2019 Mary C. Rabbitt History and Philosophy of Geology Award

Presented to Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes
Harvard University


Citation by Jody Bourgeois, University of Washington

We are honored that the 2019 Mary C. Rabbitt Award goes to geologist and historian Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.  Dr. Oreskes fits the award criteria superbly, having made exceptional scholarly contributions of fundamental importance to our understanding of both the history and the philosophy of geoscience. She is also a noted science communicator, in 2015 receiving GSA’s Public Service Award. Other awards include the 2019 British Academy Medal, the 2016 Stephen Schneider Award, the 2015 Herbert Feis Prize of the American Historical Association, and the 2014 AGU Presidential Citation for Science and Society.  Dr. Oreskes has also served the history of earth science community in a number of capacities. Of particular note, her co-leadership of the 1994 GSA Penrose Conference, “From the inside and the outside: Interdisciplinary perspectives on the history of the Earth Sciences” has had a significant impact on the field. 

Dr. Oreskes is a prolific scholar, author or co-author of over 200 scholarly and popular books, articles, and opinion pieces, including books entitled The Rejection of Continental Drift: Theory and Method in American Earth Science, Merchants of DoubtThe Collapse of Western CivilizationWhy Trust Science? (also a TED talk with 1.2 million views), and Science on a Mission: American Oceanography from the Cold War to Climate Change (forthcoming).  Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik Conway, was the subject of a documentary film and has been translated into nine languages.

Oreskes’ research has focused on earth and environmental sciences, with a particular interest in understanding scientific consensus and dissent.  Her highly cited 1994 article, "Verification, validation, and confirmation of numerical models in the Earth Sciences" was an important step in making clear what models can and cannot do, informing the debate about how to build a successful model, and how to analyze a model's predictions.  Oreskes continues to delve more deeply and also more generally into the epistemology of science. Recurring themes in her work on the philosophy and sociology of science include “validation” “confirmation” “consensus” “doubt” “assessment” “uncertainty” and “prediction.”

Of particular note in her contributions to the history of geoscience is her well-received book, The Rejection of Continental Drift…, a powerful illustration of, and a crucial corrective to key aspects of Kuhn's account of scientific revolutions. The book complicates our understanding of how evidence comes to be recognized and how dependent it is on social, intellectual and technological factors. It also illustrates how hard-won empirical evidence can mobilize what Oreskes describes as processes of `unmaking` and remaking scientific knowledge.  Dr. Oreskes has also co-edited historical volumes on plate tectonics and on geophysics and published a number of papers on the history of 20th century oceanography.  In these works, Professor Oreskes has contributed substantially to moving the history of science away from histories of reductionist programs toward a history of our developing understanding of a natural world characterized by large, complex systems. 

In all her scholarly and public work, from continental drift to the Anthropocene, from women in science to government in science, from economic geology to NY Times editorials, Naomi Oreskes brings her deep understanding of geoscience and of history, as well as her wisdom and passion, to all that she does.  As a geologist, a historian of geo/ocean sciences, a philosopher of science and a public figure, Dr. Oreskes is well deserving of the Mary C. Rabbitt Award.


Response by Naomi Oreskes

I am very pleased to accept the 2019 Mary C. Rabbitt Award for the history and the philosophy of geoscience.  I am grateful to Jody Bourgeois for nominating me, for this generous citation, and for her friendship.

When I started in this field, nearly 30 years ago, there were only a handful of people—all men—who earned a living as historians of geoscience: Ken Taylor, Martin Rudwick, Mott Greene, David Oldroyd, James Secord, Gregory Good, James Fleming.  (Apologies if I have missed anyone else!) Many colleagues warned me that I was diving into dangerous territory: one person said that everyone would think what I was doing was very interesting, but no one would hire me to do it.  Others told me gravely that I was “throwing away my scientific career.” But this cadre of colleagues reassured me that even if the road might be rocky, well, geologists like rocks, right? I am particularly grateful to Martin Rudwick, Mott Greene, Ken Taylor, and the late David Oldroyd for their professional and personal support.  I was lucky to have such smart and generous colleagues at a critical stage in my career.  I am also grateful to my long-time colleagues in the History Department and Science Studies program at the University of California, San Diego, for giving me my first “real” job as a historian. (Or is that my first job as a “real historian”?)

Fast forward to the present, what I do is still at times controversial, if for entirely different reasons.  I am extremely grateful to my colleagues in the history of science department at Harvard University, for having validated not just my career, but the very idea that a historian of geoscience could be a leader in the field of history of science, tout court. Thanks also to my Harvard colleagues in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences for accepting me as the geoscientist that I still consider myself to be. 

I have always felt that once a geologist, always a geologist. And so it is--as a geologist at heart--that I happily and heartily accept this wonderful award from GSA.