Keynote Speaker

Why History Matters: Perspectives from the Recent History of Science

Professor Naomi Oreskes
Harvard University

Various scholars have argued for the pertinence of historical perspectives to understanding contemporary issues, but historians of science have, until recently, been mostly loathe to inject themselves into contemporary debates. One reason for this is the belief that an important contribution of our field is the understanding of how different “science” in the past was from its present configuration. It is not merely that our ideas about the world have changed, but also that our beliefs as to how we learn about the world have changed, too. Neither the definition of what constitutes “science,” nor the methods that have been considered “scientific,” have been stable over time; one can discern major changes even within the past century. Yet, despite this, prominent historians of science, myself included, have not only used history to illuminate contemporary debates, but have provided unique and important insights and perspectives. This paper explores how we have done so, and how such efforts can both contribute to society and strengthen our field as an intellectual endeavor.


Naomi Oreskes is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, and an internationally renowned geologist, science historian, and author.

Oreskes is the author of many scholarly and popular books and articles on the history of earth and environmental science, including The Rejection of Continental Drift (Oxford, 1999), Plate Tectonics: An Insider's History of the Modern Theory of the Earth (Westview, 2003), and The Collapse of Western Civilization (Columbia University Press, 2014). For the past decade, Oreskes has been primarily interested in the science and politics of anthropogenic climate change. Her 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt, How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco to Global Warming, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and won the Watson-Davis Prize from the History of Science Society. The film version was released in late 2014.

Oreskes's current research projects include completion of a scholarly book on the history of Cold War Oceanography, Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change (Chicago, forthcoming), and Assessing Assessments: A Historical and Philosophical Study of Scientific Assessments for Environmental Policy in the Late 20th Century. She has lectured widely and won numerous prizes, including the 2009 Francis Bacon Medal for outstanding scholarship in the history of science and technology, the 2011 Climate Change Communicator of the Year, and the 2014 American Geophysical Union Presidential Citation for Science and Society.