Posted tagged ‘Naomi Oreskes’

For a Good Time on the Intertubes — Today!

May 22, 2013

It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.

This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.

Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.

Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.

Brueghel,_Pieter_I_-_Christ_in_the_Storm_on_the_Sea_of_Galilee_-_1596

The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question.  What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances.  Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table.  A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too.  Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear.  So what to make of that lacuna?

Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth):  If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear:  human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going.  And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind:  if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?

We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way.  Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths.  See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the  the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.

So come on down.  Listen live or later here.  Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.

Image:  Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.

Programming Note, Naomi Oreskes edition

October 19, 2011

Shuffling my feet a bit at the self-promotion involved, I’d like to invite anyone interested to tune in to a conversation I’m going to have with Naomi Oreskes tonight.

Oreskes, for those of you who may not know, is a professor of history and science studies at UC San Diego.  Our chat will center on her recent book, Merchants of Doubt co-authored with Erik Conway.

I think I’ve mentioned that book more than once here.  IMHO, it’s one of the most important works published in America in the last several years.  In it, Oreskes and Conway document how a clutch of cold-war scientists, many of them physicists, transformed the truth of scientific uncertainty and incompleteness into hugely damaging lies, first about the (lack of) risk associated with cigarettes, and then on just about every other major science/policy issue of the last several decades.

We’re going to talk about how these ego-ideology-and-money driven figures did that, and how their actions shaped the specific stories of tobacco, acid rain, climate change and the like.

But to me the larger story — and here’s where I think our exchange will go over the course of the hour — is the way that these self-styled iconoclasts have managed to undermine the whole idea of science as a way to gain real insight into critical policy issues.  If you want to know why the GOP candidates can get away with denying climate change, it is at least in part because staged controversies about scientific “doubt” have undercut the whole idea of technical expertise or knowledge gained through specialized skills and methods.

To me that sets up an enormous personal and professional question:  as a science writer and teacher of incredibly idealistic and hopeful aspiring science writers one of the goals has always been to tell stories that help to inform our civic conversation.  But on the evidence that Oreskes and Conway bring to bear, we’ve lost ground on that hope over every year of my career.  So one question I’ll have tonight is what can be done that will take public engagement with science beyond the cool story and into some usable appreciation of scientific habits of thought.

I do have some notions of my own on that  — but these are matters Oreskes knows well and has considered deeply.  So check out what she has to say.

Which means, I suppose, I should link to the venue!

That would be Virtually Speaking Science, and new weekly feature of/spin off from Jay Ackroyd’s Virtually Speaking empire. (Jay comments here, and FP’s over at Eschaton.)  I’m in the rota of hosts for the show, taking on the third Wednesday of every month.  You can listen to tonight’s program here Update:  at 9 p.m. EDT.   It’s also going to run live in Second Life, for those of you tired of your first one.  You can take part in live chat through the IRC servicee.  (Instructions below the fold.)

Image: George de la Tours, Cheater with the Ace of Diamonds, 1635

1. Connect to http://webchat.freenode.net/
2. Create a log-in name
3. Enter #vspeak into the channel field.
4. NOTE: ‘Relay Rinq’ is not a person but a bridge to IRC chat.
5. Type into the text field along the bottom of the screen.
6. Begin your question with ‘QUESTION’ so it’s easy to spot.