At a recent conference, a scientist made a comment about how we need to understand trade-offs in investments, advocating action on climate change but noting that we need to understand opportunity costs. In doing this, he referenced Bjorn Lomborg (with a somewhat condescending tone). In my bag, as he spoke, Howard Friel’s devastating dissection of The Lomborg Deception. Afterwards, I went to bring Friel’s work to his attention and the conversation turn to: who is more dangerous for the planet’s future, George Will or Bjorn Lomborg. He asserted Will, due to the reach of his deceitful columns. I countered Lomborg, because he created a facade of pseudo-environmentalism, fostering confusion among those who we would expect to care deeply about our looming environmental catastrophe. After all, when it comes to Lomborg,
- The Guardian named him “one of the 50 people who could save the planet” in 2008
- Foreign Policy listed him 14th on its list of “the top 100 public intellectuals.”
- Esquire named him as one of the world’s 75 most influential people of the 21st century in 2008
- Foreign Policy and Prospect named him as one of the top 100 public intellectuals
- Time magazine named him as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2004
Multiple TED Talks, interviews on Colbert Nation and on NPR interviews, and, sadly, so on …
Let’s move on to another scientist who is a most brilliant scientist, able to speak from the grandest theories of astrophysics to detailed biology of algae, working near 24/7 to convince people of the climate challenges we face and working to help create a serious Silver BB in the struggle for a sustainable future. This other scientist was in Copenhagen for the climate talks. He bumped into Lomborg there, not knowing anything about him prior to that meeting. This impassioned climate warrior found Lomborg reasonable with important points to consider about the need to think about trade-offs and opportunity costs when investing to mitigate climate change. He had no clue of Lomborg’s serial deception.
In contrast, what knowledgeable person takes George Will’s opinions on climate change seriously?
The brief overview
Bjorn Lomborg could be described as the articulate, charming, smiling Dane fancied by the global warming denial and skeptic crowd. He claims to be a reformed environmentalist, arguing that there is little reason to be so fearful of global warming, and that economics leads to the conclusion that focusing on climate change mitigation (reducing carbon emissions) is a mistaken investment. His two books, The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It were best sellers and, as per above, he has an easy time ‘making the media circuit’.
In essence, Lomborg argues that “environmentalists” are exaggerating the threat of climate change, ignoring the ways in which the environment is getting better, and asserting that we have better ways to spend our resources today than on efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
When pulling back the covers, Lomborg’s work almost always seems to have twists and games that fall into the ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’ category. For example, in an oped attacking UK climate mitigation efforts, Lomborg costs out the carbon reduction benefits of planned wind investments by 2030. He talks, however, solely of carbon reductions by 2030 (even while asserting that he is discussing “cumulative emissions reductions”) not, of course, mentioning that at least half the carbon reduction benefits from those investments would come post 2030.
Lomborg is seriously deceptive …
Even more deceptive than I had realized … and I was already aware that Lomborg (politely) selectively quoted and was creative in citations — having footnotes that led nowhere near the point he claimed they supported. There have been scientific reviews (and rebukes) of Lomborg, fora in multiple arenas highlighting his deceptions, articles, letters, blog posts, and otherwise making clear that Lomborg was a serial deceiver. Friel has taken this to a, sadly necessary, next level with a detailed examination of Lomborg’s footnoting.
One path of Lomborg’s deception is through massive citations. After all, Lombor’gs Skeptical Environmentalist has almost 3000 endnotes. That number, that quantity, is a rather damning point seemingly hammering the last nail in the coffin to prove Lomborg right. With so many citations, he must be right? No? That, of course, is the common assumption. The reader assumes that the author is (at least somewhat) honestly citing work that backs up his comments, that going to those notes will provide the reader additional information — but won’t contradict the point the author makes. And, even more fundamentally, that the footnote will actually lead to something relevant to the sentence (or paragraph) the note is attached to. Well, in case after case after …, this is simply not the case with Lomborg’s citations as Friel lays clear.
Page after page, citation after citation, Friel’s forensic work finds situations where cited material doesn’t seem to exist, the cited documents don’t have material relevant to Lomborg’s point, and — all too frequently — the cited material actually contradicts Lomborg’s point.
Not just deceitful …
Well, not only is Lomborg’s scholarship go beyond shoddy into outright deceitful, Lomborg’s conclusions and assertions are simply wrong.
Many … studies published after Cool It confirm that Lomborg was wrong on virtually every major claim that he made about supposed exaggerated threats of global warming. In Cool It Lomborg argued that the issue of melting glaciers “
Whether it was threats to polar bears, glacier melting, warming in Antarctica, or otherwise — scientific work shows that Lomborg isn’t just deceitful, but is simply wrong.
Friel’s damning conclusion:
the favorable coverage of Lomborg and his books are to global warming what the triple-A ratings for mortgage-backed securities were to the U.S. financial system — misguided seals of approval with catastrophic conclusions. Even worse, financial systems and economies presumably can be reinvented and restored, but the Earth, its climate, and its environment–upon which economic well-being and human civilization ultimately depend–cannot. Lomborg’s success largely reflects an ability of elite publishing houses and news organizations to construct an alternative but counterfeit network of knowledge about an issue of the highest public importance.
Book doesn’t end Friel’s travails …
Not surprisingly, Friel’s work led Lomborg to issue a truthiness-laden (failed) effort to rebut Friel. In his devastating 20-page response, Friel notes several of his own errors but finishes, appropriately, that one-paragraph discussion as follows:
What we’re talking about here are mistakes; however, my book about Lomborg’s scholarship is not about mistakes but rather a persistent pattern of misrepresenting his footnoted sources.
Returning to the opening …
This review opens with mention of George Will and Bjorn Lomborg with a question in the title “Does The Washington Post have any honor left?” In addition to its continued publication of George Will’s dangerously deceitful prose, The Post has published praising reviews of Lomborg’s books and given him prominent placement in Post editorial pages (including above-the-fold, front-page Sunday Outlook opinion section pieces). As with Will, The Post has published follow-up letters to Lomborg that provided at least a hint of the absurdities of what they are publishing yet, repeatedly, they choose to publish them again.
The Post’s editorial board, however, should take on the task of actually reading Friel’s work — perhaps even just looking at the cases where Lomborg’s deceitful practices extend to misrepresenting Washington Post reporting. Pages 38-39, in a discussion of polar bears, is an excellent example. In Cool It, Lomborg cites Juliet Eilperin’s 2004 narticle Study Says Polar Bears Could Face Extinction for the following comment
We are being told that the plight of the polar bears shows “the need for stricter curbs on greenhouse-gas emissions linked to global warming.”
Lomborg then continues with a paragraph that is utterly misleading (and, in several cases, simply false) arguing that polar bears aren’t under threat. Yet, how did Eilperin’s article begin?
Global warming could cause polar bears to go extinct by the end of the century by eroding the sea ice that sustains them, according to the most comprehensive international assessment ever done of Arctic climate change.
The thinning of sea ice — which is projected to shrink by at least half by the end of the century and could disappear altogether, according to some computer models — could determine the fate of many other key Arctic species, said the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the product of four years of work by more than 300 scientists.
This detailed and high-quality (not unusual for Eilperin) article has much substance about why polar bears are threatened, such as:
The sea ice in Hudson Bay, Canada, now breaks up 2 1/2 weeks earlier than it did 30 years ago, said Canadian Wildlife Service research scientist Ian Stirling, and as a result female polar bears there weigh 55 pounds less than they did then. Assuming the current rate of ice shrinkage and accompanying weight loss in the Hudson Bay region, bears there could become so thin by 2012 they may no longer be able to reproduce
This, however, is an article that Lomborg cites (misrepresents) as part of his truthiness-laden falsehoods about the science of Global Warming.
The Washington Post has given over valuable oped space to Lomborg multiple times in the past decade. In each and every case, Lomborg’s glib work has twisted truths and fostered misunderstanding. If The Post’s editorial board has any honor left, it should end that practice. And, to remove some of the stain it brought on itself through giving prominence to the Lomborg deception, The Post should consider commissioning an oped from Howard Friel to bring light to The Washington Post’s readers about The Lomborg Deception.
The larger challenge
Too often, it is easier to be a deceiver trying to confuse people about not just climate change, but other issues, than to remain reality-based, especially in the absence of ‘fact checkers’ or a fact-checking approach that includes actually looking at where endnotes lead. And, once the deception has caught hold, the factual rebuke has a hard time breaking through the ‘meme’ the deceiver(s) created. When it comes to climate change, we see this with the truthiness-laden ‘climate-change is natural’ (of course it is, the question is how much is humanity putting its thumb on the scale to make natural unnatural), the statistical falsehoods related to ‘hasn’t warmed since 1998′, and outright falsehoods misrepresenting cited works. All of these (and other deceptions) are throughout Lomborg’s work and, well, George Will’s as well — and in their Washington Post publications.
Again, however, the problem of a “counterfeit network of knowledge” isn’t limited to climate change and the difficulty, for example, of breaking through the noise to educate people that every serious review of “Climate Gate” is backing up the embattled scientists and not showing some form of criminal conspiracy. For example, ACORN was essentially destroyed through a rapid dissemination and spinning of what has turned out to be false videos. Americans are aware of ClimateGate (and supposed problems with climate science) and supposed ACORN fraud (the falsehoods about giving advice to pimps), not the context and facts that make clear those issues are incredibly overblown — and, in fact, actually manipulated falsehoods to a large extent. Giving prominence to truthful discussions, that set the record straight, should be on the top of the agenda for any media outlet that seeks to hold its head high with any allegiance to journalistic ethics.
For two excellent reviews of The Lomborg Deception, see:
Sharon Begley, Debunking the claims of the climate-change skeptic, Newsweek
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.
Is it worth spending a whole book dissecting the writing of Bjørn Lomborg, the “skeptical environmentalist”? Certainly not in terms of the quality of Lomborg’s argument, which simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. But Lomborg’s writing has been permitted to exercise a widespread and harmful influence. For that reason Howard Friel’s painstaking book The Lomborg Deception: Setting the Record Straight About Global Warming represents time well and usefully spent. …
Friel provides a telling analogy: “…the favourable coverage of Lomborg and his books are to global warming what the triple-A ratings for mortgage-backed securities were to the US financial system – misguided seals of approval with catastrophic consequences.” More catastrophic, he notes, in the case of climate change than in the case of financial systems which can presumably be repaired. His verdict on the part played by publishers and journalists: “Lomborg’s success largely reflects an ability of elite publishing houses and news organizations to contruct an alternative but counterfeit network of knowledge about an issue of the highest public importance.”
Another op-ed by Bjorn Lomborg, another Gish Gallup of non-stop disinformation. The good news is that the task of debunking the Septical Environmentalist (sic), has been made easier by the publication of whole book dedicated to that tedious task, The Lomborg Deception.
“Septical Environmentalist” is not a typo. Sure, it may seem like a mistake to use the word “environmentalist” to describe Lomborg. But it’s the very fact that he calls himself an environmentalist while dedicating his life to spreading disinformation and delaying serious action on the seminal environmental issue of our time that makes him septical. What else would you call the Typhoid Mary of anti-science syndrome (ASS)?
A few ‘admin’ like remarks
Friel has done a real service with The Lomborg Deception yet …
- First off, there are few who will find this an easy cover-to-cover read, in part because Friel is diligent. This is an extensively documented work, with many long extracts from articles and otherwise to bring clarity to how Lomborg misrepresented a specific work or misled readers with a comment. He isn’t covering all of Lomborg’s deceptions, yet this is an over 200 page book with 43 pages of endnotes. Writ large, it is easier for glib deceivers to create an entertaining best seller than for the fact checker to write something that will get a fraction of the attention …
- Endnotes are, fundamentally, more difficult for a reader than footnotes. In a work that is dissecting another’s deceit via creating false trails via endnotes, footnotes would have helped underline Lomborg’s fundamental deceptions. [Note: this is not Friel's doing, almost certainly, but a general failure, imo, of the publishing world.]
- Friel’s notes have at least a few problems . For example, on page 6-7 he discusses the (sadly) favorable Washington Post review of Lomborg’s Skeptical Environmentalist and brands it as “in its review” without in the text or notes identifying the actual review author. (Note: this is almost certainly a publishing house issue, as endnotes about articles from newspapers do not have the authors identified.) In this case the review author is identified as follows: “Denis Dutton is a professor of philosophy who lectures on the dangers of pseudoscience at the science faculties of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He is also editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily.” Dutton also doted on Lomborg, with multiple published reviews, and is more accurately described as a “libertarian media commentator/activist”. While The Washington Post deserves a rebuke for turning its pages over to such an activist without identifying his agenda and bias to readers, this was a signed book review — not a Post editorial.