The Howler on Lomborg

Speaking of cranks, all of the recent fuss over Al Gore’s testimony to Congress on the subject of global warming has seen the revival of statistician Bjorn Lomborg. You might remember him as the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, the book that was going to set us all straight on the subject of environmentalism. According to Lomborg, everything is much better than we’ve been led to believe.

I only made it through about half of Lomborg’s book before conking out. I was not really in a position to assess a lot of his claims. There were some crank warning signs, like the conversion story about how he used to be an environmentlaist until he took a sober look at the evidence, and the sweeping commentaries contradicting the conventional wisdom in scientific disciplines different from his own. But these were inconclusive.

I read many of the hostile reviews of the book. Some of them were incisive and compelling, but others were far longer on invective than they were on substance. So I left it as an open question whether or not Lomborg was a crank.

Now we have The Daily Howler to to resolve the question:

But our sense of disturbance only took shape when we returned to our sprawling campus and watched Hannity & Colmes. The program’s first segment dealt with Gore’s congressional sessions; the first guest was none other than “Danish statistician” Bjorn Lomborg, who recently helped the New York Times’ William Broad produce his astoundingly bungled report on Gore and global warming (links below). Yesterday afternoon, Lomborg was the GOP’s “rebuttal” witness in a second session of the House committees. Hours later, he went on Fox. And omigod! He said it again:

LOMBORG (3/21/07): Basically, Al Gore goes out and tells us wildly exaggerated stories about what’s going to happen. Probably the most famous clip is where he tells us, essentially, that sea levels are going to rise about 20 feet, which is a far cry from what the U.N. climate panel is telling us, which is one foot. And it’s important, because one is a problem–the one foot–but 20 feet would be catastrophe.

As he did in the New York Sun last month, Lomborg played a savage game of scientific apples-and-oranges, accusing Gore of “wild exaggeration” in the process. The UN said sea levels might rise one foot–but Gore said twenty feet, Lomborg railed!

Of course, as we’ve noted, Gore was talking about what will happen if the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets break away. By contrast, the UN report was predicting future sea levels if the ice sheets don’t break off. (For the record, the UN report said that sea levels may rise by as much as 23 inches if the ice sheets remain intact.) Lomborg’s presentation is baldly deceptive–a bald-faced scam on the American public. And no, it really doesn’t make sense to think Lomborg doesn’t know this.

So there was Lomborg, committing a crime against your nation’s voters. But our sense of disturbance really took shape in the moments after his latest deception. Although the groaning problem with Lomborg’s claim has been discussed at an array of web sites, Alan Colmes made no attempt to contradict his grossly misleading statement. Ditto Jon Coifman (the Natural Resources Defense Council), who was there to provide fairness-and-balance. (We’ll post their “responses” tomorrow.)

Indeed, Lomborg’s bald deception now rules discussion of this topic. In early February, he presented his utterly bogus claim in the pages of the New York Sun, where it would have done minimal damage. But last week, the New York Times’ William Broad made a fateful decision; he wanted this nonsense in his paper too. So Broad used Lomborg’s apples-for-oranges in his “Science Times” report about Gore. By yesterday, the Dane’s poisoned fruit was being cited all over your struggling nation.

There is quite a bit more beyond this as well. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to learn that Fox News happily parroted the same phony talking points…

Comments

  1. #1 Kristjan Wager
    March 22, 2007

    When debating Lomborg it’s always worth remembering that when his book was evaluated for scientific dishonesty, it was found that it could not be shown that he knew enough about the subject to be dishonest about it. His book might in other words be the result of his lack of knowledge, rather than dishonesty.

    Why are anyone still listening to him?

    Oh, and for the record, while Lomborg taught statistics at Aargus University, he is a social scientist, not a statistician (different education, at least in Denmark).

  2. #2 mark
    March 22, 2007

    I thought this guy’s glimmer of fame had come and gone.

    There were some crank warning signs, like the conversion story about how he used to be an environmentlaist until he took a sober look at the evidence, and the sweeping commentaries contradicting the conventional wisdom in scientific disciplines different from his own.

    Just like in a Jack Chick tract, where some evil guy reads a Jack Chick tract, realizes he’s a sinner and instantly converts.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    March 22, 2007

    Oddly enough, I was just researching Lomborg’s book and the kerfluffle which followed it. Which reviews did you find the most “incisive and compelling”? Personally, I like E. O. Wilson‘s, which begins in the following way:

    My greatest regret about the Lomborg scam is the extraordinary amount of scientific talent that has to be expended to combat it in the media. We will always have contrarians like Lomborg whose sallies are characterized by willful ignorance, selective quotations, disregard for communication with genuine experts, and destructive campaigning to attract the attention of the media rather than scientists. They are the parasite load on scholars who earn success through the slow process of peer review and approval. The question is: How much load should be tolerated before a response is necessary? Lomborg is evidently over the threshold.

    It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that all the characteristics Wilson attributes to Lomborg’s sallies apply to Creationists. . . in spades.

  4. #4 Peter Lund
    March 22, 2007

    And another fun fact (or two).

    Backgrounder: besides the personal opinions of the ministers in our government and besides the interests of some of their supporters in industry, Bjørn Lomborg was used for a time by the current government to provide ammunition for reducing the size and importance of the Ministry of Energy and the Environment, which, truth be told, had bloomed to a preposterous size under the previous government in order to keep an internal political opponent silent. He is not needed for that anymore, actually, they are trying to distance themselves from him instead in order to appear greener and remain more electable than the Social Democrats ;)

    Enough Danish interior politics and back to the story.

    He was accused of committing scientific fraud and the committies that investigate such charges didn’t dare come out and say right out that he had committed scientific fraud (because of a semi-overt threat from the government of dismantling or castrating them).

    They did say it as clearly as they dared but didn’t put any of the evidence or arguments against him into their report itself, they only cited them.

    In that way people (read “the current government”) could “truthfully” claim that the committies didn’t provide any arguments against him so he was an A-okay guy and the committies were stupid for sounding off against him).

    Apparently the actual report was still too clear, so the committies did have their powers reduced.

    So summing it all up:
    1) the ministry did get cut down to a more reasonable size
    2) the government here doesn’t need him anymore
    3) his “research institute” has been taken over by others — who actually now manage to make it produce research
    4) he was found as guilty of unscientific behaviour (fraud, really) as UVVU (Udvalgene Vedrørende Videnskabelig Uredelighed), The Committies Regarding Scientific Misconduct, dared to
    5) which led to their being made largely ineffective

  5. #5 Torbjrn Larsson
    March 22, 2007

    Somehow I have missed out on the sharper debate points on Lomborg. (Though I believe I have heard the part about his not-so-expert background.) But this was both illustrative and conclusive.

  6. #6 Peter Lund
    March 22, 2007

    There were some crank warning signs, like the conversion story about how he used to be an environmentlaist until he took a sober look at the evidence, and the sweeping commentaries contradicting the conventional wisdom in scientific disciplines different from his own.

    He certainly does show some signs of that.

    I’ve head they still tell stories at Aarhus University about an the one time where he admitted he was wrong ;)

    PS: Scienceblogs still has a problem with UTF-8. It should be “Bjrn Lomborg” (Bjørn) and “Vedrrende” (Vedrørende) above.

  7. #7 Peter Lund
    March 22, 2007

    By the way, the conversion story is actually true, as far as I know.

    Politically, he is somewhere to the left on the Danish political spectrum, probably in SF (Socialistisk Folkeparti – Socialist People’s Party).

  8. #8 bigTom
    March 22, 2007

    For all the scientific irrelevance of these sorts of people, they can still be very effective at their contracted job, that of fooling most of the voters most of the time.

  9. #9 Herb West
    March 22, 2007

    The blogger at the Daily Howler is confused.

    Gore and Lomborg cite different numbers which of course means that they are relying on different sets of assumptions for calculating sea level rise. The fact that different numbers implies different assumptions should be obvious to us scientists; however, I can understand that in the eyes of the scientifically illiterate (like the blogger at the Daily Howler) different assumptions may seem like apples and oranges.

    The question is whose assumptions are more reasonable? Lomborg’s number (and the methods/assumptions for calculating it) are cited in the IPCC TAR. Where does Gore’s number come from?

    Gore’s website (http://www.climatecrisis.net/thescience) says: “Global sea levels could rise by more than 20 feet with the loss of shelf ice in Greenland and Antarctica, devastating coastal areas worldwide.” The website also cites the source: The Washington Post. The newspaper article can be found here: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/28/AR2006012801021.html).

    So Lomborg cites the IPCC. Gore cites the Washington Post.

    Here’s the relevant portion of the WaPo article,

    “Princeton University geosciences and international affairs professor Michael Oppenheimer, who also advises the advocacy group Environmental Defense, said one of the greatest dangers lies in the disintegration of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets, which together hold about 20 percent of the fresh water on the planet. If either of the two sheets disintegrates, sea level could rise nearly 20 feet in the course of a couple of centuries, swamping the southern third of Florida and Manhattan up to the middle of Greenwich Village.”

    Note the several centuries time span. This is essentially what the IPCC TAR says also: up to 20 feet sea level rise over the next thousand years if global warming follows the most extreme scenario considered in the TAR (http://www.grida.no/climate/ipcc_tar/wg1/fig11-16.htm).

    If the global temperature rises high enough the Greenland ice shelf will melt and be eliminated (i.e. collapse). Not overnight of course. The collapse is quick only in the sense of geological time scales which in this case is a millenium.

    So it isn’t Lomborg who is misleading. Gore speaks of 100 million refugees due to a collapsing ice shelf. I doubt that the average movie goer realizes that “collapse” refers to a thousand years.

  10. #10 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 23, 2007

    Scienceblogs still has a problem with UTF-8. It should be “Björn Lomborg”

    It is.

    At least in my Firefox when choosing that setting. (But thanks for pointing out that I had forgot to change back. Torbj?rn isn’t so nice.)

  11. #11 Torbjrn Larsson
    March 23, 2007

    Hmm. I have to take that back – apparently this blog can’t handle UTF-8 in the comment script name list. (I messed up on “Bjrn Lomborg” myself. I think – let’s see how this will come out.)

    It differs between the scienceblogs for some reason. IIRC, “Pharyngula” used to handle UTF-8 well, while “Good Math, Bad Math” fixed this when we commented on the problem.

  12. #12 Torbjrn Larsson
    March 23, 2007

    I’m baffled – now my name looks all right. Seems Firefox has some problems as well, when changing coding.

  13. #13 Peter Lund
    March 23, 2007

    The encoding problem can be solved relatively easily by always using UTF-8.

    This page claims to be using “iso-8859-1″ in a meta tag in the top, but the actual byte sequences used have ended up being partly UTF-8 and partly ISO 8859-1 (aka Latin-1). Plus the character sequence “ø” which is rendered correctly no matter the encoding.

  14. #14 Blake Stacey, OM
    March 23, 2007

    Bad font craziness. I think I’m just gonna start typing all my comments in LaTeX. How are you today, Torbj\”orn? The weather in Cambridge today is {\em beautiful!}

  15. #15 Kristjan Wager
    March 23, 2007

    Why does every debate on Lomborg turn into a typography debate? (no, not really, but I have seen it happen a couple of times)

  16. #16 Torbjrn Larsson
    March 24, 2007

    Thank you Blake, on the weather font everything is n\ce.

    Why does every debate on Lomborg turn into a typography debate?

    Come on, what do you expect with a surname like that?

  17. #17 Blake Stacey, OM
    March 24, 2007

    Kristjan Wager:

    Why does every debate on Lomborg turn into a typography debate?

    Obviously, because the man is such a font of wisdom.

    Dash it all, you knew I couldn’t resist that. When it comes to typography and page layout, my mind is truly in the gutter. In fact, I’m probably worse than anybody I’ve met, by a healthy margin.

    Torbj\”orn Larsson:

    Come on, what do you expect with a surname like that?

    It could always devolve into Star Trek jokes. Just imagine: “I am Bjorn of Lomborg. Resistance is futile. You will be polemicized. . . .”

  18. #18 trrll
    March 26, 2007

    I think that it is a bit unreasonable to dismiss Lomborg as a crank based upon his attack on Gore. While I agree that it was fundamentally unfair, one of Lomborg’s “hot buttons” is clearly the presentation of rather unlikely or distant-future scenarios as being imminent hazards. Gore did not of course say that a 20 foot rise was expected in the near future, but I think that a case can be made that Gore should have made it more clear that climate scientists did not expect such a rise in the near future. Of course, there is still no excuse for using this to paint Gore as dishonest.

    Global warming opponents should be careful about embracing Lomborg. In his book, he acknowledges both that global warming is real and that it is the result of human activity. His main argument is that the Kyoto treaty is not cost effective and that the restrictions required to make a real dent in CO2 emissions are even less so, and that the best way to combat global warming is not to limit carbon emissions, but rather to invest in development of low-emission energy technologies. He may be right or wrong, but it is hardly a crackpot position.

    I generally found Lomborg’s book more honest than most of the attacks upon him. While he does at times take a contrarian position, he does seem to be fairly honest in acknowledging opposing views and the potential weaknesses of his own arguments.

  19. #19 Dom
    March 27, 2007

    Lomborg is not a crank. It would be an easy matter to find environmentalists who say things like “We need to rethink our western notions of individual liberty” or “The human race is itself a cancer”. These people are cranks.

    Lomborg’s point is that environmental degradation can be fought in different ways, and we need to make a business case to pick one. No harm in that.

  20. #20 TH
    March 28, 2007

    To clean up the “statistician” bit. Lomborg is not, and has never been, a statistician. Neither does he claim that. His publisher just put it on the blurb of his book. He is a political scientist. He has, however, given a course in statistical methods for social scientists in Aarhus. He has no publications in statistics. (He has one research paper, on game theory. Yes, I’ve read it. I’m not saying he’s an idiot. He’s just not a statistician.)

    The correct label is “political scientist”.

  21. #21 Kristjan Wager
    March 29, 2007

    Lomborg’s point is that environmental degradation can be fought in different ways, and we need to make a business case to pick one. No harm in that.

    Except that Lomborg makes it sound like a zero-sum game – either you have to feed the hungry, or you have to do something about global warming, when in fact, doing something about global warming will help do something about the shortage of food in some regions. Also, he never seem to pick a business case that involves non-humanitarian possibilities. E.g. he could suggest cutting back on farm substities in the western world, but somehow that never makes it to the list of possibilities.

    Also, Lomborg is a crank, because he misuses science to make his points. There is no scientific content in his book that hasn’t been denounced by scientists as wrong, either because he misunderstod it, misued it, or cherry-picked the data. Even the scientists doing the science he refers to, says that he can’t use their science in that way.

    So yes, there is harm in what he says – his stance legitimize ignoring global warming, when it becomes more and more obvious that we can’t afford to do that.