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Lomborg Confronts Newtonian Mechanics... and Wins!

By Sallie Baliunas - March 18, 2004 12:00 AM

"Numero pondere et mensura Deus omnia condidit."

("God created everything by number, weight and measure.")

-- Sir Isaac Newton (1642 - 1727)

Nearly a year ago the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a governmental panel, ruled that Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, published after peer review by Cambridge University Press, was "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice" and shows "objective scientific dishonesty." But the DCSD opinion was vacated after careful assessment by its governing body, the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. That body wisely acted to protect science and its scholars from interpersonal and institutional attacks, which even scientists as noteworthy as Newton have made against colleagues since time immemorial. Now, the DCSD has just agreed with the Ministry's decision.

Besides the DCSD's procedural errors and "condescending" language, foremost among the Ministry's reasons for rejecting the DCSD view is that the committee failed in its fiduciary duty -- to examine the nature and scope of the alleged scientific errors in The Skeptical Environmentalist. The Ministry held that enumerating the existence of complaints per se, is an insufficient procedure to determine whether or not Lomborg had made scientific errors.

Specifically, the Ministry felt obliged "to point out that the DCSD has not documented where the respondent (Bjorn Lomborg) has allegedly been biased in his choice of data and in his argumentation, and that the ruling is completely void of argumentation." The Ministry emphasized that inquisitorial process was violated in a fundamental way: "This type of significant neglect in case processing by the DCSD deserves criticism in itself."

Lomborg breeched a pervasive myth, namely, that the world is deteriorating in many ways -- worsening poverty, starvation, pollution and disease incidence. His detailed anthology, drawn from expert researchers' results, showed that substantial economic investment in reducing poverty over the last several decades had improved the world.

The DCSD investigation followed a politically-timed complaint by a Danish biologist, who expressed "doubts regarding Bjorn Lomborg's scientific integrity" just as Lomborg was about to become director of Denmark's Environmental Assessment Institute. Researchers from the United States and the Netherlands chimed in with similar allegations.

Lomborg's extremely harsh treatment reaffirms that his scientific critics are human, sometimes protecting cultural myths by invoking the commodious safety of political authority and social pressure. The scientific method confers on its human practitioners no immunity from emotion and illogic.

Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientist yet seen, established the classical form of the force of gravity, and described it in the greatest science book yet written, Principia. Newton also greatly advanced the field of optics and co-invented calculus (Gottfried Leibniz was the independent co-inventor). Newton's scientific advances were paralleled by his brilliant development of the scientific method during a still-superstitious period torn by power wars between secular and religious authorities.

The method he helped establish has since found Newton's gravitational force to be incomplete. In the 20th Century, Albert Einstein improved the theory of gravity with his Theory of General Relativity. But science has likewise found that theory incomplete, for its failures in short time or space scales, so future science may yet need to unite General Relativity with quantum physics.

Still, wonderment surrounds Newton for his tremendous accomplishments in science and the scientific method. Yet his human traits are equally fascinating. When Newton had the institutional authority to do so, he lanced some of his colleagues ferociously and mercilessly.

Newton acted irrationally because he was unable to take criticism. His assistant William Whitson wrote, "Newton was of the most fearful, cautious and suspicious temper that I ever knew."

One of Newton's most notorious wars, the Great Priority Dispute, sought to decide whether Newton or Leibniz, a self-taught German mathematician, should have been credited with inventing calculus. The dispute locked British and European scientists in weary philosophical and nationalistic arguments for decades, far from the pursuit of science.

After more than three centuries, historians have sorted out Newton's and Leibniz's activities. Both mathematicians deserve approximately equal credit for bringing about the invaluable ways of calculus.

The timeline is that by 1666, Newton had started development of a system of calculus called "fluxions" written only in a draft tract but nonetheless seen by many mathematicians, including Leibniz, who saw a portion of the draft. Independently Leibniz developed a system of calculus -- whose notation is still used, including the integral sign ? and derivative d. Leibniz's first calculus paper appeared in 1684. Newton's draft treatise on fluxions had been left unfinished and unpublished in 1672.

A paper by John Keill in the Royal Society's journal suggesting Leibniz had stolen Newton's fluxions idea caused Leibniz to complain in 1711 to the Royal Society, of which Newton was president. This ignited an intense institutional response, managed by a raging Newton, who convened a committee of his own supporters to submit a report ghost-written by Newton and crediting him with the discovery of calculus. Newton penned follow-up reviews submitted under supporters' names or anonymously. Newton used his and the Royal Society's authority to destroy Leibniz's reputation, which only centuries later has been restored.

Thus, the unfair accusation of scientific dishonesty by the DCSD in Lomborg's case is neither unprecedented nor unexpected in the affairs of humans, even when they are engaged in science and scholarship. What is new since Newton's age is an appeals process that reproached the DCSD for its unsupported claims against Bjorn Lomborg, protecting science as well as the scientist in the process.

Good reading:

Richard S. Westfall, The Life of Isaac Newton, 1993, Cambridge University Press, 328pp (see also Westfall's full-scale version, Never at Rest)


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