2021 Distinguished Alumni Award Presented to Naomi Oreskes
Geologist and science historian earns Stanford Earth’s highest alumni honor
Naomi Oreskes, PhD ’90, received the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award during Reunion Homecoming activities on October 22. The award recognizes Stanford Earth alumni who have made highly significant, long-lasting contributions to civil, government, business, or academic communities.
The award was presented by Stephan Graham, the Chester Naramore Dean of the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “A globally recognized voice on the role of science in society, Naomi is widely considered to have changed the discourse on climate change,” Graham said, noting that the depth of her scholarship has earned the respect of the scientific community while her clear and contextual communications have earned her a broad audience.
The Sputnik influence
Naomi Oreskes considers herself part of the Sputnik generation, children who in the 1960s were channeled into science because of the prevailing stance that science was critical to national security and international competitiveness. Her father, a scientist, believed that science was going to solve the problems of the world. But her parents were also active in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the time, and Oreskes grew up with the view that the two most important influences in society were science and politics.
By the time she arrived at math- and science-oriented Stuyvesant High School in New York City—in one of the school’s first coed classes—feminism was another important influence. As opportunities were beginning to open up for women that hadn’t before been possible, she got the message that, in her words, “if you were a girl who could do science, you were crazy not to.” The seed was planted early to join a new generation of women who were fighting for the right to pursue careers and intellectual leadership in the sciences.
As successful a math and science student as she was, Oreskes was a girl with many interests. She read fiction, played the piano, and was fascinated by the natural world. Such was the diversity of her interests that she initially experienced difficulty as a young student at Brown University. “I didn’t know how to choose,” she remembers. “People told me that my interests didn’t make sense, that science and history, math and literature, didn’t go together.” When it was time to choose a major, she says she chose geology because, “I could do interesting, intellectually challenging work outdoors. And I loved minerals—I still do. There is a whole world in minerals and crystal structures that tells you something about their history and the conditions under which they form.” It was a good decision.
At the Royal School of Mines in London, where she completed her undergraduate degree, Oreskes was one of only two women in her graduating class in geology, and the first woman to earn a degree in mining from the distinguished institution. She didn’t know until many years later that “the faculty had a debate over whether I should be permitted to study mining geology at all. They were afraid that, as a woman, I would be unable to find a job.”
But she did find a job, and spent the next three years in Australia as an exploration geologist. “I worked for an outstanding company and loved the opportunity to do geology in the field every day,” she recalls. “But I was the only woman in my exploration group. In the bush, the only other woman within 150 miles was the camp nurse.” In that environment, Oreskes felt she had to prove herself twice: both as a capable geologist and as a woman.
Returning to the U.S., Oreskes started her doctoral studies at Stanford thinking she would pursue a career as a geology professor. But the diversity of interests that defined her early years was still there. When her advisor told her that she was far enough advanced in coursework to be able to take classes outside of geology, she says she “pulled out the course catalog and found a class called The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. I walked over to the Philosophy Corner and I don’t know what possessed me to sign up for credit, but I did.”
It was a turning point. “After the midterm, the professor came up to me and said, ‘Who are you?’” Oreskes remembers with a laugh. That professor was Peter Galison, who would become her co-advisor and is now her colleague at Harvard. She continues, “This course was my eureka moment. Here was this field that was about scientific problems, scientific learning. It was about how scientists try to understand the natural world and what the relationship is between science and society.”
Another eureka was the publication in 1985 of Martin Rudwick’s The Great Devonian Controversy, now considered a classic in the philosophy and history of science. Galison asked Oreskes to read the new book and discuss it in their seminar group. “So I did,” she recalls, “and the book changed my life. It was everything I was interested in, and geology was at the center of it.” Until the publication of Rudwick’s book, most philosophy of science was physics-based. She says, “People acted as if you studied physics, you understood science. As a geologist, it was clear to me that wasn’t true. Geology is very different from physics and chemistry; it isn’t mostly lab science. It is mostly outdoors, not indoors; it is heavily descriptive, heavily inductive.”
Oreskes understood there was an opportunity to address interesting, important questions with Earth science. “This was the late 1980s,” she explains, “right around the time when the ozone hole became an issue, and acid rain, and people were beginning to talk about climate change. I remember thinking that these were existential questions and the world is going to need to understand the science behind these issues.”
At the same time, she began to realize that her study of Earth science and work as a professional geologist gave her a view of not only what academic science looks like but what it looks like when you put academic science to work in the real world. She elaborates: “So it was part of my education to think about the practice of science in action. How do you take a scientific theory and try to apply it in the world? How do scientists manage the gap between the theory and the reality? I was very influenced by working with Nancy Cartwright in the philosophy department at Stanford, who later became my colleague at UC San Diego.”
As these ideas took shape, her advisors, Galison in the history department and Marco Einaudi in the geology department, were supportive. Both were open to the questions Oreskes was interested in and felt they deserved to be pursued. She says, “With their support, I wrote a proposal for a special graduate program that would be a blend of science and history of science. I appeared before a faculty committee who wondered why I couldn’t do this just in a philosophy program, but I stood my ground and the proposal was approved.” A Mellon New Directions Fellowship provided funding and she got to work, essentially a pioneer in interdisciplinary study. “The title of her dissertation was American Geological Practice: Participation and Examination,” Einaudi remembers. “The participation was with me, doing the science, and the examination was with Peter Galison, looking at the historical evidence of how geological observations were used through history.” To weave together the two topics, he continues, “she basically wrote two PhD theses in four and a half years. I’ve never seen anything like it in 35, 40 years of teaching.”
One of the ways Oreskes fostered interdisciplinary understanding as she pursued her program was, with fellow graduate students Hilary and Jon Olson, to create a lecture series on the history and philosophy of Earth science, inviting the leading scholars in the nascent field—including Martin Rudwick—to come to Stanford to speak. With one exception they all accepted the students’ offer. “It was an amazing experience,” she remembers. “It brought people from all departments together in a way that almost never happened and got us thinking about Earth science in a broader context. And, at an early point in my career I got to meet the leaders in this new field, and Martin Rudwick became a mentor.”
Oreskes is emphatic that her cohort of smart, hardworking, and compassionate women in Einaudi’s ore deposits group were essential to her success. She recalls that “we were there for each other and really had each other’s backs. We believed we could do what we wanted to do. It was one of the amazing things that happened at Stanford in geology at that moment.” Einaudi remembers that “it really was a marvelous period. They were part of a group of students that was probably the best in the department.” The cohort met once a week as they were finishing their PhDs, being accountable to and supportive of each other. Julie Kennedy, professor emerita of Earth system science, then a graduate student in geology, recalls being “more or less adopted by this group of women in ore deposits” who showed her a different model of PhD-level scholarship that didn’t require isolation. Kennedy says, “I might have thought that a PhD was the ultimate flying solo adventure. But I learned through this supportive community how imperative it is to seek that support in our lives and to provide it for others.” And their bonds have held over the years; they have helped each other through life’s passages, most recently holding a monthly Zoom call during the COVID pandemic.
Today, Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science and an affiliated professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University, where her students come from a variety of disciplines. Her students have wildly diverse interests, she says. “Actually, most don’t work on the history of geology. They work on all kinds of different areas of science. What they have in common, and the reason they’re motivated to go into this field, is that it’s become patently, crushingly, cryingly obvious that science alone is not enough.” She points to the COVID pandemic as an example. “Our scientists did a great job,” she explains, “identifying a brand new virus and creating safe and effective vaccines. But look where we are right now: 40 percent of this country is still not vaccinated, and that’s not because the science wasn’t great. People resist vaccination for all kinds of reasons that are cultural and have to do with personal identity. There are so many issues and not a one is anything that you will learn about in a standard science class.”
Acknowledging the significance of the social and cultural dimensions of science has been central to Oreskes’s work. She talks about the “deep cultural threads in American society. If you understand the cultural dimension, then you can begin to think about effective remedies. But if you don’t understand the cultural dimension, then even the best science communication in the world won’t get you very far.”
“If you really look at the core science of climate change,” she continues, “it hasn’t changed that much in the past decade, or even more. Our failure to act on climate is not because we don’t have stable, solid science but because there are enormous political and economic forces aligned against it. It’s a very complicated cultural landscape and we can’t fix the problem if we misdiagnose it.” She describes her work as trying to determine what other pieces are needed and why. What’s going on that makes the science by itself insufficient?
Oreskes has addressed this question head on, perhaps most notably in her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, where she details the efforts of individuals and institutions to create doubt and confusion over the science behind critical health and environmental problems. “It is a ridiculously important book,” says Kennedy. “It took Naomi’s brilliant mind to connect the science with the social science and it took a lot of courage to write. It put her in a direct line of fire with powerful people and big companies.” However, Kennedy continues, “Naomi is tenacious. If she knows her analysis of the data supports it, people can agree or disagree, but she’s willing to engage.” Merchants of Doubt has since been made into a documentary film that is in broad distribution.
Find the next most important question
As a scholar, teacher, and prolific contributor to public discourse through her books, articles, and film, Oreskes has become the leader she aspired to be as a child of the Sputnik generation. Her advice to today’s students is “don’t be afraid.” If your idea doesn’t fit into a field as that field currently exists, find a way to expand it. She remembers as a student herself being advised to work on ‘the next most important question.’ “And I wondered who got to decide what that question is,” she says. “The answer is we get to decide it for ourselves.”