A Scientific Controversy In Progress

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, a branch of the Danish Research Agency, issued a report on January 7, 2003 that Bjørn Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist was ‘dishonest science’. The seventeen page report explaining their reasoning provides a fascinating case study in the workings of science: it’s a small education in itself.

One thing it teaches (in case we didn’t know) is how difficult and complicated such questions are. There is no eureka moment, no Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot pacing the hearthrug while he explains how All was Revealed, no conclusive proof. There is only a huge and complex variety of evidence and the hard slog of interpreting it, there is only probability and ‘if…then’ and statistics. There is the need for caution, and alertness, and remembering to notice all the implications.

Another lesson is the reminder it gives of how difficult, though necessary, it is for non-experts to form opinions on such subjects. We are forced to trust authority and rely on experts. Even scientists have to do that outside their own fields, and the rest of us have to do it across the board. The lucid explanations of the reasoning behind the report offer some training in how to think about such subjects.

It remains very difficult, of course, for an outsider to judge such questions, and yet as citizens and as polluting, consuming, devouring beings, we have to. The report seems to make a good case that Lomborg simplifies complex issues, omits secondary literature that doesn’t support his case, relies on optimistic views of future trends, and misrepresents the arguments of environmentalists he disagrees with.

One bizarre argument in attempted support of Lomborg from Tech Central Station is strangely reminiscent of the self-defense offered by the editors of Social Text after they published Alan Sokal’s satire of Postmodernism under the mistaken idea that he meant it literally.

Along comes an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus – a man who does not present himself as a natural scientist and who has written a popular book, not a peer-reviewed article – to challenge their assumptions.

Very well, he is not a natural scientist. Does that mean he gets a free pass? Why shouldn’t others who are natural scientists point out where he gets the science wrong? He may not claim to be a natural scientist but he is writing about natural science, so why should he escape peer review? Even a popular book ought to be accurate, one would think. I daresay Alan Sokal would agree.

External Resources

  • Grist is Skeptical
    Excellent feature by Grist magazine, with links to comments by E.O. Wilson, Stephen Schneider, Norman Myers and others.
  • Guardian Story on Report
    The Guardian on the report of the Danish committee, which found that Lomborg didn’t comprehend the science, rather than intending to mislead.
  • The Guardian Reviews Lomborg
    Chris Lavers urges caution in judging Lomborg’s use of statistics: ‘overarching averages can obscure a lot of important detail.’
  • A Letter
    A reply to Bjørn Lomborg in Scientific American.
  • Another SciAm Article
    More skepticism toward skeptical environmentalist.
  • Article on the Skeptical Environmentalist
    Scientific American article in January 2002 on The Skeptical Environmentalist.
  • Danish Ministry Overturns Decision
    Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has repudiated findings by Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty that Bjørn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist was ‘objectively dishonest.’
  • Lomborg Replies to his Critics
    Bjørn Lomborg answers his doubters in Scientific American.
  • More Correspondence on Lomborg
    Several letters about Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist in Scientific American.
  • Reply to Rebuttal
    More correspondence in Scientific American.
  • Ten Items for Environmental Educators to Know
    A critique by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund of Bjørn Lomborg’s controversial book.
  • UCS on Lomborg
    The Union of Concerned Scientists looks at The Skeptical Environmentalist. Includes comments from E.O. Wilson, Peter Gleick, Jerry Mahlman and others.
  • Wilson on Biodiversity
    E.O. Wilson’s book The Future of Life explains the importance of biodiversity, and why optimism about species loss, whether from Rush Limbaugh or Bjørn Lomborg, is a mistake.
  • Wilson on Lomborg on Extinction
    E.O. Wilson demolishes Lomborg’s optimism about species extinction.

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