The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjørn Lomborg, 1998, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-01068-3.

In 1997 Bjorn Lomborg read an article in Wired magazine in which Julian Simon, an American economist, claimed that nearly all of our widely held beliefs about the state of the environment were wrong. Lomborg, a Greenpeace member concerned about the state of the environment, was incensed. Simon maintained that all of his claims were easy to verify using public data, so Lombarg, a professor of statistics, decided to prove him wrong. He assembled a team of grad students and went to work.

Imagine his surprise when the team discovered that almost everything claimed by Simon was correct. They found that most of the news was actually good rather than bad. A few examples:

  • Over the last 30 years in the US, car miles traveled have doubled, the economy has also doubled and the population has increased by a third, yet emissions of air pollutants have decreased by a third and concentrations even more.
  • When measured across the US using fish or herring gull eggs, pollution levels in US rivers and lakes has decreased 80-90 percent since 1969. Rivers around the world (eg, the Rhine, Thames, New York Harbor) have showed steadily increasing oxygen levels since the 1960's.
  • We aren't losing 40,000 species per year as is often asserted by environmentalists (a number that has never been supported by any research), the actual rate is estimated at 0.7 percent of all species becoming extinct each 50 years (of an estimated 1.6 millions species on the planet) - not a small number, to be sure, but a couple of orders of magnitude less than typically claimed.
  • Tropical forests are the only ones decreasing in area, and those by only about 0.46 percent per year, a rate that should decrease as the countries involved develop economically.
  • Human life expectancy has doubled over the last 100 years, the proportion of people starving in the world has gone from 35 percent in 1970 to 18 percent 2000, incomes (in purchasing power parity terms) have tripled in both the developed and developing world since 1950 and calorie consumption in the developing world has gone from 1,900 per day in 1960 to almost 3,000 in 2000.

Lombard documents his claims in great detail, generally using UN or other government data. The book has almost 3,000 citations.

The conclusion, obviously, isn't that we should ignore the environment and go crazy. We should, however, be making our decisions based on reality, not the trumped-up claims of overexcited environmentalists.

On 8 January 2003, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued a report on the book The Skeptical Environmentalist and its author Bjorn Lomborg, newly appointed director of the Danish Institute for Environmental Assessment. The Committee, part of the Danish Research Agency, found that The Skeptical Environmentalist is a scientifically dishonest work. They also found that while the book is "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice," the Committee could make no decision on Professor Lomborg's intent or on whether or not he was negligent.

The decision of the committee was based in part on a critique of The Skeptical Environmentalist by four scientists published in January 2002 by Scientific American. These four assessments were focused on four subjects addressed in Lomborg's book: global warming, energy, biodiversity, and population. These four experts (Stephen Schneider, John P. Holdren, Thomas Lovejoy, and John Bongaarts) and others cite serious problems with Lomborg's objectivity and methodology. These problems include the fabrication of data, the selective and misleading use of statistics and sources, a misunderstanding of some of the natural processes discussed (Lomborg is a statistician), personal attacks on researchers, and the grouping of environmental scientists and activists together. The Committee considered each of the many allegations and found that The Skeptical Environmentalist constituted a "perversion of the scientific message in the form of systematically biased representation."

The committee also addressed the question of whether The Skeptical Environmentalist is a scientific book or a "debate-generating" book intended for a more general audience. The Skeptical Environmentalist was published by the social sciences branch of Cambridge University Press and was not peer reviewed. The "manifest one-sidedness," wide breadth of topics, and general lack of scientific approach were suggested as reasons why it should not be judged as a science book. The Committee cited the presentation and format of the book and Professor Lomborg's use of his academic credentials during book promotion in their decision to consider the text as a science book.

Sources: http://www.forsk.dk/uvvu/nyt/udtaldebat/bl_decision.htm
http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/08/international/europe/08SKEP.html
These problems include the fabrication of data, the selective and misleading use of statistics and sources, a misunderstanding of some of the natural processes discussed, and personal attacks on researchers.

-- fb10101 on the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty's critique

Writeups are not replies, but the above must be quoted. The central thesis of Bjørn Lomborg's work, in fact the impetus for writing it in the first place, is not that everything in the world is peachy-keen. His thesis is that environmental groups engage in exactly these same practices!

Let's recap a bit. Lomborg is indeed above all a statistician, not an environmental researcher. The Skeptical Environmentalist does not present any new and revolutionary research by Lomborg on topics like global warming or biodiversity, because he hasn't done any, and wouldn't know how to if he tried.

Instead, all the chapters of the book follow the same basic format: Lomborg takes an enviromentalist's claim and the facts presented to back it up, determines how the data was obtained, and then considers the statistics involved. Here is one particular example (Part III "Can human prosperity continue?", Ch. 9 "Will we have enough food?", pp. 96-98), picked more or less at random of the hundreds presented in the book. I've paraphrased Lomborg's words, the quotes are from his sources unless otherwise noted.


An Example

The Facts

In State of the World 1998, Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute ask us to consider the yields of Japanese rice and American wheat. In 1983, America produced 2.65 tons per hectare, but "since then, there has been no further rise." Japan's rice yield in 1984 was 4.7 tons/hectare; "since then, it has plateaued". This is demonstrated with graphs showing that, indeed, since 1983 and 1984 respectively there does not seem to have been any gain in the yield.

The Claims

"Farmers in the two countries appear to have 'hit the wall' at about the same time."
"More countries 'hit the wall' in the years immediately ahead."
"Eventually grain yields will level off everywhere."
"The world moves into an age of scarcity."
This will create "unprecedented political instability in Third World cities."

The Analysis

Lomborg tracks down the 1998 USDA report these figures were taken from, and gets the 2001 version for good measure. Turns out that 1983 was the year of a bumper crop for wheat in the US, and 1984 a bumper crop for rice in Japan. In fact, if Brown had picked any other year than 1983, yields would have increased by 1997! And surprise surprise, according to the new report, they did increase 10% past the 1983 level in 1998 (and 2000 and 2001 for good measure, so this isn't just another bumper crop year). The same applies to rice, where yields have been higher than 1984 every year since 1995.

Conclusion

Grain yields have on average increased 1% per year over the last 30 years, and the growth shows no signs of decreasing. Brown is lying with statistics, either intentionally or through sheer ineptitude; real trends can trivially be deduced with long-term averages, not by selecting points that fit your hypothesis.


The book goes on and on like this, hundreds of pages, thousands of footnotes. Now the bias that the Committee accused him of is introduced through Lomborg's selection of the cases he skewers; obviously he has opted to dissect distorted and spurious claims, not mathematically rigorous ones! But Lomborg's point in the first place was that many, many of the claims presented as solid "fact" by environmental groups are distorted or outright made up (Lomborg documents a number of cases where numbers have been wildly extrapolated or simply invented, most glaringly for the virtually incalculable rate of species extinction), and that these claims are blindly parroted by the media with no fact-checking whatsoever. Attempts to dispute these claims are usually met with "But please won't somebody think about the CHILDREN?"-type hysteria and vitriol accusing the heretic who does not agree with The Litany (to use Lomborg's term) of being a paid stooge of evil multinational corporations.

Is Lomborg qualified to comment on the science of the studies he examines? No, and the most dubious sections of the book are those where he tries to. The above example would have been good enough as is, but no, as a cherry on top Lomborg cites a few studies claiming that rice yields still have another 50% to go -- a claim he is not qualified to make, and "clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice."

Summary

Read The Skeptical Environmentalist for the statistics, not the science.

As an update to the furious debate around the writings of Bjørn Lomborg and especially this book, it should be noted that the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty is now being examined itself! Apparently, they have made the critique on Lomborgs book without setting up clear criteria for their claim of scientific dishonesty. At current date (Jan. 18), newspapers are arming themselves for yet another debate on possibly the most debated man in modern Denmark. The political opposition, which after the fairly recent election became the political left, is using the opportunity to criticize the new, right-wing Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen for his choice of Lomborg to the position of director of the Danish Institute for Environmental Assessment. All sides are building an arsenal of mud for slinging, in addition to their rational arguments.

This writeup is not meant to claim right or wrong for any side in this debate. Having studied briefly at the Department of Technology and Social Sciences at Roskilde University Center in Roskilde, Denmark, I have had the dubious experience of being one of three students to ask "should we simply dismiss Lomborg, or should we consider whether his claims, exaggerated or not, may be valuable contributions to the environmental debate?". The comparison to committing medieval heresy is fairly accurate, and no arguments in favor of any Lomborg claims can today be given in environmental circles without seriously damaging one's own status. My writeup is more than anything an attempt at demonstrating the insanity of a debate, in which any and all criticism of the mainstream, in this case the established environmental beliefs, is considered inappropriate.

The environmental debate needs to have two sides in order to be a debate. We need to consider the impact done by human action on the environment. But we also need to consider the validity of the warnings we hear about the state of our environment. And, as one of Lomborgs points goes, we need to consider whether to spend tons of resources in panic every time a new threat is described. Even if that threat is valid, those resources require us to sacrifice other projects, which may be just as critical.
A note: It has just come to my attention that 250+ scientists and academic professors (many in social sciences) have signed a protest against the Committee.

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