A rally in support of the New York attorney general's investigation of Exxon climate deception.A rally in support of the New York attorney general's investigation of Exxon for potential climate fraud. Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

An Exxon-funded scientist has published a paper casting doubt on research by two Harvard researchers who issued a study last year that showed a wide discrepancy between Exxon’s private climate change discussions and what it has shared with the public.

In her evaluation, Kimberly Neuendorf, a professor in the Cleveland State Department of Communications, said the peer-reviewed study by Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes and postdoctoral fellow Geoffrey Supran published last August contained “a variety of fundamental errors in their analysis.”

“In light of these significant errors and omissions, the conclusions reached by [Supran and Oreskes] are not sound, and should not be relied upon,” said Neuendorf, who also authored “The Content Analysis Guidebook,” which Oreskes and Supran referred to in their research.

In court documents filed earlier this month, Exxon cited Neuendorf’s review as further evidence that it should be allowed to depose witnesses to prepare for a possible lawsuit against officials in several California jurisdictions suing the fossil fuel industry over climate impacts.

Exxon and other fossil fuel companies are facing suits by multiple California communities, including San Francisco and Oakland, Imperial Beach, Richmond and Santa Cruz, along with the counties of Marin, San Mateo and Santa Cruz. They are part of a growing global trend toward holding the oil industry accountable for climate change.

In January, Exxon pushed back against officials in many of those communities, filing a petition in a Texas court alleging the suits are a conspiracy and in violation of its First Amendment rights. The oil giant is also counter-suing to stop investigations by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman into potential climate fraud by the company.

After comparing 187 climate change communications over 37 years, Oreskes and Supran concluded that “ExxonMobil misled the public” by contributing to the advancement of climate science while at the same time promoting doubt about it in public advertisements. The two also found Exxon’s advertisements omitted any discussion about risks of stranded assets.

In her work, which was not peer reviewed, Neuendorf said she found “seven fundamental flaws” that undermine Oreskes’ and Supran’s work, including a lack of rationale for selecting some of the documents they examined. She also alleged bias on behalf of the researchers.

Peer review—the evaluation of scholarly work by experts in the same field before a study is published—is the “gold standard” for scientific research and enhances the credibility of work compared to studies that are not peer reviewed.

Neuendorf acknowledged receiving Exxon funding, but neither she nor Exxon responded to requests for comment, nor would either confirm how much she was paid.

“I do see similar concerns to which [Neuendorf] expressed in her review, but that review itself has issues of conflict of interest and questionable motives,“ said Dr. Brendan R. Watson, an assistant professor of journalism at Michigan State University and co-author of Issues and Best Practices in Content Analysis.

“There are definitely concerns about the way [Oreskes’ and Supran’s] study was conducted—it was certainly not done according to the best practices of the content analysis method that the authors say that they’re using,” said Watson.

“That’s not to say the overall conclusion is necessarily factually wrong, its’ just to say the science is not as good as it could have been,” he said, adding that it’s easy to poke holes and flaws in studies because all studies are limited.

He said while Oreskes and Supran reported insufficient information for another social scientist to replicate the work, Neuendorf’s review is also incomplete because there’s no indication she reviewed the author’s unpublished information, which most authors are willing to provide.

Watson said that although Oreskes and Supran have been outspoken on the issue of climate change, that doesn’t mean their conclusion is incorrect.

“That in and of itself is not necessarily a disqualifier, because oftentimes as researchers we’re guided by issues we’re passionate about,” he said.

Watson said he’s uncomfortable with aspects of Neuendorf’s review which appear to be a “take-down” of Oreskes’ and Supran’s peer-reviewed work.

“The best way to really get at the issue is to have an independent third party do a review of ExxonMobil’s climate communications using the best social scientific methods and practices available,” said Watson.

Oreskes and Supran said they stand by their conclusions.

“We are in the process of publishing a peer-reviewed response and so will not be making any detailed comments until they have passed muster with independent, anonymous experts,”  Oreskes and Supran said in a statement. “Unfortunately, ExxonMobil and Professor Neuendorf do not uphold these academic standards.”

Oreskes and Supran’s research was funded in part by the Rockefeller Family Fund, which is managed by descendants of John D. Rockefeller, founder of Exxon-predecessor Standard Oil. In recent years the family has worked to expose Exxon’s role in creating doubt about the causes of climate change.

Dr. Bruno Takahashi, a Michigan State University professor and co-director of Journalism Graduate Studies who has studied climate change communication, agrees with some of Neuendorf’s criticisms about methodological flaws, but said he wouldn’t completely dismiss the work of Oreskes and Supran.

“Despite its flaws it at least suggests that there is something going on and that more research – not only in the case of Exxon but other industries too – is needed to determine the extent to which misleading public claims about climate change are communicated,” said Takahashi.

Oreskes and Supran said Neuendorf’s review is the sort of expert-for-hire doubt-mongering documented in the book and film Merchants of Doubt, which Oreskes authored with Erik Conway.

In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway illustrate how a handful of scientists obscured the truth about the health effects of smoking and how many of the same people now use similar methods to obscure the truth about climate change.

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