Who 'Framed' Naomi Oreskes?

Wed, 2007-09-12 14:15Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Who 'Framed' Naomi Oreskes?

Watching the latest brouhaha over science historian Naomi Oreskes' now almost three-year-old article in Science–which found an extremely strong consensus on human-caused global warming in the peer-reviewed scientific literature–something struck me.

It occurred to me the global warming “skeptics” who repeatedly attacking Oreskes' study are, in their own way, dramatically dependent upon it. They need to have this study around to criticize. If it didn't exist, they'd probably have to invent it.

What made the original Oreskes study so irresistible to “skeptics” was its quantification of the somewhat intangible concept of scientific “consensus.” Oreskes examined a sample of 928 peer reviewed articles on “global climate change,” and strikingly, didn't find a single one that explicitly challenged the view that humans are driving global warming through their emissions. 928 to 0 is a pretty staggering ratio. But for “skeptics,” it also presented an opportunity in disguise.

Once “consensus” had been defined with explicit numbers, its existence could also be numerically contested. One needed only to dispute the data, or to perform a different literature review (much easier than winning the scientific argument on the merits). And that's just what the “skeptics” tried to do. Benny Peiser and all that.

So the first unsuccessful sally against the Oreskes study, circa 2005, should hardly have seemed surprising. After all, Oreskes' Science article had come out perfectly timed–nestled comfortably in between the 2001 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Third Assessment Report (money quote: “Most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations”) and the 2007 U.N. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (money quote: “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”). In late 2004/early 2005, as we awaited the IPCC's 2007 iteration, Oreskes conveniently provided an update: FYI, the consensus is alive and well.

But today we no longer need the Oreskes study to know this. We have in hand the 2007 IPCC report itself. It may have taken six years, but the scientific process finally completed the long and arduous trek from “likely” to “very likely.” The “consensus” now stands reaffirmed not by a tally of scientific papers, but rather, by a vast and diligent assessment process in which the authors of those papers got together and hammered out what they could and couldn't say with confidence. It's no slight to Oreskes' work to say that the latter is far more powerful than the former.

And yet despite the all-important 2007 update from the IPCC, attacks on Oreskes and her results continue. Schulte and Monckton and all that.

How should we think about this new development? I for one have no interest in becoming yet another chronicler of who is linked to whom and who did or didn’t replicate what study using whatever methodology. These facts, however scintillating, are immaterial to either climate science or climate policy. Moreover, I'm convinced that obsessing over them is precisely what the “skeptics”/contrarians want us to do. Indeed, that's why they're so gung-ho about refuting the Oreskes study.

It's simply impossible to dismantle the scientific consensus on climate change by targeting any single piece of evidence. That consensus rests upon multiple independent datasets and multiple independent theoretical and modeling analyses. Thus, if it's ever overturned, it will only be by multiple teams of independent researchers all hitting upon contradictory findings in different areas over a lengthy time period–thereby gradually setting in motion a paradigm shift. (In other words, it's highly unlikely to happen.)

That's the reality of the situation–but people are also “cognitive misers.” Few really grasp the robust nature of the scientific consensus on climate change as I've just described it. But even though they might not understand it, political conservatives are highly inclined to doubt it. As a result, criticisms of Oreskes spread like wildfire. They're scientifically meaningless, but they nevertheless trigger instant recognition and acceptance among those who respond so favorably to the “global warming is a liberal hoax” frame.

But this also means detailed defenses of Oreskes do little or nothing to quash criticisms. Those who take arguments about the scientific consensus seriously didn't distrust Oreskes in the first place. And for those who do distrust her, contrary “facts” don’t refute the “global warming is a hoax” frame; rather, that frame quashes the contrary facts.

And so we find ourselves in this situation: The planet keeps warming, while the “skeptics” keep coming up with arguments–like attacking Oreskes–that miss the point but fire up their base. These arguments might be totally irrelevant on a scientific level, but they continue to work politically. So here's a thought: It's important to defend Oreskes, but let's also think about how we might avoid playing, over and over again, this same silly game.

Disclosure: Naomi Oreskes wrote a favorable review of my first book, The Republican War on Science, for Science.


I'm on travel and haven't had time to look at Schulte Monckton and all that in detail - but the reason to look at abstracts they claim show there isn't a consensus is not to defend Oreskes, but to show just how idiotic the Peiser/Schulte/Monckton claims are. Then, anyone trying to stand on those claims can be easily debunked.

As for IPCC and Oreskes - they play two different roles. One, the perspective from within the climate science community. Oreskes instead gives the perspective of a scientific historian, from a bit of a distance, which is also important. More valuable than the article that reviewed the abstracts is a more recent paper she did that I commented on here:
that provides a lucid explanation of the scientific process in all of its messiness, and makes up for whatever climate scientists are lacking in communication skills. A broader understanding of the process of science will go much farther towards undermining the denialists than debunking their so-called "studies." It is the direction you have also taken in your arguments ever since writing Storm World - which I have been glad to see.

This is a breath of fresh air after the muddled mess of chasing down a mysterious paper that no one seems to have actually read. Sometimes it's a good idea to stand back and figure out whether the whole fuss is just a diversion. Good job.

BTW, I just picked up The Republican War at the local library & look forward to digging into it this evening.

Personally, it's not the skeptics of global climate change that bother me, it's the source of the skepticism.

A scientist or essayist should never mind having his or her work questioned. We march toward the truth in a back and forth swagger between conjecture and skepticism. Furthermore, if one knows that his or her experiments, data-gathering techniques,and interpretations are going to be scoured for deficiencies, he or she is apt to be very careful in making experiments and claims, and will ultimately become a better scientist or essayist.

What I don't like is the mixing of politics and science. I welcome anyone's reasoned skepticism on global climate change. What I don't like is when people start from a political or economic tenet and then try to twist the science around to fit their preconceptions.

Keep up the thoughtful articles, and thanks for practicing full disclosure.

What's even worse is the people who try to claim the science around climate change is just religious dogma. I think they do not understand the concept of objectively accepting what the evidence shows, even though you don't like its implications. And since some of them refuse to accept AGW based on their religious beliefs, they will turn around and accuse scientists of being the ones who are mindlessly following a religion.

Confused yet?

I agree on your point about skepticism, and there's never been a shortage of it within the sciences -- from what I've observed.

However, notice that argument has been shifted. And particularly, that the discussion over scientific method is coming from those who aren't practicing science (at least not in their fields); an endocrinologist, an anthropologist, a Viscount, etc.

Arguing from the general to the specific (i.e., skepticism is good for science; my critique is therefore good for science), tends to be an invalid form of argument. Moreover, what's being employed could be called the Nixon technique -- i.e., defending what no one has attacked.

Skepticism -- in general -- is good, and we hardly needed them to remind us of that. But it's not necessarily the case that critics are serving the scientific community by making valid criticisms. And, of course, I'm sure that we agree on this point, Zephyr.

I've only recently taken up this issue, but I've already tired of disingenuous arguments by critics purportedly taken for legitimate reasons. Pieser has already renounced his critique of Oreskes' work, but his original methodology speaks volumes about what his actual intent was. Legitimate skepticism can be adversarial, but it subscribes to the same rules as science. Disinformation, however, is a deliberate deception, and its practitioners merely hide behind the rules in order to spread their propaganda.

Like Holden Caufield (and it sounds like you, too, Colinski), I'm sick of the disingenuous. It riles me, too, that the verdict of a study so often seems to depend on who funded the study-- and it's not always easy to discover the true source of the funding. Lastly, it's also irritating that questionable studies can receive the same headline size and placement as sound studies.

The way the 'framing' issue pans out when a new piece of nonsense appears on the web appears to operate like a zero-sum game for the skeptics, where their opponents can't win. This is no good. What I mean is, if the rubbish is ignored, it is spread around like an STD on the net and starts popping up on forums and blogs as if some tablet of stone has been brought down the mountain, accompanied by the cackling of crows to the effect that 'they won't respond because they can't'. OTOH, if a response is offered, as in this case, not only does it increase awareness that the issue actually exists, but also (if recent comments about people remembering the myths and forgetting the facts is true) tends to add power to the myth, which is what appears to be your concern. For the advocates of common sense, this appears to be a no-win situation.

So the question is, how to stop playing the game the skeptic's way, and how to frame the entire communication of climate change in an affirmative and convincing way?

I'm afraid I don't have an answer (doesn't mean I'm not working on it, though), but maybe you have some suggestions.


It does seem, often, that the debate has been framed propperly, ie. most politicians and now business leaders accept the IPCC version of events, and most don't seem to want to be seen having any truck with the denialists. The exception to the rule, as usual, seems to be several Republican presidential candidates, but it's looking like they don't have a snowball's chance.

It also seems that the debate rages mostly on the internet. It serves to occasionally take a step back from the blogs and see what the world is really talking about. Most people who involve themselves with the debate have a greatly inflated sense of how contentious it is.

On the other hand, neither politicians nor the public are taking the issue anywhere near as seriously is it merits. And denialist nonsense occasionally gets published in the mainstream press, though I'd say the balance of reporting is currently favouring AGW by 3 to 1 or better.

So what's happening? I have the feeling that the public and their elected officials receive the "noise" of the debate thus: In our conscious minds, AGW is happening. Officially. But the existence of debate is enough to send our subconscious minds the signal that we don't really need to do anything yet. Even when we agree that "the debate is over".

That's because our conscious mind doesn't always know what the subconscious is doing. We all want to believe things that support our desires--in this case, the desire to do the easy thing and not have to come to terms with the fact that our biosphere is changing in a fundamental and potentially dangerous way. So we deal with it by subconsciously distorting our knowledge: AGW is real, but it's not urgent. We're not conspiracy-minded right-wing denialist nutcases, but we can afford to wait until "all the facts come in".

How many times have you done this in your own personal life? You know something's important, you know that you have to do it, but then again, it can wait while you watch another Seinfeld repeat--half an hour doesn't matter, does it?

This is what we do. Never make the assumption that our actions are entirely rational.

For a perspective on how our response to AGW is "framed" see the Grist article:


about ex-heads of state who are advising their current editions to address climate change now. It reinfocres the notion that understanding the need to take action is solidly mainstream...once we're in our armchairs.

DEW, your analysis of our behaviour is very good, especially this: "So we deal with it by subconsciously distorting our knowledge: AGW is real, but it's not urgent..."

I think we need to panic, as John Ralston Saul defines it in the Doubter's Companion:

PANIC - A highly underrated capacity thanks to which individuals are able to indicate clearly that they believe something is wrong.

The managerial approach, so dominant in our society, does not include the possibility of error. It depends on sequential expert solutions. If there is a problem, the relevant expert will suggest an adjustment. Panic here can only mean that a situation is out of control; that is, the individuals who are meant to be managed are individually out of control.

Given their head, most humans panic with great dignity and imagination. This can be called democratic expression or practical common sense. Managed control, on the other hand, can be termed structural ideology; that is, an ideology not of content but of form. See CONTROL...

...CONTROL, BEING IN - Ideal of managers and housewives. The enemy of creativity and growth, whether economic, social or individual. One of the most destructive characteristics of modern society.

What is it exactly that they are trying to control? See FEAR and MANAGER...

He's unfair to housewives, most of whom are not clean freaks or control freaks; but otherwise insightful.

That book was published in 1994, but Saul has many ideas that are worth considering in the context of climate change. The managerial types in charge of our governments are not likely to deal with the crisis of global warming effectively because they are not trained to think that way. When the world changes, you need to be able to think flexibly to meet its new challenges. Saul writes about managers:

...The strengths of the manager are continuity, stability and the delivery of services and products from existing structures. Unfortunately managers also discourage creativity, imagination, non-linear thinking, individualism and speaking out, an insubordinate act by which problems are identified. The manager distrusts public debate, abhors any admission of doubt and stifles unpredictable behaviour...

Sound familiar?


Was Oreske's study ever peer-reviewed? Sure, it was published in Science, but in the Essay section.

Secondly, like much pro-AGW news, warmer entheusiasts uncritically accepted her study without question. I believe Oreske's has misled the public with her claims of consensus on AGW.

Referring to her original 2004 report, approx. 240 papers support AGW. Her mistake is in assuming that climate papers offering no opinion on AGW are actually implicitly supporting AGW, and, big surprise, these papers expressing no opinion on AGW constitute the majority (over 500 papers) of the so-called concensus.

Oreske's then offers up the untested assumption that no mention of AGW constituts endorsement of AGW, but nowhere does she offer anything substantive to back up her assumption. Her claim may be true, but it has not been proven.

Paul S

"Was Oreske's study ever peer-reviewed?"

That completely discounts everything you've said in the above message, Paul.

Sylvia Tognetti up there offers us two links in her blog that will be of interest to you:


They make for good reading, and I'd be very interested in your reaction to them. I think you'll find that her analysis, and conclusions, and much more subtle that you credit her for.

She never makes the claim that you say she did--that it was a 928-0 shutout, but that there is no evidence of a "debate". None of the papers make statements explicitly refuting GW theory, even though 20% make explicit statements endorsing it. As for implicit endorsement, you go much further than she does--she has read all the abstracts, and notes that some would be unthinkable without accepting the general tenets of GW theory, but that others are more ambiguous with respect to their acceptance of it. What she finds significant is that in all of the ambiguous cases, none of them bother to state their rejection of GW theory, which indicates that there is no active debate. It can safely be said that anyone publishing in climatology these days is acutely aware of, and sensitive to, implications regarding the AGW thesis.

Anyway that's my attempt to describe her position...very half-assed. So don't take it from me: go to the source, she says it much better than I do, and more importantly, she puts this evidence in the context of the scientific method and the history of scientific consensus.

Read those links, and reformulate your earlier comment, which was clearly ill-informed. Don't be one of those people who accepts things uncritically.

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"Was Oreske's study ever peer-reviewed?"

The thing is, and as Chris has been pointing out, it really doesn't matter. With apologies to Ms Oreske, the article is now irrelevant, superseded by the 2007 IPCC report. To spend any more time trying to shore up her findings against the onslaught of sceptics (or trying to tear her down) is useless. Let's move on. Does the IPCC report indicate a consensus? I believe that question has been asked & answered.

Paul S (or is it G, how do you expect any one to believe you when you don't even know what your name is) said: "Secondly, like much pro-AGW news, warmer entheusiasts (sic) uncritically accepted her study without question. I believe Oreske's (sic) has misled the public with her claims of consensus on AGW."

The only person trying to mislead the public is you when you make such ridiculous statements. If you do not accept her (and just about everyone else's) views then why not do your own study, the abstracts are readily available for anyone to access. Once you have done that then report back to us with your findings.

However, I doubt very much if you will do that, you do not seem to be interested in actually finding out anything for yourself and if you do (highly unlikely) you will not be reporting it back here since it will support the previous findings by Oreskes.

Ian Forrester

I have read Oreske's paper Ian, and she would have been more accurate stating that approx. 25% of the papers she examined explicityly endorsed AGW.

However, she even includes paleoclimatology papers which make no reference to AGW as supporting her position.

To Oreske's, no mention of AGW implies "implicit" endorsement of AGW, which is an untested assumption to say the least.

Oh yeah, was Oreske's paper ever peer-reviewed? Still waiting for an answer on that one.

Paul S

Paul S/G said; "I have read Oreske's (sic) paper Ian, and she would have been more accurate stating that approx. 25% of the papers she examined explicityly (sic) endorsed AGW".

Paul, you may have "read" the paper but you have neither understood it nor interpreted it correctly. The question that is answered in her paper (since it was asked in the IPCC (2001) report, was, "How many papers published in referred (sic) journals disagree with the statement, '...most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations'"?

You have obviously not understood what she was asking, or perhaps more likely, are just adding to the right wing obfuscation. Such tactics are deplorable. If you had any sense of decency you would apologize to both myself and Naomi Oreskes for your blatant attempt to add to the smear campaign against her.

And for your information, she found no papers that disagreed with the consensus.

Ian Forrester

No Ian, I believe it is Oreske's paper that misstated the "overwhelming concensus". Her research appears to be legitimate, but I believe she errs in padding her case for concensus by adding in papers that take no position and state no position on AGW.

Oreske's study operates on her assumption that saying nothing about AGW is actually support for AGW but nowhere does she test or validate her own assumption.

Lastly, I will ask one more time, was Oreske's paper ever peer-reviewed?

Paul S

Paul, if you knew anything about science you would know that once a consensus has been reached by scientists in the field (and don't tell me that the consensus doesn't exist) then there is no need to mention it in every paper published. An author would only mention it if he or she was in disagreement with the consensus.

Sorry, but that is how science works.

As for your question about whether the paper was reviewed or not I'm afraid that you will have to ask the editors of Science that question.

Ian Forrester

Ian, you are making an assumption, the same one that Oreskes is making, and it is possibly an erroneous one.

First, not all scientists performing research in climate are competent to comment on AGW. Therefore, their particular research in climate will be limited to their particular area of expertise.

Secondly, performing research in their area of expertise, they avoid commenting on AGW because it is outside of their area of expertise. Oreskes simply assumes these papers accept AGW when it is possible that no such belief is possible to ascertain from the publication.

Oreskes research is important; some of her assumptions remain unsupported by any evidence. Silence does not necessarily imply agreement.

Paul S

[I tried to post this on Friday but couldn't for some reason so I am trying again]

Paul S/G said; "Ian, you are making an assumption." Please explain to me in very simple terms (I am as you know a scientist, and we have trouble interpreting the big words you and your politician friends like to use to bamboozle lesser minds) exactly what assumption you are referring to. Once again, I will point out to you what the question was that Oreskes asked - it was "How many papers published in referred (sic) journals disagree with the statement, '...most of the observed warming of the last 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations'"? You may wish that she, and the IPCC had asked a different question but they didn't. If you want an answer for the question that I think you are posing, then do the work for yourself and report back to us with your answers.

You would be a lot less confused if you took a remedial English comprehension class, it would also save a lot of bandwidth on this blog.

Ian Forrester

Yes, it was peer reviewed -- quite obviously. And you can go to the Science website, in which Oreskes' essay appeared, and read their submission guidelines.

Scholarly journals are always peer-reviewed, and the question doesn't even need to be asked. The types of "articles" and "studies" (to use these terms loosely) that aren't peer reviewed are the thinly disguised PR pieces that masquerade as science, by groups such as the Heartland Institute, etc.

A better question would be: were the critiques that ostensibly refuted Oreskes' article subjected to the same level of scrutiny? Clearly not. And moreover, despite all the posturing by critics regarding the practices of science, actual examples of research that contradict the consensus position of an anthropogenic greenhouse effect are virtually non-existent. Critics of climate science won't even submit their work to the peer-review process -- for obvious reasons -- even while they go on posturing about how important peer-review is to the process of science.

Ian Forrester wrote:

"And for your information, she found no papers that disagreed with the consensus."

I've found no evidence that proves that giant talking bunny rabbits don't exist. Therefore, giant talking bunny rabbits must exist.

See, Ian? I'm a self-proclaimed science expert, just like you.

Ian Forrester wrote:

"And for your information, she found no papers that disagreed with the consensus."

I've found no evidence that proves that giant talking bunny rabbits don't exist. Therefore, giant talking bunny rabbits must exist.

See, Ian? I'm a self-proclaimed science expert, just like you.

LL said: "I'm a self-proclaimed science expert".

No, you are not, you are a simple minded blow hard who does not understand anything about science or logic. Your time would be better spent reading up on the subjects which you know nothing about rather than wasting both your time and ours by writing such abject nonsense.

Ian Forrester

Global-warming skeptics who live in Southern California (or will be in SoCal next month), will soon have an excellent opportunity to challenge Oreskes personally, in a public forum. She'll be speaking at the Scripps Birch Aquarium in La Jolla, Ca on Monday, October 8 at 6:30 PM. After the talk, there will be a Q&A session.

Note: folks interested in attending will need to RSVP on-line ahead of time at http://aquarium.ucsd.edu/Calendar/RSVP/rsvp.php?ID=1330
Admission for Aquarium members is free; for the general public, it's $8.

Of course it was not peer-reviewed - think something so rife with confirmation bias would stand up to closer scrutiny? In the initial article, she wasn't even clear about the keywords she used in the search terms she entered - a correction was issued later. The term she used was "global climate change", though initially 'global' was left out. And she claimed to use that term as opposed to 'global warming' to avoid bias, but she doesn't know how to use boolean operators? I've had enough experience in research that a single set of keywords (without an 'or' function at least) will rarely bring up a comprehensive list of results.

There are perfectly valid reasons to question the validity of her study - this talk of framing is rubbish - but doing so seems to draw out calls of DENIER! and I get images of Donald Sutherland at the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Predictably, perhaps, but $*#!&@! Fred Singer appears to be shovelling some derivative dung into the Schulte, etc., maelstrom:

Absurd claims. But as Chris alludes to, is it productive to take the bait?

re: Singer & Avery: that's really just an ad for their book, hung on to a bit of the Schulte thing. They're slow, should have done it days earlier.

On the other hand, Bob Ferguson, at SPPI, is *fast*:

study the chronology carefully:

09/03/07, 2:22AM London time: Schulte sends letter to Oreskes and Chancellor Fox
(Labor Day Holiday in US; UCSD starts session on 9/24/07).

09/04/07, 4:46PM (presumably EDT), Schulte's letter has been converted to PDF, with SPPI logos & Disclaimer by Ferguson.

09/05/07, ??? Schulte Letter is on SPPI website:

09/05/07, 5:05PM Press release PDF done:

Researcher demands apology for professional discourtesy from essayist who claimed climate consensus

[Of course, Schulte is an endocrinologist, Oreskes is a well-published geoscientist and science historian, but let's not quibble.]

0906/07, 11AM Ferguson gets it out to BusinessWire

Nhat was a quick handoff from Schulte to Ferguson, and the latter is a very quick worker.

Tim Lambert @ Deltoid has clearly identified serious plagiarism in Schulte's letter [now published to the world]:

King's College has certain rules about academic behavior:
Google: kings college london plagiarism misrepresentation

The NHS has certain guidelines about professionalism and external communication. Schulte's original letter uses NHS/King's electronic letterhead, and his affiliation is certainly spelled out in the version at SPPI.