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.


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."


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