Steve Newton's picture

If Lomborg is the Answer, The Question’s Not Worth Asking

Over at the Discovery Institute, Senior Fellow Wesley Smith writes that “cruel” environmentalists “want to keep the world’s destitute in squalor” by delaying improvements in the developing world. In this supposed “war on humans,” improvements such as electrification will just have to wait until power can be supplied by renewable resources. Smith posits that environmentalists “generate more misery and promote increased conflict” by denying growth to the developing world and “stifl[ing] our already shaky economies.”

As I read this, it seemed awfully familiar, as if I’d heard a similar argument before. And then Smith helped me remember by asserting, “Bjorn Lomborg’s approach is best.”

picard facepalms bjorn lomborg

Lomborg is primarily known as the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, a 2001 book published by Cambridge University Press, presenting contrarian views over a wide range of topics: climate change, mass extinctions, carcinogens, acid rain, water pollution, rainforests, alternative energy, life expectancy, food and hunger. It’s hard to imagine how even a polymath of Goethe’s caliber could master so many topics in any meaningful way—and, indeed, it appears Lomborg could not. Scientific American devoted a lengthy article to the book in its January 2002 issue, titled “Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist.” Scientific American noted:

It is hard not to be struck by Lomborg’s presumption that he has seen in to the heart of science more faithfully than have investigators who have devoted their lives to it; it is equally curious that he finds the same contrarian good news lurking in every diverse area of environmental science.

Duke University biologist Stuart Pimm described the situation this way:

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.

There are 2,930 endnotes in this 515 page book, a density of citations that would seem to support the veracity of its arguments. Indeed, a Key Reporter reviewer of Lomborg’s 2008 follow-up book, Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming, explicitly made this point: “Lomborg bolsters his credibility with extensive documentation. Endnotes and references account for 90 of his book’s approximately 250 pages.”

The problem is that many of these citations do not say what Lomborg says they do. When The Skeptical Environmentalist first came out, I assigned a freshman class the project of analyzing its numerous endnotes, and determining whether his citations said what he claimed they did. These diligent freshmen went out and found the articles and compared the contents to how they were used in the book. In about half the cases, Lomborg’s citations either could not be found (for instance, they linked to non-existent websites) or did not say what he said they did.

Some examples:

In citation #596, Lomborg claims that lethal work-related accidents have declined 85%; his source claimed 46%.

In citation #863, Lomborg talks about a 1972 book, Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, and notes that, “Once again, we were told that our resources would soon run out.” But what Limits to Growth actually said was, “The point is not that the world is about to run out of natural gas” [italics mine].

In citation #1372. Lomborg claims that asthma-related costs in the United States total $7 billion. His range of sources, however, put the number at $5.8 billion, $6.2 billion, and $18 billion. Is Lomborg averaging these numbers? If so, the average of these three is $10 billion, not $7 billion.

I could go on and on like this…for hours, I’m afraid to say. But this isn’t a case of making a few errors, which we all do and would be normal in any large, ambitious tome; about half of the citations I examined had problems of this kind.

The point is that such “scholarship” would be unacceptable even in freshman coursework. Indeed, in January 2004, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued a ruling on Lomborg’s book, declaring: “Objectively speaking, the publication of the work under consideration is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty.”

This is the academic the Discovery Institute endorses, declaring, “Lomborg’s approach is best.” One has to wonder what that says about the quality of scholarship they find acceptable.