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The Skeptical Environmentalist

The Skeptical Environmentalist, subtitled "Measuring the Real State of the World" is a controversial book by statistician Bjørn Lomborg which argues that claims made by environmentalists about global warming, overpopulation, energy, deforestation, species loss, water shortages, and a variety of other issues are exaggerations unsupported by a proper analysis of environmental data. The book rejects the Malthusian thesis that the world is headed for inevitable ecological disaster.

Lomborg is a Danish political scientist with a background in statistics. He states that he originally started work on the book as an attempt to counter what he saw as anti-ecological arguments by Julian Simon in an article by Wired magazine (http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/5.02/ffsimon_pr). He changed his mind when he researched his arguments. He describes the views held by many environmental campaigners as "the Litany", which his book attempts to correct.

It has a large range of detailed references to primary and secondary material, although much of its methodology and integrity has been subject to serious criticism (see below). Lomborg's supporters consider his work to be a landmark in the development of the ecological movement.

Table of contents

Opposition to to the book

Opposition to The Skeptical Environmentalist falls into three main categories: those who seek to demonize its author purely because they disagree with his conclusions; those who criticize the author for allegedly making the same sort of misrepresentations and errors for which he himself takes enviornmentalists to task; and those who point out actual errors in the book.

This article will discuss only the first two categories of criticism.

Criticism of Lomborg's integrity

In 2003, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD), a formal body composed of eminent Danish scientists, in its official finds criticized The Skeptical Environmentalist for "systematic one-sidedness in the choice of data and line of argument", although their report gives no specific examples of this. Although the findings of this body found no evidence that Professor Lomborg deliberately tried to mislead readers, which would have been a graver issue, it did pronounce Lomborg guilty of having "acted at variance with good scientific practice." But because Dr. Lomborg was not found grossly negligent, he could not be found formally to have been scientifically dishonest, the report said.

Lomborg rebuts the DCSD on his web site:

The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) has found that I am "systematically one-sided" in a decision handed down 7 January 2003. Here they exclusively rely on the critique from Scientific American 2002 without taking my rebuttal into account.

One of the people who brought the charges against Lomborg to the DCSD is Jeff Harvey, a former editor of the scientific journal Nature, who is currently a Senior Scientist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Harvey said, "It is unfortunate that I and many others felt it necessary to take Lomborg and his book to task for the veritable deluge of inaccuracies it contains, but Lomborg has veered well across the line that divides controversial, if not competent, science from unrepentant incompetence." He also said, "Lomborg has failed time and again to rectify the egregious distortions he makes, he has based his conclusions on cherry-picking the studies he likes, and he has seriously undermined the public's understanding of important contemporary scientific issues."

Among the supporters of the DCSD's decision regarding Lomborg are the Nobel prizewinning chemist Jens Christian Skou, former University rector Kjeld Møllgård, and professor at Danmarks Technical University Poul Harremoës.

In a letter published in the Financial Times in January 2003, Paul Ehrlich (a co-author of the Scientific American critique) characterised the DCSD's decision as having:

found [The Skeptical Environmentalist] to be fraudulent.

Criticisms of the book itself

Environmental groups as well as some members of the scientific community have heavily criticised the book for selective use of statistics - essentially, taking the most optimistic view on the environmental damage being caused by current human activity, and the most pessimistic view of the adjustment costs of changing to less environmentally-damaging technologies. Lomborg's responses to his critics can be found at www.lomborg.com (http://www.lomborg.com/critique).

The January 2002 issue of Scientific American contains, under the heading "Misleading Math about the Earth", a set of essays by several scientists of Lomborg's thesis, claiming that Lomborg is misrepresenting both scientific evidence and scientific opinion. (The magazine refused to allow Lonberg to contribute to the special section, or to quote criticisms to reply to them, forcing him to paraphrase.)

The respected journal Nature also published a harsh review of Lomborg's book. In the review, Stuart Pimm of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University and Jeff Harvey of the Netherlands Institute of Technology make the following strong rhetorical flourish:

"[T]he text employs the strategy of those who, for example, argue that gay men aren't dying of AIDS, that Jews weren't singled out by the Nazis for extermination, and so on."

Lomborg has in turn published an annotated response (http://www.lomborg.com/critique) to both articles and many others on his website.


  • Bjørn Lomborg, The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Cambridge University Press 2001, ISBN 0521010683
  • Stuart Pimm and Jeff Harvey: "No need to worry about the future". Nature vol. 414, November 8, 2001
  • Stephen Schneider, John P. Holdren, John Bongaarts, Thosmas Lovejoy: "Misleading Math about the Earth". Scientific American, January 2002

External links

Reviews of the book




See also: environmentalism -- global warming

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