Thursday 24 January 2002
'This is a case of table pounding'
The ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomborg tells Helene Guldberg how he has weathered the storm of reaction against him.
The hate campaign against Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World and professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, has been gathering momentum.
From having an Alaska pie pushed in his face at a book-signing in Oxford, to being vilified on anti-Lomborg.com, a website dedicated to trashing him (1), Lomborg has had the ultimate insult hurled at him - being compared to a holocaust denier, in the respected scientific journal Nature. The current issue of Scientific American has devoted a series of articles to attacking Lomborg’s ‘contrarian good news’ views.
Every religion, it seems, has its heretics who must be stoned - and as a Sunday Telegraph article put it, Lomborg is the ‘anti-Christ of the green religion’. (2)
But Lomborg does not seem to be too perturbed by the hate campaign. Okay, he says, some may have presented the book ‘as an evil book that has to be excommunicated’. But The Skeptical Environmentalist has had not only bad press. There have been positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic - and the book has sparked a lively and reasoned debate between Lomborg and his critics here on spiked (see spiked debates: Kyoto).
Even being compared to a Holocaust denier does not upset Lomborg too much.
‘I actually feel kind of good, because it shows the desperateness of their argument. A good saying among lawyers is: if you have a good case, pound the case; if you have a bad case, pound the table. And this is definitely a case of table pounding…which is kind of revealing about their arguments.’
This is true, but there is something particularly insidious about likening critics of contemporary orthodoxies to Holocaust deniers (see I’m right because…you’re a Nazi, by Josie Appleton). This tactic may indicate the weakness of the arguments put forward by Lomborg’s critics, but in today’s censorious climate it can be effectively used to silence any real debate.
What does agitate Lomborg is that the pieces published in Science, Nature and Scientific American have been presented as ‘the scientists’ response’. ‘This is clearly untrue’, he argues. ‘Many scientists, both in public and private, have praised the book.’ He also makes the point that none of the pieces has put forward any real critique of the overall analysis of the book. ‘Instead you will find that they deal with fairly minor points: errors they have found in the data.‘
In his book, Lomborg aims to show the real state of the world, challenging what he calls the ‘litany’ of environmental destruction that has pervaded the debate for so long. ‘Blatantly false claims can be made again and again, without any references, and yet still be believed.’ Lomborg’s 500-page book is the product of four years of statistical research with a team of students, contains 180 figures and tables, almost 3000 footnotes and a 70-page bibliography. Being cavalier with the facts is something Lomborg cannot reasonably be accused of.
But as Lomborg points out, ‘of course there are bound to be some errors in the book when you are dealing with so many numbers. Which is not to say that errors do not matter. You want to present the public with the right figures. But there are other ways of dealing with such minor errors, like in an email’. Lomborg hopes that any impartial observer would recognise that the articles in the Scientific American are ‘fairly petty pieces’.
One of the criticisms thrown at Lomborg is that he selectively uses just those data that support his thesis that the world is getting better, on almost every count. In response, he says: ‘Of course I can never say, yes, I included all the data that are available in the world. That is an impossible task. But I really honestly tried to use the most relevant and balanced data. And if I have failed to do so, my critics cannot get away with just saying, “Oh, he’s biased”. They have to actually show how that is true.’
Lomborg’s book has gone a long way towards challenging what he calls the environmentalist ‘Litany’. And he is hopeful about the impact it will have because ‘rational arguments have a strong force’. However, in a culture that is so risk-averse, claims that the environment is deteriorating dangerously are likely to have more resonance than Lomborg’s argument, regardless of the facts. The predisposition to view everything as getting worse has infected politics, culture and just about every sphere of life today.
Facts and data are crucial in showing that, in so many ways, things are far from getting worse. But as Lomborg must be starting to realise, today’s political and cultural outlook has to be countered with more than numbers alone.
Buy Bjørn Lomborg‘s The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
Visit Bjørn Lomborg‘s official website
First published by spiked