Something rotten in the State of Denmark?
Bjørn Lomborg feels that environmental problems are being exaggerated. Yet in his native Denmark, Lomborg himself has been accused of scientific fraud.
A Danish citizen, Björn Lomborg has received widespread publicity for his claim that we do not need to be overly concerned about the state of the globe.
In his book The Sceptical Environmentalist, Lomborg dubs the list of global problems a litany. In his opinion there is no truth in any of it. This has gladdened the hearts of many economists and social scientists, Neo-liberal politicians, journalists and optimists in regard to our future, and these people have heaped praise on Lomborg.
Thanks to his "objective" criticism Lomborg has earned himself and unprecedented amount of publicity and money, in addition to a well-paid job.
In all started with a few columns in the Danish newspaper Politiken in 1998. These columns became a book. The widespread interest in the English edition of this book in 2001 quickly made the 37 year-old lecturer from the University of Århus a media celebrity. In February 2002, Denmark?s new government established an environmental assessment institute, the Institut for miljøvurdering, appointing Lomborg as its head. Lomborg was the only applicant to lack a natural science background. Among other things, making use of game theory, Lomborg has studied political party strategies leading to election successes.
Bizarre mixture of truth and illusion
Lomborg?s contentions are so polemical and simple that the book?s concepts are easy to grasp and absorb. However, the reader should remember that one correct piece of information does not make the next bit true.
Lomborg happily offers the reader extreme concepts that have long ago been cast aside by environmental researchers. He then goes on to show that these are wrong, gives his own, opposite, view and proceeds to prove that this is the right one. Many of the man?s concepts are erroneous or open to doubt, but this is not easy to glean.
Lomborg?s basic problem is that he is unable to understand the natural sciences, nor the published results of these. Before their final approval, manuscripts of scientific articles are sent as a matter of normal procedure to experts in the requisite discipline for their approval. This peer review process prunes out questionable studies or those that are too "light" in context. For example, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is literally made up of thousands of top researchers worldwide.
Lomborg?s book has come in for a stormy reception. Its claims have been refuted and, in prestigious scientific magazines like Scientific American, Science, Nature and New Scientist they have frequently been shown to suffer from deliberate distortion. Leading researchers in the different disciplines have demonstrated that Lomborg?s data is outdated, incorrect and blatantly misleading.
The smooth-tongued Lomborg, gazing with frank blue eyes into the lens of a TV camera, has turned realistic criticism to his own advantage. He smiles winningly, tosses his long blonde hair, and avers that his antagonists? primitive reaction only shows his own version of the truth to be correct!
In environmental discussions Lomborg repeats statements that have been trotted out again and again but which in his own opinion have taken a new lease of life.
Lomborg repeats his claims one after the other: there should be no great concern over the loss of biodiversity or global famine; forests are not vanishing. His methods resemble those of the Creationists when attacking the evolution concept. Despite the absence of any solid foundations, or the poor quality of the latter, a large contingent of people want to believe, and thus do believe, the Lomborg version.
The concern aroused by Lomborg?s mission against Science is revealed by the fact that the US National Academy of Science?s President Peter H. Raven roundly criticised Lomborg at the Academy?s last annual meeting.
What will be the outcome if the world?s leaders adopt these beliefs? Indeed, some of them have already done so and have reshaped their country?s policy to fit them. What will happen to the world, if we do not prepare ourselves for the worst? If we base our own future and that of our children on optimistic pseudo-scientific assumptions and beliefs?
Suomen Luonto asked a group of top Finnish researchers for an assessment of Lomborg?s book. We also visited Denmark to check up on the latest developments in Lomborgian criticism.
Experts condemn Lomborg
The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation?s chairman, Dr Heikki Simola, places little value on Lomborg?s ideas. "Lomborg poses as a researcher but he is representative of the pseudo-scientific approach," sums up Simola. "Lomborg knows the basic rules of the game in Science and he infringes these rules. His pseudo-scientific approach is obvious in, for instance, the enormous number of contentions he makes. Many of the most salient of these are quoted erroneously and totally out of context."
"Lomborg?s arguments are blatantly transparent, yet skilfully chosen. He loves to dwell on conflicts, which in fact form a fundamental part of scientific advancement. There are many stakeholders in environmental affairs and it is thus perfectly clear why opposing viewpoints have been presented. Science is self-correcting and critical, two characteristics that Lomborg himself lacks. He picks out outdated claims, treats them as though they are being presented afresh, and then goes on to demonstrate that they are wrong."
"The preface in Lomborg?s book has been cunningly woven. He presents himself as a young radical and a university teacher. Nowhere is there any sign given of what interests lie behind him and support him." But Simola also finds something positive in the book, which he says "reveals the weaknesses and difficulties in the dissemination of current scientific knowledge to the general public and decision-makers. To draw a parallel, a burglar can reveal the weaknesses of a security system while committing a crime." As an example of Lomborg?s line of thought and method of presentation Dr Simola chooses a case from his own field, the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico.
"Lomborg disagrees with the contention that a large part of the sea bed in the Gulf of Mexico has died as a result of loading and oxygen depletion - animals on the sea bed have indeed died, he says, but in their place there is now a thriving, diverse community of anaerobic bacteria involved in decomposition. Since Lomborg feels it is of no consequence what species live in the sea, it follows there is no point in doing anything constructive about the change. The money would be better spent, he opines, on promoting the economy."
"When drawing his misleading conclusions, Lomborg could not have been unaware, of their flaws, at least to some extent. This, despite surrendering his weapons in the book?s preface by admitting that he himself is not an expert on environmental issues."
The book irks Simola, who says that, "The real indicators of the state of the globe are in many regions nothing short of depressing. Lomborg defends the current trend, which is in fact totally uncontrolled, and also offers an entirely unfounded sense of security to both decision-makers and the general public."
"The book is a skilful blend of fact, outmoded truths, and pure lies. Anyone other than those familiar with environmental affairs will find it difficult to detect its numerous flaws and deception.
Leading ecologist offers a terse reply
Academy Professor Ilkka Hanski is an extremely well-known ecologist, even to the world at large. Hanski?s verdict on Bjørn Lomborg is short and pithy. The ecologist is well acquainted with Lomborg?s hypotheses and opinions. "The man?s arguments are mainly erroneous and based to a large extent on a sad lack of expert knowledge," Hanski sums up.
As a case of Lomborg in error, Hanski chooses the extinction of bird species in Puerto Rico. Lomborg has suggested that predictions about extinction based on surface area are nonsense. "Lomborg does not separate indigenous forest species (to which the prediction actually applies), species of other habitats, or even the dozens of bird species brought to Puerto Rico by mankind. Lomborg thereby draws the cheerful conclusion that when 99 percent of the island?s native forests vanished, the number of bird species actually increased!"
"Stuart Pimm has shown that in reality the number of extinctions among Puerto Rico birds adapted to forest life is entirely in agreement with mathematical predictions based on surface area. Yet, in his book (p. 254) Lomborg makes it look as though the opposite were the case!" Hanski has the feeling that "Lomborg has his own mission and attitude where the end justifies the means. Possibly he started with unselfish motives. He has since adopted the role of international mascot of economic life and has obviously become completely immersed in the part. The image of the future he projects is wishful thinking and entirely groundless. Professor Hanski sees nothing of any merit in Lomborg?s book. "The really bad thing is that people are being misled!"
Misconceived climate change
Petteri Taalas, a research professor at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (and now the Institute?s director), studies among things ozone and ultraviolet light in the atmosphere, as well as Arctic climate change. He is acquainted with Lomborg?s thoughts but has not yet had a chance to read the book that has caused such a furore.
Taalas feels that climate change is from time to time badly mauled by the media. While the allegations of so-called critics are easily dismissed by an expert, the common folk remain with a muddled impression of the actual situation. "Lomborg poses as an expert on such a broad range of subjects that some of his criticisms are easy to refute. However, at times it is only right and proper to take a critical stand on the "truths" claimed by extremists within the environmental sector. At its best Lomborg?s criticism helps to ensure that environmental NGOs stick to scientifically proven facts."
Taalas finds flaws in Lomborg?s arguments in relation to the professor?s own field. "People unfamiliar with the subject frequently criticise the reasons for climate change. It has been claimed that the activity of the Sun explains the warming recorded over the last hundred years. However, solar activity has been taken into account in, for instance, the IPCC?s work and its effect is considerably less than that of the greenhouse gases."
"In his treatise, Lomborg distorts the ozone problem in the lower atmosphere. For instance, the ozone concentration at ground level in Europe nowadays is two or three times greater than it was a hundred years ago. The situation has locally improved in the richer countries, thanks to emission limitations. But in Eastern Europe, South America and China, for example, ozone concentration continues to rise.
"Lomborg often overlooks scientifically proven facts. On the one hand, some of the changes expected are also favourable ones. The coming generation will most probably see an improvement in the state of the upper ozone layer as a consequence of the limiting of freon and halone emissions. However, the adverse effects of climate change are expected to accelerate. Aside from increases in local forest growth and agricultural production, the impact will be extremely adverse."
"The USA oil industry has demonstrably supported the activities of so-called climate sceptics. By this means the industry has endeavoured to prevent the setting of constraints on emissions, and particularly the approval of the Kyoto Protocol. Its motto is that ?Decisions cannot be made based on uncertain scientific facts!?. Some researchers have even been offered money to leave their results unpublished."
Taalas does not consider Lomborg?s book scientific, or even popular-scientific, feeling that it belongs in the populist-religious category. "It would be interesting to know whether the fellow himself believes the ?facts? he comes out with," concludes Taalas.
Lomborg accused of scientific deception in Denmark
Denmark, of course, has had the longest exposure to Lomborg?s collection of misconceptions. "Lomborg?s colleagues at the University of Århus were immediately ashamed of his activities," relates the head of the University of Copenhagen?s zoological museum, Professor Carsten Rahbek. The professor has recently been possibly Lomborg?s most prominent antagonist. Rahbek and Lomborg went at it hammer and tongs in the Berlingske Tidende newspaper at the beginning of the autumn.
Rahbek is one of Lomborg?s most awesome foes because he himself has studied environmental protection priorities. "I should add that I also approach NGOs with some reservation, and that this is a generally known fact."
Lomborg?s own publications have now become the main topic of the ongoing battle of words. Lomborg?s institute turned out three reports in the late summer which proved very flimsy. "They are high school level stuff," says Rahbek. The quality of these publications was condemned so widely that even the governing party Venstre, which had enthroned Lomborg, publicly distanced itself from the Institute?s head by suggesting that Lomborg should be given another chance.
"It is said that quality cannot be expected of Lomborg since the Institute has been operating for such a short time. I do not endorse this. We should be able to expect a certain level of quality from a ten million Crown (an over one million Euro) budget."
An assessment is made in the environmental institute?s publications of, among other things, the Global Environment Outlook 3 report, which is one of the background reports of the recent Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development. The Institute added to its evaluation a verbal description of the seriousness of environmental problems. When questioned, however, the Institute was forced to admit that there is no background material and its analysis forming a solid foundation for this description. "It would be ridiculous to take this kind of analysis seriously," says Rahbek.
However, it is precisely this type of verbal assessment that Lomborg?s institute recommended as guidelines for those about to take part in the Johannesburg Summit. Rahbek emphasises that Lomborg?s real field is Sociology not Statistics, which is frequently thought of as the man?s research area. "He has run courses on statistics."
Currently Lomborg is facing a charge of scientific fraud in his native Denmark. It is Rahbek?s opinion, as well as that of many other researchers I met, that the Institute will have a new manager, if the charge is proven.
In Denmark a special council for cases of this kind defines as fraud an act in which scientific information is deliberately falsified or distorted, or in which the wrong impression is given of the contribution of a person to a study. The bases of the charge are the very same books that have made Lomborg famous - he has included these in his list of scientific references.
Teksti: Antti Halkka and Juha Valste, translation Leigh Plester