The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Danish: Verdens Sande Tilstand, literal translation: The Real State of the World) is a controversial book by Danish environmentalist author Bjørn Lomborg, which argues that claims on overpopulation, declining energy resources, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, certain aspects of global warming, and a variety of other global environmental issues are unsupported by analysis of the relevant data. It was first published in Danish in 1998, and the English edition was published as a work in environmental economics by Cambridge University Press in 2001.
Due to the scope of the project, comprising the range of topics addressed, the diversity of data and sources employed, and the many types of conclusions and comments advanced, The Skeptical Environmentalist' does not fit easily into a particular scientific discipline or methodology. Although published by the social sciences division of Cambridge University Press, the findings and conclusions were widely challenged on the basis of natural science. This interpretation of The Skeptical Environmentalist as a work of environmental science generated much of the controversy and debate that surrounded the book.
- Main article: Bjørn Lomborg
Prior to becoming the Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and Adjunct Professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Bjørn Lomborg was an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Aarhus.
Some critics focus on his lack of training or professional experience in the environmental sciences or economics. Supporters argue his research is an appropriate application of his expertise in cost-benefit analysis, a standard analytical tool in policy assessment. They also point out that many of the scientists and environmentalists who criticized the book are not experts on environmental policies or cost benefit analysis.
In numerous interviews, he ascribed his motivation for writing The Skeptical Environmentalist to his personal convictions, making clear that he was a pro-environmentalist and a Greenpeace supporter (contrary to reports, not a "member", as Greenpeace does not have regular card-carrying membership). He has stated that he began his research as an attempt to counter what he saw as anti-ecological arguments by Julian Lincoln Simon in an article in Wired, but changed his mind after starting to analyze the data. Lomborg describes the views he attributes to environmental campaigners as the "Litany", views which he also claims to have held, and his book purports to correct.
The Real State of the World
The subtitle refers to the report, The State of the World
, published annually since 1984 by the Worldwatch Institute
. Lomborg stated the report to be "one of the best-researched and academically most ambitious environmental policy publications". He also criticized it for using short-term trends to predict disastrous consequences, in cases where long-term trends would not support the same conclusions.
In attempting to establish its arguments, The Skeptical Environmentalist examined a wide range of issues in the general area of environmental studies, including environmental economics and science, and came to an equally comprehensive set of conclusions and suggestions (suggestions that in many instances could also be called policy recommendations). It directly challenged popular examples of serious environmentalist concerns by assembling and interpreting data from a large number of sources, and suggested that environmentalists cause resources to be diverted to environmental issues when those resources, from an economic perspective, could be better spent elsewhere. It cited some 3,000 individual references from primary and secondary material. Much of its methodology and integrity have been subject to criticism which argue that Lomborg has distorted the various fields of research he covers. Support for the book was staunch as well.
The general analytical approach is based on cost-benefit analysis as employed in economics and now widely used in social science and in the formulation and assessment of government policy. Much of the examination of the Litany is based on statistical data analysis, therefore it may be considered by some a work of statistical science. Since it examines the costs and benefits of its many topics, it could be considered a work in economics (as it is categorized by its publisher). However, The Skeptical Environmentalist
is far more methodically eclectic and cross-disciplinary, variously combining interpretation of data with assessments of the media and human behavior, evaluations of scientific theories, and many other approaches, to arrive at its various conclusions.
In arriving at the final work, Lomborg has used a similar approach in each of the main areas and subtopics. He works from the general to the specific, starting with a broad concern, such as pollution or energy, dividing it into subtopics (e.g. air pollution; fossil fuel depletion), then identifying one or more widely held fears and their source (e.g. our air is growing increasingly toxic, by X measure, according to Y). From there, he chooses data that he considers to be the most reliable and reasonable available. He then analyzes that data to prove or disprove Y's proposition (Litany). In every case, he finds that Y's proposition is not substantiated by his calculations, and in fact is either significantly not as bad as represented, or in many cases the reverse (i.e. what is portrayed as a worsening situation is actually an apparently improving one). Having established what he calls "the true state of the world", for each topic and subtopic, Lomborg examines a variety of theories, technologies, implementation strategies and costs, and suggests alternative ways to improve not-so-dire situations, or to improve other similar areas that are currently not considered as pressing.
The Litany and Lomborg's findings
"The Litany" comprises very diverse areas where, Lomborg claims, overly pessimistic claims are made and as a result bad policies are implemented. He cites accepted mainstream sources, like the U.S.
agencies and the like. His preference is for global long-term data, as opposed to regional and short-term.
The book is arranged around four major themes:
- Human prosperity from an economic and demographic point of view
- Human prosperity from an ecological point of view
- Pollution as a threat to human prosperity
- Future threats to human prosperity
Lomborg's main argument is that vast majority of environmental problems such as pollution, water shortages, deforestation, and species loss as well as population growth, hunger, and AIDS, are area-specific and highly correlated with poverty. Therefore, the problem is essentially a matter of logistics and can be largely solved by economic and social development. Concerning problems that are more pressing at the global level, such as the depletion of fossil fuels and global warming, his argument is that these problems are often overstated and the recommended policies (Litany) are often inappropriate if assessed against alternative policies.
Human prosperity from an economic and demographic point of view
Lomborg analyzes three major themes: life expectancy
, food and hunger
, and prosperity. He finds that life expectancy and health levels have dramatically
improved over the past centuries, even though several regions of the world remain threatened, in particular by AIDS
. He dismisses Thomas Malthus
' theory that the increase in the world's population will lead to widespread hunger, and shows on the contrary that food is widespread and the world's daily intake of calories is increasing steadily. Indeed, technological improvements in agriculture
should help humankind eradicate hunger. However, Lomborg notes that Africa
in particular still produces too little food, an effect he attributes to the continent's dismal economic and political systems. Concerning prosperity, Lomborg argues that wealth, as measured by per capita GDP, should not be the only criterion to judge prosperity. Lomborg points to improvements in education, safety, leisure, and ever more widespread access to consumer goods as signs that prosperity is increasing in most parts of the world.
Human prosperity from an ecological point of view
In this section, Lomborg looks at the world's natural resources and draws a conclusion which is opposite to Limits to Growth
published in 1972. First, he analyzes food again, this time from an ecological point of view. Again, he claims that most food products are not threatened by human prosperity. The exception, however, is fish, which continues to be depleted. As a partial solution, Lomborg presents fish farms, which propose a less disruptive impact on the world's oceans. Next, Lomborg looks at forests. He finds no indication of widespread deforestation
, and notes that even the Amazon forest still retains more than 80% of its cover in 1978. Lomborg points out that deforestation is linked to poverty and poor economic conditions in the concerned countries, and proposes higher economic growth to tackle the problem of deforestation. Concerning energy, Lomborg asserts that oil is not being depleted as fast as is claimed, and that improvements of technology will provide us with fossil fuels for a long time. Lomborg also asserts that many alternatives already exist, and that with time they will replace fossil fuels as an energy source. Concerning other resources, such as metals, Lomborg suggests that based on their price history they are not in short supply. Water is another controversial topic. Lomborg says that wars will probably not erupt because of water because fighting such wars is not cost-effective (one week of war with the Palestinians, for instance, would cost Israel
more than five desalination plants, according to an Israeli officer Lomborg quotes). He states that the main problem is logistic and emphasizes the need for better water management, as water is distributed unequally around the world.
Pollution as a threat to human prosperity
Lomborg looks at pollution from different angles. Concerning air pollution, Lomborg notes that it has steadily decreased in recent decades in rich countries. He finds that air pollution levels are highly linked to economic development, with moderately developed countries polluting most. Again, Lomborg argues that faster growth in emerging countries would help them reduce their air pollution levels. Lomborg suggests that devoting resources to reduce the levels of certain air pollutants would provide the greatest health benefits and save the largest number of lives (per amount of money spent), despite an already decades-long improvement in air quality in most developed countries. Concerning water pollution
, Lomborg notes again that it is linked to economic development. He also notes that water pollution in major Western rivers have recovered quite fast after sewage systems became widespread. Concerning waste
, Lomborg notes once again that fears are overblown, as the entire waste produced by the United States of America
in the 21st century could fit into a square whose side would be 28 km (i.e. 0.009% of the total surface of the United States).
Future threats to human prosperity
The previous sections of the book were less controversial. In this section, he proposes his main recommendation and assessment that under cost benefit analysis, the environmental threats to human prosperity are overstated and much of policy response is misguided. As an example, Lomborg cites our worries about pesticides
and their link to cancer
. He argues that such concerns are vastly exaggerated in the public perception, as alcohol and coffee are the foods that create by far the greatest risk of cancer, as opposed to vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides. Furthermore, if pesticides were not used on fruit and vegetables their cost would go up and consequently their consumption would go down, which would cause cancer rates to increase. He goes on to criticize the fear of a vertiginous decline in biodiversity
, proposing a number of 0.7% of species extinct in 50 years (as compared to a maximum of 50%, as claimed by some biologists). While this is still a problem, as Lomborg admits, it is not the catastrophe claimed by some because it still has little effect on human prosperity.
However, his most contentious assertion involves global warming. From the outset, Lomborg "accepts the reality of man-made global warming" though he refers to a number of uncertainties in the computer simulations of global warming and some aspects of data collection. Lomborg's main contention involves not the science of global warming but the politics and the policy response to such scientific findings. He points out that, given the amount of greenhouse gas reduction required to combat global warming, the current Kyoto protocol is grossly insufficient. He goes on to argue that the economic cost of the restrictions which have to be put in place to actually reverse or even slow down global warming is impractically high compared to the alternative of coordinating the international communities to adjust to global warming. Moreover, he asserts that the cost of combating global warming would be disproportionately shouldered by poor developing countries. Since the policy combating global warming places unrealistic limits on economic activities, the countries that suffer from pollution and poverty due to the state of their economies will be condemned to continue in such a state. He proposes that the importance of global warming in terms of policy priority may be low compared to other policy issues such as fighting poverty and disease and aiding poor countries, which has direct and more immediate impact both in terms of welfare and the environment. He therefore asks for a global cost-benefit analysis to be made before deciding on the best measures to take. The Copenhagen Consensus that Lomborg later organized led to the conclusion that combating global warming does have a benefit but its priority compared to other issues is "poor" (ranked 13th) and three projects addressing climate change (optimal carbon tax, the Kyoto protocol and value-at-risk carbon tax), are the least cost-efficient of the proposals.
Lomborg concludes his book by once again reviewing the Litany, and noting that the real state of the world is much better than the Litany claims. According to Lomborg, this poses a problem, as it focuses public attention on relatively unimportant issues, while ignoring the important ones. Or in the worst case, it forces the global community to adopt inappropriate policies which have adverse effects on humanity. This wastes resources that could be put to much better use in aiding poor countries overcoming their poverty (and thus solving their deforestation, water, hunger and pollution problems) or fighting diseases like AIDS. Also, he states that investing in technologies to produce renewable energy would be a good use for our money. Lomborg thus urges us to look at what he calls the true problems of the world, since solving those will also solve the Litany.
The Skeptical Environmentalist
was controversial even before its English-language release, with anti-publication efforts launched against Cambridge University Press. Once in the public arena, the book elicited extreme reactions in scientific circles and in the mainstream media. Opinion was largely polarized. Environmental groups were generally critical.
Dr. Chris Harrison (Publishing Director of social science publishing for Cambridge University Press), anticipating the level of controversy a book like this would likely provoke, took extra care with the book's peer-review process. For example, instead of choosing candidates from the usual list of social science referees, Cambridge University Press chose from a list provided by their environmental science publishing program. Four were chosen: a climate
scientist, an expert in biodiversity
development, a specialist on the economics of climate change (whose credentials include reviewing publications for the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC)) and a "pure" economist. All four members of Cambridge's initial review panel agreed that the book should be published.
While criticism of the book was to be expected, the publishers, Cambridge University Press, were apparently surprised by the pressure brought against them not to publish The Skeptical Environmentalist. The complaints of some critics included demands that Cambridge convene a special panel to review the book in order to identify errors (despite existing pre-publication peer review), that Cambridge transfer their publishing rights to a "non-scholarly publishing house" and that they review their own policies to prevent publication of any book described as "essentially a political tract" in the future.
In the article, entitled "Peer review, politics and pluralism", Dr. Chris Harrison noted that "many of the critical reviews of The Skeptical Environmentalist went beyond the usual unpicking of a thesis and concentrated instead on the role of the publisher in publishing the book at all. The post tray and e-mail inbox of editors and senior managers at the press bore witness to a concerted campaign to persuade Cambridge to renounce the book." He went on to describe complaints from environmentalists who feared the book would be "abused by corporate interests". Cambridge University Press felt it necessary to issue a formal, written statement, in order to "explain the editorial decisions that led not just to publishing the book but also to Cambridge's resistance to concerted pressure to withdraw it from the market." With these complaints and the publication of a Scientific American issue dealing with the book (described below), Cambridge stated, in response to those who claimed the book lacked peer-review credentials, "it would be quite wrong to abandon an author who had satisfied the requirements of our peer-review system."
Cambridge took the additional step of inviting submissions of publishing proposals for books which offered an opposing argument to Lomborg's but noted that they had, to the best of Chris Harrison's knowledge, seen no attempt by any of the critics to submit such a proposal. This is seen by some to suggest that criticism of the book was political rather than academic. Subsequent to Cambridge's unequivocal assertion that The Skeptical Environmentalist had been subject to peer-review, Harrison noted that "we were surprised and disappointed to see the critics' letter being quoted in an issue of Time ''magazine (2 September 2002)... in which the authors repeated their charge that the book had not been peer-reviewed despite the assurances to the contrary that they had by then received by the press... It has become part of the anti-Lomborg folklore that this book bypassed the usual Cambridge peer-review process... This is a charge that is repeated in many of the public and private attacks in the press, and it is unfounded."
Cambridge University Press did not give in to the pressure and the book was published.
Critics approached The Skeptical Environmentalist
from several angles. Some scientists attacked the data, the analyses and the conclusions. Others pointed to the "media" as being responsible for creating undue attention. Others simply found Lomborg's findings unrealistic. Others found the book's conclusions largely matched their own conclusions.
Criticism of the material and methods
The January 2002 issue of Scientific American
contains, under the heading "Misleading Math about the Earth", a set of essays by several scientists, claiming that Lomborg and The Skeptical Environmentalist
misrepresent both scientific evidence and scientific opinion. The magazine then refused Lomborg's request to print a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal in his own defence, on the grounds that the 32 pages would have taken a disproportionate share of the magazine. The magazine allowed Lomborg a one-page defense in the May 2002 issue When Lomborg published his complete response on his website, the magazine attempted to remove the page on the grounds of copyright violation. After receiving much criticism, the magazine published his complete rebuttal on-line, along with counterrebuttals of John Rennie
and John P. Holdren
Nature also published a harsh review of Lomborg's book. In it, Stuart Pimm of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University and Jeff Harvey of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology wrote: "the text 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."
Lomborg has also been criticized (in, for example, a 2002 review in the UK journal Local Environment) for using straw man arguments, with charges that his "litany" of environmental doom-mongering does not accurately represent the mainstream views of the contemporary green movement.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a political activist group, referred to their own set of commissioned rebuttals and summarized thus:
- These separately-written expert reviews unequivocally demonstrate that on closer inspection, Lomborg's book is seriously flawed and fails to meet basic standards of credible scientific analysis. The authors note how Lomborg consistently misuses, misrepresents or misinterprets data to greatly underestimate rates of species extinction, ignore evidence that billions of people lack access to clean water and sanitation, and minimize the extent and impacts of global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases. Time and again, these experts find that Lomborg's assertions and analyses are marred by flawed logic, inappropriate use of statistics and hidden value judgments. He uncritically and selectively cites literature—often not peer-reviewed—that supports his assertions, while ignoring or misinterpreting scientific evidence that does not. His consistently flawed use of scientific data is, in Peter Gleick's words "unexpected and disturbing in a statistician".
The "separately written expert reviews" individually further detail the various expert opinions. Peter Gleick's review, for example, states:
- There is nothing original or unique in Lomborg's book. Many of his criticisms have appeared in... previous works—and even in the work of environmental scientists themselves. What is new, perhaps, is the scope and variety of the errors he makes.
Jerry Mahlman's review of the chapter he was asked to evaluate, states:
- I found some aspects of this chapter to be interesting, challenging, and logical. For example, the author's characterizations of the degree of difficulty in actually doing something meaningful about climate change through mitigation and coping/adaptation are perceptive and valuable. In principle, such characterizations could provide a foundation for more meaningful policy planning on this difficult problem. Unfortunately, the author's lack of rigor and consistency on these larger issues is likely to negate any real respect for his insights.
Criticism of media handling
Another angle of criticism focused as much on Lomborg as it did on the book, charging that The Skeptical Environmentalist
's prominence was due to the intense media coverage: had not the coverage been so great, neither would its impact. The controversial statements the book presents, and the fact that Lomborg offered a catchy public image - "[Lomborg] not a steely-eyed economist at a conservative Washington think tank but a vegetarian, backpack-toting academic who was a member of Greenpeace for four years" - New York Times
- made the package of contrarian
book and hip author eminently media-ready.
One critical article, "The Skeptical Environmentalist: A Case Study in the Manufacture of News", attributes this media success to its initial, influential supporters:
- "News of the pending book first appeared in the UK in early June of 2001 when a Sunday Times article by Nayab Chohan featured an advanced report of claims made by Lomborg that London's air was cleaner than at any time since 1585. Headlined "Cleanest London Air for 400 Years," the publicity hook was both local and timely, as the tail end of the article linked the book's questioning of the Kyoto climate change protocol to U.S. president George W. Bush's visit the same week to Europe, and Bush's controversial opposition to the treaty. The Times followed up the report the next day with a news article further detailing the book's Kyoto protocol angle."
- "With The Times reports, Lomborg and his claims had made the Anglo media agenda. As is typically the case, other media outlets followed the reporting of the elite newspaper. Articles pegging the claims of The Skeptical Environmentalist to Bush's European visit ran later that week in the U.K's The Express and Daily Telegraph, and Canada's Toronto Star."
The "unrealistic" critique
Some critics of The Skeptical Environmentalist
took issue, not with the statistical investigation of Lomborg's Litany, but with the suggestions and conclusions that the book based upon them. This line of criticism considered The Skeptical Environmentalist
as a contribution to the policy debate over environment rather than the work of natural science. In a BBC
column from August 23 2001
, veteran BBC environmental correspondent Alex Kirby
- "I am neither a statistician nor a scientist, and I lack the skill to judge Lomborg's reworkings of the statistics of conventional wisdom. But I am worried that on virtually every topic he touches, he reaches conclusions radically different from almost everybody else. That seems to suggest that most scientists are wrong, short-sighted, naïve, interested only in securing research funds, or deliberately dancing to the campaigners' tune. Most I know are honest, intelligent and competent. So it beggars belief to suppose that Professor Lomborg is the only one in step, every single time.
Kirby's first concern was not with the extensive research and statistical analysis, but the conclusions drawn from them:
- "What really riles me about his book is that it is so damnably reasonable. In the rational world that Bjørn Lomborg thinks we all inhabit, we would manage problems sensibly, one by one...But the real world is messier, more unpredictable - and more impatient."
On September 5 2001, at a The Skeptical Environmentalist book reading in England, British environmentalist author Mark Lynas threw a cream pie in Lomborg's face. In a September 9 2001, article, "Why I pied Lomborg", Lynas stated:
- "Lomborg specialises in presenting the reader with false choices - such as the assertion that money not spent on preventing climate change could be spent on bringing clean water to the developing world, thereby saving more lives per dollar of expenditure. Of course, in the real world, these are not the kind of choices we are faced with. Why not take the $60 billion from George Bush's stupid Son of Star Wars program and use that cash to save lives in Ethiopia? Because in a world where political choices are not made democratically at a global level, but by a small number of rich countries and corporations, the poor and the environment are never going to be a priority.
The December 12 2001 issue of Grist, a popular online environmental magazine, devoted an issue to The Skeptical Environmentalist, with a series of essays from various scientists challenging individual sections. A separate article examining the book's overall approach took issue with the framing of Lomborg's conclusions:
- "Lomborg begins by making the entirely reasonable point that accurate information is critical to informed decision-making. If information is skewed to paint a bleaker environmental picture than is justified by reality, as he claims, then we will in turn skew our limited resources in favor of the environment and away from other important causes. ... Then Lomborg proceeds to weigh the causes championed by the environmental movement against a deliberately circumscribed universe of other possible "good causes." It is up to us, he says, to make responsible decisions about whether to protect the environment or "boost Medicaid, increase funding to the arts, or cut taxes. ... The worse they can make this state appear, the easier it is for them to convince us we need to spend more money on the environment rather on hospitals, kindergartens, etc." A few pages later he again claims that the purpose of the Litany is to cause us to prioritize the environment over "hospitals, child day care, etc." ... But who is really failing to consider how our money is spent? As Lomborg notes, "We will never have enough money," and therefore, "Prioritization is absolutely essential." Why, then, does he weigh the environment only against hospitals and childcare, rather than against, say, industry subsidies and defense spending?
Addressing the apparent difficulty of scientists opposing The Skeptical Environmentalist in criticizing the book strictly on the basis of statistics and challenging the conclusions about areas of environmental sciences that were drawn from them, Lynas contends:
- "One of the biggest problems facing the environmental community in analyzing Lomborg’s book is that his work, as flawed as it is, has clearly been very time-consuming and meticulous. In a busy and under funded world, few people have the time or background knowledge to plow though 3,000 footnotes checking his sources. It is impressively interdisciplinary."
In spite of intense criticism in most of the natural scientific press, The Skeptical Environmentalist
received positive, sometimes enthusiastic, reviews from policy magazines, academic journals in social science and many newspapers and other mainstream media. Given the timing of the English edition, which was published in August 2001, it has been suggested that the media coverage of The Skeptical Environmentalist
would have been considerably greater, had not the September 11, 2001 attacks
on the US dominated the news media for several months.
Influential UK newsweekly, The Economist, weighed in at the start with heavy support, publishing an advance essay by Lomborg in which he detailed his Litany, and following up with a highly favorable review and supportive coverage. It stated that "This is one of the most valuable books on public policy—not merely environmental policy - to have been written for the intelligent general reader in the past ten years.... The Skeptical Environmentalist is a triumph.
Among the general media, New York Times stated, "The primary target of the book, a substantial work of analysis with almost 3,000 footnotes, are statements made by environmental organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace." Wall Street Journal stated "...a superbly documented and readable book.". Washington Post stated "Bjørn Lomborg's good news about the environment is bad news for Green ideologues. His richly informative, lucid book is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued. In fact, The Skeptical Environmentalist is 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." Rolling Stone wrote, "Lomborg pulls off the remarkable feat of welding the techno-optimism of the Internet age with a lefty's concern for the fate of the planet."
Many of the supporters of the book argued that so called "scientific" criticism of the book is in fact political or ideological. Moreover, many have pointed out that the critics fail to engage on the most controversial proposition of the book, that even if one accept the scientific implication of global warming, Kyoto protocol is not an appropriate policy response and the environmental policy should be assessed on the basis of the cost benefit analysis.
In March 2003 the New York Law School Law Review published an examination of the critical reviews of Skeptical Environmentalist from Scientific American, Nature and Science magazines by Professor of Law David Shoenbrod and (at the time) Senior Law Student Christi Wilson of New York Law School. They took the perspective of a court faced with an argument against hearing an expert witness in order to evaluate whether he was credible as an expert witness and whether his testimony was valid to his expertise. They classified the types of criticisms leveled at Lomborg and his arguments then evaluated each of the reasons that were given for disqualifying Lomborg. They conclude that a court should accept Lomborg as a credible expert witness on statistics and that his testimony was appropriately restricted to his area of expertise. Of course, Mr. Lomborg's factual conclusions may not be correct nor his policy proposals effective, but his criticisms should be addressed, not merely dismissed out of hand.
Some raised concern about the response of certain sections of the scientific community against a peer reviewed book published under the category of environmental economics. This raised speculation that it is an example of politicization of science by the scientist. This was particularly apparent in the involvement of Union of Concerned Scientists and Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (see below). In "When scientists politicize science: making sense of controversy over The Skeptical Environmentalist" (Environmental Science & Policy 7, 2004), Roger A. Pielke argue that:
- "the use of science by scientists as a means of negotiating for desired political outcomes – the politicization of science by scientists – threatens the development of effective policies in contested issues. By tying themselves to politics, rather than policy, scientists necessarily restrict their value and the value of their science."
In "Green with Ideology - The hidden agenda behind the "scientific" attacks on Bjørn Lomborg’s controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist", Ronald Bailey stated that "The bitter anti-Lomborg campaign reveals the hidden crisis of what we might call ideological environmentalism." He further stated that
- "The Skeptical Environmentalist obviously should be held to high standards of accuracy, but to insist that it read like a scientific paper is both specious and disingenuous. The book is essentially a response to such popular environmentalist tracts as the State of the World report and the reams of misinformation disseminated by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Ecologist, the Turning Point Project, Grist, Wild Earth, and the rest of the sprawling eco-media propaganda complex."
Formal charge of scientific dishonesty
Detailed coverage at Bjørn Lomborg/accusations of scientific dishonesty
Several environmental scientists brought complaints against Lomborg before the social sciences committee of the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a body under the Danish Ministry of Research and Information Technology. This added fuel to the overall controversy surrounding The Skeptical Environmentalist, and served as a rallying point for both supporters and critics of Lomborg and the book. In January 2003, the DCSD reached its decision, and also took the unusual step of releasing its working papers, which contained their various internal discussions. The conclusion was that Lomborg was not guilty of intentional scientific dishonesty, as he had no experience in the scientific areas concerned in the complaints. However, through the release of its notes, the DCSD made public that it did find The Skeptical Environmentalist to be a matter of scientific dishonesty.
Subsequently, Lomborg complained to the Ministry of Research and Information Technology, which found the DCSD's handling of the investigation to be improper, and ordered the DCSD to reconsider the case. Ministry found that the DCSD had made a number of procedural errors, including failure to establish their right to intervene in the first place given that the book was published under the category of environmental economics, failure to establish a precise standard for deciding "good scientific practice" in the social sciences, and failure to provide specific statements on actual errors.
The DCSD declined to reopen it, citing the fact that Lomborg had already been cleared in the first instance. Since that first investigation was invalidated by the Ministry, not reopening it amounted to the DCSD declining to proceed on the original complaints. The conclusions concerning The Skeptical Environmentalist, never formally withdrawn by the DCSD, ceased to officially exist.
The DCSD decision about Lomborg provoked a petition among Danish academics. 308 scientists, many of them from the social sciences, criticised the DCSD's methods in the case. A Dutch science-based think tank, Heidelberg Appeal the Netherlands, published a report in which they claim that 25 out of 27 accusations against Lomborg to be unsubstantiated or not to the point.
In reaction to the pro-Lomborg petition, another group of Danish scientists collected signatures in support of the DCSD. The 640 signatures in this second petition came almost exclusively from the medical and natural sciences, and included Jens Christian Skou (a Nobel laureate for chemistry) and former university rector Kjeld Møllgård.
The Skeptical Environmentalist
became a high-profile international bestseller during 2001-2002. The Skeptical Environmentalist
currently appears on the reading list of a variety of university environmental studies courses as recommended or required reading. In the years following, Lomborg's impact on the public policy debate was heightened by his association with the Copenhagen Consensus
. Lomborg's second book, Global Crises, Global Solutions
(October 2004; Cambridge University Press), of which he is the editor, is based on an academic project that he initiated and presided over called the Copenhagen Consensus, comprising eight economists, including four Nobel Prize in Economics
winners. It also addresses global problems in a sweeping way, using data analysis and interpretation by a panel of well-known economists
Accusations of scientific dishonesty
After the publication of The Skeptical Environmentalist
, Lomborg was accused of scientific dishonesty. Several environmental scientists brought a total of three complaints against Lomborg to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty
(DCSD), a body under Denmark's Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation
. The charges claimed that The Skeptical Environmentalist
contained deliberately misleading data and flawed conclusions. Due to the similarity of the complaints, the DCSD decided to proceed on the three cases under one investigation.
On January 6
, the DCSD reached a decision on the complaints. The ruling was a mixed message, deciding the book to be scientifically dishonest, but Lomborg himself not guilty because of lack of expertise in the fields in question:
- "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, 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."
The DCSD cited The Skeptical Environmentalist for:
- Fabrication of data;
- Selective discarding of unwanted results (selective citation);
- Deliberately misleading use of statistical methods;
- Distorted interpretation of conclusions;
- Deliberate misinterpretation of others' results.
On February 13
, Lomborg filed a complaint against the DCSD's decision, with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MSTI), which has oversight over the DSCD.
On December 17, 2003, the Ministry found that the DCSD had made a number of procedural errors, including:
- The DCSD did not use a precise standard for deciding "good scientific practice" in the social sciences;
- The DCSD's definition of "objective scientific dishonesty" was not clear about whether "distortion of statistical data" had to be deliberate or not;
- The DCSD had not properly documented that The Skeptical Environmentalist was a scientific publication on which they had the right to intervene in the first place;
- The DCSD did not provide specific statements on actual errors.
The Ministry remitted the case to the DCSD. In doing so the Ministry indicated that it regarded the DCSD's previous findings of scientific dishonesty in regard to the book as invalid . The Ministry also instructed the DCSD to decide whether to reinvestigate.
On March 122004
, the Committee formally decided not to act further on the complaints, reasoning that renewed scrutiny would, in all likelihood, result in the same conclusion.
Response of the scientific community
The original DCSD decision about Lomborg provoked a petition
among Danish academics. 308 scientists, many of them from the social sciences, criticised the DCSD's methods in the case.
Another group of Danish scientists collected signatures in support of the DCSD. The 640 signatures in this second petition came almost exclusively from the medical and natural sciences, and included Jens Christian Skou (a Nobel laureate for chemistry), former university rector Kjeld Møllgård, and professor Poul Harremoës from the Technical University of Denmark.
Continued debate and criticism
The rulings of the Danish authorities in 2003-2004 left Lomborg's critics frustrated. Lomborg was jubilant, claiming vindication as a result of MSTI's decision to set aside the original finding of DCSD. But critics pointed out that Lomborg's work had not
been declared scientifically valid, it merely had not been declared in
A Dutch think tank, HAN, Heidelberg Appeal the Netherlands, published a report in which they claimed 25 out of 27 accusations against Lomborg to be unsubstantiated or not to the point.
A group of scientists with relation to this think tank also published an article in 2005 in the Journal of Information Ethics, in which they concluded that most criticism against Lomborg was unjustified, and that the scientific community misused their authority to suppress Lomborg.
The claim that the accusations against Lomborg were unjustified was challenged in the next issue of Journal of Information Ethics
by Kåre Fog, one of the original plaintiffs. Fog reasserted his contention that, despite the ministry's decision, most of the accusations against Lomborg were valid. He also rejected what he called "the Galileo hypothesis", which he describes as the conception that Lomborg is just a brave young man confronting old-fashioned opposition.
Kåre Fog has established a catalogue of criticisms against Lomborg.. Fog maintains the catalogue, which includes a section for each page in each chapter in The Skeptical Environmentalist. In each section, Fog lists and details what he believes to be flaws and errors in Lomborg's work. Fog explicitly indicates if there are any details which he believes support the interpretation that the particular error may have been made deliberately by Lomborg, in order to mislead. Lomborg has never stepped forward to refute any of Fog's accusations from the website, nor has he publicly even commented on the existence of Fog's website. According to Fog, since none of his accusations of errors on Lomborg's part have been proven false, the suspicion that Lomborg has misled deliberately is maintained. Lomborg's supporters point out that responses to a small number of the 300 items have been put forward in other connections, and can be found at Lomborg's website.
- Lomborg, Bjørn. The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge University Press 2001, ISBN 0-521-01068-3 .
Citations and notes
Reviews of the book
- John Gillot: "The Skeptical Environmentalist" Spiked-Science Online, September 10 2001.
- "Doomsday postponed" The Economist, September 6 2001.
- "Greener Than You Think", by Denis Dutton in The Washington Post, October 21 2001.
- Review of The Skeptical Environmentalist by the Union of Concerned Scientists with reviews from Peter Gleick, Jerry D. Mahlman and E.O. Wilson.
- "Nine things journalists should know about The Skeptical Environmentalist", World Resources Institute.
- "The Skeptical Environmentalist: A Case Study in the Manufacture of News", Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, January 23 2003.
- "Something Is Rotten in the State of Denmark", Grist Magazine, December 12 2001.
- Misleading Math about the Earth: Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist Scientific American January 2002
- Chris Lavers: "You've never had it so good", The Guardian September 1 2001.