I’m not a fan of Michael Oppenheimer. To me, he mocks those things I most respect and admire about science. Scientists are supposed to observe reality accurately, objectively, dispassionately, neutrally. They’re supposed to be on guard for all the ways that our human brains can trick us into seeing things that aren’t really there.

When people mix activism and science we can no longer trust that their scientific conclusions are the result of an objective appraisal of the data. Scientists are not supposed to view the world through rose-coloured glasses – or through green-coloured ones, either.

Oppenheimer was the Environmental Defense Fund‘s (EDF) chief scientist for more than two decades. To get a sense of the wealth and influence of this US-based NGO take a look at its list of staff experts. There are 130 names on that list. They have a program manager for “Latin America & Caribbean” and a separate one for Cuba. They have seven attorneys, eight economists, a recreational fisheries specialist, and a vice-president of corporate sponsorships.

That is one expensive payroll. The only way green groups get their hands on that kind of money is if they spend a lot of time convincing a lot of people that the world is headed straight to hell in a handcart. Oppenheimer, therefore, spent two decades lending his scientific seal of approval to an organization that continually promotes scare stories.

When he gets introduced to audiences the public is typically told about his Nobel Prize. What they often are not told is that Oppenheimer’s Nobel isn’t a science prize. Rather, it’s the Peace Prize. It was awarded to the entire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (and to politician Al Gore) for helping raise awareness about climate change. Rarely – as in probably never – is the public advised to keep in mind that the man who is about to speak was employed by an activist group for more than twenty years (see here).

All of this being said, in a milieu in which there is so much discourtesy and disrespect, in which ugly names are continuously hurled at people who think differently, Oppenheimer appears to have been rather a gentleman recently. While delivering a talk at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, he was asked about climate skeptics. His response, according to a news article:

Even smart humans will hold weird opinions.

Oppenheimer apparently went on to suggest that some people can’t be bothered to listen to the scientific facts. Which undermines him a little, since eminent scientists such as Freeman Dyson would no doubt retort that they’re aware of the facts thank you very much, they merely think they add up to a different conclusion.

Nevertheless, at a moment in history in which scientists in the employ of the US government are delivering speeches in which climate skeptics are referred to as “deniers” it’s encouraging to see Oppenheimer demonstrate a bit more class.

His admission that skeptics might be smart people is a step in the right direction.


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