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One last time on Lomborg

January 13th, 2003

Ken Parish attacks my “credulous applause” for the Danish finding that Bjorn Lomborg’s book The Sceptical Environmentalist was ‘scientifically dishonest’. To briefly reprise what I’ve stated so far:

(1) Lomborg’s summary of the literature is in fact selective and biased, and crucial arguments are dishonest
(2) This is typical of the advocacy literature on both sides of this debate, and Lomborg is ‘entitled to feel aggrieved’ that his book has been singled out
(3) The Danish committee erred in deciding that Lomborg’s book was a scientific work and should be assessed against the relevant standards. However, Lomborg contributed to the problem by ‘trying to have his cake and eat it’ regarding the scientific status of the book

There remains the question, raised by Ken and others, of whether the committee’s consideration of Lomborg’s book amounted to a ‘kangaroo court’. I can’t say I’m satisfied with the way the committee proceeded. Essentially they read the Scientific American critique and Lomborg’s response and concluded that Lomborg had violated scientific norms of discourse by taking a clearly one-sided position and by failing to respond to criticisms of this.

Having failed in the first instance to reach the conclusion that Lomborg’s book was not scientific research but ‘designed to provoke debate’, I think they should have done so on reading the interchange between Lomborg and his critics – several of whom were also clearly engaged in polemical debate. The Committee was overly deferential to the ‘expert’ status of the critics, and failed to make the obvious point that several had personal interests in the debate.

On the other hand, I think Ken’s critique is equally problematic and shows uncritical reliance on biased sources.

To begin with, Ken attacks Stephen Schneider on the basis of a 1989 quote that I’ve seen reproduced many times, and responded to nearly as many times. As in most instances, Ken’s version omits crucial sentences (without ellipses) in a way that makes Schneider appear deliberately dishonest. Schneider’s response is here. I’m not a huge fan of Schneider – I find him overly prone to alarmism, and even in the corrected version I think this comes through. But that doesn’t justify reproducing quotations from obviously hostile sources without the simple precaution of a Google check.

Second, I think Ken mischaracterizes the Committee’s decision not to seek additional expert advice, again omitting crucial sentences.

DCSD did consider whether a better basis for evaluating the cases under review would be obtained by itself forming ad hoc committees with accredited experts in the respective fields. A number of members voiced the view that sourcing new expert evaluations might possibly create scope to establish whether the defendant has not only-as the experts at Scientific American claim-used selective data, but whether he has done so wilfully in order to delude the public, and hence enable DCSD to ascertain the presence or absence of the subjective conditions required to uphold scientific dishonesty.
DCSD, however, has reached the conclusion that new experts would scarcely be able to add new dimensions to the case. In this process of deliberation, a crucial role has also been played by the fact that even on the existing basis there is agreement at DCSD in adjudging the defendant’s conduct to be contrary to good scientific practice, as expressed below.(sentences omitted by Ken in italics)

To summarise, the Committee formed its views based on Lomborg’s own conduct in the debate, which was not that of a scientist disinterestedly seeking truth in accordance with standard scientific norms of procedure but that of an advocate for a particular case. I think this should be evident to anyone who has read Lomborg’s book and other writings. Precisely for that reason, I think the correct conclusion was that the book should not have been assessed as a piece of scientific research or as a meta-analysis of the scientific literature, but as advocacy for a particular viewpoint.

Update The formatting of the Stephen Schneider piece in the link isn’t very clear. So here’s the relevant part of Schneider’s statement. The words omitted in the standard quote (originally by Julian Simon) are in italics

[to get action we have] to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both

Schneider argues that he is describing the problem of dealing with media who want snappy quotes and clear positions, not advocating giving them what they want.

Whatever you think of Schneider, I can’t see any charitable interpretation of Simon’s doctoring of the quote. The quote is too long and, apart from the multiple omissions, too accurate, to be from memory, and Schneider asserts that he advised Simon of the error. The original version published by Simon included a fabricated statement that ‘Scientists should consider stretching the truth’ but this was ultimately withdrawn and doesn’t appear in the standard blogosphere version. On the other hand, Simon’s quote included ellipses that have been dropped in the blogosphere version, and the sentence about media coverage has also been dropped.

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