TCS Daily


Skeptical of Liberalism?

By Duane D. Freese - March 14, 2003 12:00 AM

The environmental movement has given up on old liberal principles of fair trial, free speech and democratic debate, preferring mob lynchings instead.

At least, that's the conclusion one might draw from the movement's reaction to Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist.

A forum co-sponsored by the New America Foundation and TCS Tuesday provided a glimpse of what Lomborg has faced since the publication of his 352-page book (not including footnotes, bibliography and index) two years ago.

Lomborg, a former member of Greenpeace, wrote his book after first trying to prove the late libertarian economist Julian Simon wrong in his assessment that, contrary to the conventional wisdom touted by green groups, the world was not racing downhill in an environmental death spiral. He went on to bust some of the scary myths of the litany recited by avid environmentalists while at the same time stating that by "pointing out that our most publicized fears are incorrect does not mean that we should make no effort towards improving the environment. Far from it. ...What this information should tell us is not to abandon action entirely, but to focus our attention on the most important problems and only to the extent warranted by the facts."

The environmental movement's reaction to this was swift and vicious. As TCS host and moderator at Tuesday's event James Glassman told the packed house of more than 100, Lomborg has been hit in the face by pies from environmental activists, attacked by the once respected Scientific American and, most recently, denounced without a hearing by the Orwellian-named Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty. The committee's evidence against Lomborg amounted to Scientific American articles, with its report bizarrely concluding:

"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, Bjørn 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."

As Lomborg summed up, the Danish committee essentially said that he "(Expletive deleted) up, but he was too dumb to know he had (expletive deleted) up."

The point of all this, though, isn't that Lomborg and his book have been criticized by the environmental movement or that he has been taken to task by them for his conclusions. It isn't even necessarily that he has been personally attacked.

Instead, as Roger A. Pielke Jr., director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote in Nature last April before the Danish committee's absurd action: "The Lomborg affair merits attention not because of its robust criticism, character assassination and pressure politics - these are nothing new - but because its extremeness could mark a watershed in how science relates to policy and politics."

An example of that extremeness came in a recent interview with Camille Parmesan in the Austin Chronicle. A population biologist at the University of Texas with a new study on how species change their ranges in response to temperature change, Parmesan took a gratuitous swipe at Lomborg.

"(He) is not a scientist at all. He has no training in environmentalism, he has no training in biology; he's a really, really good con man, though. So he writes articulately, and pretends as though he's citing scientific works, when in fact he mis-cites them. He'll put a little number down in the reference, but then what he says is completely counter to what's in that reference. And people who want to believe what he says have really picked up on it, and they don't care that he's been trashed by the scientific community. The Danish Academy of Science just came out with a declaration that his book was scientifically dishonest, and unfortunately, that's getting much less play than the original book did."

It is worth noting in this litany that Parmesan first attacks Lomborg for not being a scientist, though she herself co-writes many of her papers with an economist. She complains that he has no training in "environmentalism" or in "biology." But she doesn't explain what that has to do with anything, or why biologists and environmentalists should be considered better versed in planetary science issues than, say, astrophysicists or meteorologists. She then labels him a con man, but doesn't demonstrate the con - suggesting that all the scientists that have come to Lomborg's defense are part of it. She then says he "mis-cites" things, but provides no concrete examples. And then she says he was trashed by the scientific community - with her specific reference being The Danish Academy of Science declaring his book was "scientifically dishonest" as evidence. Only it wasn't the Danish Academy of Science but the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty -and not one member of the five-member panel reviewing Lomborg's work was a scientist.

The Danish committee's disreputable action has drawn protests from 300 Danish scientists.

The one solace that Lomborg has taken from the reaction of personal invective, distortion and misrepresentation by the environmental movement of his book is that "if it was easy to go after me and my work, I would have seen good arguments by now."

But it is passing strange that so few liberals have defended Lomborg's right of inquiry and fairness. The environmental movement's extreme attacks and attempts to silence rather than debate the facts are reminiscent not of a true modern, liberal scientific movement, but a Communist one.

And the one solace observers of this scene can take is that society is still free and with the Internet has the means to respond to and oppose a scientific lynching and provide Lomborg a fair trial for his views.
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