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Or, "'Shut up,' They Explained"
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The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty recently ruled that Bjørn Lomborg’s book
The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the True State of the Planet constitutes “scientific dishonesty.” Far from proving that Lomborg engaged in academic or scientific fraud, however, the report reveals the highly politicized state of environmental science: Lomborg’s real sin is environmental incorrectness.
As with the line from a Ring Lardner story that reads “‘Shut up,’ he explained,” the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued an official ruling that Bjørn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist constitutes “scientific dishonesty.” In doing so, the DCSD–a branch of the Danish Research Agency, equivalent to our National Academy of Sciences–may have done for Lomborg and sensible environmental discourse what the Inquisition did for Galileo and astronomy in the seventeenth century. The report makes clear just how much “environmental science” has become politicized.
Lomborg, a professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, traces the origin of his book to a chance reading of an interview with the late Julian Simon, whose attacks on environmental pessimism always raised the hackles of environmentalists. Being a self-described “old left-wing Greenpeace member,” Lomborg was appalled at Simon’s views and supposed them to be “simple, American right-wing propaganda.”
“I was provoked,” Lomborg explains. “I had never really questioned my belief in an ever deteriorating environment–and here was Simon, telling me to put my beliefs under the statistical microscope.” Being a professor of statistics, he made a class project of checking the data and refuting Simon. But a funny thing happened on the way to debunking Simon: “Not everything he said was correct but–contrary to our expectations–it turned out that a surprisingly large amount of his points stood up to scrutiny and conflicted with what we believed ourselves to know.”
Thus chastened, Lomborg set out in The Skeptical Environmentalist to refute what he calls the litany:
We are all familiar with the Litany: the environment is in poor shape here in Earth. Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct in vast numbers–we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing and the coral reefs are dying. We are defiling our Earth, the fertile topsoil is disappearing; we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.
“There is just one problem,” Lomborg adds. The litany “does not seem to be backed up by the available evidence.” The Skeptical Environmentalist reviews trend data, primarily from UN or other government sources, for hundreds of environmental variables and finds that most aspects of the world’s environment are either improving or are not catastrophic as the public imagines. Lomborg quickly adds that he is not saying that the environment is fine, that there is no cause for worry, or that civilization should be content with the current state of things. The point of assessing and comparing various environmental trends is to help policymakers set priorities among different environmental problems. “When things are improving,” Lomborg writes, “we know we are on the right track. Although perhaps not at the right speed.” Conversely, misleading perceptions lead to misallocation of resources, especially in wealthy countries. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found in an internal study more than a decade ago, funding priorities are often in inverse proportion to the seriousness of environmental problems.
Stories of scholars changing their mind after setting out to prove or disprove a popular view are often sensational news. Unsurprisingly The Skeptical Environmentalist was widely publicized in the United States, Britain, and Canada. A reviewer in the Washington Post called the book “the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962. It’s a magnificent achievement.” The New York Times wrote a positive news feature in its science section. The Economist praised the book as “a powerful and persuasive assault on the central tenets of the modern environmental movement” and invited Lomborg to write a special feature. The Times Higher Education Supplement wrote that Lomborg “has written probably the most comprehensive, up-to-date and provocative contribution to environmental optimism so far, and a book that is accessible to academics, students and virtually anybody interested in environmental issues.” Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper ran four articles from Lomborg. Even the leftish Jesuit Andrew Greeley praised the book in a syndicated newspaper column.
Initially even a few environmentalists reacted positively to Lomborg’s book. The chairman of the Swedish World Wildlife Fund, Lars Kristoferson, provided a dust-jacket blurb. The executive vice president of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States, David Sandalow, made some guardedly favorable comments about Lomborg’s approach while criticizing many particular points. “There’s lots I agree with in what Professor Lomborg has said in his book,” Sandalow said in a public forum with Lomborg in Washington in October 2001. “I absolutely agree that the end of the world is not nigh. I absolutely agree that we need better information for policymaking particularly in the environmental area. And I absolutely agree that many trends are getting better in the world.”
This mild degree of comity did not last. Many environmentalists turned their full ire on Lomborg with a degree of invective usually reserved for religious heretics. Lomborg’s critics set up anti-Lomborg websites and began raising a ruckus in the media. The London Daily Telegraph (January 20, 2002) observed: “To the nabobs of the international environmental movement–the researchers, bureaucrats, politicians, and protesters whose most passionate beliefs and professional livelihoods are staked on the near-religious conviction that the world is confronting imminent environmental catastrophe–Lomborg is the anti-Christ.” The Union of Concerned Scientists commissioned several authors to rebut Lomborg. The World Resources Institute and the World Wildlife Fund distributed an open letter to the Society of Environmental Journalists with an analysis of “nine things journalists should know about The Skeptical Environmentalist.“ The January 2002 edition of Scientific American took the usual step of inviting several prominent environmentalists to rebut Lomborg and argued that The Skeptical Environmentalist “is marred by an incomplete use of the data or a misunderstanding of the underlying science.” Stephen Schneider blasted Cambridge University Press for a lack of peer review by scientists, while the usually mild-mannered Edward O. Wilson described Lomborg’s book as “willful ignorance” and “destructive campaigning.” (In fact Cambridge University Press sent the book to four outside reviewers: three earth scientists and one social scientist. All recommended the book for publication.)
A book of Lomborg’s scope inevitably has some factual errors, arguable conclusions, or omissions: some specific criticisms have validity. But some prominent environmentalists have become, in the words of the Economist, “apoplectic” and describe Lomborg’s book as a “scam.” Some have even said the book should not have been published. The Economist described the Scientific American rebuttal as “strong on contempt and sneering, but weak on substance” and added that Edward O. Wilson is exhibiting “insufferable arrogance.” In fact, as David Schoenbrod noted in Commentary, the entire eleven-page Scientific American treatment of Lomborg specified only nine factual errors: “Seven of these melt away upon inspection.” Much of the SA critique admitted that Lomborg was correct on many particulars but argued that Lomborg interprets the data incorrectly or ignores other data.
The level of vituperation directed at Lomborg belies either a disturbing self-righteousness that brooks no criticism or a lack of confidence that supposedly superior science can win out in a sustained debate. If environmentalists have become optimistic, why the ferocious attack on Lomborg? The tacit premise of the attacks on Lomborg seems to be that, as the Economist put it, suggesting the environment is a cause for optimism is “beyond the pale of respectable discourse.”
The second argument against Lomborg is amusingly ironic and exposes the fissures among environmentalists. Lomborg’s litany, they say, is a caricature of what environmentalists really think. Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute argues that Lomborg’s litany is attacking a straw man. Hammond said the litany “paints a caricature of the environmental agenda based on sometimes mistaken views widely held thirty years ago, but to which no serious environmental institution subscribes today,” while Sandalow said that Lomborg’s litany “ignores all the good news about the environment regularly put out by environmental groups.”
If environmental groups are putting out good news, they must be doing it in the quiet of night: that news seems to have reached neither the media, political leaders, nor the public. Polls repeatedly show that great majorities of Americans think environmental quality in the United States is worsening. The most startling is a Roper poll in 1998 in which 57 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “the next ten years will be the last decade when humans will have a chance to save the earth from environmental catastrophe.” (The number had been rising, not falling, in successive Roper polls before the question was discontinued in 1999.) Why would the public think that if environmentalists have abandoned the gloom-and-doom view of thirty years earlier and are now putting out good news? Incredibly, environmentalists say that the media are misleading the public. Lomborg’s critics especially complain about the favorable media attention that he has received, although the publicity for Lomborg’s contrary view represents a pebble in the ocean compared with the favorable publicity routinely accorded environmental alarmism.
The deeper answer is that Lomborg is fundamentally correct about the litany, even though the terms or focus of pessimism may have changed. The noisiest advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Worldwatch Institute have not abandoned their doomsday views. The public face of environmentalism remains highly pessimistic and alarmist, as some environmentalists candidly admit. The president of the Wilderness Society, William Meadows, told the Sacramento Bee in 2001: “Candidly I am tired of the Wilderness Society and other organizations–and we are a culprit here–constantly preaching gloom and doom. We do have positive things to say.” But if serious environmentalists have a more balanced view about basic trends and the world’s prospects, they have a duty to correct media misperceptions.
The World Resources Institute’s Allen Hammond may have started doing so in a small way. Hammond dismissed one of the leading figures of modern environmentalism, who is one of Lomborg’s main targets: the longtime head of the Worldwatch Institute, Lester Brown. Hammond said that “I would not regard [Brown] in fact as a significant figure in advancing environmental concerns.” But the Washington Post described Brown, who has won both a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and the United Nations Environment Prize, as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” Hammond’s comment is akin to a conservative saying that Milton Friedman is not a significant figure within free-market ideology.
A few serious environmentalists are beginning to mature, to place environmental issues in proportion, to recognize and celebrate human creativity in solving real problems without scaring the public to achieve progress. Michael Grubb of Cambridge University wrote in a Science magazine review of Lomborg that “to any professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply.” That opinion is news for most of the new media and the public: they seldom hear it from environmentalists. If they did, Lomborg would have sold fewer books and received much less attention.
Call the Inquisition!
Last spring three separate complaints were made to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, an official government body that seemingly emerged from the imagination of George Orwell. The hall-of-mirrors character of the report emerges from a complaint from Stuart Pimm and Jeffrey Harvey: the Nature magazine reviewers wrote that Lomborg “employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren’t dying of AIDS, that Jews weren’t singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on.” Yet the DCSD criticizes Lomborg for personal attacks without offering a single example.
The DCSD report says that Lomborg “is accused of fabricating data, selectively and surreptitiously discarding unwanted results, of the deliberately misleading use of statistical methods, consciously distorted interpretation of the conclusions, plagiarization of others’ results or publications, and deliberate misrepresentation of others’ results.” Those are serious charges, on the same level of professional and academic misconduct that recently cost the job and reputation of an Emory University professor, Michael Bellesiles, for fabricated data in his award-winning book Arming America. Surprisingly the DCSD report is a skimpy seventeen pages and offers not a single example of fabricated, suppressed, or distorted data. By contrast the Emory University report into the Bellesiles matter is forty pages with detailed evidence and analysis of the professor’s fabrications. The mere mention of fabrication and willful distortion in an official government report without any evidence compares with the worst McCarthyite innuendo.
Half the DCSD report merely summarizes the Scientific American critique of Lomborg without acknowledging Lomborg’s replies (which the journal initially refused to publish). This is the only “evidence” the report offers bearing on the charge of scientific dishonesty. The remainder of the report is a meditation on the scientific process, which, the report argues, Lomborg did not follow. The accusation is a far different matter than saying data or research is fraudulent, dishonest, or untrue. The discussion contains this especially precious howler: “It is out of keeping with good scientific practice for a researcher to publish by bypassing specialist academic fora, i.e., to notify news media of a result that has not yet been subjected to professional scrutiny in the customary fashion.” By that standard of judging the “scientific” probity of works on the environment, the Danish Committees will be working overtime, for that wording describes virtually every book by Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, Jeremy Rifkin, and Stephen Schneider, as well as the he Worldwatch Institute’s annual State of the World report, the Global 2000 Report to the President, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report, and the American Lung Association’s annual “State of the Air” report. Why is the standard selectively applied to Lomborg and not other environmental writers whose use of data and conclusions are controversial and open to scientific challenge?
The DCSD report inadvertently admits that the trouble with Lomborg is not scientific at all, but political:
The topics dealt with by Bjørn Lomborg’s book are of great social import and hence of corresponding political interest. It is the view of the Working Party that the many, particularly American researchers, who have received Bjørn Lomborg’s book with great gusto, even in a specifically negative fashion, are unlikely to have given the book the time of day unless it had received such overwhelmingly positive write-ups in leading American newspapers and in the Economist. The USA is the society with the highest energy consumption in the world, and there are powerful interests in the USA bound up with increasing energy consumption and with the belief in free market forces. The USA is also responsible for a substantial part of the research into this and other areas dealt with by Bjørn Lomborg. (emphasis added)
In other words Lomborg is environmentally incorrect; he is being censured for political, not scientific, reasons, just as Galileo was convicted for political rather than theological reasons in the seventeenth century.
The Danish agency’s conclusion that Lomborg is guilty of “scientific dishonesty” rests on the narrow grounds that Lomborg “clearly acted at variance with good scientific practice.” Again, no evidence is given to back the statement, beyond the generalized complaint that Lomborg is not an environmental specialist and did not go through rigorous peer review in specialized scientific journals. In other words Lomborg did not play by the club rules. Having called Lomborg dishonest, the DCSD then goes on to qualify its conclusion: “In consideration of the extraordinarily wide-ranging scientific topics dealt with by the defendant without having any special scientific expertise, however, the DCSD has not found–or felt able to procure–sufficient grounds to deem that the defendant has misled his readers deliberately or with gross negligence” (emphasis in original).
The DCSD report then ends abruptly with a confusing ruling:
Objectively speaking, the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty.
In view of the subjective requirements made in terms of intent or gross negligence, however, Bjørn Lomborg’s publication cannot fall within the bounds of this characterization. Conversely, the publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.
Untangling the Confusion
A few observations are necessary to untangle the DCSD’s purposeful confusion. First, the DCSD engaged in a certain slight-of-hand. The secretariat can sustain the view that Lomborg was dishonest only by suggesting that the conventional academic practice of specialization and peer review is the exclusive form of objective science and that failing to conform to these conventions is dishonest if one dissents from the consensus. That notion is nonsense. The path of science is much more convulsive, as argued elaborately and famously in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. “Normal science” Kuhn reminds us, “often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments.” The characterization seems especially apt in describing the overriding political commitments that afflict many corners of environmental science.
The DCSD’s unargued corollary is that a statistical approach (Lomborg’s academic specialty) to understanding the environment is illegitimate. That implication is so ludicrous that it requires no extensive refutation.
Second, the DCSD clearly does not want to stand behind a serious finding of dishonesty or scholarly negligence: to do so would compel a finding that Lomborg should be dismissed from his teaching post and from his appointed post in the Danish government’s Institute for Environmental Assessment. That dismissal is surely the aim of the critics who brought their complaint against him. The New York Times reported that Lomborg expressed concern about his post but “government officials, however, told Danish news organizations that the criticism of the book did not jeopardize Professor Lomborg’s job.” The DCSD report is accurately perceived in Denmark as a hatchet job.
Again, contrasting the DCSD report with the Emory University inquiry into Bellesiles is helpful. Despite granting the benefit of every doubt, the Emory report concludes forcefully and in painstaking detail that Bellesiles falsified data, lied about his archival research, and fell “short of the standard of professional historical scholarship.” Next to the inquiry into the Bellesiles affair, the DCSD report is a farce, as it verges on admitting in an amazing sentence: “It is not DCSD’s remit to decide who is right in a contentious professional issue, but merely whether a complaint about scientific dishonesty is justified.” In other words, the DCSD report does not rule on the merits or substance of the controversy, even though it refers to Lomborg ominously as “the defendant.” The DCSD report leaves open the possibility that Lomborg could be right on many particulars–right, but dishonest.
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” Orwell reminded us in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” Even allowing for a poor translation from Danish, the DCSD report reeks of the insincerity of a political witch hunt disguised as high-minded, objective science. Already some environmentalists are grabbing onto the headlines as though they suffice to discredit completely the whole of Lomborg’s work. In the fullness of time the sorry episode may come to be regarded as another triumph of romantic environmentalism over practical environmentalism, a distinction described previously in the Environmental Policy Outlook. As suggested above, some environmentalists have engaged Lomborg in a serious and thoughtful way, but their sober arguments are drowned out by the fury of the romantic environmentalists, who cannot accept Lomborg’s dissent from environmental correctness. Surely serious environmentalists will find the DCSD report embarrassing and regrettable.
The disingenuous and politicized DCSD report was enough to generate the adverse news media headlines that Lomborg’s critics surely had in mind. The Washington Post story, for example, makes no effort to explain the ambiguity of the DCSD report, nor did the reporter make an effort to contact Lomborg for his reaction. The New York Times story by Andrew Revkin was much better on both counts. Revkin’s story quotes Lomborg’s reaction (“You can’t say I’m scientifically dishonest or in breach of good scientific conduct unless you point the finger and say this is the smoking gun.”) and notes that “because Dr. Lomborg was not found grossly negligent, he could not be found formally to have been scientifically dishonest.”
Yet the New York Times story does contain one regrettable sentence that highlights the entire problem with the wider discourse on the environment. Lomborg’s book, the story reads, “has been widely cited by conservative groups, commentators and elected officials who oppose strict environmental regulations” (emphasis added). That opinion misreads Lomborg’s central purpose and the more thoughtful use of his kind of analysis, which is not to roll back environmental regulations, but to set more intelligent priorities so that environmental protection is effective. Our viewpoint is not that too much money is spent on environmental protection, but that it is often spent badly, either on lower priority concerns, or, worse, on billion-dollar solutions to million-dollar problems. Environmentalists should welcome Lomborg’s kind of analytical scrutiny because it will lead to more effective outcomes in the real world. Practical environmentalists no more accept or defend wasteful policies and regulations any more than supporters of a strong military accept or defend $600 toilet seats or $800 hammers in the Pentagon budget.
Single-minded interest groups typically resist that kind of common-sense thinking. Thus many romantic environmentalists have reacted so harshly to Lomborg’s perspective. In suggesting that environmental issues should be placed in perspective along with other competing goods, Lomborg implicitly demotes environmental claims to the same level as other public interests. But the environmental movement has always enjoyed an exalted status, a very special interest that transcends all other special interests, because of the prospect that the future of the planet was at stake. To be thought of as just another interest group among interest groups caused great anxiety and insecurity among the more politicized environmental activists. But their behavior in the Lomborg controversy, capped by the DCSD report, suggests that many environmentalists deserve to be so regarded.
1. The report is available in English (accessed January 8, 2003).
2. The Skeptical Environmentalist, p. 3.
3. As Lomborg puts it: “[The litany] makes us scared and it makes us more likely to spend our resources and attention solving phantom problems while ignoring real and pressing (possibly nonenvironmental) issues. That is why it is important to know the real state of the world.”
4. A 1993 EPA-commissioned review of its priorities concluded: “EPA’s budget and staff resources are not allocated on the basis of risk. Consequently, more than 80 percent of EPA’s resources are spent on pollutants considered to be relatively low risk by federal standards.” See Marc Smolonsky, David Dickson, and Elise Caplan, Annual Review of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Washington, D.C.: Center for Resource Economics, 1993), p. 1. The EPA has stopped conducting that kind of self-critical review.
5. Consider, for example, the case of Allen Weinstein, who set out in the 1970s to prove the innocence of Alger Hiss, only to conclude that Hiss was guilty after all–Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (New York: Random House, 1978)–or Ronald Radosh, who set out to prove the innocence of the Rosenbergs, only to conclude that the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty as charged–Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File, 2d ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997). Both books created a media sensation and furious backlash.
6. Denis Dutton, “Greener Than You Think,” Washington Post, October 21, 2001, p. BW01.
7. Nicholas Wade, “From an Unlikely Quarter, Eco-Optimism,” New York Times, August 7, 2001, p. F-1.
8. Eric Neumayer, “Picking Holes in Litany of Loss,” Times Higher Education Supplement, November 16, 2001, p. 23.
9. Greeley’s conclusion is instructive: “There is little difference between environmental prophets of doom and predictions of the fundamentalist’s prophecy about the ‘Late Great Planet Earth.’ Both are Calvinist, both try to scare people into virtuous behavior. Both expect the end of the world for reasons of blind faith. Against such faith, Lomborg’s careful, detailed, precise statistical analyses are, I fear, useless.”
10. Remarks delivered at forum of the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution Joint Center for Regulatory Studies, October 3, 2001, available online.
11. See www.anti-Lomborg.com (accessed January 8, 2003); the Grist Magazine site, www.gristmagazine.com/grist/books/lomborg121201.asp, has been taken down. Lomborg’s replies are found on his own website.
12. www.wri.org/press/mk_lomborg_lash_sej.html (accessed January 8, 2003).
13. “Defending Science,” Economist, February 2, 2002, p. 15.
14. David Schoenbrod, “The Mau-Maung of Bjørn Lomborg,” Commentary, September 2002, p. 54.
15. See Ronald Bailey’s review of the SA critique (accessed January 8, 2003).
16. Remarks delivered at AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies forum, October 3, 2001, available online.
17. There are a few notable exceptions. California Governor Gray Davis remarked in 2000: “By almost every measure the environment today is better than it was ten years ago. The air is cleaner, the water is purer, and the land is better protected.” See also David Whitman, “It’s a Breath of Fresh Air: Thirty Years after Earth Day, America Is Getting Its Environmental Act Together,” U.S. News and World Report, April 17, 2000, p. 16.
18. He was quoted in the Tom Knudson series “Environment, Inc.,” available online (accessed January 8, 2003).
19. Michael Grubb, “Relying on Manna from Heaven”? Science, November 9, 2001, p. 1285.
20. Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey, “No Need to Worry about the Future,” Nature, November 8, 2001, p. 149. The London Daily Telegraph (January 20, 2002) noted that “this accusation was particularly tasteless since Lomborg happens to be gay.”
21. The Emory University report on the Bellesiles matter can be found at www.emory.edu/central/NEWS/Releases/Final_Report.pdf (accessed January 8, 2003). In addition to having to resign his teaching post at Emory, Columbia University has also revoked the Bancroft Prize for Arming America. The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, is discontinuing publication of the book.
22. The vast modern scholarship of the Galileo trial makes clear, among other things, that many of Galileo’s criticisms of the period’s astronomy were based on scholarship of other monastic churchmen, and that his views were widely acknowledged to be correct within the church at the time. See Mario Biagioli, Galileo: Courtier (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), and Howard Margolis, “Tycho’s System and Galileo’s Dialogue,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 22 (1991), pp. 259-75.
23. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 5.
24. See AEI’s July 2002 Environmental Policy Outlook.
25. Eric Planin, “Danish Professor Denounced for ‘Scientific Dishonesty,’” Washington Post, January 8, 2003, p. A20.
26. Andrew C. Revkin, “Environment and Science: Danes Rebuke a ‘Skeptic,’” New York Times, January 8, 2003 (accessed January 8, 2003).
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.
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