The U.S. Navy opened its wallet in the decades after World War II, unleashing a torrent of funding for ocean science that informs much of what we know about the physical structure of the oceans today. But that funding came with strings — the Navy would fund research only in areas it was interested in — which meant the studies would result in areas of rich knowledge as well as relative blank spots in our understanding of the seas. Naomi Oreskes, the Henry Charles Lee Professor of the History of Science, examined the complexities of all of this in her book “Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know About the Ocean.” Oreskes spoke to the Gazette about how knowing about that piece of the past helps us better understand why researchers study what they do and offers lessons about how funding affects not just science but also the paths of future scientists.

Q&A

Naomi Oreskes

GAZETTE: Navy funding for oceanographic research seems kind of an unusual follow-up for your work on climate denial and trust in science. How are these subjects related?

ORESKES: It’s not a follow-up; it’s actually a prequel. The story of this book is that I started writing it 17 years ago. This was going to be the follow-up to my work on plate tectonics, my first book. That book was very epistemological in the sense that I was interested in why scientists had rejected a theory that we would now say is true, particularly when there was abundant evidence to support the theory, evidence that in hindsight we would say was all basically correct. There was a big debate. Alfred Wegener [who formulated the theory of continental drift] wasn’t a neglected genius. Therewas a robust debate, people took the theory seriously. They looked at the evidence; they looked at the data; and they said, “No, we don’t think so.”

I was excited by that because in history you don’t get controlled experiments, but this was about as close as you could come. You had had this debate in the 1920s, then in the ’60s the debate was reopened and scientists said, “Oh yes, actually, it is true.” So that was my first book. It focused on the intellectual and epistemological aspects of the problem. It wasn’t focused on the social or political dimensions. But one of the things that I became interested in was that when the debate does get reopened in the late ’50s/early ’60s, it is reopened on the basis of a new set of evidence. And that evidence mostly came from the ocean. The story that people were telling back in the ’90s when I was doing this research or the ’80s when I was in graduate school, was that the evidence that had reopened the debate about plate tectonics had come from work funded by the U.S. Navy. The Navy was the hero in that narrative because by funding research on the ocean they had enabled scientists to return to the question of moving continents with new data, better data, more data, and get the right answer the second time around.

That was pretty interesting, and I thought, “Well, let me dig deeper into that.” So my second book was going to be about Navy-funded oceanographic research. When I was about halfway through the research on the history of oceanography, I came across the story of climate change denial. I decided to set the oceanography book aside and to write “Merchants of Doubt” because it seemed more urgent, more immediately important. I have no regrets at all that I made that choice. I think it was totally the right decision. But “Merchants of Doubt” and climate more or less took over my life. What I thought would be a two- or three-year detour ended up being more like a 10- to 12-year detour. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was able to get back to “Science on a Mission” and finish it and get it published.

That’s the long answer, but the short answer is all these things are related because I’m interested in scientific knowledge. I’m interested in where the evidence comes from that scientists use to judge scientific claims. I’m interested in how scientists judge that evidence and how they decide whether there’s enough evidence to say that something’s known, whether it’s the question of whether continents move or climate change is happening. In that sense, even though these books engage with different topics and with different approaches, they’re all about this question of evidence and the processes by which scientists judge and evaluate evidence and come to consensus. “Why Trust Science?” is about that as well.

GAZETTE: The Navy seems to have been in many ways a benevolent funder. It did support a blossoming of oceanographic research in the 20th century. What went wrong with that?

ORESKES: I wouldn’t put it that “things went wrong.” I’d say that what this study shows is that funders have a reason for funding the work they do, and that’s OK. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not immoral or illegal or anything like that. But I think we’re naive if we think that that doesn’t have consequences.

The book is trying to follow that question of consequences, both good and bad. The book argues that some Navy funding was great. Scientists learned a lot, and we made big advances in many areas. In some cases, the work with the Navy was really helpful, and it wasn’t just the money. The chapter on the thermocline makes the argument that it was not just the money but the importance of the thermocline for military activities that led Henry Stommel to pay attention to the thermocline in a way that none of his predecessors had — even people who he thought were smarter than he was. The really famous names of oceanography just never paid any attention to the thermocline. But some Navy officers were paying attention to thermocline, because it has a big impact on sonar transmissions. Stommel observes this and thinks, “Well hold on a minute. Why is there a thermocline in the first place?” A basic observational question. From there, he develops the theory of deep circulation that transforms our understanding of the deep ocean. That’s an example where the collaboration with the Navy was theoretically productive, and it wasn’t just about the money.

But I also have examples in the book where it’s not so productive. One of those examples is plate tectonics. What I found was a surprise. I started this project thinking that the story scientists told about the Navy funding of plate tectonics was right. I thought that was going to be one of the good parts of the story. But I ended up concluding it wasn’t right, that actually the opposite was true. The Navy funded a huge amount of research and a lot of data were generated. But most of the data relevant to the question of continental mobility and the structure of the ocean floor were all secret and couldn’t be discussed. The scientists who knew about these data were desperate to discuss them with their colleagues and tried repeatedly to get the Navy to declassify them so they could be freely discussed. But the Navy refused. In fact, the key data that caused the debate to be reopened didn’t come from U.S. Navy-funded science. It didn’t come from the U.S. at all. It actually came from Britain. It came from work that was not secret. So the classic story that people have told about the Navy making plate tectonics possible I now believe was incorrect.

GAZETTE: We could have known decades earlier?

ORESKES: I argue that scientists were on the verge of a breakthrough in the late 1930s, but then World War II happened. That wasn’t the Navy’s fault, that was just life. Life intervened. But after the war, some of the scientists who could have picked up that work again, particularly Harry Hess, were unable to do so because of secrecy. Hess was very upset about the classification of the ocean data and argued that it was impeding scientific progress. I think he was right: The conditions of Navy work made it impossible for him and his colleagues to advance work in that area.

GAZETTE: You mention something called the “the funding effect” in talking about the difference between the Navy and the tobacco industry as funders of science. What is it and how were the two funders different?

ORESKES: This was one of the big themes that I was trying to work through in the book. If we ask whether the Navy is a good funder or a bad funder of science, well, that’s a hard question to answer in a simple way, because it has a number of elements. One element is: Is the Navy a good funder in the sense that they want to know the truth about the world? I draw a contrast between the Navy and the tobacco industry in that we know that the tobacco industry funded science because it wasn’t interested in the truth. A good deal of the science they funded was “distracting research,” intended to deflect attention from the harms of tobacco. It was a form of misdirection. I argue that if a funder is interested in the truth and is willing to let the chips fall where they may, then they are likely to be a good patron of science. The Navy was a good funder of research in that sense, because the Navy wanted to know the truth about the natural world. That contrasts very strongly with the tobacco industry.

That said, the Navy is also interested in some things and not others. There are areas of research that get neglected because the Navy isn’t interested in funding them, and there isn’t anyone else available to fund that other work. In that sense, we can say the Navy’s not a great a funder of science, broadly construed, because it skews the science in the direction of certain kinds of things at the expense of others. That’s not a criticism of the Navy. I don’t criticize the Navy for funding things that are of interest to the Navy. In fact, it’s their obligation. It would be a misuse of federal funds if the Navy funded music. I’m not arguing for the Navy to do something different but rather request that the scientific community think about the importance of diversity in funding sources. If you allow one funder to become too overwhelming, as the Navy was this case, there will be intellectual costs to that. Mine is an argument for people who are involved in running universities or funding science to think about the importance of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

GAZETTE: Is marine biology, in particular as it relates to fisheries, one of the areas where this was the case?

ORESKES: We know that there was a big shift in focus in American oceanography as a consequence of Navy funding. In the early 20th century, a great deal of oceanography in the United States and elsewhere was funded in part because of its relationship to fisheries. And we know that in the early 20th century many people already recognized that fisheries were in trouble. This was used as an argument for why there should be more research in oceanography.

But the Navy was not interested in fish. In general, the Navy was less interested in biological oceanography than physical and chemical oceanography, although there were some areas of biological oceanography that it did fund. Navy funding led to a flourishing in the support of physical and chemical oceanography, much more so than the biological aspects, so questions about fish and fisheries ecosystems in generalwere understudied.

I think that contributed to our current situation, where we now have a massive crisis in marine ecosystems and we lack some of the basic science that we would need to know to be able to address this crisis. Many scientists think we finished with natural history at the end of the 19th century, but actually we don’t know how many fish there are in the sea. We don’t know how many species of fish there are. And we don’t even know how long some well-known fish live. These are basic scientific questions. And if you don’t know how long a fish lives, then it will be very difficult to create an effective population model. We’re having a hard time doing some of the things we need to do in order to better manage fisheries because we don’t have some of the basic scientific data that we need. I think the history I have documented helps to explain why this is.

GAZETTE: You also wrote that we don’t even know the baseline condition of the oceans, which makes it difficult to restore an ecosystem to those conditions. Now that we’re interested, they can’t be studied.

ORESKES: You can’t rewind the tape of history. In this case, some of the fish that we might want to study are gone or the ecosystems have been so changed it’s not possible to study it in its “original” form, or even to know what that original form was. What you’re looking at now is a disrupted system. You can study the disrupted system, but you can’t go back. This is the problem that biologists refer to as “shifting baselines.” This is a big issue in marine conservation: We can try to conserve a population, but if we don’t know what the environment looked like in the first place, we don’t know what the populations were in the beginning, then how can we “restore” it? If the predator-prey relationships have been disrupted, if the nutrient cycles have been disrupted, we can try to fix it but it’s going to be very, very difficult. I think this is one reason why so much fisheries “management” has not in fact worked.

GAZETTE: If the Navy had been interested in climate science back in the ’50s, how would things be different today?

ORESKES: That’s the big counterfactual of my book. One of the interesting things about the story is that in the 1960s, there was a group of scientists — oceanographers — who wanted the Navy to fund serious work on climate change. They recognized the threat of anthropogenic climate change from burning fossil fuels and that the ocean-atmosphere interaction was a big part of the story, particularly how much carbon dioxide would be absorbed into the ocean. These were fundamental scientific questions, which were recognized as really important 20, 30, or even 40 years later. So you have scientists in the early 1960s recognizing this problem and trying to get Navy interest in funding it, but the Navy wasn’t interested. The Navy didn’t see this as a significant part of its operations or its mission. So the Navy said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Of course, we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had started studying this issue seriously in the ’60s. But I think it’s fair to say that the situation would have been different. And it might have been different in a better way.

GAZETTE: Maybe it would have come to light in the ’70s, when the environment was still a nonpartisan issue?

ORESKES: Exactly. The political situation changed greatly. One of things that Erik Conway and I noted in “Merchants of Doubt” is that climate change is a bad-luck story: Before the scientific consensus comes together, Ronald Reagan is leading the Republican Party in a direction that makes it extremely difficult for them to accept the reality of the problem. If we had had the same information when Richard Nixon was president or when Gerald Ford was president, we might have had a very different political outcome.

GAZETTE: I was intrigued by a comment you made about how funding’s ability to direct scientific attention can have a big impact on the next generation of scientists.

ORESKES: It’s huge. That’s one of the important aspects of this. When I was in grad school, Allan Cox, a famous geophysicist who was the dean of our school, used to say, “You should work on the next most-important question.” That was his way of saying, “Go for the gold. Grab the brass ring. Think about what really matters and try to answer those questions.” That was great advice in a lot of ways, except that the part that he never talked about was, who decides what the next most-important question is? What is the criterion for judging importance? I think one of the things that we know from the history of science is that the next most-important question depends on what you asked last.

So, if all of the questions you’ve been asking are related to the military mission of anti-submarine warfare and they’ve led you to be very interested in the physical dynamics of the ocean, then you’re going to think that the next important question is whatever that research has led you to. I think what we’ve seen in the history of oceanography — I saw this in my own experience in graduate school — questions about the biology of ocean fisheries were viewed as very second-rate by a lot of people in the physical sciences. Marine biology and fisheries and ichthyology were “not interesting.” But why did they think they weren’t that interesting? Fish are incredibly interesting. When you start learning about fish, you realize they are kind of amazing. Coral reefs are amazing. The whole ocean is amazing, right? Just think about Jacques Cousteau.

GAZETTE: I grew up on a diet of Jacques Cousteau.

ORESKES: It’s not as if one couldn’t have made the case for why the next most-important question should have been about fish or coral reefs or marine life. But a whole generation of us were led to think that those things just weren’t that important, that they weren’t that interesting. We were led to think that the life in the ocean wasn’t the next most-important question, when in fact, when you think about the collapse of global fisheries today and the overall state of marine ecosystems, it actually probably was.

Interview was lightly edited for clarity and length.