TCS Daily

A Disgrace to American Science

By Philip Stott - March 11, 2002 12:00 AM

The January 'issue' of the Scientific American was surely nothing less than a disgrace to American science. The now notorious attack on the young Danish statistician, Dr. Bjørn Lomborg, and his important book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge University Press), not only offended against the principle of open, vigorous debate in science but, more importantly, also flouted the normal rules of natural justice. I have very rarely been so angry over the blatant mistreatment of a colleague.

It will thus come as no surprise to many Americans to learn that, in the United Kingdom, the Scientific American is itself currently under ridicule in journal after journal, from the prestigious Economist to The Spectator magazine. The former concluded that "science needs no defending from Mr. Lomborg" but that "it may very well need defending from champions" such as the Scientific American critics. Writing in The Spectator, the eminent author of Genome, Matt Ridley, one of the best ever popularizers of science, concluded that "...the Scientific American articles are devastating not to Lomborg, but to his critics. Again and again, before insulting him, the critics concede, through gritted teeth, that he has got his facts right."

Speaking as an Editor

My own anger, however, stems from another cause. I have myself been involved in the editing of scientific journals for over fifteen years, and I could never conceive of treating an author in the manner that the Scientific American has dealt with Dr. Lomborg. If all that I hear is true, his treatment breaches every good practice I hold dear.

First, it is alleged that the magazine refused Dr. Lomborg the right of reply in the same issue. As an editor, I would have sought this as a matter course and to promote reader interest. Surely readers have a right to make up their own minds with a full airing of the arguments involved?

Secondly, it is alleged that the magazine initially refused to post his immediate response on its Website, and then even threatened him with infringement of copyright if he tried to reproduce their articles, with his responses, on his own Website. If so, this is not science, but pure bullying. I have never heard the like.

Thirdly, not only did the magazine run an editorial criticizing Dr. Lomborg, it gave space to four known environmentalists to write separate articles attacking him with no balancing articles whatsoever from senior scientists who are likely to support Dr. Lomborg's critique. Again, I have never heard the like. In a so-called scientific journal, such a course of action beggars belief. I would always give my worst enemy the right of reply.

My Own Request, But Still No Reply

So incensed was I by such an approach that I quickly e-mailed the editors of the Scientific American with the following, all-too reasonable demand: "I am, therefore, formally requesting the right of providing a balancing reply equal in length to at least one of the four articles critical of the book."

I waited one week, but received no reply. I then sent a second e-mail, as follows:

"I confess now to being dismayed on a second count. I am also editor of a major international journal and I strive to reply to e-mails within three days of receipt, especially when they are critical of my journal. I am therefore most unhappy not to have received a reply to my own e-mail and important request to the Scientific American sent on the 13th January."

"I accordingly repeat the e-mail and request below. I cannot stress enough the widespread concern about the unfair treatment of Dr. Bjørn Lomborg in your journal. I trust you are, at least, allowing Dr. Lomborg a full right of reply, both in your journal and on your Website. Anything less would be outrageous."

To date (10th March), I have still received no reply.

Justice Will Out

In my entire career, I can never remember having been treated with such discourtesy. Yet, my tiny part in this sorry saga is utterly insignificant when compared with what has happened to Dr. Lomborg himself. Moreover, to date, I have always been critical of my own scepticism about some of the more extreme views of environmentalists; no longer. The Scientific American has revealed these for what they really are.

This has been a dark episode for cautious environmental science, and for American science in general, which has normally been such a beacon to the world.

Yet, it seems that God is just, for Dr. Lomborg is about to have the last laugh after all. Apparently completely unswayed by the Scientific American and its machinations, the Danish Minister of the Environment, Hans Christian Schmidt, has just appointed Bjørn Lomborg to be head of the new National Environment Evaluation Institute. All power to his elbow.

And, on this site, you have, of course, the right of reply (see below).

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000).

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