The Tabloid Environmentalist
Bjorn Lomborg's new book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, brings us glorious news. The world's environment is getting better, not worse. Contrary to what the experts have been telling you, forests are spreading, air and water pollution are improving, global warming will have mild effects, and there won't be any food shortages as the world's population grows. And there's no need to worry about the ozone hole, species extinction, or acid rain; all those pesky environmentalists have just been exaggerating to try to scare you.
If this sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
The Skeptical Environmentalist presents itself as a work of impartial scholarship, an attempt to test the validity of various environmental concerns through a careful analysis of the evidence. In fact, it's a polemic, an intellectually dishonest tract filled with glaring omissions, appalling errors of fact and analysis, and inaccurate characterizations of contrary arguments. There are some valid points as well -- Greenpeace and other advocacy groups have distorted scientific information for their own ends -- but Lomborg must be read with a very skeptical eye.
Unfortunately, the media reaction has been surprisingly un-skeptical. The book has become a runaway hit on both sides of the Atlantic following a wave of credulous features, book reviews, and Lomborg guest essays published in many of the English-speaking world's most respected newspapers and magazines.
Before the book was even available in the Britain, newspapers were signing its praises. The London Observer's environment correspondent, Anthony Browne, announced it had "demolished almost every ... environmental claim with a barrage of official statistics. "The London Times science correspondent reported Lomborg's global warming claims in a story without other sources. The Economist gave a glowing review and invited Lomborg to write a 2,500 word essay, while the more liberal Guardian published a three-part series. Time International opined that "Of all the sacred cows, only global warming remains unslain" by Lomborg.
The coverage quickly generated a maelstrom of criticism from leading scientists -- including Lomborg's own colleagues at the University of Aarhus. Many of his claims were publicly discredited, but you'd never know that from reading the subsequent coverage in this country. The New York Times carried a sympathetic 2,000 word feature on the book, calling it "a substantial work of analysis." The Washington Post Book World was gushing in its praise, calling it "a magnificent achievement" and "the most significant work on the environment since ... Silent Spring." The Post reviewer, Dennis Dutton, a philosopher in New Zealand who lectures on "the dangers of pseudoscience" even decreed that the book "is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued."
How did the supposedly skeptical media get so taken in? Weren't there clues that should have cast suspicion on Lomborg's motives and analysis? Well, yes and no.
At first glance, Lomborg looks credible. Unlike past anti-green polemicists, Lomborg is a tenured professor at the environmental studies institute of a prestigious university. He's a self-declared "environmentalist ... former Greenpeace member [and] left-wing sympathizer" who doesn't eat meat because he doesn't want to kill animals.
Lomborg isn't an environmental scientist and has never published a scientific paper on climate change, ecology, atmospheric pollution, or any other topic he takes on in his book.
More importantly, his book is published by Cambridge University Press, an academic publisher that supposedly peer reviews manuscripts prior to publication.
"He's a tenured professor at a major university published by an important press," says Bruce Lewenstein, who teaches science communications at Cornell University, after looking over Lomborg's bio. "If someone with some credentials is questioning the conventional wisdom, that's a story."
It may be a story, but it's one that smells fishy from the very first sniff.
Lomborg isn't an environmental scientist and has never published a scientific paper on climate change, ecology, atmospheric pollution, or any other topic he takes on in his book. That's because he's not even a natural scientist, but rather a political scientist with a background in statistics and game theory.
"Here's one guy taking on a whole spectrum of issues who has never written a paper on any of them and is in opposition to absolutely everyone in the field, Nobel prize-winners and all," says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist at Columbia University who says virtually all of Lomborg's facts on biodiversity are simply wrong. "It ought to have raised some red flags." Political reporters often follow the money; science reporters should follow the data. Those that did discovered that many of the book's 2,500 footnotes led not to hard data, but to newspaper stories, Web pages, and magazine interviews with rival scientists. Some stunning assertions -- that "our oceans have not become defiled" for instance -- aren't substantiated by any research at all.
"He asserts with no analysis that only the mildest [climate change] impacts will happen and that the dangerous ones won't happen," says Stanford University's Stephen H. Schneider, lead author of several chapters of the International Panel on Climate Change's reports. "That the media sucked it up is really incredible."
"Journalists feel they need to give equal emphasis to a single skeptic on one side and, say, the scientific consensus of several thousand of the world's scientists on the other."
Part of the problem is the media's propensity to treat scientific disagreements as they might a political one: quote both sides and let the reader decide on their own. But, as most science writers know, such an approach is entirely inadequate for reporting on science and technology issues. It's important to report on bold, unorthodox theories, because some hold true and lead to new discoveries. But the science journalist has a duty to place them in their proper context: the shared, established opinion of dozens or hundreds of experts in the field does in fact carry more weight than that of a single dissenter.
"Journalists feel they need to give equal emphasis to a single skeptic on one side and, say, the scientific consensus of several thousand of the world's scientists on the other," as in the debate over climate change, says Lisa Sorensen, staff scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. "This leads readers and viewers to think these opinions have equal weight when, in fact, they do not."
Not everyone sees it this way. Anthony Browne, whose articles in the London Observer first brought attention to the English-language edition of The Skeptical Environmentalist, says most environmental journalists spend most of their time "acting as publicists to those who have a vested interest in scaring people about the state of the environment." He said that when somebody like himself airs the views of skeptics, "those who believe with a passion that we are all doomed heap anger and contempt on them." Browne says journalists shouldn't test "the validity of certain bits of science," but simply judge if someone appears credible and give them an airing to foster debate.
The editor in chief of The Economist, Bill Emmott, stands behind Lomborg's book and denies that it has been given a free ride by the media. "The real problem for the critics is that as far as we can see his data is incontrovertible. That is awkward for those who have made claims in the past that the data flatly contradicts," Emmott says. He said that in all the debate, he had yet to see a critic establish that the book contains "egregious" errors. "He has wiped the floor with his opponents, which is probably why he has created such ire." Grist Magazine has compiled a series of articles from leading scholars that illustrate how wrong Lomborg and Emmott are.
Several scientists interviewed for this article were dumbfounded that with all the scientific and environmental expertise available in the United States, the Washington Post's book review assigned the book to a philosophy professor in New Zealand with no more expertise to assess the arguments than the Post's own science reporters. The reviewer, Dennis Dutton, was chosen because of his "neutrality, remove, record ... and his interest in the environment," according to the paper's Book World editor, Marie Arana. She said that assigning the book had been the subject of an unusually wide-ranging debate, which resulted in a decision not to assign the book within the newsroom.
Dutton, whose popular Arts and Letters Web site includes a paean to the late environmental skeptic Julian Simon in its list of classic articles, declined to comment for this article. "It is the accuracy or inaccuracy of the book that is at issue, as far as I am concerned," he wrote by e-mail. "If you think the book is factually wrong, and if reviewers have been misled, I'd be keen to learn how."
But many of Lomborg's most troubling deceptions don't require scientific training to detect, and should have been obvious to any editor with even a passing interest in the environmental debate. Much of the book is deliberately misleading. Lomborg devotes entire chapters to "revealing" that we are not running out of oil or metals, although virtually nobody in the environmental movement has claimed otherwise in the past twenty years. He also marshals statistics to prove that human life expectancy and the global Gross Domestic Product have improved over the past two centuries and that the green revolution increased agricultural production, as if anyone is arguing the contrary. Lomborg shows the Kyoto agreement will have only a slight impact on global warming, apparently unaware that the treaty is indeed conceived as a "down payment" on reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Much of the media -- conservative and liberal alike -- were duped by the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press, whose reputation has been damaged by the publication of Lomborg's book.
Conservatives love Lomborg's message because it suggests that the status quo is pretty good. The Cooler Heads Coalition -- a group spearheaded by the Competitive Enterprise Institute which seeks to "dispel the myths of global warming" -- helped kick-off The Skeptical Environmentalist's U.S. release by sponsoring Lomborg's very own Capitol Hill briefing on October 4th. Not surprisingly, conservative columnists have heaped praise on the book. Katherine Kersten, senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment, told her Minneapolis Star-Tribune readers not to be taken in by "environmental fearmongering" and that "celebration, not despair, is in order." Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune questioned how environmentalists have "resisted the impulse to carry Lomborg off on their shoulders, wildly celebrating all the achievements of our era." The reason: environmentalists take "a solemn vow of melancholy."
Asked about how he assessed Lomborg's work, Chapman said that he didn't pretend to be a scientist and might change his opinion of the book if it were shown to be fraudulent. "All a layman like myself can do is try to learn about a subject by listening to what scientists on either side say and make a judgment of who is right," he said. "We do the same thing with non-scientists like economists and military people, whose knowledge is far deeper than our own."
Much of the media -- conservative and liberal alike -- were duped by the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press, whose reputation has been damaged by the publication of Lomborg's book. "Despite the sales that have been generated, CUP's credibility and reputation will suffer," says Jane Lubchenco, distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Many of us have inquired of our Cambridge contacts how they could have published a book that so clearly could never have passed peer review."
The book was acquired by CUP's social science group, rather than its natural science division. Editor Chris Harrison declined to comment on rumors that natural science editors had been kept in the dark about the book until a very late date. He said by e-mail that he had been very skeptical about the book when it first landed on his desk, and was surprised when all four of the scientific "referees" who reviewed the English manuscript recommended it for publication. He said referees always remain anonymous, but that all four were "senior figures from leading departments on both sides of the Atlantic" and included two from "environmental science departments, one from climate science, and one from a social science department."
Harrison said he had no regrets about publishing the book and that Cambridge University Press prided itself on publishing a variety of voices. "The book has been noticed and debated and that is surely a valuable contribution to public and academic debate in an open society," he said, adding that he himself was a "green tinted liberal" and not part of some conservative agenda.
Others dispute that The Skeptical Environmentalist's contribution will be positive.
"This book is going to be misused terribly by interests opposed to a clean energy policy," says Ms. Sorensen of Union of Concerned Scientists, whose organization is publishing a series of scientific critiques of Lomborg's science. "Hopefully that will help counter the claims and minimize the damage that could be done by a book like this."
Grist Magazine.com also commissioned a series of reviews, "Something is Rotten in the State of Denmark", by prominent scientists from the fields that Lomborg tackled in his book.
Colin Woodard is the author of "Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas." He currently lives in Port Isabel, Texas.