The Lomborg Inquisition

The latest attack on 'Skeptical Environmentalist' Bjørn Lomborg shows how risk consciousness has become an orthodoxy that we aren't allowed to question.

Helene Guldberg

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Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg first made world headlines back in 2001, with the publication of his book The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World.

In painstaking statistical detail, The Skeptical Environmentalist challenged widely accepted claims made by environmentalists about overpopulation, global warming, energy, deforestation, water shortages, species extinction and many other green concerns.

Lomborg’s work has been acclaimed by many. But the campaign to discredit Lomborg himself has gone unabated. From having pies thrown in his face by green campaigners at book launches, to having his arguments compared with Holocaust denial by science journalists Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey, in the respected scientific journal Nature, the cheapest of cheap shots has been used to silence the debate that The Skeptical Environmentalist provoked.

But the latest phase in the anti-Lomborg campaign makes pie-throwing and name-calling look like examples of serious, grown-up criticism. Pimm and Harvey have gone running to the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), asking it to rap Lomborg’s knuckles. After ‘reviewing’ the evidence, the DCSD has ruled that The Skeptical Environmentalist is indeed ‘scientifically dishonest’ (1).

One month ago, few seemed to have even heard of this obscure Danish committee. Yet since its ruling on Lomborg, it has now gained international prominence, with environmentalists and green-leaning journalists and academics gleefully passing around the verdict. More sensible commentators have drawn comparisons between the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty and the Spanish Inquisition (2), McCarthyism (3), and George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (4). What should we make of the ruling?

It is difficult to make much sense of it at all. The DCSD claims that it has, ‘objectively speaking’ (that is, taking on board the comments of the complainants, but not those of Lomborg himself), found ‘the publication of the work under consideration [to be] deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty’. But, on the other hand, it continues: ‘in view of the subjective requirements made in terms of intent or gross negligence…Bjørn Lomborg’s publication cannot fall within the bounds of this characterisation.’

One is left none the wiser after reading the press release sent out on 10 January 2003, which responds to the press coverage of the ruling and is designed to clarify matters. Jens Morten Hansen, director of the Danish Research Agency, states that ‘DCSD acknowledges Lomborg’s critics in as much as he has made a severely biased selection of sources favouring his theories’. But every academic has to ‘select’ his sources. Surely this criticism is legitimate only if the sources selected are shown to be questionable?

The committee, however, has not ruled on this matter. ‘The decision does not take a stance – nor is it supposed to take a stance – on whether Bjørn Lomborg’s theories are right or wrong, no more so in fact than the decision elucidates whether his critics’ theories are right or wrong,’ states the press release. So even if Lomborg has drawn on scientifically sound data, he is apparently ‘scientifically dishonest’ in having done so.

Truly junk science is published every day, elevating any number of unfounded risks. What about the research claiming to show a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism? (5) Or the claim that the ebola virus could possibly be spread by birds? (6) Or, closer to home (for the Danes), the Swedish scientists claiming to find a link between cancer and the baking and frying of high-carbohydrate foods, like potatoes and bread? (7) Or the many, many more examples detailed on websites like Junk Science?

Yet we rarely hear about perpetrators of this scientific nonsense being hauled in front of the DCSD, or any other such body – because the everyday junk science to which we are subjected does not question the risk-conscious obsessions of our times, but reinforces them.

Lomborg has not been found guilty of using unsound data or erroneous facts. He has not been found guilty of anything genuinely scientifically dishonest. What he is guilty of, it seems, is questioning the ‘better safe than sorry’ principle that dominates today’s thinking.

In this, the Lomborg Inquisition follows a pattern. Risk consciousness has become an orthodoxy in debates about science and the environment, and none of us is supposed to question it. Any debate or dissent is increasingly seen as unacceptable, creating a stifling climate where those who challenge the green view of the world are told ‘You cannot say that!’ Proponents of today’s risk-averse culture see nothing so dangerous as awkward questions.

The predisposition to see the world through the prism of degradation and risk has infected politics, culture and just about every sphere of life. Facts and data tell us that, in reality, the world is far less dangerous and doomed than many make out. But, as Bjørn Lomborg is no doubt starting to realise, today’s political and cultural outlook has to be countered with more than numbers alone.

Precaution and pre-emption now lie at the heart of discussions about the future, fuelled by panics about everything from MMR and mobile phones to crime and children. That is why spiked is organising the conference ‘Panic Attack: Interrogating Our Obsession With Risk’, with the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Tech Central Station.

This London conference, to be held on 9 May 2003, will draw together an international audience to examine the unfounded scares that are coming to rule our society. The conference will assess the spread of risk consciousness into more and more spheres of life, and explore how this can be challenged. And it will do so all in the spirit of promoting honest debate and a questioning culture.

It’s time to take this discussion out of the committee room, and into the public domain.

For more information about the conference, email Helene.Guldberg@spiked-online.com.

(1) Decision regarding complaints against Bjørn Lomborg, Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty

(2) Victim of the Danish Inquisition, Robert Matthews, Sunday Telegraph, 12 February 2003

(3) Burn, Baby Bjørn, Burn!: The Report From the Committees on Saying McCarthyism in Danish, Charles Paul Freund, Reason, 10 January 2003

(4) Denmark’s Ministry of Truth, James K Glassman, 10 January 2003

(5) MMR: the making of junk science, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(6) Don’t Panic Button

(7) Junk Science Oscars, Steven Milloy, Fox News, 26 December 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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