TCS Daily

Denmark's Ministry of Truth

By James K. Glassman - January 10, 2003 12:00 AM

In "1984," George Orwell's frightening novel set in a totalitarian state, the hero, Winston Smith, worked in "Recdep," the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth. His job was to correct "mistakes" in past newspaper articles.

Denmark has its own Recdep. It is called, in perfect Orwellian syntax, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, an organization described in the U.S. press as similar to our National Academy of Sciences. (But for all the National Academy's faults, it is no propaganda ministry like this one.) For the past year, the Danish Recdep has investigated three complaints against a countryman, a statistician named Bjorn Lomborg, who had the temerity to write a book challenging the conventional Danish wisdom - that the world's environment is going to hell.

The result, which found its way into the New York Times and Washington Post this week [ed: 1/8], was predictable. Lomborg was smeared in a vindictive and amateurish fashion by a group that did not even have the grace to lay out coherent charges or conduct its own investigation.

The report is pathetic. It quotes from slanted magazine articles - including Time (!) - by Lomborg's detractors. It concludes, "Objectively speaking, the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty."
Shame on Denmark.

While we can't expect Europeans to have the same concept of free speech as Americans, even the Danes must understand that the importance of a book like Lomborg's is to stir debate and that debate is good, not bad.

The best ideas emerge only after ferocious intellectual competition. The aim of the report by this Ministry of Truth is clearly to shut off debate by characterizing Lomborg as a liar. He is not. The report comes nowhere near showing that he misled or dissembled or fabricated. But then, that was not its objective, which instead was to silence - or, in Recdep fashion, to rewrite history.

Radical enviros need to defend their views. They have the United Nations, practically every European government and every media outlet on their side. 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. They throw pies in his face. Literally. They malign him in ad-hominem attacks (E.O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist, called him "a parasite load"). But that's not enough. People are still listening to Lomborg. He is even named to run a government agency to look at the costs and benefits of environmental regulations. So they call on the Ministry of Truth to finish him off.

Sorry, but it's backfiring. I noticed that in the two days following the news reports, Lomborg's book moved up 400 places on Amazon's bestseller chart. Despite the fact that it is two years old, it still ranks as the number-one Nature book on site and number 209 overall. (Wilson's latest, "The Future of Life," ranks number 3,772.) By slandering Lomborg, his opponents are making him an even bigger celebrity. People wonder, "What is this book that the Ministry of Truth has found guilty?"

The book's conclusion answers that question pretty well: "Children born today - in both the industrialized world and developing countries - will live longer and be healthier. They will get more food, a better education, a higher standard of living, more leisure time and far more possibilities - without the global environment being destroyed."

Lomborg makes his case with excruciating detail, including 2,930 footnotes, 1,800 bibliographical references, 173 figures and nine tables. He urges costs and benefits to be weighed before an environmental policy is enacted, and, for that reason, he opposes the Kyoto regime on global warming. He lines up facts to show that the Malthusian theory that more population equals more poverty is bunk, and he shows that prosperity has increased significantly, in both the developed and developing parts of the world, and that resources like forests, food and energy aren't running out.

He is right, of course. But the Ministry of Truth doesn't want such views to enter the public discourse.

When Lomborg's book was published, it was generally ignored by the purveyors of what he calls "The Litany" - the interest groups, fundraisers, government officials and scientists with a stake in perpetuating the idea that the earth is rapidly deteriorating (burning up, in the latest manifestation), thanks to the interventions of humans.

But Lomborg turned out to be their worst nightmare. He is a self-described left-winger, a former member of Greenpeace. He's young, handsome and gregarious. When he presented his views at a panel discussion that I moderated at the American Enterprise Institute in October 2001, he wore a T-shirt and jeans and drank water from a McDonald's cup.

And he has a great story. The book was largely an accident. He had set out to prove that the rosy scenarios promoted by the late University of Maryland scholar Julian Simon were wrong. But he found they were right, and actually changed his mind.

His book is hardly a page-turner, but it has turned out to be a bestseller - in part because of glowing recommendations from such unlikely sources as The Economist and the Washington Post.

Now clearly, this won't do.

The Greens went on the attack. In January 2002, Scientific American magazine devoted 11 pages to a special section titled, "Science Defends Itself Against 'The Sketpical Environmentalist.'" The editor, John Rennie, asked "four leading experts to critique Lomborg's treatment of their areas. The fix was in. Rennie chose writers predisposed to detest Lomborg's thesis.

The result was an embarrassment - not to Lomborg, but to a magazine that once was considered serious and was widely respected. As Philip Stott, a distinguished emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London, put it, "I have been involved in the editing of scientific journals for over 15 years, and I could never conceive of treating an author in the manner that the Scientific American has dealt with Dr. Lomborg....

"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."

Typical was the article by Stephen Schneider, a Stanford biologist and global warming advocate who is perhaps best known for his too-candid statement to Discover magazine in 1989, arguing that sometimes scientists should distort the truth to win important political objectives:

"[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."

As The Economist put it: "Science needs no defending from Mr. Lomborg. It may very well need defending from champions like Mr.Schneider."

Indeed, the Ministry of Truth would seem to have more substantial grounds to investigate Prof. Schneider, who urges scientists to "make little mention of any doubts we might have" and, it seems, to tell lies when it is "effective."

Instead, Schneider, in the kangaroo court of Denmark, turns out to be the main witness. The report quotes Schneider in SA: "Lomborg assumes that over the next several decades, improved solar machines and other new technologies will crowd fossil fuels off the market.... This is not so much analysis as wishful thinking." Here we have what's called in the United States a difference of opinion. Maybe Lomborg is right, maybe Schneider is right, but why does Denmark need a Ministry of Truth to intervene?

Lomborg's discussion of global warming is forthright and disarmingly honest. He writes in his conclusion to the global warming chapter of his book that "there is no doubt that mankind has influenced and is still increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and that this will influence temperature. Yet we need to separate hyperbole from realities in order to choose our future optimally.... Global warming is important. Its total costs could be $5 trillion. Yet, our choices in dealing with global warming are also important.... Is it not curious, then, that the typical reporting on global warming tells us all the bad things that could happen fromCO2 emissions, but few or none of the bad things that could come from overly zealous regulation of such emissions?"

His contention is that poverty and disease, not global warming, are the most important problems facing the world and that to devote vast resources to fighting potential warming with dubious policies, we are making a poor choice. And again, he is clear that this is not a controlled experiment in a peer-reviewed journal. Instead, "the argument I have presented above is one way to look at the world." How different is this tone from that of fanatics like Schneider, Rennie and Wilson!

You would never know it from the U.S. reporting, but nearly the entire case against Lomborg in the document issued by the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) comprises excerpts from the Scientific American pieces. The only other evidence comes from Time magazine.

The SA excerpts are, in many cases, dogmatic and highly politicized. John Bongaarts, for example, writes that "Lomborg's view that the number of people is not the problem is simply wrong" and that the "overlooks the fact that population growth contributes to poverty." Really? Then why has China's wealth increased as its population has risen? Bongaarts sounds like discredited old Rev. Malthus reborn. Certainly, we can debate whether population growth is good or bad, but to offer the Bongaarts claim as evidence of Lomborg's guilt is absurd.

The rest of the report is larded with nasty little asides that reveal a little too much about the ideology of the Ministry of Truth. For example, "It is the view of the Working party [of the DCSD] that the many, particularly American researchers, who have received Bjorn Lomborg's work with great gusto,...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," etc., etc.
Lomborg, for his part, says on his website that he was looking forward to the investigation. But, unfortunately, "the DCSD has made their decision without taking a position to the content of the complaints. The DCSD has ruled that 'it is not DCSD's remit to decide who is right in a contentious professional dispute.' I find this ruling inexplicable."

Lomborg goes on, "The DCSD does not give a single example to demonstrate their claim of a biased choice of data and arguments. Consequently, I don't understand this ruling. It equals an accusation without defining the crime."

But, my dear Bjorn, that is the entire point. It is the way the Ministry of Truth works. Punishment first; charges later.

Lomborg says that he long ago responded to the claims in a 34-page response. "But in spite of the fact that the DCSD received a copy of my response, they refer to none of my arguments. In fact, the only thing the DCSD does is to repeat the Scientific American arguments over six pages, while only allowing my arguments one-half line. This seems to me to reflect an extremely biased procedure. On top of that, the DCSD has failed to evaluate the scientific points in dispute outlined in the Scientific American article."

But, again, the Ministry of Truth is not supposed to do that sort of thing. It is supposed to enforce an orthodoxy.

In his good humor and naivete, Lomborg still has not learned the basic reality of radical environmentalism. There is a political struggle going on here, and one side is willing - and indeed, eager - to use weapons of deceit and intellectual violence to win. The other side, alas, is not. In fact, much of the time, it tries to cozy up to the radicals, to win their favor through being reasonable.

It doesn't work.

Last April, I moderated a discussion involving Lomborg again, this time at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I asked Lomborg some questions about the science behind global warming claims, including the discrepancy between surface-temperature records, which show warming of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century, and more extensive satellite records, which show no warming over the past 25 years.

I'll paraphrase Lomborg's response because I remember it distinctly. He said that he was not a natural scientist, and thus he did not question the assumptions of the global warming crowd. That was not his job. His argument was simply that, if the assumptions about a warming planet are true, the facts show the best method of mitigation is certainly not the regime specified in the Kyoto Protocol.

I was disappointed with this answer and probed further. Lomborg would not budge. He would not challenge the accepted science.

That is precisely his approach in "The Skeptical Environmentalist." He is modest, reasonable and cheerful. He is just a statistician, after all. He claims to be nothing more. All he wants is fairness. To have a civil debate over his ideas, his facts, his point of view.
But the other side, with an intellectual brutality and singlemindedness that recalls Leninism, can't stand such an approach. Free speech is what the Ministry of Truth hates.
Is the lesson here that happy warriors like Bjorn Lomborg will inevitably lose the battle of environmental ideas? I hope not. But, then, like Lomborg, I am an optimist.

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