A Disgrace to American Science

By Philip Stott 03/11/2002

The January 'issue' of the Scientific American was surely nothing less than a disgrace to American science. The now notorious attack on the young Danish statistician, Dr. Bjørn Lomborg, and his important book, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (Cambridge University Press), not only offended against the principle of open, vigorous debate in science but, more importantly, also flouted the normal rules of natural justice. I have very rarely been so angry over the blatant mistreatment of a colleague.

It will thus come as no surprise to many Americans to learn that, in the United Kingdom, the Scientific American is itself currently under ridicule in journal after journal, from the prestigious Economist to The Spectator magazine. The former concluded that "science needs no defending from Mr. Lomborg" but that "it may very well need defending from champions" such as the Scientific American critics. Writing in The Spectator, the eminent author of Genome, Matt Ridley, one of the best ever popularizers of science, concluded that "…the Scientific American articles are devastating not to Lomborg, but to his critics. Again and again, before insulting him, the critics concede, through gritted teeth, that he has got his facts right."

Speaking as an Editor

My own anger, however, stems from another cause. I have myself been involved in the editing of scientific journals for over fifteen years, and I could never conceive of treating an author in the manner that the Scientific American has dealt with Dr. Lomborg. If all that I hear is true, his treatment breaches every good practice I hold dear.

First, it is alleged that the magazine refused Dr. Lomborg the right of reply in the same issue. As an editor, I would have sought this as a matter course and to promote reader interest. Surely readers have a right to make up their own minds with a full airing of the arguments involved?

Secondly, it is alleged that the magazine initially refused to post his immediate response on its Website, and then even threatened him with infringement of copyright if he tried to reproduce their articles, with his responses, on his own Website. If so, this is not science, but pure bullying. I have never heard the like.

Thirdly, not only did the magazine run an editorial criticizing Dr. Lomborg, it gave space to four known environmentalists to write separate articles attacking him with no balancing articles whatsoever from senior scientists who are likely to support Dr. Lomborg's critique. Again, I have never heard the like. In a so-called scientific journal, such a course of action beggars belief. I would always give my worst enemy the right of reply.

My Own Request, But Still No Reply

So incensed was I by such an approach that I quickly e-mailed the editors of the Scientific American with the following, all-too reasonable demand: "I am, therefore, formally requesting the right of providing a balancing reply equal in length to at least one of the four articles critical of the book."

I waited one week, but received no reply. I then sent a second e-mail, as follows:

"I confess now to being dismayed on a second count. I am also editor of a major international journal and I strive to reply to e-mails within three days of receipt, especially when they are critical of my journal. I am therefore most unhappy not to have received a reply to my own e-mail and important request to the Scientific American sent on the 13th January."

"I accordingly repeat the e-mail and request below. I cannot stress enough the widespread concern about the unfair treatment of Dr. Bjørn Lomborg in your journal. I trust you are, at least, allowing Dr. Lomborg a full right of reply, both in your journal and on your Website. Anything less would be outrageous."

To date (10th March), I have still received no reply.

Justice Will Out

In my entire career, I can never remember having been treated with such discourtesy. Yet, my tiny part in this sorry saga is utterly insignificant when compared with what has happened to Dr. Lomborg himself. Moreover, to date, I have always been critical of my own scepticism about some of the more extreme views of environmentalists; no longer. The Scientific American has revealed these for what they really are.

This has been a dark episode for cautious environmental science, and for American science in general, which has normally been such a beacon to the world.

Yet, it seems that God is just, for Dr. Lomborg is about to have the last laugh after all. Apparently completely unswayed by the Scientific American and its machinations, the Danish Minister of the Environment, Hans Christian Schmidt, has just appointed Bjørn Lomborg to be head of the new National Environment Evaluation Institute. All power to his elbow.

And, on this site, you have, of course, the right of reply (see below).

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000).


Date: 03/20/2002

Name: Jeff Harvey
Email: harvey@cto.nioo.knaw.nl

Subject: Re: Lomborg

Message: I would like to comment on the latest in a depressingly long line of anti-environmental nonsense promulgated by Philip Stott "A Disgrace to American Science". By association, I must be one of the "environmentalists" Stott refers to in his piece, since I have been one of Bjorn Lomborg's most vocal critics and co-authored reviews of "The Skeptical Environmentalist" [TSE] (with Stuart Pimm) in both Nature and with other senior scientists for the Union of Concerned Scientists. I also co-authored a piece in the journal Oikos (November, 2001, also with Stuart Pimm) in which we debunked some of the purely-anti scientific rhetoric Stott promotes over his childish web site, "Anti-Ecohype". Like most contrarians including Bjorn Lomborg), Stott is long on words and short on data. He hasn't published anything in the various fields in which he professes expertise (e.g. climate change or tropical ecology), and the only reason I can imagine that he is sought out for his views by generally right wing sources like Tech Central Station or the Wall Street Journal is because they find comfort in corporate boardrooms and those who want to bolster a pre-determined worldview to maintain the status quo. It certainly isn't based on his scientific credentials, which, like Lomborg's, are wafer thin, nor on the 'science' he promotes, which is virtually non-existent. The truth is that Stott's views are completely out of line with the scientific consensus on most issues.

Yet in this editorial Stott attacks the motives of Scientific American for their critical essays of TSE, and the integrity of some of the most esteemed scientists in the world to make a point. Why not say that Tom Lovejoy, as an example, is one of the world's pre-eminent authorities on tropical ecology, with several books and over 300 peer-reviewed papers to his name on the subject? Why not point out that one of his current affiliations is as biodiversity adviser to the World Bank, hardly a temple of "green extremism"? Like most hypocritical contrarians, Stott tries to take the moral high ground, claiming that, as editor of the Journal of Biogeography, he would never allow the journal to publish a scathing critique of an author's work without allowing the author space to respond. However, why does Stott fail to defend the reputations of Paul Ehrlich, Edward O. Wilson, and David Pimentel, three of the most esteemed ecologists in the world yet who are at the end of ad hominem attacks from Mr. Lomborg in TSE? Some of these attacks border on the ludicrous – as when Lomborg claims, citing a third party source of information (an article written by two known contrarians, Charles Mann & Mark Plummer) that "Ehrlich and Wilson are ambitious supporters of an ambitious plan, the Wildlands Project, to move the entire population of the US so as to recreate a natural wilderness in most of the North American continent". Yet neither scientist supports such a plan because it does not exist. The co-founder and former head of the Wildlands Project, Michael Soule, was incensed over the article because he was never contacted for his views; essentially, the claim was made up by Mann and Plummer, who support the objectives of Wise Use and other anti-environmental movements.

I don't have the space here to write a detailed critique of TSE, but it is filled with distortions, misunderstandings, and omits stacks of "inconvenient" data which do not support Lomborg's narrow views. The bottom line is this: TSE was quickly whisked through the social sciences department of Cambridge University Press, such that the environmental sciences division were not even aware of its existence until the last minute. Thus, the book was clearly never reviewed by qualified environmental scientists, and it is obvious that it would never have seen the light of day in its present form if it had been properly reviewed by experts in the relevant fields. So why doesn't Stott, as editor of a scientific journal, defend the peer-review process in his editorial? Does he send new papers submitted to Journal of Biogeography out to experts for review or publish them without peer-review? Moreover, where is his defense of the senior scientists who are trashed by Lomborg is TSE? The fact is that Stott is as ideologically motivated as Lomborg: as soon as the arguments do not suit his own agenda, he expresses rage and frustration.

Lastly, I find it amusing that Lomborg's most vocal defenders have been who I refer to as "The Usual Suspects" – a small coterie of known anti-environmental writers and scientists. Since there are so few of them, they tend to crop up over and over again in media circles. Scientists such as Philip Stott, Matt Ridley, Pat Michaels, and David Wojick, and journalists such as Stephen Budiansky and Ronald Bailey have been promoting this right wing trash for years, so their views are hardly original. One thing that many of them have in common is links with conservative groups and right-wing think tanks. Some of Stott's and Ridley's material have been published through the far-right Institute of Economic Affairs in London, Wojick and Michaels are with the Greening Earth Society, funded in part by the Western Fuels Association, and Bailey is an adjunct scholar with the corporate-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute. Armed with this knowledge, I would advise Tech Central Station to recruit some new faces to promote the same old story, as Stott and his ilk lost any credibility years ago. In fact, it is Stott who is a disgrace to British science.

Jeff Harvey,
Senior Scientist,
The Netherlands

Date: March, 20, 2002

Name: Philip Stott
Email: stott2@compuserve.com

Subject: Re: Re: Lomborg

Message: Dear Jeff,

Thanks for your posting. I am sorry, though, that you had to make it so ad personam, something which I strive to avoid. When writing this piece, you were not in my mind at all, I fear, and I was not making any comment about any specific person. I was talking about a process of publication with which I passionately disagree. I thought this was abundantly clear.

The great tragedy of the current debate is the inability of many 'environmentalists' to understand that people may arrive at a completely different position from their own for entirely honest reasons. I hope that is my position.

I am a totally independent academic, and, by the way, I vote Labour. Please get your facts right about me.

I also recently listened to Dr. Lomborg lecture - he was outstanding in his care and attention to the data.

I am happy to respect your position - but I don't agree with it. And I will continue to argue vigorously for what I believe to be true. I may not be the greatest scientist in the world (I would never claim such a thing), but I do my best - that's all one can do.

Thanks again for exercising your right of reply - I am sure Dr. Lomborg would appreciate the irony.

Date: March, 21, 2002

Name: Johan Bakker
Email: johan.bakker@unisys.com

Subject: Re: Re: Lomborg

Message: I find it deeply troubling that Jeff Harvey's response to this issue is nothing more than a long litany of the credentials of those who disagree with Professor Lomborg's book and its conclusions, together with a rather wearisome train of ad-hominem insults. One had expected better of a scientist of his standing.

The point, Dr Harvey, was well-made around the watercooler at my place of work the other day, where someone observed that, even if Professor Lomborg is dead wrong, and provably so, the treatment he has received, from Scientific American and from others such as yourself by your response, is nothing short of shameful.

There is no crime in being wrong, or in being wrong loudly and publicly. The proper response is to point out the error, and to refute it with data - not to question the motives, politics or funding of the person with whom you disagree. But it appears that Professor Lomborg's crime here is to disagree with a certain prevailing orthodoxy, and to buttress his disagreement with data. For this heinous crime, he is apparently to be pilloried by a succession of supporters of that orthodoxy, most of whom, as Professor Stott has pointed out, have to agree, "through gritted teeth", that his data is substantially correct. Professor Lomborg has already disposed of your charge of inaccuracy regarding Paul Ehrlich et al, and supported his position with referenced data. Pardon me if I place more trust in his data than in your unsupported assertions.

Science runs on rules. If you choose to go outside those rules to try and dispose of a person whose questions and data trouble and discomfort your settled opinions, may I refer you to the advice on "man's laws" expressed by Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons".

Have a fine day.

Johan Bakker
Brighton, MI, USA

Date: March, 25, 2002

Name: Jeff Harvey
Email: harvey@cto.nioo.knaw.nl

Subject: Re: Lomborg

Message: Dear Mr. Bakker,

I would like to reply to comments you made in response to my harsh criticism levied at Philip Stott for his, in my view, unprofessional piece "A disgrace to American Science" on Tech Central Station. Most importantly, I would like you and your colleagues to mull over some of these points over your next "water cooler" discussion.

First, the criticisms levied at Bjorn Lomborg and his polemic, TSE, have been predominantly scientific, and not personal, as Stott and other contrarians claim. If you were to read a series of critiques published by the Union Of Concerned Scientist (inlcuding one in which I am co-author) and Grist Magazine, in addition to another in American Scientist (by Daniel Simberloff), you would clearly see that Lomborg's 2,000 citations (many from unreliable thrid party sources) and 2,900 footnotes does not necessarily constitute balanced scholarship. Peter Gleick's review alone fatally undermines many of Lomborg's arguments, but since my area of scientific specialization is ecology, let me highlight some of the more egregious distortions in Lomborg's chapter on biodiversity.

The chapter is so badly researched and written that I would fail one of my undergraduate students were they to submit a report of this calibre. Lomborg even goes so far as to admit that he bases the chapter on a similar chapter by Julian Simon and Aaron Wildavsky in "Ultimate Resource 2" which itself is full of distortions and errors. You'd think that he would have steered well away from anything Simon was connected with, at least to give some faint impression of "independence". Both chapters ignore piles of inconvenient data to make their point - in each of the discussions on avian extinctions in North America, Puerto Rico and coastal Brazil, Lomborg not only cited old, discredited studies but failed to cite any more recent papers (e.g. Pimm and Askins in PNAS, Brooks and Balmford in Nature, and a number of others by experts in the field) which completely undermine the Simon and Wildavsky piece. These papers are not in obscure places - type the key word "extinction" into the ISI Web of Science search engine and they are clearly there. If he was the "hard-headed skeptic" who has "tried to present all the facts" as he claims in TSE, then of course these up-to-date studies would have been incorporated, at least to strike a balance. In fact, many of his Danish colleagues borught up the same examples after the original Danish edition was publsiehd in 1998, but Lomborg has ignored the lot. How many more examples to do you want to read of his gaffes? I could write a book (and I am tempted to do so) just to counter all of the selective examples where Lomborg ignores inconvenient data. Thus, it seems to me as if he has an agenda, in spite of the spin that has been endlessly promoted in news releases of his green background, transformation etc. I don't buy this creation myth, but the media has big time, because it makes great copy.

You also claim that scientists such as myself are allegedly losing the argument when we resort to the kind of language used in the series of essays in Scientific American, and to cite sources of revenue. First of all, I think that sources of revenue are a valid concern in science as they are in other professions. If I hire a lawyer, and accountant, or a plumber, they are working for me. Yet why should the situation be any different in science? Many fossil fuel, automobile and energy corporations stand to lose a considerable amount of profit if regulations limiting fossil fuel emissions are mandated into law, and consequently they have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to debunk the science they hate. Their generous financial support to a handful of climate skeptics is an important tool in their desire to maintain the status quo. Do you honestly think they are going to invest in scientists who will turn and stab them in the back? These scientists are, are Ross Gelbspan correctly observed, "interchangeable ornaments on the hood of a high powered engine of disinformation". Most importantly, if I wanted to retain credibility I would distance myself as far as possible from the charge that my opinions might be compromised by my sources of income. Wouldn't climate skeptics like Richard Lindzen, Robert Balling, Patrick Michaels, Sallie Baliunas and Fred Singer be smarter if they distanced themselves from industry funding? This would at least make them somewhat beyond reproach, but they are all at the front of the corporate funding queue, and it doesn't take much common sense to realize that they are speaking on behalf of their "clients". Most of them have had to admit before congressional testimony that they have received huge stipends from industries that benefit directly from reduced regulations on carbon emissions. When a memo from Joe Walker of the American Petroleum Institute leaked to the press in 1996 saying that industry had to "recruit independent scientists" to cast doubt over climate change, what he was effectively saying was that industry had to pay off scientists to espouse the corporate view, irrespective of the mounting scientific evidence for climate change.

Besides, science is not on the side of these climate skeptics. Tell me how many papers the likes of Baliunas, Balling, Singer, Michaels and Lindzen have published in peer-reviewed journals on the subject and you'll barely get a trickle. The first three scientists don't even do any research in this area; instead, they write columns and editorials for right wing newspapers, think tanks and web sites like Tech Central Station and thus seem to profit from their "defiance". Lindzen and Michaels are, at least, doing some research, but their views are separated from the scientific mainstream by an enormous chasm. In explaining this gulf, I feel that their corporate connections are indeed an issue.

With respect to Lomborg, he spends much of his book levying ad hominem attacks at esteemed scientists who just don't happen to agree with him. Then, without a shred of evidence, he claims that scientists such as myself must scare the public over the seriousness of environmental problems because, as he puts it, "there are many grants are at stake" (TSE, pg 254.). This is certainly a weaker thread than I have used with scientists we know are bought-and-paid-for by industry. However, why didn't Stott lower the boom on Lomborg for making such an outrageous charge without any evidence to back it up? Lomborg needed to grasp any straw to explain why his arguments run counter to the scientific consensus in virtually every field, and the "scare the public to secure funding" straw man was the best excuse that he could come up with.

Lastly, I find it amusing when contrarians smear scientists and environmentalists with the charge that we are levelling our criticisms in an unprofessional manner, failing to attack the arguments but instead making political hay at the expense of the messenger. Try reading the anti-environmental book, "Rational Readings on Environmental Concerns", published about 10 years ago, which, like Lomborg's polemic downplays human threats to the planet's ecological systems. The book is authored by a veritable "who's who" in contrarian science. Yet, in this allegedly "rational" book, environmentalists are labeled as "extremists', 'apocalyptics', 'alarmists', 'zealosts', 'emotional extremists', 'ignorant', 'chemophobes', 'insincere-environmentalists-for-a-weaker-America', 'fundamentally elitist', 'professional scaremongers', 'potential mass murderers', who are 'assaulting reason', full of 'environmetal paranoia', 'nihilism', and who are fighting an 'ideological battle against economic growth'. Check out most other contrarian books and the same language pervades them. You'll even find similar veiled language in Lomborg's book, which as I said before is a one-sided and factually deformed tract. While defensively proclaiming himself to be a liberal and an environmentalist, Lomborg has provided PR greenwashers with their best manifesto to date. It is for these reasons that scientists such as myself will continue to counter the damage Lomborg has done to poison the well of public information.

Yours sincerely,

Jeff Harvey

Date: May 8, 2002

Name: Eduardo Ferreyra
Email: shuara@fullzero.com.ar

Subject: Re: Lomborg

Message: Dr. Jeff Harvey's arguments could seem quite convincing to laymen and unaware scientists, if he were not a contributor to the "Union of Concerned Scientists" (UCS), the reknown doomsaying organization. The UCS is supposedly supported by a large number of scientists and has had a powerful impact on public opinion. But what the public, and apparently most of the press, does not know is that the UCS represents neither science nor most scientists. A research we conducted back in 1984, found that the UCS claim to have some 100,000 members (or sponsors, as they call them). These sponsors are common people who have read the UCS mail solicitations and contribute an average of $17 each. How do they recruit this people? "We trade mailing lists, just like everybody else," said Howard Ris, UCS deputy director. How many of these are scientists? The UCS does not know (and don't care as long they get their money), and they refused to cooperate when two scientists (Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, from Smith College and Washington University), asked them to poll UCS sponsors to determine their scientific background.

Although five of the UCS nine members of the board of directors were scientists, the directors have little to do with the day-to-day operations and nuclear energy issues (the main field of work of UCS). These are left to the energy staff, which consists of two lawyers, to non scientists researchers, a policy analyst, two scientists, and a Navy trained nuclear engineer, by the the name of Robert Pollard, a former project manager for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Perhaps the most important criticism of the UCS comes from a scientist who have served as an adviser to the group. Nobel laureate Hans Bethe, a nuclear physicist at Cornell said, "I agree with everything they say about nuclear weapons, but disagree with everything they say about nuclear power." Bethe thinks the UCS is exploiting fears of nuclear power (and other issues) and distorting facts to support its cause. What people is unaware is that UCS is heavyly funded by oil and other powerfull corporations and, as the "brownlash" skeptical organizations do, engage scientists to push their anti-progress, anti-human policiy.

The behaviour of (Anti-)Scientific American in Lomborg's case resembles the Soviet regime of the twenties and thirties, as stated by late french volcanologist Dr. Haroum Tazieff when commenting on the scandal the Chemistry Nobel prize given to F. Sherwood Rowland et al., in 1985 for their "merits" on the ozone hole fraud: "I do not hesitate to compare this big brainwashing enterprise and deliberate lying to that of the Comintern between 1920 and 1935, which induced tens of millions of left intelectuals to transform themselves into as many militants willfully made stupid".

Dr. Harvey's opinions on Lomborg are just that. Personal opinions. People with the scientific knowledge enough to compare facts and scientific studies are able to arrive at different conclusions than Dr. Harvey's. We at the "Argentine Foundation for a Scientific Ecology" have being doing just that, and that's why our website is called "Ecology: Myths and Frauds". For English speaking people its address is http://mitosyfraudes.8k.com/ENGLISH.html . We receive no funding from any industry or private business, nor shall we accept donations or contributions of any kind --except in the form of articles for publishing, after careful comparison with scientific facts.

Eduardo Ferreyra
Fundación Argentina de Ecología Científica

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