Harvard's bogus ExxonMobil study
Harvard University's Naomi Oreskes and her post-doctoral fellow, Geoffrey Supran, are co-authors of a new, highly controversial study claiming that energy giant ExxonMobil purposefully misled the public on the dangers of climate change.
Usually, scientists at least try to hide their biases and political motivations in their published research, but Oreskes's hatred of the fossil fuel industry is evident here. In fairness to Oreskes, it's worth pointing out she's just a historian of science, not an actual scientist, which Mark Twain might say is like the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
Oreskes and Supran assert that at a time when ExxonMobil's internal research was pointing to the seriousness of the alleged climate change problem, its "advertorials" (paid editorial ads, essentially) were claiming the opposite: "We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science – by way of its scientists' academic publications – but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public."
One of the most significant problems with Oreskes's study is that for more than half of the 1977-2014 period Oreskes and Supran examined, ExxonMobil was not "ExxonMobil," but Exxon and Mobil, two separate, completely independent companies. They didn't merge until the end of 1999. To claim that ExxonMobil "misled" the public on climate change because Exxon's internal research said one thing while the advertorials of Mobil, a completely different company, said another is highly misleading on its own.
"What they actually examined," says Spencer Walrath of Energy in Depth, "was whether there was a 'discernable [sic] discrepancy' between the public communications of one company and the private communications of a separate company."
Then again, the purpose of this study was likely to publicly smear ExxonMobil, using whatever luster and legitimacy might be added to the study by associating it with the word "Harvard." Was the conclusion reached first, and the "evidence" marshaled second? That's entirely consistent with the behavior of academics acting as activists with an axe to grind.
Oreskes was on the ground floor of the #ExxonKnew movement, which is attempting to get the company found guilty of defrauding its investors about climate change. She sits on the board of the Climate Accountability Institute, organizers of the 2012 La Jolla Conference at which the #ExxonKnew movement was conceived. Oreskes has admitted to Congress that she has been involved in trying to convince several state attorneys general to open investigations into the company, and she has applauded their subsequent efforts.
"Did ExxonMobil deliberately mislead the public on climate change?" Oreskes asked on Twitter in 2015. "Hello! Of course they did."
Does that sound like an objective scientist who reached a conclusion based on evidence or someone who made up her mind almost two years before her study on that very topic was published?
For his part, Supran is heavily involved in the fossil fuel divestment movement. He has even organized a failed divestment pressure campaign, specifically against ExxonMobil, targeting the American Geophysical Union. He is a habitual smearer of the energy company, saying ExxonMobil has "imperiled all of humanity" and – busting out the comedy chops – that he hopes some engineer "engineers Exxon out of business." (Hey-o.)
#ExxonKnew appears to be well coordinated. Articles about the study were published simultaneously by InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and the San Diego Union-Tribune the evening prior to its release. It's well funded, too. The anti-fossil fuel Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefellers) Family Fund helped to pay for it. It's also highly determined, with powerful anti-energy allies working together to put ExxonMobil out of business. And as our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute know all too well, many involved are staunch enemies of free speech.
While supporters of #ExxonKnew will treat this study as if it were holy writ, it is really nothing more than a 19-page hit piece strongly suggestive of a "sentence first, verdict afterward" approach borrowed directly from Alice in Wonderland. For people who would like nothing more than to see ExxonMobil removed of its head, the approach is not atypical.
Timothy Benson (Tbenson@heartland.org) is a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, a free-market think-tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.