interest of the community, I think, is really a red herring.

Jed: I think you’re absolutely right. And I didn’t mean to use that particular demonstration to talk about money, more to talk about the other things you mentioned, like ego, and just the feeling that you get when you realize your whole life has been wrong.

Naomi: Absolutely, yeah. So, this is one of the very interesting things about science, and I think that when you study this aspect of science, your respect and admiration for science actually increases. So, I do study this, and my first book, my PhD dissertation, was about on exactly this question.

Scientists in the early 20th century looked at the theory of continental drift, and the vast majority of American earth scientists, not Europeans, but Americans, rejected the theory, said it was wrong. About 40 years later, earth scientists looked at it again, and they say, "It’s right." And so I thought that was a great opportunity to look at exactly this question. Now, of course, most of the people were not the same people, because in the 40 years in between, most of the original generation had died off, but there were actually a few who hung on.

And for those who did hang on, it was very difficult for them to say, "I was wrong." And there were a few, including some famous ones, one of the most famous was Sir Harold Jeffreys, a very, very famous, very prominent British geophysicist who had made major contributions both to geophysics and to Bayesian statistics. And he never did change his mind, and he went to his grave not agreeing with plate tectonic theory.

But from the point of view of the history of science, it just doesn’t matter, because science moved on, the vast majority of scientists said, "It’s kind of a shame about Sir Harold." I even interviewed some scientists who said, "Yeah, it was an obstacle for me. Sir Harold was so famous that when I heard he didn’t believe this, it was hard for me. But eventually I realized that he was wrong, that he was stuck." And so this is actually a great example of how scientists overcome ego and also overcome status.

I mean, Sir Harold Jeffreys was one of the most famous earth scientists of the 20th century. And younger people came along and said, "Yeah, you know, I’m really sorry, Sir Harold, but you know, you’re just wrong about that," and they developed the theory of plate tectonics. And so this is a really great example of how science works, that it’s not about the opinion of one person, no matter how famous or smart or honored that person is, it’s about what the body of evidence tells us and how the community of scientists as a whole responds to that evidence and use that evidence to move forward.

09:11COVID

Jed: So, that brings me to sort of my last train of thought, and that is COVID. So, a lot of people have maybe lost trust in science because of COVID and because of some of the things that came out of the London school with their models predicting this and that and the other that turned out to be not true.

Have you looked into that a little bit, like is it having a damaging effect? And are things that happen on that rapid time scale not as good compared to the 40 years it took for people to get everything worked out with plate tectonics?

Naomi: Yes, well, it’s hard to know for sure about what impact COVID-19 has had in people’s views of science because it’s too soon to tell, and we haven’t done the research to really know, but I think there are a few things we can say about it.

So far as the evidence goes, it does not support the idea that COVID-19 has undermined trust in science; if anything, we have even that it’s actually reinforced the idea that scientists do know what they’re talking about, and the problem here is the politicians. We have politicians telling us it will go away magically. It will just disappear. And especially right now in the United States, so it’s now November 2020, and we have politicians telling us that COVID-19 would just go away, we had the scientists telling us, "No, this is very likely to come back in the late autumn or early winter, because that’s what these kinds of viruses typically do. And if anything, we’re very worried that this may come back worse than ever." And that is exactly what has happened. So, it’s tragic, because here in the United States now we have the highest case rates that we’ve seen so far in this pandemic.

Nearly a quarter of a million people have died already, and we are now going to see another wave of deaths, but the scientists were not wrong about this. And certainly, when you used the example of the London school model, that was from Imperial College, which I have to say, full disclosure, I went to Imperial College, so I will defend, they weren’t...

Jed: So did my father so, you know, it’s a good school.

Naomi: Oh, excellent. But it’s really important, and this where where the media often do science a great disservice. Those scientists were not wrong, they built a model. A model is exactly that. It’s a model, it’s an attempt to describe what will happen if. So, if we do X, then what possible outcomes if we do Y? And that model was based on the assumption of taking no steps whatsoever to prevent it. So, it was a kind of worst case scenario, and I think all the evidence has suggested that most aspects of that model were actually largely correct.

And part of the reason we’re seeing very big differences now in the death rates, say, in the United States compared to South Korea or Germany or Vietnam, is because some countries did take effective steps to control the virus while others did not. So, in fact, the scientific evidence about masking, about isolation, about testing has been validated by the experience of the countries who followed that advice versus the ones that didn’t.

And in fact, we mentioned that I have a new paperback edition coming out, the preface to the paperback edition is exactly about this, and I actually give statistics for the different countries and show that the countries that trusted science and followed the advice of the relevant experts have done much, much better overall than the countries that did not.

Jed: And how do you deal with Sweden in that study, because they trusted their science and one person at least in their country said, "Hey, we don’t need to do what everybody else in the world is doing." So, how do you reconcile that?

Naomi: Well, they didn’t trust their science, right? I mean, the majority... When you say their science, I think that’s the problem, there isn’t my science and your science. Science is science. We have experts all around the world. And broadly speaking, global experts were saying that we needed to have widespread testing, we needed to isolate the sick and we needed to have contact tracing to identify who those sick people had been in touch with, and then separate and isolate that. And this is not something new.

This is old advice based on 100 years of experience with epidemics around the globe. The basic idea of testing and isolation is a very, very old one. The word quarantine comes from the 17th century in Italy... Or, no, I’ve forgotten. 17th, 16th century, it’s an old, old concept. People have understood the idea of quarantine for a long, long time, so there’s nothing really radical about this. So, even though the disease was new, the public health strategy was essentially a tested one and Sweden did not follow that. Sweden basically took the view, we’ll just let people kinda do what they want and will develop herd immunity, but in a context like this, herd immunity is really a euphemism for letting people get sick and die.

And the irony of the Swedish case is that they argued that this would be better for their economy, but in the end, their economy suffered as well, because the reality is that no country is an island. We don’t exist in isolation. So when the economies of Norway and Denmark and the rest of Europe suffered from the pandemic, then the economy of Sweden suffered too.

14:01Sign off

Jed: Yeah, well, very interesting, this has been a fascinating discussion with somebody who knows a whole lot about what’s going on out there. We really appreciate you coming on this show, and we look forward to your book coming out.

Naomi: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.