Science vs the right: Part 2 (Australia)

Update 30/4As this one still seems to be alive, having veered from the Murray to libertarianism to the appropriate mode of address for yours truly, I thought I’d move it back up to the top of the page

The most important representative of party-line science in Australia is the Institute of Public Affairs[1], which models its approach closely on that of rightwing thinktanks in the US[2]. It has promoted critics of scientific research on passive smoking , funded by the tobacco industry, (for an IPA defence of this practice, read here), critics of scientific research on global warming (funded by the fossil fuel industry), and has more generally bagged scientists and research organisations whose research produces commercially inconvenient findings. Targets have included the World Health Organization, the National Health and Medical Research Council and of course, the International Panel on Climate Change, as well as many individual scientists.

The mode is identical to that of Milloy and Tech Central Station. Where the general scientific basis is strong (as in arguments about the safety of GM foods) opponents are assailed as anti-scientific irrationalists. Where it is weak (as in the cases of smoking and global warming) the IPA demands equal time for sceptics, even sceptics who have done no original research and have no relevant qualifications. The strategy is one of selective citation of evidence that supports a predetermined outcome, mixed with protestations of support for open inquiry and the scientific method. As far as I know, the IPA has never found a case where the evidence supports more environmental regulation, or even a continuation of existing regulations.

The latest target of the IPA, and one close to home for me[3], is the sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin.

The IPA scored a short-lived win when they managed to convince the House of Reps committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Committee that “scientists had greatly exaggerated their claims that the Murray River’s health was declining.” The Committee majority (mainly rural Coalition MPs) relied for this finding on the arguments of the IPA’s Jennifer Marohasy and on those of Lee Benson, a consultant employed by Murray Irrigation Limited, dismissing the work of dozens of scientists currently doing research for the Murray-Darling Basin Committee, and many hundreds who have worked on different aspects of the problems of the Basin over several decades.

This triumph didn’t last long. Even though the main arguments (we should do nothing until all the uncertainties are resolved, that is, never) are much the same as in the case of global warming, no-one outside the rural rump was silly enough to buy them this time. Howard quickly announced that the report would be consigned to the dustbin, where it belonged.

I’ve previously responded to the main piece of evidence produced by the IPA, claiming that because management by the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (in the form of salinity mitigation works and a cap on diversions) has managed a temporary reversal of the trend towards increasing salinity levels, it’s safe to disregard the recommendations of the very same Commission regarding the need for a return of flows to the system. Those interested in the MDBC’s analysis can read a full report here (PDF file) or look at the projections graphed here

Rather than repeat myself on this, I’ll look at another example showing the way the IPA approach to science works, that of passive smoking. No-one, not even the IPA, denies that smoking causes cancer. And you would have to be quite stupid to believe that the many known carcinogens in tobacco smoke suddenly become harmless because they’re inhaled second-hand rather than first-hand. There’s no-one that stupid at the IPA.

Rather, their approach is that of a defence lawyer faced with overwhelming evidence of her client’s guilt. From this perspective it doesn’t matter that the client is guilty – what matters is whether the prosecution can prove it and convince a jury to convict. The duty of the defence lawyer, on this view, is to make the prosecution’s task as difficult as possible by blackguarding and harassing the witnesses, raising as many doubts as possible, producing spurious ‘expert witnesses’, and making emotional appeals to the jury[4].

This can be pretty effective in the case of passive smoking. After all, it’s quite difficult to get really solid evidence on how much people have been exposed to second-hand smoke. And if you can invent spurious epidemiological principles, the task becomes even easier (the post refers to Milloy, but Philip Morris also backed the IPA in similar efforts). But in the long run, the truth will out, and you don’t hear so much about passive smoking from the IPA these days.

Once you’ve seen the tactic at work in a clear-cut case like that of passive smoking (or, in retrospect, CFCs and the ozone layer) it’s easier to see through it in other contexts.

fn1. The IPA has repeatedly made personal attacks on me, and I’ve responded as vigorously as you might expect. So readers should be aware that I’m not making a neutral observation here. Still, I’m confident that what I’ve written is an accurate summary, without any intentional distortions or omissions. In particular, I’m not aware of any scientific issue the IPA has approached in a spirit of open-minded inquiry, to the point of publishing conclusions inconsistent with their ideological commitments and the financial interests of their backers. If one is pointed out, I’ll be happy to acknowledge it (OK, I won’t be happy, but I will acknowledge it).

fn2. In fact, the IPA was founded in 1944, well before most of the US thinktanks. But it had a chequered history, starting out as a front group/slush fund for business interests associated with the Liberal Party and going into a long decline over the 1960s and 1970s, before emerging in its present form some time in the 1980s.

fn3. The Federation Fellowship I was awarded last year was for research on this topic. This award, coming from a government I had repeatedly criticised, inflamed the IPA to new fury, especially when I took the award and continued the criticism. The IPA view is that an honest man is one who, once bought, stays bought.

fn4. The Rumpole books, especially The Golden Thread present as good a defence of this view as I’ve seen. I’m doubtful that it’s appropriate in a system of criminal justice, and I’m certain that it has no place in science or science-based policy analysis.

86 thoughts on “Science vs the right: Part 2 (Australia)

  1. Thanks for another interesting article John. Without wanting to deny the general points you make or defend the IPA, for balance I should point out that its not only those on the right who seek to use underhand tactics in relation to the passive smoking issue (or, I suspect, i.r.t. the various other causes you mentioned).

    On the passive smoking subject, the NHMRC held an inquiry some years ago to which the organisation I then worked for made a submission. Our point was about the need for good science and then good regulatory analysis based on it. Alas, the resulting report arguably exhibited neither. In the course of legal action taken by the Tobacco Institute (as I recall) following publication of the NHMRC’s report, the NHMRC was taken to task by the courts for picking and choosing amongst the science to suit its agenda. Further, the regulatory analysis was poor – effectively a blunt and heavy-handed cost minimisation approach with no serious consideration of optimum levels of passive smoking or the benefits and costs of alternative regulatory instruments.

  2. It is significant, but little remarked upon, that the Minister for the Environment, David Kemp – the man responsible for formulating and implementing our greenhouse policy – has close links with the IPA. In fact his father founded the IPA in 1944.

    Still, I wouldn’t worry too much about the IPA, whose credibility on policy matters varies between zero and nil. Respectable right wing academics – respectable in the sense that they are generally intellectually honest – tend to keep clear of the IPA, and flock instead to the CIS. Arguments coming out of the CIS, while still reflecting an utterly repulsive set of values, are harder to bat away than the IPA’s, which are a bit of a joke.

  3. As I founded the CIS and am still its Executive Director, I am curious Dave about these ‘repulsive set of values’ that we apparently represent. What are they?

  4. I’ll remind everyone of the policy of this blog that discussion should be civilised. I think we can debate and disagree with the values and factual premises on which the CIS and other thinktanks operate without using terms like ‘repulsive’.

    I know that I’ve occasionally lost my temper in these debates, and used language I’ve regretted subsequently, so I’m not casting aspersions at Dave here, just trying to focus on the issues.

  5. Greg

    Well, for starters, there’s the Hayekian values that liberty is synonymous with the operation of unfettered free markets; then there is the associated view that free markets are desirable in themselves, in contrast with the view that they may be an instrument for achieving desirable ends; and there is the assumption that collective or state action is always inferior to individual action – or if not always, then the exceptions are trivial.

  6. John,
    my dictionary defines repulsive as “making somebody feel disgust or very strong dislike”.

    The CIS doesn’t disgust me, but I do feel a very strong dislike for their values. It’s not uncivilised to say so.

    And, besides, I did say that they were generally intellectually honest.

  7. Well Dave, it’s nice to be thought (generally) intellectually honest, though I would have thought we intellectually honest all the time. However your description of what you think Hayek believes about liberty requiring unfettered markets and whether that somehow is what we think needs a little more homework.

  8. Greg,

    I’ll leave it to others to conduct the Hayek exegesis. But can you point me to a significant CIS publication which states that liberty would be enhanced by state interference in a market? (An existing market, not a hypothetical market.)

  9. I spent a couple of years working for an NGO in Washington DC and we used to separate these groups according to whether they behaved as ‘thinktanks’ or ‘thanktanks’ Most seem to be the latter – their contribution to any debate is mainly giving thanks to their generous funders.

    Distinguishing between the two types can be difficult – habitual use of incorrect ‘facts’ makes things pretty clear, otherwise John’s ‘consistency’ test (footnote 1) is probably the most useful.

    As for what to do about them – they aren’t going to go away are they, and can make useful contributions to the debate. Even thanktanks may bring relevant new facts into the debate, just facts supporting one side of a debate. The value of conclusions drawn from such one-sided facts are clearly open to doubt. Disclosure by these organisations of their general, and any specifically relevant, funding arrangements in every publication they put out seems to probably be the best way forward. What do you think Greg?

    Cheers
    Iain

  10. I think the most repugnant philosophy of the CIS is the elevation of personal greed above all else. All the other policies flow from that.

  11. Greg, I take a very different view to Dave Ricardo – I’m not concerned about the values that CIS holds, but rather I have very big concerns about the quality of the work which it produces.

    I have a poor opinion of the quality of the work carried out by CIS, because of this article http://www.cis.org.au/exechigh/Eh2000/EH0500.htm by Barry Maley.

    In this article, the author liberally picks out facts to support his case while ignoring anything which fails to support his case (techical details can be supplied upon request). I suspect that the author isn’t even remotely close to being familiar with the science behind global warming, however, this doesn’t excuse the misreprestation of the scientific literature cited within the article. The article has no scientific worth, and is simply propaganda.

    While I realise that research into global warming isn’t a major priority for the CIS, it is one of the few areas which the CIS writes about which I am knowledgeable enough to examine in detail. If the CIS does such a bad job in this field, why should I trust its writings in other fields?

  12. I too have read a fair bit of the CIS’ output in fields in which I have a professional interest. I’d say at a technical level it is uneven – I’ve never been much impressed by anything Barry Maley or (especially) Lucy Sullivan has written, but Peter Saunders is formidable. But even the good stuff reminds me of Galbraith’s line about conservative ideology consisting of “the neverending search for a higher justification for selfishness”.

    But the CIS does a much better job than the IPA, and often a better (more honest, more learned, better reasoned) job than most of the left wing lobbies.

  13. Dave Ricardo continues his quixotic tilt at the fairly harmless CIS windmills:

    can you point me to a significant CIS publication which states that liberty would be enhanced by state interference in a market?

    What about CIS’s support for the right of state- monopolistic policemen, law courts & armies?
    These infringe the rights of mafias, stand-over men and guerillas to prosecute their clients case to the full extent of natural law.

    Also, it is a travesty to claim that Hayek’s work can be reduced to an unconditional defence of unfettered free-markets. Hayek was certainly a defender of traditional institutions of family, church and state.

    It is also worth noting that Hayek was one of the first social scientists to spot the fatal economic flaws in monopoly state socialist planning systems.

    His strictures against socialist political parties were not so accurate, since he thought that electoral democracy depended on economic pluralism. It does not, since political pluralism is necessary and sufficient to guarantee electoral democracy.

  14. n the subject of the IPA – correct me if I am wrong here anyone – didn’t they help out Lomborg on his tour to Austrailia through promotion or something?

    And to be fair to the CIS they have had Owen Harries on staff and he’s hardly followed conservative orthodoxy on Iraq.

  15. The Parliamentary Committee did rely heavily on my report ‘Myth & the Murray – Measuring the Real State of the River Environment’ that can be accessed from the IPA website http://www.ipa.org.au.

    The Quiggin comment that I suggest nothing be done until there is more research is plain wrong. Rather my report shows that the current science bureacracy is seriously misrepresenting the available information/data and relying on advice from ‘expert panels’that have predetermined agendas.

    Professor Gary Jones, head of the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology, professed to being “astounded that the committee had rejected the views of 60 independent scientists in favor of one or two consultants from vested interest groups”. Clearly the committee was interested in evidence rather than the views of many.

    I am continually dismayed at the extent to which Professors Jones, Quiggen and others call names, appeal to consensus, and denegrate organisations rather than putting forward their case.

    Consensus is not science; it is politics. Science is about evidence and the parliamentary committee clearly caught the Murray River scientists playing politics. The message is they have no evidence that the health of the river is in decline. They have, however, for some time been talking up ‘impending catastrophe’ based on the hypothetical.

    Environmental advocates masquerading as scientists have been misleading us on the geography and health of the river system for years.

    The successes of the initiatives that fixed many of the real environmental problems of the 1970s and 1980s have gone largely unreported. Ironically, many environmentalists want only to see problems and seem unable to acknowledge success – other than with suspicion.

    Cheers, Jennifer.

  16. “I am continually dismayed at the extent to which Professors Jones, Quiggen (sic) and others call names, appeal to consensus, and denegrate (sic) organisations rather than putting forward their case.” (emphasis added)

    “Environmental advocates masquerading as scientists have been misleading us on the geography and health of the river system for years.”(emphasis added)

    Who’s calling names here?

    As for denigration or organisations and individuals, visit the IPA website and you’ll quickly lose count of the instances of denigration (I should know).

  17. On the CIS, I broadly agree with Derrida Derider. The standard is variable (the recent low point, in my view, was Buckingham on speeding), but I certainly regard the CIS as making a serious contribution to public debate, unlike the IPA.

    And DD is quite right to say that the standard of left-wing contributions is also mixed, though I think it’s improved a lot since the 1980s, partly in response to the challenge posed by the CIS, PC and other market-oriented organisations that dominated the debate at that time.

  18. “The successes of the initiatives that fixed many of the real environmental problems of the 1970s and 1980s have gone largely unreported.”

    It would be interesting to go into the archives and see what the IPA was saying in the 1970s and 1980s about the environmental problems of the time, and what was being done about them.

    My guess is that they were saying (i) that the problems of the time, like the hole on the ozone layer, were a myth, just as they are saying that the problems of today, like global warming, are a myth and (ii) they were opposed to doing anything about them.

    Such as: what was the the IPA’s position in the 1980s on the phasing out of lead additives in petrol?

    Merely to pose the question is to answer it.

  19. I remain unclear why Quiggin, in his original posting (paragraph 5), agrees with the Prime Minister in suggesting that the Parliamentary Committee’s report should be “consigned to the dustbin, where it belonged”.

    In the subsequent postings, the only criticism that has a basis in fact and that continues to be sustained, is that the Parliamentary Committee relied on the evidence as presented by someone (me) employed by the IPA and that it all goes against the zeitgeist (spirit of the times).

    Cheers, Jennifer.

  20. On the CIS, it’s one of several groups I’ve tried to get to look into the work of Professor Kim Swales of the University of Strathclyde, on using GST tax credits to address unemployment. My feeling is that the CIS is selective in what it follows up, even when there is a clean libertarian version of the matter. (The Swales approach itself can be used as part of a transition, eventually unwinding state involvement.)

    For what it’s worth, I’ve just sent a letter on the area to the AFR, inspired by a recent article of Fred Argy’s. Since I expect the same selectiveness to stop it being printed, I’ll paste it in below for interest. Anyone wanting to see more on the subject can look at various materials on my publication page http://users.netlink.com.au/~peterl/publicns.html – there’s a contents list at the top, or just do a search on “Swales”.

    In his article of 20.4.04 Fred Argy gives a breakdown of today’s unemployment. He suggests that it goes 2% frictional: 1% Keynesian: 1% tax and welfare traps: 2% inflexible minimum wage: 4% structural mismatch between jobs and skills. He addresses each of these differently.

    Yet there is one approach that would improve all of these with little difficulty, that of Professor Kim Swales of the University of Strathclyde, which applies a tax credit to GST.

    This is very like the income tax credits that Fred Argy mentions for the poverty traps, only working more rapidly and directly from having its point of impact on potential employers. But it also improves structural mismatches by making new apprenticeships and retraining in the workplace more practical, it replaces mandated minimum wages and eliminates their bias against employment, and with higher employment and from greater confidence in the workforce it improves demand and reduces Keynesian unemployment.

    Best of all, since the costs of income tax credits only make losers from having to finance a gap and there is no gap when the credits are applied at the GST point, there is no problem there.

    We should investigate this approach now.

  21. “even sceptics who have done no original research and have no relevant qualifications”

    This is a pretty constant argument by you, John -i.e. no relevant qualifications = views should be greatly discounted.

    Aren’t you an economist posting on environmental and scientific matters here? Does this mean your scepticism of the IPA should be treated as the rantings of a non-expert? Or aren’t you willing to meet your own standards?

  22. Jennifer, before responding, I’d like to make the observation that in reading your report, I didn’t find any aspect of the Murray-Darling system that you regarded as being a matter of serious environmental concern.

    Is this a correct summary of your report, or did I miss something? If there are aspects of the Murray-Darling system that give rise to serious environmental concerns, what are they, and where in the report did you discuss them?

  23. PK, you’re missing the point drastically, as usual on this kind of issue. I don’t make pronouncements about the hydrology of the Murray-Darling, and if I did, I wouldn’t expect anyone to take me as an authority. I rely on the evidence provided those who are qualified in these matters.

    There’s nothing in what I’ve written here that relies on claimed scientific expertise on my part, or makes any particular scientific assertion other than the statement that tobacco smoke is carcinogenic. On the other hand, I do claim, from long experience in public debate, to have a pretty good idea how the IPA and similar bodies operate. But you don’t have to take my word for it – it’s easy enough to check for yourself following the links I’ve provided, which include links to the IPA.

  24. John – Do I really have to bother looking back through your archives at your comparison of sceptics to creationists, Lomborg as as having no authority to comment on environmental matters as a stasistician, Millroy as a intuitionalist, Crichton as a doctor etc? Regular readers of your blog will not need me to provide any links I’m sure.

    Non-expertise is one of your key points of attack against many of your opponents. This is true even if they refer to sources.

    How is that different to your own scientific commentary? You’re happy to pin the “non-expert” label on anyone who disagrees with you, but unwilling to use it on yourself.

  25. PK, you’re still missing the point. To support your case, you need to find instances where I’ve set myself up as a scientific authority in a field in which I’m unqualified. I’m not saying you’ll won’t find anything of the kind (late-night blogging tends to produce the odd careless claim), but in general I’m pretty careful to distinguish between issues on which I’m not an expert, and am relying on the expert judgement of others, and those on which I can claim professional expertise.

    Here’s an example. Here’s another.

  26. PK, One of the big flaws in your argument is that the sceptics you mention – Lomborg being the most prominent in my own experience – certainly cite sources but ‘stack the deck’ by citing a majority of articles that support their own position. As a scientist, I would not be able to publish my work in a peer-reviewed journal if I defended the validity of my results by citing one or two studies that show similar trends while ignoring 20 or 30 that don’t. In Lomborg’s polemic, this pattern is repeated in just about every field that he supericially covers – acid rain, forest loss, biodiversity, climate change etc. What’s most alarming is that the vast majority of the book’s readers, with little or no scientific background, will have no way of evaluating the credibility of the science (or to recognize the blatant bias) unless they march off the the library and pour through the relevant journals. Lomborg realizes this; he only has to cite a few (often discredited) studies in an area to dupe the reader into believeing it’s real scholarship. It isn’t. In my field (population ecology, which would thus cover the biodiversity chapter) many relevant studies in prestigious journals with very different conclusions from BL’s are curiously ‘left out’. Other scientists have said precisely the same thing about BL’s coverage of research in their fields. When does one smell a rat and begin to see a pattern emerge? Similarly, I have seen this pattern repeated in think tank publications, material written and published by corporate funded lobby groups, newspaper articles by obscure sceptics (that John refers to) and in many books.

  27. “certainly cite sources but ‘stack the deck’ by citing a majority of articles that support their own position. ”

    And this is different to what John and others on his side of the fence do in which way?

    John – I don’t think Lomborg is claiming to be a scientific authority. His work is usually full of footnotes. Everything I’ve read by him suggests he’s a compiler of information by other experts rather than a source of that information. Isn’t this just what you’re claiming to be?

    Comparing GW sceptics to creationists is certainly claiming to be an authority on the subject. If you’re a non-expert, who are you to claim which side is correct? Some GW sceptics certainly have a much higher level of expertise than you, yet you feel free to ridicule them. Isn’t this a claim of authority?

    In this blog post, you’re claiming expertise by saying that one source is right, while another is wrong on the Murray Basin. How can a non-expert make such claims?

    These are the same standards you’re measuring your opponents on. How is this missing the point?

  28. PK,

    No, ‘stacking the deck’ is not what most good scientists do. Furthermore, Lomborg has stacked the deck with some pretty dubious material – his biodiversity chapter, and in particular his scathing critique of area-extinction models meticuloulsy first formulated by Wilson and MaCarthur (and since refined even further by Rosenzweig, Terborgh, Soule and others) – is based on a shoddy chapter by Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky, two business economists, in Simon’s book ‘The State of Humanity’. Simon and Wildavsky in turn base their critique on a few chapters of a book (edited by Sayer and Whitmore, and published in 1991) that downplay contemporary extinction rates. However, since the book was published (and up until BL’s opus came out in 2001) many studies were published which supported the Wilson-MaCarthur et al. models and debunk Simon-Wildavsky (several were in fact correctives). If Lomborg was indeed fair, he’d cite at least several of the studies supporting the models, and go on to explain that there are now more of these published than the few he can muster for TSE. Bearing in mind that his understanding of the science is abyssmal (I debated the man, and I should know as this is also within my field of expertise), BL’s clear bias and subsequent refusal to admit his errors should be sufficient evidence to show where he is coming from. Similarly, other shoddy anti-environmental books (e.g. ‘Rational Readings’, ‘Trashing the Planet’, ‘Global Warming in a Politically Correct Climate’ etc. etc. etc.) all use the same tactic of selectivity that BL does. In the case of these appalling books, the bias for shoddy science over more rigid studies is even worse than in BL’s polemic.

  29. John, Your apparent disapointment with me not highlighting issues that “give rise to serious environmental concerns” (earlier posting addressed specifically to me)perhaps reflects societies more general current obsession with environmental problems. I would like to quote a friend and marine biologist on the subject:

    “Fishermen, farmers and hunters are by nature conservationists >. Their own well being requires a sustainable relation to a healthy natural world. They not only appreciate the beauty of nature they see themselves as a part of it and it as an important part of themselves. For most of the past century their views and concerns played an important role in conservation.
    Over the past few decades however a new vision of conservation has emerged with a quite different constituency. It’s called environmentalism. Environmentalism involves more than just concerns, principles, and ethics. Like other isms it has assumed some of the aspects of a religion. In this view, nature is something pure and perfect while humans are separate and apart from nature, by definition not natural. Any detectable effect of humans is unnatural, undesirable, a desecration. For its more extreme adherents it has become a form of fundamentalism, with all of the righteousness, narrowness, and even hatred that so often accompanies that form of belief.”

    The Murray River system does have problems. Some of the problems are intrinsic to an old river that runs through an old landscape much of which has very low rainfall. Other problems are a consequence of the engineering works that make it a regulated system.
    In my view all of the problems are fixable – many have been fixed – but all problems and potential problems are best approached from the perspective of truly understanding the system in its totality and in its component parts.
    Sadly – and dispite huge investments in research much of which appears to have been squandered – we currently lack basic data, for example, on fish population dynamics. If I were forced to nominate a particular area of concern it would be fish. Not because there aren’t any or because we have a crisis (we don’t), but because there seems no data to give us any indication of what is really happening with population dynamics – not just for Murray Cod, but for the range of native species. Nevertheless there is already a lot happening to ‘fix the fish problem’ including restocking, closing of commercial fishery, limits on rec fishing etcetera, fish ladders, addressing cold water pollution.

    Most other issues also appear to be being addressed and probably adequately managed including salt, water tables, red gums, nitrogen, phosphorus etcetera. There are many good news stories that don’t seem to see the light-of-day because of the obsession with ‘environmental concerns’.

    I chose to study biology about 20 years ago as an undergraduate because I loved and was fascinated by ‘nature’ – not because I wanted to save something. There are some that seem to need the environment because they need something to save.
    Cheers,

  30. Jeff – Lomborg’s book was peer reviewed and published by a reputable academic publisher.

    Your claims appear to be wrong. You’re saying his book isn’t good enough to pass peer review, my understanding is that it did.

    It was also assualted in SciAm in a peer review ‘baptism of fire’ that almost no other modern scientist has ever had to go through. The actual number of errors of fact that they found was, as far as I’m aware, very low. The errors were also minor.

    Who’s spreading misinformation now?

  31. I don’t care who pays for studies perse rather the study itself and the results.

    It is usually pretty easy to sort out a poor or even misleading study from a study done ‘properly’.

    On passive’ smoking I looked at ,sometime ago ( pre-access to WWW) at this and found no statistical evidence to back up the ‘theory’.

    I would be interested in up to date evidence.

  32. PK

    “he’s a compiler of information by other experts”

    “no other modern scientist has ever had to go through.”

    Lomborg is not an expert, and he is not a modern scientist, or any other kind of scientist (unless you count political science as a science, which it is not.)

    “The actual number of errors of fact that they found was, as far as I’m aware, very low.”

    Selectively choosing those parts of the scientific literature which suit your argument is not an error of fact.

    As anyone who has sworn an oath will tell you, telling the truth means telling the whole truth.

    Even if Lomborg had set out in good faith from the beginning, he set himself an impossible task, by reviewing so many different scientific fields related to the environment. There is a reason that scientists become specialists in a field, and that is that each field is itself so complex, with such a large body of knowledge, that no one could credibly claim to master more than one, or two at most. Yet Lomborg, with no scientific background, claimed to authoritatively survey the evidence across all fields of environmental science.

    If a real scientist tried to do that, he would just get a horse laugh from his peers, because they would know that it just can’t be done. And that is without any politically-inspired culling of inconvenient evidence.

    Lomborg was clever. He wrote for a general audience, not scientists. The gullible amongst his readers were impressed by his quoting from the scientific literature and the number of footnotes he used.

    And, of course, he got a lot of patronage from those who liked the political implications of his book.

  33. wow – big fight. Like all centres, the quality of what is published varies… but I think (and I am biased) that the CIS holds itself to a pretty high standard, and I agree with the previous person who cited Peter Saunders as one of the better examples of high quality work.

    As for the CIS being conservative – that is self-evidently untrue. A better description would be “free-market” or “classical liberal”.

    While I don’t read IPA work as much, my first impression is that they differentiate themselves by taking a more confrontational approach to the left – and hence they attract more of the hatred from the left.

  34. Homer,

    you really do like to lead with your chin.

    To begin, try

    National Health and Medical Research Council. The health effects of passive smoking: The draft report of the NHMRC Working Party, November 1995. Canberra: NHMRC, 1995.

    This report found that passive smoking is firmly linked, as a likely causal factor, to lower respiratory tract illness in young children, asthma, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, and provided detailed calculations of the numbers and costs of additional cases of these conditions attributable to passive smoking in Australia.

    Or try googling “passive smoking”, evidence, harm, and you will get 8500 entries.

  35. Dave Ricardo
    What Jack said. Your view of Hayek is based on complete ignorance. If you think I’m biased email major lefty bloggers and self-professed admirers of Hayek’s work – Tim Dunlop and Dsquared (Daniel Davies) for a clarification.
    Your other comments aren’t worth responding to. You posit a Scylla and Charybdis of social-democracy on the Left and pro-business socially conservatism on the Right, you ignore the distinction between pro-market and pro-business.The CIS employed me when I was a Young Labor, ALP voting university student. I wrote a paper for them on introducing competition into the taxi sector. Is this ‘pro-business’ or do you like paying for an overpriced taxi system which does not even benefit taxi driver, only speculators? Most businesspeople are asprising monopolists who would prefer that groups like the PC and the CIS don’t exist. After Tampa, the CIS published a defence of people who use and provide people smuggling services. It recently published Owen Harries’critique of the neocon pro-war arguments. CIS is a broad church (sorry, Homer, I know you don’t like broad churches) with a mix of opinions but is one of the few institutions in Australia with a significant classical liberal presence.

  36. Jason,

    I didn’t say that the CIS was pro-business and when referring to what I wrote you shouldn’t put quotation marks around the words pro-business to imply that I used those words, when I did not.

    Go back and read what I wrote.

    I did not criticise the CIS for bring pro-competition. In fact, I am all in favour of competition. If you don’t believe me, check the debates I have had with Chris Sheil on Sydney’s decrepit transport system – me being in favour of competition, him against. I did criticise the CIS for worshipping markets for their own sake.

    As for the CIS being socially conservative, I didn’t say that either.

    If you’re going to contribute to these debates, the least you could do is not misrepresent what others have said.

  37. Dave,
    I DID say it was a LONG time ago. Thanks for the reference.

    by the way the worst case of data mining was to my mind was when Simon Chapman was caught out but no-one said boo about that. Funny about that.

    You know that Galileio was silenced by the Catholic church for speaking OUTSIDE his field of expertise.
    Is JQ advocating a latter day inquisition?

  38. I can understand how the species extinction/biodiversity specialists might criticise Lomborg. But huge sections of his book are irrefutable evidence of many positive trends that have been ignored by lobby groups whose funds depend on painting a gloom and gloom picture.
    I happen to have a different opinion to him about food security (I’m much more precautionary about the future), but his summary of statistics and historical record of food output is accurate.
    When he debated this with Peter Garrett on Channel 9 TV it was obvious that Lomborg knew the hunger statistics and Garrett was totally ignorant of global malnutrition trends.So if Lomborg is as ignorant as some on this list seem to think, where does that put Peter Garrett?
    Similarly Lomborg’s comment about “Our chemical fears”, health trends, and GM food are very sound, but are areas in which most environmentalist organisations are completely misinformed.
    People on this list have been throwing lots of assertions alleging deliberate bias in the choice of data while nearly all of us are biased in some way by our own incomplete knowledge but probably not deliberately – some even like Prof Q proudly announce their bias on the web site, and thats OK.
    The IPA often supports business and new technology. So what – is business (or new technology) inherantly bad, and are the opponents of business and technology inherantly good – I don’t think so.

    But the frequent use of ad hominem argument only convinces me that the name callers dont have the evidence.So, Prof Q, putting aside your indignation about the IPA, what is factually wrong in what Marohasy says in her report- eg the water statistics

  39. Although I don’t think classical liberalism is sustainable as an intellectual position (see G A Cohen’s work), it more relevant to note that the attempt by governments to implement classical liberal policies seems to lead inevitably in practice (as distinct from intellectual seminar fantasising) to hard-right social authoritarianism. The walls of the asylum-seeker camps are built from copies of the Road to Serfdom, just as the fences of the Gulag were built from Lenin’s State and Revolution. ‘Classical liberalism’ as a political project in the real world (which is the only one that counts) is what a Liberal Party does. Ditto for Communism.

  40. PK etc,

    BL’s book may have been peer-reviewed, but incompetently in the opinion of many scientists who criticized the book (in effect it was’peer-reviewed’ again after publication). The errors in the biodiversity chapter, as well as chapters on acid rain, climate change and forests are elementary. While I presented piles of examples countering BL’s bias in our debate, all he could do was squirm about restlessly in is chair. Given the chance to respond to my examples, he said nothing. How could he? His examples of area extinction models were based and flawed. His interpretation of Stork’s extinction models was both biased and flawed. His interpretation of the value of biodiversity – effectively discussing ecosystem services – was not only flawed, but displayed a complete lack of understanding of the field and of the contemporary literature.

    BL appears to be Julian Simon redux – arguing that human consumption can grow linearly without any real effect on natural systems. Besides, he seems to think that humanity is exempt from the laws of nature anyway, so why quibble? What he has done, reflecting his complete ignorance of environmental science, is to focus on the material economy while expunging any real discussion on the natural economy. Thus, there is nothing on fraying food webs, the effect of biodiversity loss on ecosystem health and functioning, wetland loss and eutrophication, the transformation of coastal marine ecosystems, and other related areas which must be factored in when understanding human impacts on the biosphere. During our so-called debate, when he looked eager to cut and run, all BL could do was to try and look interested in what I had to say with comments like, “Interesting, I will have to look nto that”. This sly trick convinces the audience of his apparent sincerity to “seek the truth”, as elusive as this is in such a array of complex fields. However, after each debate BL packs up, heads off to the next venue with exactly the same story as the day before. Every example I presented, most of which have been presented to him since his early days in the debate in Denmark (circa 1998) are dispensed with. After all, the next day he speaks to a new new audience! His story will never change, until the vast weight of empirical evidence (much of it coming in this year in my field of research) vanquishes him.

    John is 100% correct when he stated last year that the only ones really giving BL much attention these days are generally right wing governments and corporate funded think tanks. Sadly, there will always be a robust market for polemics like TSE, which appeal to those eager to rid themselves of guilt over the current predicament and those desperate to maintain the status quo.

    Oh, and BTW, I relish the chance of facing him again, only he ducks out of every chance we have had to debate since our one and only encounter in 2002.

  41. As I’ve pointed out before, the correctness of Lomborg and his predecessor Julian Simon is like that of a stopped clock. They invariably take the optimistic/do-nothing view of all environmental problems and they’re bound to be right sometimes. But the information value in this approach is zero, exactly as it is for the caricature doomsayer Lomborg sets up as his opponent who invariably takes the most pessimistic view on every issue.

    In general, Lomborg’s work is valuable only for people who are unaware that there is any good news on the environment. Some, though not all, of his footnotes lead to reputable scientific work that would support an optimistic view. But, unless you’re already familiar with the literature, you can’t tell in any given case whether those citations are representative of the literature at large, or just the inevitable isolated exceptions to an overwhelming body of evidence going the other way.

    In response to Jennifer Marohasy’s comments, I’d observe that the action to fix the Murray has mostly been taken following the analysis of scientists such as Gary Jones and others working for the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. The main improvements she cites on salinity can be traced directly to the initiatives of the MDBC, as she partly acknowledges.

    Jones and the MDBC are not doomsayers, but their analysis shows that substantially more work is needed to fix the problems of the Basin. Their work has stood up pretty well so far. What justifies Marohasy in saying that they have got it wrong now, and in accusing them of scientific fraud on a massive scale?I responded in my post and previously to the argument about salinity trends, along the same lines as in this comment.

    As regards the choice of mean vs median measures, I’ve found in wide range of contexts that (where the two differ) it’s better to focus on medians – most elementary statistical texts will tell you the same. Marohasy gives no basis for supporting the use of means other than that it makes things look better.

    The remainder of her critique is selective point-scoring on the (acknowledged) model of Lomborg. As I said, this is useful if you were under the impression that the news was uniformly bad, but otherwise is as misleading as the kind of Litany of disasters she and Lomborg decry.

  42. “In general, Lomborg’s work is valuable only for people who are unaware that there is any good news on the environment. ”

    That’s very close to the point I’d make Q. My point is that the environmental lobby groups bias tends to leave out the positive perspective which is well summarised by BL. Reading Lomborg AND Erhlich will get you closer to a clear picture, but to make out that Lomborg is disreputable without being equally critical of the misreprentations of environmentalist crusaders whole are OFF THE PLANET in many of their ideas (eg dogmatic opposition to chlorine compounds when a major source of chlorinated phenols are the completely natural common mediators of wood breakdown, simplistic misunderstanding of ecology, loonyness about genetics and so on, )

    It is the descent to uncivil discussion I abhor. I personally support Lomborg, not because he’s completly right but because he deserves to be debated fairly, and not denigrated by personal abuse, as unfortunately, many who disagree with him seem to easily descend to. Why they feel justified in doing so I would like to have explained to me. I suspect it is guilt at realising some of their own cherished ideas are a little suspect.

    To me there is a double standard here, it seems being sympathetic to left wing ideas means you are given a moral license to spray those who disagree with you with personal abuse. This really worries me, because it freezes up dissection of the pros and cons of public policy.

  43. PS. To BL and Simon critics – these two got one thing right that Ehrlich and others got very wrong- an overall appreciation of the role of technological and economic innovation/competition that means that ehrich’s (and the club of Rome’s) concept of resource utilisation was wrong. The economic history of the last 40 years proved Ehrlich was completely naive about, say-food production technology.
    Why don’t the BL /Simon critics concede this basic fact? Their failure to concede this important insight and use it in their analysis makes me rather supicious of the intellectual quality and serious bias of certain critics.

  44. d, as I’ve noted before, I’ve lost my temper with Lomborg on occasion, which is generally a mistake.

    That said, I distinguish between honest opponents, with whom I’m willing to engage in civilised debate, and those I don’t regard as honest, a class that includes Lomborg and Milloy. In my view, members of the latter group deserve to be exposed.

    On the Club of Rome, if you use the search facility, you’ll find many criticisms of them starting here. You’ll also find my observation that the correctness of Simon’s criticisms of theClub of Rome is an example of stopped-clock punditry.

    Since Simon rejected all claims about environmental threats, he was bound to be right at least some of the time, just as a stopped clock is right twice a day. He was right on the Club of Rome, wrong on the ozone layer and atmospheric lead.

  45. But Q. you are silent on the main point I was making, that economic innovation and factors such as new technology that allow resource substitution (eg better crop yields, copper replaced by fibre optics, better computers, solar energy substituted for gas, gas subs for oil, for coal etc ) is a particular concept tha BL and Simon were substantially right on and Club of Rome and Ehrlich miscalled – I’d like to hear your specific recognition that these were miscalled by Erhlich and that Simon clearly identified them – as demonstrated by him winning the famous bet, and by the lack of world famines in the 1980s that Ehrich predicted.
    I’ve acknowledged that there are several things that BL and Simon got wrong, but are you saying by your silence that this innovative trend in economic performance due to “technology” doesn’t exist? Surely you’r not claiming that – its pretty standard economic history after all.

  46. d, I think if you read the posts more carefully you’ll find a number of references to the way the price mechanism induces substitution. The absence of price responses, rather than of tech progress per se is the crucial reason why the Club of Rome analysis was so badly wrong.

    But to respond specifically, I agree that Simon was right on resource scarcity, and that Ehrlich and the Club of Rome were wrong.

    Lomborg doesn’t get any points for this part of the debate since he didn’t write anything on the topic until the late 1990s. When he did, he made a lot of noise about the points on which Simon was correct, and said nothing about those on which he was wrong (beyond meaningless generic acknowledgements of the form “Simon might not have been right about everything).

  47. Q. Agreed.

    I probably have a similar feeling to you about most, if not all,TV documentaries on issues I care about, where the story line is “adjusted” so the message is a good plot.
    I will agree with you that Lomborgs book would not have sold as well if he had equivocated more.
    But as you well know, Rachel Carson clearly manipulated her Silent Spring polemic, and Lomborg is, in effect, the anti-Silent Spring.
    But back to TV docs point I wish to make.
    There was a recent very good TV documentary on SBS or ABC on the Idea that AIDS/HIV arose from experimentation on chimp tissue in (the congo) in the 1950s. This program bought up some extremly serious well developed ideas where it may be that AIDS was bought about by new human polio vaccines in the 1950s.
    A living US scientist named Hilary Kaprowsky is associated with these events.
    If this TV program is right, it is one of the greatest medical disasters ever. It might even be true, in my judgement.
    The program bought to light some disturbing facts and indicated that one virologist seems to have lied about what went on in the Congo.
    But in accusing others of malfeasence the program producers should have high standards themselves, and they didnt.
    The key scientific issue why many specialists in this area dismiss this Congo hypothesis is that the most sophisticated analyses (reconstructions)of HIV evolution deduce that HIV was first transfered to humans from Chimps about say 1930 rather than 1956 when the Congo experiment were carried out. This judgement ruins the program’s clean story line, and it was dismissed in about a phrase of three seconds duration towards the end of the TV program. (There is also the issue of a second HIV , HIV 2 that evolved in a second event, which further complicates the story line).
    It was a shame that this program wasnt more accurate on this issue, as its hugely important.
    Most likely, as far as I can see, is that the Congo experiments added to HIV that had already transferred to humans 25 years earlier. Or maybe the reconstractions of HIV evolution saying 1930 are flawed, and AIDS really did arise from polio vaccine gone wrong.
    As you can see, I’m not throwing out the Polio Vaccine AIDS origin hypothesis just because the TV program is flawed, and I feel the same way about Lomborg. I’d like to know the truth on both issues.

  48. Dano,

    Good to read your comments. To take John’s point further, the reason the scientific community has been so hypercritical of BL is that he displays all of the same traits that the unscrupulous lot (Milloy, Bailey, Ray, Easterbrook et al) do. That is, never admit to errors that are obvious, stick to your line and attempt to smear your critics with innuendo and unsubstantiated (and frankly unsubstantiatable) claims that the only reason we are critical is because we are desperate for research grants based on questionable science.

    I agree with you that the environmental lobby have and continue to exaggerate some problems – this does not make my job as a scentist any easier. I also agree that its very dangerous to make specific predictions with timelines (as Paul Ehrlich did in ‘The Population Bomb’) when ignoring what I consider to be transient technological fixes (or, the implementation of regulations) that delay or forestall the original problem (but do not necessarily make it inevitable that they will not occur at some future point). But let’s be honest here – the financial resources at the disposal of the anti-environmental lobby are vastly greater than those of the combined environmental NGO’s. I won’t go into details here (I suggest reading Rampton and Stauber’s “Trust Us We’re Experts” for more details and links).

    I know BL well, having spoken several times in Denmark on the ‘backlash’ (where I met and spoke to many of hs colleagues), having debated him here in Holland, and having co-reviewed his book for Nature and the Union of Concerned Scientists. He’s a slick and cunning operator, like some of the other prominent sceptics. Most competent scientists change their views as new data comes in, and are willing to accept empirical evidence that refutes their initial arguments. But Lomborg does not do this. His PR handlers have packaged him well, giving him the veneer of an honest individual desperate to seek the truth. Again, in such a complex array of fields as those covered (superficially) in TSE, this is a gargantuan task. But honest researchers listen to their critics. Given BL’s lack of pedigree in just about every subject covered in TSE, one would assume that he would listen to scientists in different fields of research who point out his errors to him. This was not always as hostile as you suggest Dano – for example, early critiques from Danish scientists, presented very civilly to BL, were rebuffed. It is as if he was saying, “I know more than you do, so I won’t listen”. He carefully crafts his “corrections” to achieve two objectives: first, the changes are all pedantic, esuring that the conclusions do not change. The bigger errors, of which there are many in TSE, are not changed (and watch this space: the never will be). Second, he thanks specific groups or individuals for pointing out the pedantic mistakes. This gives the impression to te audience that he listens to his critics while giving another impression that these people are clutching at straws. Its the classic ploy of a con-artist. BL is clever enough to know that he has to stick to his story – changing major conclusions will dilute the message and will in time undermine him.

    I could say a lot, lot more about the entire Lomborg episode, but I suggest you consult Kaare Fog’s web site, “Lomborg errors.dk” and read Kaare’s lengthy overview of the Lombrg story. It contains some very interesting details of BL’s earlier days.

  49. Re: LOMBORG

    FYI, Lomborg now runs the Environmental Assessment Institute for the Danish government. His next big project will assemble a group of top economists to rank the world’s priorities from a short list of 10: trade barriers, malnutrition, climate change, conflicts, financial instability, sanitation, human migration, communicable diseases, education and corruption.

    Comment: This is the project Copenhagen Consensus
    (www.copenhagenconsensus.com) where we in May get some of the world’s top economists prioritizing the biggest opportunities to deal with the world’s challenges. The event is co-sponsored by the Economist, and they are publishing each week a paper on one of the challenges (www.economist.com/copenhagenconsensus).

    Cheers,

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