The Lomborg Deception

I've noted before that Bjorn Lomborg systematically misrepresents the science. Sharon Begley has reviewed Howard Friel's book The Lomborg Deception:

But when Friel began checking Lomborg's sources, "I found problems," he says. "As an experiment, I looked up one of his footnotes, found that it didn't support what he said, and then did another, and kept going, finding the same pattern." He therefore took on the Augean stables undertaking of checking every one of the hundreds of citations in Cool It. Friel's conclusion, as per his book's title, is that Lomborg is "a performance artist disguised as an academic."

I don't want to be as trusting as the reviewers who praised Lomborg's scholarship without (it seems) bothering to check his references, so rather than taking Friel at his word just as they took Lomborg at his, I've done my best to do that checking. Although Friel engages in some bothersome overkill, overall his analysis is compelling.

Hat tip: Jimmy Nightingale.

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I'm sure Jeff Harvey could sum up The Lomborg Deception pretty well, without even reading it.

Makes you wonder whether Plimer and Lomborg have been sharing footnotes - anyone?

Thanks Davidk. I certainly could. I went through the entire Skeptical Environmentalist for my review in Nature with Stuart Pimm 9 years ago. What I found in the book were a litany of errors, mine-quoting, misinterpretation of important concepts, statistical errors, omission of important studies, and an eventual attempt to downplay the importance of the link between the material and natural economies. The book is an abomination in my opinion. However, Lomborg's aim was not to reach a scientific audience who he knew would see the book for what it was; his aim was to sell himself, as I see it anyway, by targeting general audiences who do not know much at all about the environment but who are nevertheless eager to "do the right thing", whilst wanting desperately to think that everything is more or less OK the way that it is.

Check the footnotes and citations on Lomborg's chapter on biodiversity. In this wretched chapter (perhaps the worst in the book, although I am biased) he dismisses the importance of biodiversity in about 7 pages, and bases many of his conclusions on a chapter in the book "The State of Humanity", written by Juliam Simon and Aaaron Wildavsky, two business economists. The crux is that Lomborg claims in the preface of the book that his entire motivation for writing TSE was that he found an article in Wired Magazine while he was visiting Californioa that was about Julian Simon and his views on the environment. Lomborg claimed that Simon's views so upset him that he was motivated to do his own analysis and found - lo and behold - that Simon was right! Yet he cites Simon's work about 20 times in the book to generate his own conclusions - bizarre if you are testing Simon's arguments. Lomborg says in TSE that the biodiversity chapter is actually based on Simon's and Wildavsky's piece in The State of Humanity. Even more bizarre. And, not surprisingly, full of basic errors and other gaffes.

A new paper out in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation by Nigel Stork, an expert in the field, argues that climate change, due to its global scope, will greatly exacerbate the extinction epidemic already underway. Stork rightly criticizes Lomborg (citing our Nature review of TSE) which is interesting because Lomborg (ab)used models predicting extinction rates in British insects formulated by Stork himself in the 1990s to predict global extinction rates of all flora and fauna. Stork had generated 12 models and Lomborg used the least significant one for his estimates. This of course makes Lomborg's predictions null and void, but the mainstream media took Lomborg's estimates at face value.

Note that TSE was also written in about 15 months - rather fast, considering the enormously complex fields it covers. Some of these fields would require an expert years to explore and understand, and yet here we have someone with absolutely no pedigree in any of the fields writing a book in the space of a year and a quarter.

Both of Lomborg's books, in my opinion, have done immense harm to the public's perception of environmental issues, and for that reason I welcome Howard Friel's book which it is hoped will redress the balance to some extent.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 22 Feb 2010 #permalink

IIRC, I once read Bjorn Lomburg's explanation for writing the Skeptical Environmentalist as referring to the Wired? article mentioned by Jeff Harvey, but with one extra bit of information: Julian Simon claimed that you could write a book contradicting the main environmentalist tenets and do it only using peer reviewed science articles. So Bjorn reckons he set out to test *that*. The tacit admission there is that an expert appraisal of the overall state of the science on the various specialist topics was never the top of Bjorn's agenda.

I wish I could find where I read Bjorn's explanation so that a) I can confirm to my own satisfaction that I've remembered correctly; and, b) it means that BL was technically accurate in stating what the objective of the book writing venture was, and that science wasn't part of it in any meaningful way.

Having a personal copy of BL's TSE (17th printing) I know that his preface and introduction aren't where I read his original explanation - Jeff's comment on Lomborg's alleged motivation are in agreement with TSE's preamble by BL. My best guess is that the original explanation I read from BL was dated around the time of the first printing, 2001 or thereabouts I think, although I didn't read it until after I had purchased the book some years later. This book sits with my copy of Plimer's H&E, as a reminder to myself not to take people's word for it concerning their analysis/reading of primary sources.

Interestingly this experience has led me back to original articles on great physics experiments, early complex domain ODE theory, and other original mathematics and science papers, rather than just relying on modern mathematicians' summary of a summary. A lot can be learnt from seeing how the original author grappled with new concepts, something that gets a bit lost with the tyranny of time.

I think Jeff Harvey's review of TSE and its author is pretty accurate, if too polite.

By Donald Oats (not verified) on 22 Feb 2010 #permalink

Try googling "bjorn lomborg site:" - the site mentions Lomborg plenty. So I'm sure we'll be seeing them cover this latest development, right...? Or maybe climate audit might apply the same level of OCD to Lomborg's references as they have to tree rings...?

>Friel's conclusion, as per his book's title, is that Lomborg is "a performance artist disguised as an academic."

Monckton is a performance artist disguised as a performance artist.

Monckton is a performance artist disguised as a performance artist.

A contortionist perhaps?

Lomborg's may be a case of deliberate flim-flammery but this problem of mis-citation is rampant among scientists. I've just edited a publication and despite clear, strong,repeated warnings to all our writers that they should never, never, never cite a paper without having read it (i.e., relying on what another author said or how that secondary source summarized/characterized it), they all did so, and with predictable results. Half of more of their citations did not actually say what they cited them for. Pathetic. Shoddy scholarship, to say the least. Not deliberate, just shoddy. And this seems to be an acceptable practice these days IPCC, anyone? A Nobel prize winning paper should NOT be citing secondary/tertiary sources. Full stop. No excuses. This is shoddy work.

A graduate student whose faculty advisor tapped her to help with the peer review of one chapter recommended some additional text that on its face made no sense. I checked her reference and it was a book chapter that cited three original research papers and one unpublished talk. Obviously, she'd never read the unpublished talk. One of the three original research papers - the journal is defunct and no trace of it can be found online. Of the other two, one - a good, solid piece of experimental work - said exactly the opposite of what the book chapter (and by extension, the reviewer) cited it for. The final paper was inconclusive.


What are you people teaching your students? What were you taught, that this is so commonplace?


I see your point but you must remember that it is usually not physically possible for a scientist to read everything in full that they cite. Certainly we should possess a good gist of understanding of what it is that we cite, and reading the abstracts can often prove very useful in this regard. But there is little chance that you can expect most scientists to have read, page by page, all of the papers that we cite in an article. This may mean 50 or more articles, each with 10 or more pages. I often have to go through some papers at least several times in order to fully grasp what the author(s) is/are saying. Of course there is no excuse for shoddy overviews and improper citations. But in my view Lomborg goes well beyond that. I believe that he has drawn "directed conclusions" from the way he cites other articles and puts his arguments together. This is beneath contempt.

Another major problem with Lomborg is that he draws conclusions that are generally at odds with the prevailing scientific wisdom in each of the superficial chapters in his books. It certainly is wrong to incorrectly cite and article, but to cherry-pick your sources, to refuse to amend egregious errors, and to argue that the scientific community has it wrong on such diverse isses as climate change, global forest cover, the importance of biodiversity and its rate of loss, epidemiology, pollution, and the effects of these on material economy on the basis of a book written in less than a year and a half stretches credibility.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

"I see your point but you must remember that it is usually not physically possible for a scientist to read everything in full that they cite."

I would expect scientists to have read, understood and double-checked everything they cite. Just reading the abstract is not at all acceptable science, let alone academia. I work in public health (primarily research), and I have exactly the same expectations of people working in my field.

I would rather scientists published a paper every five years than a sloppy one every 6 months. It's not science! But then of course, most universities really demand vanity publishing, so forget everything about what I just said.

Back to the usual programming.


I have to give props to Sharon Begley on this. She fact-checked the claims made in the book she reviewed, gave Lomborg a chance to reply, conducted additional interviews with Friel, and made rational, declarative statements based on the evidence in hand. As a scientist, that's all I ask of journalists when they cover science; don't present both sides in a controversy equally under some misguided notion of "fairness". Check into the facts presented before you and decide for yourself what's right and what's wrong.


Like Joan's I understand your point. But when does one get the time to read 2,500 pages of material in preparing a single paper? Basically I wish I could stay awake 24/7 and do nothing but read other scientist's work. But this is not physically possible. I would agree with you in the event that the arcticle being prepared was in a highly controversial field or else if the scientist's conclusions challenged conventional wisdom in the field. But reading and multiply re-reading 50-100 other articles every time I write a single one? Sorry, but unless one is a speed reader or else possess super-human powers, forget it.

And who says a scienstist cannot author 10 or more papers in a year while being diligent? I have done that theee years in a row now and I think my articles are not sloppy in the least. There might be a typo here and there but I stand by what I have written throughout my career. One can have a solid grasp of the field if they have worked in it a long time like I have. It was certainly vital for me when I was doing my PhD back in the early 1990s to read as much as I could, and I did that pretty well day and night. But I do not do as much of it now as I simply do not have the time. But I do make sure that what I (and my students) write is as clear and accurate.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Hey! A quick check of some of Sharon Begley's other non-biased articles reveals that in fact, we can finally blame particular weather events on AGW.

Thank you Sharon.

And if any of you alarmists deny we can blame particular weather events on AGW, then obviously you are moon landing deniers as well....

In other words, you are deniers if you deny the thing you deny.

I love this site.

Betula doesn't understand the difference between 'X is Y' and 'X is like Y'. Betula is like an idiot.

Who is Joan, and why do people believe her?

Ah well, let the two amateurs, Friel and Lomborg fight it out.
Seems like Lomborg has found an equal as far as climate science goes.

Three reactions:

1. I must compliment the correspondents here for their lengthy, substantive, and information-rich commentary. *This* is what good Internet discussion should be!

2. Re Joan's point about reading the full papers: might I suggest that reading the entire paper is unnecessary if the abstract explicitly declares the point that the author uses in their own paper, without relying upon any other assumptions or conclusions. This constitutes only a minor adjustment of Joan's original point, useful in only a few cases.

3. I read some (not all) of the Lomborg's response cited by bigcitylib and now I'm not sure what to think without reading both books carefully with Lomborg's response in hand. That's too much work, so I'll have to leave this matter unresolved in my mind.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jeff Harvey writes: "you must remember that it is usually not physically possible for a scientist to read everything in full that they cite."

Forgive the blunt language, but your statement is bull. If a scientist is engaging in research, he must read everything -- in full -- that he cites. To do otherwise is to shortcircuit the process of conducting research. I realize that scientists face tremendous pressure to publish, but that's not an excuse. If a scientist is an established scholar and, because of other commitments, doesn't have the time, then that's where research assistants come in. They can read every word of the long boring articles and make sure they are properly cited and referenced, and, as a side benefit, they get their name in the published work as well. Lomborg seems more interested in publishing a book that is more pseudo-science than actual science, which is fine in principle, but then masquarades the book as science with copious footnotes as if it has been thoroughly researched.

"Betula doesn't understand the difference between 'X is Y' and 'X is like Y'. Betula is like an idiot."

Begley's headline in my link is...."Global Warming Is A Cause Of Extreme Weather This Year"

Would that be 'X is like Y' or 'X is Y'?

The difference is quite clear.....Neil is an idiot.

Lomborg accuses Friel of "selective or incomplete quotation, misrepresentation of source material, and even outright fabrication."

Case closed.

Charlie (#22), how does an accusation lead to your conclusion "Case closed"? It seems you make the jump from statement to conclusion in a single step. Some elucidation of your reasoning is in order.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Your ideal works until the review process when a reviewer tells you to add some more references (frequently to their own work). What do you do if you don't think they're particularly relevant or good (assuming you can find them in the first place)?

Ah, so Charlie DOES beat his wife. But I doubt that's news to anyone here ...

Speaking as a taxonomist, much of what I cite in my papers are 100-year old monographs- many more than 200 pages- written in German or Italian. I'd still be working on the first chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation if I had to read and understand every sentence in every source I cite. It's simply not possible to do it and maintain any semblance of productivity.

Publications in my field are structured so that readers can find and extract the relevant information- say, a description of a particular structure on a particular species- without having to process the whole volume.

My point is that the extent to which a source needs to be read in its entirety is context-dependent. The view that all sources need to be read and understood completely- regardless of the situation- is the sort of bone-headed idealism that would quickly bring the entire scientific endeavor to a halt.

Oh, and Lomberg's an ignorant ass.

Having in fact recently written a paper which was pulling numbers from several other papers, it is a sometimes a pain to really figure out what someone else is saying. But sometimes, if you don't take the time, you make a mistake, and if you are _really_ unlucky, everyone else cites your mistake.

A recent example involved a paper which estimated a GWP in CO2equivalents - but rather than a normal GWP referenced to tons of CO2, this author decided to report their GWP referenced to tons of C (a factor of almost 3 difference!). Because they did a number of other screwy things, it was possible to miss that the number was 3 times smaller than expected.

Another, very respected author quoted this number in their paper. And _this_ paper is often referenced in the field. Since I get to review documents in this field, I've found myself correcting this misinterpretation of the original literature more than once...

Having noted how important it is to get things right the first time, I do think it is impossible to fully read every cited paper. Sometimes, you really do just need to put some statement in context of previous papers in that area, and sometimes it really is just a key paragraph or calculation from that previous paper that is important, and you don't need to read dozens of pages of methodology, results, and other stuff.

Also, in response to the idea that research assistants get their names on papers in return for checking references - that isn't how things are done at all. Co-authorship is supposed to be for central contributions.


wow. this blog is just becoming sad. Nothing to say. I guess, since the IPCC is falling apart and now there could be a criminal investigation there is really a lack of material.

"Lomborg's may be a case of deliberate flim-flammery but this problem of mis-citation is rampant among scientists."

I am not aware that mis-citations are a "rampant" problem. I read papers every day (sometimes even in full!) and frequently track down citations to get at the information I need. In my experience, it's very rare for an author to flat-out misrepresent a source. The problem with not reading sources in full is that scientific studies are often more complicated, or require a more critical eye, than just reading abstracts can convey.

Note that Lomborg's problem, if Friel and Begley are to be believed, is that his sources say the opposite of what he claims they say, or are just plain irrelevant. This is not a problem caused by simply failing to read past the abstract.


Very interesting comment. And didn't lots of papers quote MBH98 et al without understanding what on earth the authors had actually done but because it was ' big' it just had to be referenced?

And how many climate papers supposedly replicated what Mann had done even though they had no real idea of what it was he had done?

By Dave Andrews (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Betuala, you wrote that Begley said that deniers of AGW were deniers of the moon landing. She said they were like deniers of the moon landing. Got it?

Marred, you're outdoing yourself. If you've got nothing to say, why then go on to say something? For all the lack of content _and_ blatant irrelevance to the topic you might as well have stayed away from your keyboard. Now, any remarks on Lomborg's Deception; one of a long, sad line on the denier side? But you've piqued my curiosity: How, exactly, is the IPCC 'falling apart'?


I am with Joan and Dennis on the citation verification issue. Your methodology may be the only realistic way for an academic to survive in the existing system, but that is a condemnation of the system, not a reason to defend the methodology.

The logical conclusions, in my opinion, are:

1. Within many fields of academic activity, too many papers are being written for a person to be able to follow
2. The system is set up so that people are required or encouraged to cite papers they did not read properly
3. Not reading many of the papers in the field does not actually stop you from producing and publishing your own papers

Therefore, either one can produce quality research without reading much of what passes for science in the field, or much of what is written in poor quality research. If fact either of those possibilities implies that the other also holds (research is high quality if and only if it needs to be read in order to produce more high quality research).

BTW, as I mentioned on this blog in a different context, Steven Levitt - the world famous, John Bates Clark Medal winning economist - provides another example of the cite-while-reversing-the-conclusion phenomenon.


Forgive the blunt language, but your statement is bull. If a scientist is engaging in research, he must read everything -- in full -- that he cites.

What do you think the purpose of reviewers is? If the reviewers don't bother even checking that the abstract agrees with the paper then citing scientists can hardly be held responsible for that failing. This is one of the purposes of peer-review.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Dave Andrews: I would argue that in some cases it is fine to cite, for example, MBH98 without fully understanding the paper in, for example, the following way: "This paper has developed a novel proxy for use in paleoclimate reconstructions. Previous reconstructions (MBH98, X, Y) used tree rings, coral cores, boreholes, and sedimentary analyses, but none of them used size of chipmunk droppings, which we demonstrate is closely correlated with regional climate during the instrumental record." The only thing the author needs to know about MBH98 is what proxies it uses, and that it doesn't use chipmunk droppings. Whether or not MBH98 used their PCA properly doesn't matter in the context of the citation. And it is very much appropriate to cite the big papers in the field, so that someone reading your chipmunk dropping paper can go and look at the other methodologies for themselves if they are new to the field.

Chris O'Neill: As someone who has reviewed papers, there is absolutely no way I am going to check every reference. It is, indeed, the responsibility of the citing scientist to use citations appropriately. It is the responsibility of the referee, who is ideally familiar with the literature, to catch any major mistakes, but it would be impossible to read dozens of cited papers. Personally, I have caught a few miscitations in reviewed papers - I do spot checks any time I see a statement that seems a little odd or controversial or especially interesting. But the majority of citations are in the vein of the above example - placing a paper in context, and it isn't worth my time to check and make sure that X and Y are indeed paleoreconstructions, as is claimed, rather than being citations to studies on the effects of human growth hormones (ok, I also scan the reference list, so I'd probably pick up on anything really outrageous). "Peer review" means a paper looks reasonable and deserves to be seen by a wider audience: it does not mean that it has passed an exhaustive analysis. Anything important in a paper will eventually be repeated and confirmed. A major assessment like the IPCC is a different beast: there, they are making an attempt to be as bulletproof as possible because the IPCC reports become desktop references for scientists and policymakers for years - but obviously even there mistakes sometimes slip through. But the mistakes in the IPCC are much fewer and further between than would be found in an average journal issue.



As someone who has reviewed papers, there is absolutely no way I am going to check every reference.

I was referring to reading the whole paper that is being reviewed, not its citations. In particular, they must make sure the abstract agrees with the paper and it's probably appropriate that they help to make it a good abstract for the paper.


I would expect scientists to have read, understood and double-checked everything they cite. Just reading the abstract is not at all acceptable science, let alone academia.

That depends if they're relying on more than the abstract. If they're just citing something that is in the abstract why do they need to read anything more? The credibility of the abstract can be inferred from the journal it's published in, so readers are being given an idea of its credibility. That said, I wouldn't expect too many papers where the author had read nothing more than than the abstracts in his citations. I'd expect the substance of virtually all papers to be based on more than just abstracts but that doesn't mean it has to be based on more than the abstracts of EVERY citation.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink


Sorry, I meant duckster. (typing too fast.)

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink


we can finally blame particular weather events on AGW

When my loaded dice comes up 6, I blame the loading. When it comes up 1, I blame the loading.

By Chris O'Neill (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

In the days when I got papers to review I developed a practice of checking all of the references that we had available on site. I was appalled to find out how many were wrong, although I would not go as far as Joan did in her comment. Many were relatively trivial errors in the authors' names, the title or the pagination. However, others confused phosphorus with potassium, fungi with insects, referred to species not used in the experiments and in one case had the results exactly backwards, citing one of their own earlier papers.

I rejected one paper solely on these grounds (12 out of 13 references were wrong), on the basis that, if the citations that I could check were wrong, how could I possibly trust their data? My view is that, if you are citing an earlier paper, it is your responsibility to make certain that you are quoting them correctly. Better yet, make certain that their data backs up the claim, although I realize that this is not always feasible.

BTW, I had a letter on the subject published in Nature, in which they made errors in both my name and my address.

By Richard Simons (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

@29. Marred, just for my amusement, please explain how the IPCC is "falling apart", and also explain what "criminal investigation" is going to be conducted and by whose police force/justice department.

You know, I don't so much mind when you project psychotic fantasies onto this blog, but if you're going to run with them, how about some evidence for us to digest?

Chris O'Neill:

Apologies, I should obviously do a better job making sure that the post I'm rebutting actually says what I think it says! (not the first time I've made that mistake, and won't be the last, either)

P. Lewis: I like the S&R study, but I do think they are too quick to dismiss the possibility that people who read papers would lazily copy the citations from elsewhere - I do that all the time. (am I admitting _all_ my bad publishing habits on this blog? good thing I don't use my real name!) (back in the pre-internet days, when I was a fledgling scientist, citation typos were much more annoying... I don't know that I can even remember how to use the massive wall of Chem Abstracts volumes that were the only way to track down papers by topic before google and Web of Science)


Life these days is complicated.

Thanks again Tim, there's no doubt political animal Lomborg is in the business of misrepresentation and distraction, and at best doesn't understand the science that he misrepresents. On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly, he seems to have been learning and has made some turn-around comments the past couple of years. The fundamental invariant in Lomborg is his egoism, his ambition to be at the intellectual centre of the argument. It's not the worst thing about him and as I say, he seems to me to be improving. I haven't seen anything of the book.

Joan: would you please tell us in what field was your recently edited publication? I agree with your general criticisms but ... you can't point to a more tightly reviewed and thoroughly written paper anywhere than the IPCC's 3000 odd (is it?) pages, can you? It contains fewer errors than anything else you've ever seen, would that be right? I'm suggesting you may be hyper-critical (that's OK, so am I).

Lotharsson (love your work btw): in what you've linked Daly misunderstood what Simon was saying about "infinite substitutability". Simon was no fool, neither is Daly ... they both get to be wrong about some things though. It seems to be too common to misunderstand Simon on this particular idea of his but the quote itself: "... the possibility of creating copper or its economic equivalent from other materials ..." suffices to show that Daly's segue into mathematics misses the point. For instance one "economic equivalent" of copper today is fibre-optics (replacing copper in telecommunications cable). Although today there remains plenty of copper available we don't need copper-bottomed cookware and we don't need copper for circuit boards and electronics, there are alternative materials available and suitable for the purpose.

Simon's point was that for all our economic uses for copper there would always be a supply either of it or of some economic substitute. It's of course not true that mankind in its folly could never screw things up to and including the size of Earth itself; clearly we are at great risk of doing it right now with climate. We've already, stupidly, sent entire species extinct, destroyed rivers and fertile lands, carelessly introduced exotic diseases with devastating effect on other humans, .... etc etc ad infinitum. Lomborg has nothing sensible to counter to this but I like to think it possible that were Simon alive today he might dissociate himself from climate denialism and delusion.

[Alex Wild has already made the point](…) that I myself was going to make - in my area of science at least it is quite possible to see what part of a 50 page monograph in a stack of 200 such papers is relevant to my work, and to that extent I will not read every page of every reference I use.

I will certainly scan every page, but if I actually carefully read every word with as much concentration as I do for content that is relevant to my field, I would be an armchair expert in just about every discipline in biology, and have no time to do any other work.

An example might be where I am gathering information on attachment systems for a tracking device, and I refer to a monograph that uses a similar tracking system and goes into detailed methodological refinement, but that also has a significant focus on the occurence of allele variants in the studied organism. I probably would never have any interest in the genetics of the species in question, especially if it is not a taxon with which I work, so why would I waste the hour it would take to read the material and to comprehend it, if it is not pertinent to my work?

That said, I often do read a lot of material that is of no direct relevance to my work, simply because I find it interesting. It does broaden my knowledge (of professionally-irrelevant areas), but I can state for a fact that it also eats into my work time more than I would like.

It's a simple fact that in today's information-saturated, technologically enhanced world, one has to be discerning in what one reads. The thing is that this is actually a different arguement to the one which says that one should sight the papers one references. With respect to the latter, the practice of using references that one has never seen is indefensible, but this is a different kettle of fish to actually having perused the reference and assessed what portions are relevant to a discussion, and what is superfluous.

There is a danger in confabulating the two, but without experience in working with such detailed techical material an outsider might easily not understand the difference.

I am currently proof-reading a relative's PhD thesis (which means that I myself am reading many of her references), and even though it is not my field of expertise I can see from her work that some of the papers to which she refers did themselves engage in abstract-harvesting, resulting in a meme spreading through the discipline that seems to be at odds with the evidence. It's a deplorable thing to happen, but the consequence is that she has a strong case to make a name for herself refuting the current acceptance of said meme, and to actually document its spread.

An elegant example of the self-correcting nature of science.

By Bernard J. (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Oh in Australia we really should use "disassociate" I think, my mistake.

Several points:

first of all, to Dennis: my arguments were not meant to say that a person should cite articles they have not read at all. I will access jounbrals online and get the general gist of what they are saying and how they relate to my own work. I fully adhere to what Alex Wild said.

Let us look at Lomborg: his case is an extreme one. He wrote his first and most (in)famopus book TSE in 15 months or so. He has thousands of footnores and citations - clearly he did not have a chance to read them all, probably not even a signifcant number of them. Then one can look at his conclusions, which I believe are "directed": in every instance, an environmental problem is assumed to be greatly exaggerated. Alarm bells should be ringing in the head of every reader of the book: how can a guy even remotely understand so many diverse and complex fields in such a short time, and then generate conclusions on them which are at odds with the bulk of the empirical evidence and with the most respected researchers in the said fields? When I debated Lomborg here in 2002 my impression was that he was like a wound up mannekin, with a pre-preapred script that was impossible for him to deviate from. To be honest, I found him not a very good debater at all, because it was clear to me that he did not have a clue what he was talking about (at least in his chapters that overlap with my work). The biodiversity chapter is grade school level stuff, full of huge gaffes and a complete inability to understand even the most basic concepts in ecology. But of course, Lomborg is not targeting scientists with his gibberish but a general audience who, unfortunately, do not know much about any of the fields covered in the book. By appearing scholarly to these readers, Lomborg can hook them in. That was always the intent.

Frankis writes: *On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly, he seems to have been learning and has made some turn-around comments the past couple of years*.

I totally disagree. What Lomborg does, and which is a cunning sleight of hand if I may say so, is give the impression that he listens to his critics whilst not changing the general conclusions about what he writes. On his web site he used to have (and may still have?) a section entitled 'corrections and errors'. If you were to read through that section, you would see two things: first of all Lomborg makes only pedantic changes that do not affect the overall conclusions of his books, and second, he actually thanks groups or individuals for pointing out these pedantic mistakes. The reason he does that is to make it look like his critics can only find very minor faults in what he writes, making it look like they are clutching at straws. Most importantly, he refuses to ackowledge the more egregious errors that plague the pages of his books because if he was to ackowledge them, he would have to change the overall conclusions he has reached. This he will never do. I wait with baited breath to see him totally revise his biodiversity chapter and to accept the fact that there is an massive extinction spasm currently underway. His examples in the chapter: losses of species in the Mata Atlantica forests of Brazil, avian extinctions in eastern North America and in Peurto Rico on the basis of habitat loss-extinction models of exponential decay are completely wrong. When he wrote TSE, there were published studies in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (1995) and Nature (1997) that showed the extinction models to be accurate in estimating extinction rates in both regions; Lomborg to my knowledge has never corrected his errors on this nor has he cited these studies. In 2001 I co-authored an article for the Union of Concerned Scientists with E.O. Wilson, Tom Lovejoy, Norman Myers, and Stuart Pimm in which we addressed the errors in the biodiversity chapter; I am sure that Lomborg continues to ignore this paper and the evidence that he is wrong.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 23 Feb 2010 #permalink

Don't worry Jeff I think you can see that my words may be read as expressing surprise to see Lomborg appear capable of learning anything, while his making a "turn-around" comment or two doesn't imply that he's getting anywhere worthwhile yet. Also let's not forget that it's been only a few years since Lomborg was brazenly misrepresenting the views of the economists who'd agreed to sit on his Copenhagen Consensus panel, and panelists were complaining that the question of climate change had been set up by Lomborg to fail. He won't be apologising for his past antics in antiscience because without them there is no Lomborg character; he'll remain a political phenomenon with no relevance to science.

[Sorry for the length!]

"... the possibility of creating copper or its economic equivalent from other materials ..."

frankis - that's a good clarification, but to me it does not save Simon's fallacy, because he does not show that all "economic resources" are practically infinite.

We can be pretty certain they are not - for one thing it's going to be pretty hard to meaningfully exploit any part of the universe beyond our solar system, and the total number of atoms and total energy within it is certainly bounded; for another IIRC it's going to be quite difficult for future humanity to cover the entire universe. Partridge's critique (of both Simon and Sagoff) quotes Simon showing he does not understand this constraint:

"Even the total weight of the earth is not a theoretical limit to the amount of copper that might be available to earthlings in the future. Only the total weight of the universe..." (Simon, 1980a, 1435).

But maybe that's all too speculative. It's not controversial that the set of underlying resources that Simon might suggest can be exploited at any given point in the future is finite, nor that you can't generally use all of a given portion of those resources to substitute for more than one thing at a time. Therefore the total set of (substituted) economic resources that can be used at one time is bounded, and with more effort one can argue that the total set of economic resources consumed across all time must be bounded as well. I suspect Daly gets it roughly right when he says:

Simon has argued from the premise of an "infinite" substitutability among different elements within a (finite) set to the conclusion of the infinity of the set itself.

Daly also has some severe criticism on Simon's different metrics for measuring mineral vs timber resources, and his use of life expectancy as a proxy for a readily measurable variable - pollution levels. Simon uses price to measure scarcity of metals. This is an odd choice given that it's a measure of current demand rather than scarcity (and as Partridge points out in his section "The Pricing Argument" the discount rate and externalisation of various costs and governmental gifts to corporations have depressed resource prices - which doesn't mean they are more abundant; merely that prices are not an accurate measure). Simon chooses price as a proxy for scarcity because it gives him a decreasing scarcity trend - in contrast to measuring actual production yields. But for timber where prices went up, he switches to measuring production yields, which gives him the lower scarcity he wants. This appears arbitrary and inconsistent - indeed, switch the choices of metrics around and you "prove" the complete opposite of his thesis - and casts severe doubt on the robustness of his claims. (Nor does it help that he made claims about various environmental dangers being "definitely disproven" that ... weren't.)

I'll leave the constraints to growth that would be necessary to make Simon's famous quote practical as an exercise to the reader:

"We now have in our handsâreally, in our librariesâthe technology to feed, clothe, and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next seven billion years."

Hint - annual growth rates have to become (and stay) really tiny positive fractions fairly quickly (in comparison with that sort of time scale), otherwise you end up with (say) more humans than square feet of land area on the Earth, followed by more human mass than the Earth, and so on.

But perhaps the most serious charge of both Daly and Partridge is that Simon seems not to understand or deal with the problem of entropy - which indicates that his "infinite" substitutability is based on cooking the books of the (human-reachable part of) the universe.

I couldn't remember where Partridge was when I posted earlier. Take a quick look early on at the Simon quotes he provides about species loss, population density impacts and climate change (and even alchemy) which he later shows to be severely, perhaps even wilfully misguided - and seem to spring from his core thesis that the only resource limitation that matters is the amount of human brain power at any given point in time. And definitely read the latter part for a far more in-depth critique than Daly. Partridge takes on Simon's misunderstanding of the concept of infinite, his severely flawed lack of account for ecological and "biological services", his apparent complete ignorance of entropy constraints, his selectivity in data, and a number of other fairly fundamental internal contradictions in his apparent worldview.

To me Simon's work is deeply flawed, and my original assessment of him remains. In essence he is a proto-denialist. As Partridge says "...if there were no Julian Simon he would have to be invented", because his contribution was to provide the business exploitation porn that told many CEOs, businesses (and libertarians) exactly what they wanted to hear, even if the foundations of his argument were set in quicksand.

I do wonder if he were alive today whether he would disassociate himself from climate change denialism, but it would be a tricky maneuver given that it seems to be a fairly natural outcome of his worldview.

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Frankis, thanks for your thoughtful reply. To be honest, I spent more time involved in countering the anti-environmental propogandists a few years ago. These days I am concentrating on my science, with the small exception of making contributions to Deltoid. Facing off with the antis was mentally and physically exhausting, and made me a real enemy of the many who adhere to a far-right ideology.

In my view, Lomborg is only a symptom of a greater malaise, one which appeals to those anxious to maintain the status quo. His books, as I said above, are aimed at a general audience who know little about the environment but who desperately want to believe that they can have their cake and eat it. There is nothing worse than the guilt of knowing that we are part of a society and a generation that is sending our planetary life-support systems to hell. Its depressing, even if it is mostly true. Anyone who comes out of academia and claims to have accrued evidence saying that it isn't so is likely to do very well. Lomborg inc. is a well-packaged and presented product as I see it: a sympathetic character who seems to have 'seen the light'. It does not matter that Lomborg's world is an illusion. People see mirages in the desert and want to believe that they really exist.

To be honest, I wish Lomborg's views were correct, but I think that there are huge volumes of empirical evidence that show him to be wrong in virtually every field. Certainly in the chapters of his book that are closer to home, he is way out of sync with the truth, as hard as that is to elucidate. I also think that Lomborg can perpetually draw false dichotomies as long as he gets away with it. In virtually every interview or talk he gives he wheels out the same "if only we had enough money to spend" drivel, although he must be fully aware that the poor are never going to be a priority when their interests conflict with power and priviledge. A small fraction of the money the US and UK spend killing people in their expansionist wars would go a long way to dealing with the social, political and environmental injustices Lomborg spends a lot of time discussing. The money is there, or could be. The fact is, if one looks at the recent historical record, as I have done, there has never been any interest on the part of western elites to deal with the question of grinding poverty. On the contrary, the current free market absolutism and nakedly predatory capitalism running rampant across much of the globe is driving even greater divisions between the have's and have not's.

Thus, in my opinion, the solutions in dealing with the growing environmental problems are political, and not scientific. So long as half of the world is condemned to living in perpetual poverty, we cannot expect solutions to a suite of growing environment problems.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Why do people still use the term "denier" its a construct of the media to paint people in a bad light and it's use just illustrates your drone mentality. It is essentially name calling.

Nope, it is a proper label of some of the posters on here and writers for newspapers and infamous twerps like Monckton. Denialists deny the science, simple as that.

Why do people still use the term "denier"...

I use it when the people I am talking about when I use it appear to be clearly denying facts and logic - like Julian Simon making claims that were easily demonstrated to be false.

It is essentially name calling.

No, when the description fits it is describing behaviour. What synonym would you have used in its place? "Skeptic" is not a synonym; a skeptic processes all reasonably plausible data and logic that is made available to them and is prepared to change their mind if the data support that change.

Or would you have me pretend someone isn't denying known evidence just because they claim their feelings are all hurt about it? That would just be tone trolling, and I'm fairly sure you wouldn't subscribe to that... ;-)

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

I can see a few more titles on the way:

'The Lomborg Experiment'
'The Lomborg Postulate'
'The Lomborg Paradigm'
'The Lomborg Paradox'
'The Lomborg Deviation'
'The Lomborg Decay'
'The Lomborg Duality'
'The Lomborg Conjecture'
'The Lomborg Indeterminacy'
'The Lomborg Factor'
'The Lomborg Psychic Vortex'

Any similarity to the Big Bang Theory series titles is purely coincidental.

"Denialists deny the science, simple as that."

Actually, it's only that simple if you have a simple mind.

The reality is, if you question anything regarding AGW and the uncertainties surrounding it and it's predicted outcomes, you're a denier.

Furthermore, just by stating the fact that anyone who questions the uncertainties of AGW will be labeled a denier, you automatically become a double secret denier.

In addition, if you write a sentence like the one above, you're a denying strawman denier who doesn't know the difference between weather and climate and doesn't understand time lags and the complexities of natural systems.

Now, keep in mind, if you are from a rich nation and use air conditioning units and/or you are Catholic or a Republican, then you're not only the problem, you're also a denier who thinks Al Gore is fat and you watch Fox news.

Finally, even if you're not Republican or Catholic, if you write a statement like the one above, you will be considered one, and therefore, you're a denier.

Betula, the fact is that there are a great many people who do indeed deny rational analysis of the evidence. Certainly the blogosphere is full of these people. So I think it fair to apply the label "deniers" to the group as a whole. Most of the people I have interacted with who deny the basic AGW hypothesis are, I have learned, deniers. And you are in no position to object to the term, given that you use the term "alarmists".

anyone who questions the uncertainties of AGW will be labeled a denier

No, I have read a great many discussions among real scientists (most notably at Real Climate) concerning the various uncertainties. There are lots of details that have uncertainties in them. But the big picture is really quite clear: human emissions of CO2 will lead to substantial changes in climate over the next century, and these changes will be extremely expensive to address.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink

Why do people still use the term "denier"...

David Brin on how to distinguish skeptics from deniers.

He implicitly conflates weather with climate, but other than that (which is largely peripheral to his argument) he makes some great points in strong fashion - which suggests very good reasons to use the term "denier" instead of "skeptic" where the term fits.

Maybe we need to create the Brin's Attributes of Denialism bingo card? ;-)

By Lotharsson (not verified) on 24 Feb 2010 #permalink


Still stuck in your deceptive zone I see, and still not making any sense....pity.

Here's one you can relate to:

AGW is the same as GW in the same sense that rats are mammals, but not all mammals are Jakerman.

There have been a number of posts objecting to my statement that an author should read everything he cites. Let me begin my reply by stating that I approach this topic as an outsider: I am not a scholar nor a scientist. I develop software.

As a software developer who has to "read" every line of code for my applications to compile, I'm biased in that direction. But, like scholars who may only read the abstracts, I often only "read the abstracts" as well when I use a library of code from another development team. In those cases, I simply do not have the ability to "read" everything because it is unreadable compiled code under the developer's lock and key. In that case, the other development team has provided me a black box and promise for what I am using.

I see this as analogous to just reading the abstract. But the difference in the scholarly community is that there is no black box. Now, there may not be enough time to read everything, and there has been some condemnation of the system which puts pressure to produce literature. I suspect is at least partially to blame for encroaching sloppiness in scholarly research. A good solution would be for citations to be segregated between the "black box" (have not read in full) and open book (fully read), but, as I am unfamilar with the details of the scholarship (and the devil is always in the details) I don't know how that would be implemented.


You made some good points. But speaking as a scientist, I can tell you that reading journal articles page-to-page is not as easy as it may sound. I do read a heck of a lot; given that i have worked in my field for the past 19 years, I know the empirical literature quite well. Like Bernard, I also enjoy reading literature outside my direct field of research - for instance, I enjoy perusing thwe literature on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, landscape ecology etc. With respect to my own work, I think that I can say that I have a very good understanding of the papers I cite, even if I have not gone through them word by word. I make sure that I know what the authors are studying in some detail, or, it is a review, if my field is well covered by the review material.

In my view sloppiness creeps into one's work not just on the basis of improper citations, but on the basis of misinterpreting their own data or not being able to place it in a broader context in comparison with exisiting studies. In fact, an accurate definition of sloppiness would encapsulate many areas of research that go well beyond improper citing. I do not think that your criteria would also work: who is going to cite a paper with the addendum "black box" and "open book"? When does a black box become and open book? What is the threshold?

In my opinion the problem with the anti-environmentalist writers is that many are mis-citing papers to bolster a pre-determined worldview, hence they are being selective in what they cite and how they interpret their citations. Second, many of those writing books on the environment, like Lomborg, have no expertise whatsoever in the fields about which they write. It may take a scientist many years - perhaps decades - to master his or her field of research. By then they probably have the experience to scan through the literature in their own field and to get a good idea of what the authors are saying. Also, expertise is cumulative. I cite many papers that I read at different times over the past two decades; many are still relevant in my studies. It is much easier to make egregious errors when starting in a new field from scratch. That is partly what made me so wary of Lomborg. A guy with no pedigree in any of the fields he covers in TSE writes the book in 15 months and has done a comprehensive overview of the literature in each of these fields in that time? I do not believe it. Had Lomborg spent a lengthy career in any of the said fields and then had written a book on one of the areas, I would be more inclined to take it seriously. But to write this in just 15 months, and to draw conclusions different from just about every expert in each field of endeavor was stretching credibility beyond the limits of reason. At least that is my take on it.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

The reality is, if you question anything regarding AGW and the uncertainties surrounding it and it's predicted outcomes, you're a denier.

@Betula: Your definition is insufficient. To be a denier, you must not only question some part of AGW theory, you must also be unwilling to change your mind as new data arrives. How do we know if you're unwilling? Well, that's a subjective assessment based on the history of your writing.

I might question all sorts of things about AGW theory and projections. It doesn't make me a denier. It probably does make me a skeptic - but I'm talking about the true definition of the term "skeptic."

Not reading the entirety of a given source is conceptually the same thing as not reading every source that's out there. Given that there's more information than a scientist can reasonably read and digest, she has to make judgments about what's important and what's redundant or irrelevant. It's the same within a source as between multiple sources.

That said, if a study means something very different than what you say it means, then you've committed an inexcusable screw-up.

Dennis, I don't think you should use software development as a guideline. I think if you step back and look at most software development practices they're designed, more or less specifically, so you can be productive without having to read everyone else's code. If you're using software development as a guide then scientists should never read anything but the conclusions section of a paper.

Joseph states....

"I might question all sorts of things about AGW theory and projections. It doesn't make me a denier."

Joseph, it depends on what you question. Do you question the reliability of information? the accuracy? the inconsistencies? the hypocrisies? politics? biases? the funding? the ideology? the arrogance? the exaggerations? the one sided outcomes? the speculations? the hypotheticals? the group think? the scare tactics? the assumptions? the peace prize? the unknown? the Jakerman's?

Be careful, you could be a denier just for denying you're a denier.

Jeff Harvey,

What you write (particularly regarding Lomborg's style) is very accurate. I your question "What is the threshold?" is the same one I ask in my response to PS below. I wish there were a clear, easy answer.

I didn't mean to use software development as a guideline. As I said, it's my bias and it's little more than an analogy. There are certain parts that I know and am responsible for knowing thoroughly, but there are other parts that I am only "using" and someone else is responsible for knowing thoroughly. I guess my worry is that, in scholarly research, at what point is the author able to say someone else is responsible for knowing it thoroughly? Does a scientist only need to understand the abstract?

@Betula: I only question what I consider I have grounds to question. For example, can "warming in the pipeline" really be 0.6C given the temperature lag relative to CO2? Can you linearly add the non-linear effects of multiple greenhouse gases? Isn't the IPCC seriously underestimating the problem of sea level rise?

As I look at the data in more detail, and learn more, my stance could easily change.

I don't preoccupy myself with stuff like alleged "hypocricy" and nonsense conspiracies about research funding, control of your taxes, and so forth.

Jospeh@67 said:

I might question all sorts of things about AGW theory and projections. It doesn't make me a denier. It probably does make me a skeptic

No it doesn't make you a skeptic in this context.

To be a skeptic you must first show evidence of grasping the corpus of knowledge you claim to be skeptical of, and present a coherent critique of that corpus.

By Fran Barlow (not verified) on 25 Feb 2010 #permalink

To be a skeptic you must first show evidence of grasping the corpus of knowledge you claim to be skeptical of, and present a coherent critique of that corpus.


A few points on reading what you cite.

If you are just making a general claim like subject X is widely studied, vacuuming up a few well known papers without checking what they say is OK. If you are relying on a result, you really should be clear on how it is derived. There may for example be a methodological issue that limits its applicability. If it's in a field you know really well, you may be able to get away with skimming a paper to be sure you get it â and in any case, active scientists read the literature in their area, they don't go around looking for references they've never seen before to cite after they've decided to write a paper; they check the literature for anything new, but have the main references already.

The abstract is, well, too abstract to serve this sort of purpose. You can only really glean the main points and anyone citing a paper only having read the abstract for anything other than very general background is sloppy to say the least.

Going now to a total novice, and recall that Lomborg has no science qualification, his degrees are in political science (same last name but a distant relative, though some people mistakenly call him a statistician because he once taught stats to political science students) and he has never published in a scientific journal, for him to be citing hundreds or thousands of papers there's no way he could have read properly is a sure indicator that his books are almost certainly gibberish.

In the true spirit of science, having made that prediction, the next step is to verify it, which has been [more than amply done](

Jeff Harvey,

IIRC the only letter published by Nature after your review of Lomborg stated how irrelevant it was.

By Dave Andrews (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

RE citing papers from reading their abstracts (probably O/T)
In my line of work (medical/biomedical) this is not acceptable. If you cite it, you need to have read it. Abstracts just don't have enough information.
There is a widely cited paper showing certain behaviour of intervertebral disks (between the bones of the spine).
Unfortunately, the abstract doesn't mention that the results are not in humans, but sheep, who of course have very different spines.
We use this reference as a sort of litmus test. Does the paper use it as human data? If so, be very suspicious about what else they might have wrong...

By Robert Day (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

Dave Andrews,

Yes, a letter by Steve Budiansky, a know-nothing contrarian whose nonsense is dismantled by Paul Ehrlich in "Betrayal of Science and Reason". Besides Andrews: what the hell do you know about ANYTHING?

Your only function here, as I said before, is to make meaningless contrarian quips. If you want to debate me about the content in TSE, go right ahead, give it your best shot. Let me put it this way: I am not quaking in my boots at your voluminous knowledge. Nor am I in awe of Budiansky, who like Lomborg has absolutely no pedigree in any of the fields covered superficially by Lomborg in his opus.

By Jeff Harvey (not verified) on 28 Feb 2010 #permalink

Jeff Harvey,

Quite obviously I do know something, but it seems to me you have a problem. You obviously do not like people who disagree with you. You may even be jealous of the success that Lomborg has had, perhaps feeling that your own efforts should have got more recognition.

By Dave Andrews (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

I seriously doubt that Jeff Harvey is in any way jealous of someone who's gained his "success" from scientific half-arsed nonsense carefully-constructed to fool the ignorant.

Most of the rest of us actually take pride in the accuracy and social reponsibility of our work.

By Vince Whirlwind (not verified) on 04 Mar 2010 #permalink

Vince Whirlwind,

"Most of the rest of us actually take pride in the accuracy and social reponsibility of our work."


Would this were true of certain climate scientists also, howecer.

By Dave Andrews (not verified) on 05 Mar 2010 #permalink