RESEARCH CHIEF DELIVERS DEATH BLOW TO HARVARD RESEARCHERS’ DEBUNKED #EXXONKNEW PAPER
By WILLIAM ALLISON
Oreskes’s and Supran’s latest work of art comes in response to an analysis on Friday from Vijay Swarup, ExxonMobil Vice President of Research and Development, that refutes, debunks, and disproves the activists’ 2017 study that falsely accused the company of misleading the public on climate change. In their strained “rebuttal to a rebuttal,” however, Oreskes and Supran further expose their report’s biased, pre-determined engineering and hypocrisy. Most notably:
- Just happening to miss a couple hundred documents as part of their original research;
- Purposely conflating three different companies, and pretending as if they were one;
- Downplaying an expert they cited;
- Failing to disclose massive conflicts of interest and engaging in hypocritical attacks.
Here’s What You Need To Know:
In August 2017, Oreskes, a Harvard professor and historian of science, and Supran, a Harvard research fellow, published a study that examined “advertorials” from ExxonMobil (and its predecessor companies) in The New York Times between 1977 and 2014 and compared them to the company’s internal documents. Based on this comparison, the report alleged to have found that the company produced internal research affirming humans’ role in climate change, but then used the advertorials to sow doubt in the public on the issue. However, the researchers’ analysis is riddled with errors and bias, throwing the credibility of their report and its conclusion into serious question.
This week’s response from Oreskes and Supran – which reinforces the faults in their 2017 report – to a rebuttal from Swarup, should have implications for the broader climate litigation campaign, as several of the complaints in those cases cite the researchers original 2017 study as supporting evidence to their misguided claims that energy companies deceived the public about climate change impacts – allegations that have yet to see any substantive success in court. These new admissions from the Harvard academics are further evidence that climate lawsuits are not backed by sound science or data but are manufactured by anti-energy activists and foundations.
“Two Methodological Flaws…Call Into Question the Publication’s Conclusions”
In response to Oreskes’s and Supran’s 2017 paper, Swarup published his own rebuttal in Environmental Research Letters, the same journal in which the initial study was reported. Despite submitting the piece for publication in March 2019, it wasn’t reviewed by the journal until December 2019 and was only published this month. Notwithstanding that delay, Swarup provides a detailed outline of how Oreskes and Supran misrepresented his company’s internal documents and advertorials in their study and skewed the data to support a thesis and conclusion that was already pre-baked:
“That conclusion is premised on at least two methodological flaws. First, the authors largely compared data from two different companies to determine whether there was a discrepancy between them. Ignoring that before 1999 Exxon Corporation and Mobil Oil Corporation were two separate companies, the authors compare the internal documents of one company to the public statements of another in an effort to find discrepancies in the messages conveyed.
“Second, the Publication assessed only a small subset of available advertorials. The authors note that ‘the company [Mobil] took out an advertorial every Thursday between 1972 and 2001’ or approximately 1560 times. Yet they chose to review only the 36 advertorials (or less than 3%) that were selected by another entity, Greenpeace, which has a well-documented history of animosity toward ExxonMobil. The authors’ reliance on limited data sets and their comparison of two unlike data sets call into question the Publication’s conclusions.” (emphasis added)
In Latest Reply, Oreskes And Supran Admit To Flaws And Hypocrisy In Research
On the same day that Swarup’s response was published by Environmental Research Letters, the journal gave Oreskes and Supran a chance to reply. In that commentary, the researchers accuse the company of “seek[ing] to discredit rather than disprove our findings.” In reality, the Swarup response does both rather efficiently. Here are some of the key flaws with the Oreskes and Supran response:
- Just happened to miss a couple hundred documents that, had they been incorporated into their original paper, would have destroyed their case
In their latest reply, Oreskes and Supran had an “oops” moment and admitted that they just happened to miss a couple hundred documents as part of the review that undergirded their original paper.
Discussing this oversight of more than 200 Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil advertorials that were published during the time period the researchers examined in their study, Oreskes and Supran wrote in their reply, “After our study was published, we became aware of additional relevant advertorials (which Swarup emphasizes).”
That two Harvard-affiliated researchers wouldn’t have access to or be aware of all the publicly available, objective data for a Harvard-backed study published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal seems unlikely, yet a review of Oreskes and Supran’s report days after it was published found they only included a fraction of the publicly available advertorial data and sourced that data from a Greenpeace database.
In an independent review, EID Climate found 69 ExxonMobil advertorials published during the time period raised in Oreskes and Supran’s study that discuss climate change. EID’s sample was gathered by searching ProQuest – which we accessed via a public library card – for ExxonMobil advertorials published on Thursdays between late 1999, when Exxon and Mobil merged, and April 2010, after which the company appeared to cease publishing regular Thursday advertorials. In total, EID examined 287 advertorials; Oreskes and Supran analyzed 36.
Rather than choose to source their advertorials from this database (as we at EID did), Oreskes and Supran took their advertorials from PolluterWatch, a Greenpeace-housed database created by #ExxonKnew activist Kert Davies during his time at the activist group.
But where did Greenpeace get its source material? According to the Oreskes and Supran study, it came from ProQuest, the very same database from which EID found 287 advertorials.
So, what gives? Are we just better at conducting basic research than others? Not really. They didn’t capture all those additional advertorials because they didn’t want to capture them – because they knew that introducing that content into their report would make it harder for them to construct the conclusions they needed to get to, and which from the start represented the basic rationale for this whole exercise.
- Still conflating Exxon and Mobil (two separate firms back then) with ExxonMobil
In their reply, Oreskes and Supran made the perhaps unconscious admission that they did indeed conflate documents from Exxon and Mobil with those published by ExxonMobil in their original 2017 study. In their commentary to Swarup on Friday, the authors wrote, “[O]ur original study explicitly attributed each individual advertorial to one of Exxon, Mobil, or ExxonMobil Corp.”
But a review of their 2017 study shows that this is not true. Table 1 (image below) from Oreskes’s and Supran’s study lists all the different documents the pair reviewed without distinguishing which items belonged to Exxon, Mobil, or ExxonMobil. This is an egregious error, as of the 36 advertorials identified below, 25 of them were published by Mobil prior to its merger with Exxon, leaving the “provided by ExxonMobil” label in the table to be misleading. Remove the Mobil submissions from the mix, and the universe of applicable advertorials is reduced by 70 percent. Supran even misleadingly attributed a 1997 Mobil advertorial to Exxon despite there being clear a Mobil logo on the piece and no mention of Exxon.
Looking further into their study, this lack of correct attribution holds true for Tables 3-6 which provide further examples of specific documents and advertorials that the researchers examined without noting which items belonged to which company.
Likewise, sections 3.1 and 3.2 discuss the same documents as listed in Table 1. Again, there are plenty of mentions of “ExxonMobil” but no explicit attribution to either Exxon or Mobil. Additionally, conflating the companies went beyond labeling in tables and was emphasized in the text of their study as well:
“Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives were, for the most part, aware and accepting of the evolving climate science from the 1970s onwards, but they painted a different picture in advertorials.”
While the above statement was intended to imply otherwise, ExxonMobil was not a company in the 1970s, as Exxon and Mobil did not merge until 1999.
In their reply to Swarup’s rebuttal, Oreskes and Supran’s only defense for conflating the two companies was to say that “when Exxon and Mobil merged, ExxonMobil Corp inherited legal and moral responsibility for the parent companies.” But that’s not an excuse for making misleading statements about the company and failing to “explicitly attribute” the documents cited in their research to its correct source.
- Strangely attacking the same experts they previously cited
In their 2017 study, Oreskes’ and Supran’s analysis heavily relied on a methodology known as content analysis and even cited a book written by Cleveland State University professor Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Ph.D. – one of the top scholars in this field.
So, it might have taken the Harvard researchers by surprise when Neuendorf wrote a scathing rebuttal to their study in February 2018. Based on her own analysis, Neuendorf found that Oreskes and Supran’s study relied on data analysis that is “unreliable, invalid, biased, not generalizable, and not replicable.” She continues:
“After a detailed review of the study, its supplementary information (“SI”), and the documents S&O [Supran and Oreskes] analyzed for their study, I have concluded that S&O’s content analysis does not support the study’s conclusions because of a variety of fundamental errors in their analysis.” (emphasis added)
In his own response to the study, ExxonMobil’s Swarup mentioned Neuendorf and her own rebuttal, adding it to his list of evidence that goes to show Oreskes’ and Supran’s report is without merit. This led the researchers to take Neuendorf to task in their own reply this week:
“Swarup also claims that Neuendorf ‘developed’ the content analysis method our study employs. This is patently false: as her own report acknowledges, content analysis ‘dat[es] to the early 20th century.’”
Sure, Neuendorf may not have invented content analysis, but she is known to be “one of the preeminent scholars in the field of document analysis,” with one University of Texas professor saying she is “among the top three trusted sources on this topic.” It was probably for these reasons that it was her textbook on the subject – as opposed to the many others available – that Oreskes and Supran chose to cite in their report.
- Failing to disclose egregious conflicts of interest
Oreskes and Supran also failed to disclose a massive conflict of interest. They acknowledged their 2017 study was financially supported by the Rockefeller Family Fund, but they never disclose to the reader that RFF and other Rockefeller organizations manufactured the entire climate litigation campaign with the explicit aim to “take down” ExxonMobil. Their latest commentary also acknowledges RFF support but then they somehow “declare no conflicts of interest.” Both Supran and Oreskes knew in 2017 that RFF was engaged in a campaign against ExxonMobil and they knew their research was supporting that campaign, but still, they stayed silent on this conflict of interest.
Yet, despite receiving funding from RFF to produce their study, Oreskes and Supran hypocritically attack Neuendorf’s work because she was paid by ExxonMobil (which was disclosed) to conduct her analysis of their study:
“ExxonMobil Corp seek to discredit rather than disprove our findings. … Swarup describes [Neunendorf’s] review as conducted ‘at ExxonMobil’s request.’ What he fails to disclose is that they did not merely make a request, they hired her to write it. This is yet another example of the use of ‘experts for hire’ that one of us (NO) has documented in previous work.”
Yet, just four paragraphs later in that same commentary, Oreskes and Supran think it’s completely acceptable to make the very accusation they just leveled at ExxonMobil:
“Faced with this, Swarup resorts to the familiar tactic of trying to create doubt about scientific conclusions by questioning the research methodologies used or the motivations of the researchers.”
Oreskes And Supran Aren’t Independent, Objective Researchers
Finally, and if it wasn’t already obvious, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran are not the type of independent and objective researchers most people would assume from a pair of Harvard researchers publishing a scientific paper.
As EID Climate has shown previously, they are leaders in the climate litigation and divestment campaigns and their work is performed to support those efforts. The New York Times credits Oreskes with having conceived the infamous 2012 La Jolla Conference where activists and lawyers planned out the public relations and legal strategy for the climate litigation campaign that’s resulted in more than 24 lawsuits filed against major energy companies. She has worked with Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute to develop the so-called “attribution science,” that was purposely created to support litigation. In 2015, Oreskes tweeted, “Did Exxon deliberately mislead the public on climate change? Hello. Of course, they did!”
In Supran’s Twitter bio, he describes himself as a “Scientist-Activist” who is “studying Big Fossil’s climate propaganda.” He’s also been a leading advocate for the divestment campaign that seeks to pressure college endowments and other institutional investors to drop fossil fuel producers from their portfolios.
These researchers are actually activists. And, needless to say: that’s OK! But please! Can we now stop pretending that they’re anything different?