Friday, January 24, 2003

Weird Science?

Last week, after what I considered a fairly innocent post on the Bjorn Lomborg flap I received an e-mail from a Danish scientist taking me to task for my views. It's very long so I won't post it all here but this is my rebuttal:

In regard to your long winded missive, dripping with condescension and arrogance, I'm going to respond with a few quick points. Unlike Danish scientists, who apparently have a great deal of time on their hands (I found it amusing that while you claim to be "too busy with my own research" to write a book exposing Lomborg. you have plenty of time to author a 4500 word e-mail to me), my hours are precious and so I'll be brief:

1. I will not attempt to answer your assertions by offering scientific evidence to dispute them. I am not a scientist and have never claimed to be one and you know that. It is incredibly disingenuous of you to challenge me to respond in that manner knowing full well that it beyond my scope of knowledge.

"I find it amusing that you like the book, so i expect you to use all of your scientific skills to counter the criticisms I levy against it. This should be interesting....."

I don't know why you find it so amusing that I enjoyed the book but you must feel very proud of yourself to challenge me in a subject that you are a professional in and that I have only a passing knowledge of. You are quite the big man.

2. Most of the charges that you level against Lomborg are related to his failures to use what you consider the proper scientific methods in his work such as peer review, inclusion of all studies, use of empirical data, etc. So you hold Lomborg and his book to a rather strict scientific standard. Yet you also point out that Lomborg is not a scientist but rather a statistician so what does he really know about these matters anyway?

Like Julian Simon and other non-scientists, Lomborg dismisses these.

To me this approach smacks of hypocrisy. On the one hand you expect Lomborg to meet the same standards as a scientist but on the other you knock him for not being a scientist and so unable to judge these matters objectively. Please pick one and go with it.

3. I don't have much of a problem with Lomborg's "selective use of studies" as you call it. I would challenge you to name one book intended for the wider market on environmental, sociological, or health and safety issues in the last thirty years that included all the published studies on a particular subject. Were you equally voracious in your criticism of Lester Brown or Paul Ehrlich and the books that they wrote predicting widespread environmental disasters which certainly used "selective" (and it turns out largely erroneous) studies on their subjects? What about works by the WWF, the WRI, the Worldwatch Institute, or Friends of the Earth? While you try to distance yourself from these groups and claim the mantle of objective scientist you must acknowledge that all of these groups have used selective scientific studies to push their causes in the past. So now Lomborg had written a book using scientific studies to present a different viewpoint. He might not be correct on every point but for the last thirty years all the public has heard has been the doom and gloom views. As Lomborg has said, let the debate begin.

4. I found this comment from you most interesting:

If he had called his book, "The Skeptical Statistician" and would have written that the contents are his opinions, then I would not have cared less.

Maybe I read the book differently than you did, after all I'm not a senior scientist, but I didn't get the impression that Lomborg was claiming that he was the sole arbiter of truth. Rather he was presenting his interpretation of the statistics available and drawing conclusions from them. The book was not called "The Skeptical Environmental Scientist" and Lomborg made no such claim to being one. He is an environmentalist in his perspective and, although you would probably scoff at the notion since you seem to believe that I've been bought off by corporate interests (I only wish!), I consider myself an environmentalist too.

5. Your conclusion on the damage that Lomborg is doing and why his message is wrong is a good example of the problem that many of us have with the environmental movement and the scientists who have supported it.

Because we understand so little about how the complex biosphere works, further assault on these systems may alter their functioning in ways that we cannot adapt to, and that may compromise the welfare of future generations. There are many thousands of studies that detail human impacts on various parts of the biosphere, and Lomborg chooses to ignore them. But we are not exempt from the laws that govern the existence of other life forms, a point I have made many, many times. In essence we are heading in the wrong direction, and it doesn't take me all of my scientific abilities to see this.

Are you honestly going to claim that this is objective scientific analysis? "Further assault on these systems"? That's a bit of loaded rhetoric don't you think? And the use of the word "may" is also troubling. Should we halt the march of progress which has benefited much of civilization because we MAY alter natural systems or we MAY compromise the welfare of future generations? One of the things that Lomborg calls for in his book is a realistic look at the cost and benefits of our actions that impact the environment rather than a blanket condemnation of anything that harms the environment in even the slightest way in spite of the huge gains that could be achieved from it.

6. Lastly you label Lomborg as a "classic con man" and a "dishonest fraud" , call him "dishonest" several times other times, and finally accuse him of being "the most disingenuous person to enter the scientific arena for years". If these accusations even remotely resembled the truth than surely the esteemed Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty should have had no problem issuing a finding consistent with those charges. While the DCSD did find him guilty of "scientific dishonesty" for not following accepted scientific practices (while acknowledging he was not a scientist) it also said:

In view of the subjective requirements made in terms of intent or gross negligence, however, Bjørn Lomborg's publication cannot fall within the bounds of this characterization. Conversely, the publication is deemed clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.

In other words the DCSD's criticism of Lomborg rests with his methods not his intentions which you spent an inordinate amount of time on in your e-mail. You seem to have a personal problem with Lomborg that goes far beyond merely a disagreement on these issues. Jealousy perhaps?

Anyway as I said earlier I hope that you continue to visit Fraters Libertas and if you find the need to please feel free to drop us an e-mail anytime.


The Elder

P.S. In case you missed it Lomborg has a piece in today's Wall Street Journal. Check it out.

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