TCS Daily


Bjorn Lomborg's Groundhog Day

By Nick Schulz - August 28, 2003 12:00 AM

In the often hilarious movie Groundhog Day, a petty, narrow-minded character played by comedic actor Bill Murray lives the same day over and over and over again. He goes to sleep at night and when he wakes up in the morning, it's the same day: Every day is yesterday. The Danish academic, Bjorn Lomborg, author of the international best-seller, The Skeptical Environmentalist, seems caught up in a similar time vortex, only in his case it is brought on by the pettiness of his critics.

 

This week Reuters reported that, "a panel of independent Scandinavian scientists said... that recent reports by [Lomborg] were unscientific and of dubious value." The Danish government had asked the academics to evaluate reports from Lomborg's government-sponsored think tank, the Institute for Environmental Valuation.

 

But the real news here isn't that there's a panel report criticizing Lomborg. The news is that this is just one more desperate salvo in what has degenerated into a farcical campaign by Lomborg's opponents to ruin him. To understand the Kafka-esque absurdity of what's happening, we need to go back over two years ago to when Lomborg published his book.

 

In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg tackled what he dubbed "the litany," the by now familiar list of apocalyptic doom and gloom scenarios trumpeted by green scientists and activists about how mankind is destroying the planet. The problem with "the litany," as Lomborg showed in devastating detail, is that it simply isn't true. He made an exhaustive case, including 2,930 footnotes, 1,800 bibliographical references, 173 graphs and figures and nine tables. Lomborg championed employing cost-benefit analysis when weighing the merits of environmental regulations, such as the Kyoto Protocol, and demonstrated that many such green initiatives were misguided and more likely to do serious harm than good.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, Lomborg was met with immediate criticism in some circles. First out of the gate were green pressure groups. The World Wildlife Foundation and World Resources Institute sent a press release to members of the Society of Environmental Journalists telling them "to exercise caution in reporting on Bjorn Lomborg's new book." Websites such as www.anti-lomborg.com, devoted to trying to debunk him, popped up. And at one public lecture an opponent literally threw a pie in his face.

 

But Lomborg is a respectable academic and his book is a self-evidently substantial one. As such he received enough praise for his thoroughness, integrity and courage in other quarters that environmental partisans had to take him seriously. And that's when the campaign went into overdrive.

 

In January 2002, Scientific American magazine published a special 11-page section with the sadly ironic title, "Science Defends Itself Against 'The Skeptical Environmentalist'" as if it was the scientific community that needed protection from an attack by Lomborg and not, as we would soon see, the other way around. The magazine asked what it called "four leading experts" to "critique Lomborg's treatment of their areas."


The Scientific American campaign badly backfired. As Philip Stott, a distinguished emeritus professor of biogeography at the University of London put it at the time, "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."

 

After the Scientific American embarrassment, you might think Lomborg's opponents would have learned a lesson. Alas, no. In January of this year, the Orwellian-sounding organization, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), released a 16-page book report denouncing The Skeptical Environmentalist, describing it as a book that fell "within the concept of scientific dishonesty."

 

"The publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice," the Committees concluded. The Committees' report, which relied heavily on such reputable "scientific" publications as Time magazine, was picked up and reported on by The New York Times, Washington Post, and other leading publications.

 

Thankfully, the Danish Committees' effort to discredit Lomborg backfired as well, as hundreds of Danish scientists and academics came to Lomborg's side, defending the integrity of his work as well as the right of academics to pursue their research free of harassment from political opponents.

 

But his opponents never seem to learn. So this week another round of Lomborg bashing begins. But what this week's Danish panel, the DCSD, Scientific American and others who perpetuate the sustained intellectual pie-throwing campaign against Lomborg can't seem to come to terms with is a much bigger problem on their hands. The long-held convictions of the environmental movement are crumbling under withering scrutiny from independent scientists and academics who refuse to kowtow to green orthodoxy and pressure.


Just this last April, the emeritus professor at Berkeley Jack Hollander published The Real Environmental Crisis: How Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy, published, as Lomborg's book was, by a distinguished academic press. The book shifts the terms of debate over environmental health and stewardship, pointing out that the extreme pessimism of green groups and the environmental movement is simply not supported by the available science.

 

At the end of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray, having learned to give up his petty conceits and open his mind to each day's possibilities, is finally liberated from his fate and free to get on with his life. For the sake of scientific integrity and open inquiry, let's hope Lomborg's critics will wake up to the dawn of a new day. For it would indicate they have learned the lesson that pettiness has no place in honest scientific debate.

 

Unfortunately, until they do their actions force Lomborg to live the same sad day over and over again, putting up with one ideologically motivated attack followed by another. And unlike the movie Groundhog Day, there's nothing funny about it.

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