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6 November 2019

Trusting science in an age of environmental breakdown

Naomi Oreskes makes clear the many reasons we should trust science. Whether or not we find the political will to heed its warnings is another question. 

By Hettie O'Brien

It was at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that governments first agreed collectively to address climate change. Member countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which committed wealthy nations to reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and various other greenhouse gases. The treaty wasn’t binding, though, so emissions from rich countries continued to rise in line with economic growth. Today we find ourselves in a far more urgent position, with just ten years left to reduce emissions sufficiently to meet the 1.5-degree warming threshold that scientists agree is a matter of life or death.

We know climate change is an existential threat, so why are we delaying? As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway explained in their groundbreaking 2010 book Merchants of Doubt, corporations were invested in avoiding the far-reaching regulations that acceptance of climate change would entail. The conservative right has long seen environmentalists as “watermelons” whose green credentials mask a socialist project. By exploiting the idea that scientists were uncertain about the extent of climate change and spreading mistruths, a small group of scientists, funded by a handful of conservative and libertarian think tanks that were in turn funded by large corporations, encouraged society to doubt the facts.

Merchants of Doubt identified how the media’s pursuit of balance and objectivity could actually take us further away from the truth, leading to a pernicious “both-sideism” that falsely equivocates between scientists and sceptics. The BBC, which is bound by rules of impartiality, frequently gives a platform to self-appointed “experts” from think tanks that are still not obliged to declare who funds them. The government, meanwhile, openly discredits experts’ judgement; Jacob Rees-Mogg recently explained that the government had decided not to run an impact assessment of the new Brexit withdrawal agreement because economists “give people the answer you want”.

Doubting science in an era of climate breakdown is an indulgence for which time is running out. In a new book, Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, offers a compelling argument for why we should trust science at all. It is, for example, one thing for a cranky cancer sufferer to refuse medical help. It’s quite another for a collective group that depends on the protections afforded by vaccines to neglect them. Vaccine hesitancy and climate scepticism are two symptoms of a question that Oreskes became used to hearing at public lectures: “Why should I trust the science?” The enquiry is fair; scientists often contradict each other, and their discoveries have frequently been revised or, worse, put to immoral use.

Until the early 19th century, the results of scientific investigations were as trustworthy as the men (and they were mainly men) conducting them. Institutions such as the Royal Society were established to identify those practitioners whose opinions and work was worthy of acceptance. Gradually, a shift occurred. The philosopher Auguste Comte argued that science wasn’t reliable because of its practitioners, but because of the nature of its practices. To identify reliable knowledge, he thought, you had to study the processes and practices that scientists used. 

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There were successive attempts to identify a uniform scientific method. But what if a single method didn’t exist? In 1962, Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science most famously credited with popularising the idea of a “paradigm shift”, argued that methods could change under different paradigms. Since then, various thinkers have torn up the idea that there is any singular method that scientists use. The most famous of them is Bruno Latour, who approached the laboratory like an anthropologist and studied how scientists make knowledge. He argued that facts emerge in networks; their truth depends not on their intrinsic validity, but on their relation to the institutions and communities that sustain them. “Science is politics by other means,” Latour once provocatively suggested.

Some credited this postmodern turn for encouraging a dangerous nihilism that played into the hands of climate-change deniers. But this wasn’t what people like Latour had intended. “The more we show how science is made, the more we can talk with credibility about what it achieves,” he told me earlier this year.

For Naomi Oreskes, science’s collective, social nature is its source of strength. There’s no magic bullet for what makes knowledge true, and she concedes that scientists get things wrong. But a scientific community, when it works well, offers the avenues for criticism and dissent from which consensus can emerge. Just as you wouldn’t trust an unlicensed plumber to fix your taps, she writes, why would you trust a rogue scientist’s analysis that man-made climate change is a hoax?

I finished Oreskes’s well-reasoned book with the feeling that it didn’t fully address the febrile conditions that incubate contemporary knowledge. We regularly hear that elites and experts have lost the public’s trust, but what kinds of experts? Plumbers, doctors and nurses are trusted but they are different to scientists – they deal with immediate reality, and with human bodies that feel. Part of what threatens the monopoly that scientists once enjoyed over representing our world is the way that politics and science have become inseparable in an age of climate breakdown. For sceptics, it’s easier to deny reality than face up to the sweeping political changes that a warming planet makes necessary.

Accepting the reality of man-made climate change involves taking another cognitive step: understanding that our society will need to find far-reaching and undoubtedly political solutions. This is part of the reason that scientists have recently come out of the shadows, joining movements such as March for Science and Extinction Rebellion, which overtly politicise their work. We have many reasons to trust science – reasons that Oreskes makes clear in her book. Whether or not we find the political will to heed its warnings is another question. 

Hettie O’Brien is an editor at

Why Trust Science?
Naomi Oreskes
Princeton University Press, 376pp, £22

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This article appears in the 06 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What went wrong