Get article background
BJORN LOMBORG, a Danish statistician, no doubt hoped to spark controversy with his book, “The Skeptical Environmentalist”—an attack on “the litany”, as he calls it, of bogus doom and gloom about the state of the planet. He has not been ignored, which is probably an author's worst fate, but he may be wishing he had been. The response to the book in many quarters has been apoplectic. Mr Lomborg is being called a liar, a fraud and worse. People are refusing to share a platform with him. He turns up in Oxford to talk about his book, and the author (it is claimed) of a forthcoming study on climate change throws a pie in his face.
The Economist is not a neutral in all this. Before Mr Lomborg published “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, we ran a signed essay by him which gave a summary. Later we reviewed his book in glowing terms. What has inspired the subsequent fury? Mr Lomborg argues that the environment is not in nearly such bad shape as green activists and their dupes in the media would have the public believe; that technology is improving lives across most of the planet; that western civilisation is environmentally sustainable; and that the Kyoto agreement on carbon emissions is bad policy as it stands.
Mr Lomborg defends these positions on the basis of official data and published science. Environmentalists typically use the same sources, but, as Mr Lomborg lays bare, are much less scrupulous about setting short runs of data in their long-term context, for instance, or about quoting ranges of data, where that is appropriate, rather than whatever extreme of any given range best suits their case. Mr Lomborg diligently piles on the footnotes (2,930 of them) so there is no dispute about where his numbers have come from. His claims, of course, could still be true or false. They are largely true, in our opinion. But what is strangest in all this fuss is the idea that simply by making them he has put himself far beyond the pale of respectable discourse, as so many of his critics appear to believe.
Mr Lomborg, it is important to note, does not say that all is well with the world. And The Economist for that matter does not say that Mr Lomborg is right about every issue he addresses. Environmental policy involves uncertainty, as Mr Lomborg emphasises; now and then this raises doubts that deserve more attention than he gives them (see article). We do believe, however, that he is right on his main points, that his critique of much green activism and its reporting in the media is just, and, above all, that where there is room for disagreement, Mr Lomborg invites and facilitates discussion, rather than seeking to silence it. The same cannot be said for many of his critics.
The January issue of Scientific American devoted many pages to a series of articles trashing “The Skeptical Environmentalist”. The authors, all supporters of the green movement, were strong on contempt and sneering, but weak on substance. The arresting thing about Scientific American's coverage, however, was not this barrage of ineffective rejoinders but the editor's notion of what was going on: “Science defends itself against the Skeptical Environmentalist,” he announced.
How can using science to show that the world's forests are not disappearing, and the rest, constitute an attack on science?
That is amazing. Mr Lomborg's targets are green scare-mongers and their credulous servants in the media. He uses the findings of scientists to press his case. How can using science to criticise the Kyoto agreement, to show that the world's forests are not disappearing, to demonstrate that the planet's supplies of energy and food will suffice indefinitely, and the rest, constitute an attack on science? If that is so, the scholars whose work supports those positions are presumably attacking science too, and had better stand in line for a pie in the face.
More is at stake here than a row about a book or the judgment of a magazine editor. Many of Mr Lomborg's critics are respected scientists. Some seem to think that Mr Lomborg's lack of training in their fields disqualifies him from debating environmental policy. E.O. Wilson, one of the world's most distinguished scientists, and a dedicated green, deplores “the Lomborg scam” because of “the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat [him] in the media...[Mr Lomborg and his kind] are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval.” That would be wrong even if all scientists shared Mr Wilson's fear that the world will become a “hellish place to exist”, which they do not. Environmental policy involves politics and economics, compromises and trade-offs, a division of burdens geographically and over time. It could not be left to scientists, even if they agreed on the science. We parasites would even then be right to insist on having our say.
Mr Wilson's insufferable arrogance is bad enough, but there's worse. The fuss over Mr Lomborg highlights an attitude among some media-conscious scientists that militates not just against good policy but against the truth. Stephen Schneider, one of Scientific American's anti-Lomborgians, spoke we suspect not just for himself when he told Discover in 1989: “[We] are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place...To do that we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have...Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” In other words, save science for other scientists, in peer-reviewed journals and other sanctified places. In public, strike a balance between telling the truth and telling necessary lies.
Science needs no defending from Mr Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr Schneider.
| Copyright © 2002 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved. |