The Skeptical Environmentalist

  • Thread starter damgo
  • Start date
  • #1
Does anyone have opinions on this controversy?

A guy named Bjorn Lomborg published this popular book two years ago, suggesting that some environmental problems -- global warming, deforestation, etc -- were not as bad as commonly suggested. He's a statistics professor, the book was heavily referenced, and the book seems far above the typical 'there is no such thing as an environmental problem' junk written by some apologists.

Environmentalists immediately jumped on it as misleading and inaccurate, Nature and Science reviewed it unfavourably, and Scientific American devoted a lot of pages to debunking it. Normally this would be enough for me to dismiss it, but a lot of intelligent science-minded people I know seem to think Lomberg has a point and is generally being unjustly criticised because of the political implications of his views, especially from an increasingly-political SciAm. These are generally not people I would expect to take an anti-environmental stance for political/wordlview reasons. Lomborg responded in detail and SciAm published a long chain of letters and articles wrangling back and forth.

Usually I find it pretty easy to tell where the science lies in these disputes, and whether one of the parties is distorting and misrepresenting the facts, but I haven't been able to hear.

So anyone here know anything? Any good refs to suggest?

Here is the whole SciAm stuff:

The Economist has articles at: [Broken] [Broken]
Last edited by a moderator:

Answers and Replies

  • #2
The first thing that comes to my mind is the general inability for the world of science to accept something that radically differentiates from the norm. I don't confess to have an insider's point of view here, just the observation that as you look out over history, people who come up with something new, or something that flies in the face of "traditional" beliefs, is generally not well received.

Just my 2 cents ;)
  • #3
I had a quick look at the sci-am stuff and I agree it's never too certain especially when you are outside the field, however given the level of backlash I would tend to side with the scientists. Usually such a large criticism doesn't happen unless there is something kooky going on. I agree there is a possiblity that it is science not being willing to consider the alternative, but I find this unlikely given the number of experts who have looked in depth at this field and his claims in detail. More often than not science is right to dismiss a completely crazy idea and I think this may be the case. I haven't read the book so I can't offer an in depth analysis just opinion, perhaps I'll have a look at some point.
  • #4
Science Advisor
Greetings !

I read some of the critique in Scientific
American a while back. I'd like to say 3 things:
1. I have the impression that this is an
EXTREMELY complex and inclusive subject.
2. As a result I think that opinions and
estimates can easily vary greatly and it
is even more difficult when you try to
simplify this with short good or bad answers.
3. I only read the critique of Sci-Am scientists
not the response, but I got the impression
that the book was at least a bit strange in
its analisys.

My personal opinion on the larger issue:
Who bloody cares if it's half a degree or 3
and all that stuff. The simple and undeniable
fact is that this DOES cause changes and
the vast majority of the data indicates these
changes should be considered negative.
So, let's just stop this crap. :wink:

Live long and prosper.
  • #5
There was a critique in Newscientist following the scandal:

Call off the witch-hunt

New Scientist vol 177 issue 2378 - 18_January_2003, page 23

Enviromentalists do themselves no favours by demonising their adversaries. Science needs its dissidents and mavericks, says Fred Pearce

GREENS are cock-a-hoop. A blizzard of I-told-you-so emails has been doing the rounds claiming victory in their campaign to discredit Danish scientist Bjørn Lomborg and his controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

An ethics panel called the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty says Lomborg has "perverted the scientific message" through "systematically biased representation" (see "Book ruling puts Danish institute in the spotlight"). Not surprisingly, sceptics of environmentalism have cried foul. But what should independent-minded observers conclude? Is Lomborg a fraud who has got his comeuppance, a misguided maverick, or a victim of green McCarthyism?

Lomborg's book was little noticed when published in Danish in 1998. But the 2001 English edition caused a storm. It claimed, using a mass of data on everything from demographics to toxicology, that environmentalists often exaggerate wildly and have no sense of priorities: "They forget that while pesticides may carry risks they also save lives by providing more and cheaper healthy food."

An associate professor of statistics, Lomborg was cast into the political arena last year when Denmark's new conservative government made him chairman of its Environmental Assessment Institute, which has since attacked old policies from wind power to recycling.

Much of the case against Lomborg derives from a series of articles by prominent environmental scientists in Scientific American a year ago. The panel drew heavily on these in concluding that "in the light of systematic one-sidedness in the choice of data and line of argument, [Lomborg] has clearly acted at variance with good scientific practice". These articles were reasoned critiques, but harsh and polemical in tone - rather like Lomborg's own writing. One accused him of making "egregious distortions" and indulging in "wishful thinking". Another said: "Lomborg is giving scepticism - and statisticians - a bad name".

It was good knockabout stuff, and sometimes accurate. But Lomborg also got it in the neck for being unkind enough to declare the truth. For instance, his questioning of Norman Myers's widely quoted claim that the planet loses 40,000 species every year was criticised not for being unjustified but for "failing to acknowledge that Myers deserves credit for being the first to point out that the number was large". Who is upholding good scientific practice here, exactly?

One complainant to the panel accused Lomborg of "unrepentant incompetence" and "dishonesty" that "has seriously undermined the public's understanding of important contemporary scientific issues". But read the judgement carefully and you will discover that the panel cleared Lomborg of "deliberately misleading readers or gross negligence". That only deepens the mystery of what exactly his felony was. Can "systematic bias" be introduced without it being either deliberate or the result of negligence?

Whatever the answer, mud sticks. Many will unthinkingly lump Lomborg in with those data-fabricating physicists who were recently unmasked in the US. So let's be clear. Lomborg has neither fabricated data nor set out to mislead. Nor has he been grossly negligent. He has, at worst, cherry-picked his data. Doesn't everyone? Certainly some of his critics in Scientific American would not escape such a charge.

For what it's worth, I interviewed Lomborg when his book came out. He told me he believed environmentalists and their scientific allies have hooked us all on a doomsday vision of the future that stops us bringing health and wealth to those who still lack it. And in part, this is fair comment. Research is more likely to be funded if it is perceived to be addressing a serious threat, so many scientists cannot help but develop a gloomy - and, yes, sometimes alarmist - streak.

But Lomborg's antidote to this gloom is itself overblown and illogical. He told me that the "colossal sums it is planned to deploy on reducing global warming will be money ill-spent". Why? Because the problem will solve itself as renewable energy "inevitably" takes over from fossil fuels. The fallacy here is that the development of renewables is being driven by the very concerns that Lomborg says are being overplayed, and the only people talking about "colossal sums" are the oil industry suits and others who oppose renewables.

Lomborg struck me as an eager and honest researcher working outside his field and out of his depth. But science is as adversarial a process as the law. Without repeated challenges, even flawed or naïve ones, evidence and theories go stale. Science needs its dissidents and mavericks, and should be wary of resorting to these draconian Star Chamber tactics to silence them.

Lomborg is by no means a towering intellect or authority. But "undermining public understanding" and "perverting the scientific message" are nasty, catch-all charges that should have no place in a scientific court. The conviction by this Danish panel is unfair and bad for science. It is also bad for the environmentalists who have so applauded it. Lomborg will now be characterised as the victim of a green witch-hunt. I fear that his accusers have been guilty of just that.

Fred Pearce
  • #6
I remember reading the New Scientist articles, but they were written a while ago. I seem to recall that the biggest overall complaints were that the analysis was "fishy" as Drag hinted at.
  • #7
Science Advisor