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The Lomborg File: When the Press Is Lured By a Contrarian's Tale

Columbia Journalism Review

BY: RUSS BAKER; Russ Baker
June, 2002
When the English-language version of The Skeptical Environmentalist, Bjorn Lomborg's rosy prognosis on the state of the earth's ecosystems, was published last September, the media sounded hosannas. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and other publications gave the thumbs-up to the Danish professor, who dismisses many environmental concerns as "phantom problems" created and perpetuated by a self-serving environmental movement. The Washington Post's reviewer concluded that it was "a magnificent achievement," and "the most significant work on the environment since the appearance of its polar opposite, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, in 1962."

Corporate-backed entities, delighted with the affirmation that industrial policies were not as harmful to life on the planet as commonly believed, lauded the book. One group, the "Cooler Heads Coalition" -- formed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and others to "dispel the myths of global warming" -- arranged for the author to participate in a Capitol Hill briefing on the topic. Soon, though, scathing critiques began to flower in the academic, scientific, and environmental communities of Europe, and not long after in the U.S. Indeed, when the book made it to these shores last year, American media seemed unaware of a debate that had been raging inside Denmark since 1998, when a Danish version was released. At the time, Lomborg, an associate professor who teaches statistics at the Political Science Department at Aarhus University, also published a series of four articles in the Danish newspaper Politiken. Scientists, researchers, NGO officials -- and a vocal group of Lomborg's own university colleagues -- quickly challenged Lomborg's interpretations of statistics and other data in the Danish media.

When the liberal Guardian newspaper published Lomborg's theories, Oxford-based environmentalists put up a Web site ( to challenge them. The environmental writer Mark Lynas noted on the site, for example, that Lomborg's cost-benefit analysis, which Lomborg used to argue that society cannot afford to cut fossil fuel emissions, ignored the economic potential of conversion to cleaner energy sources. (Lynas, it should be added, threw a pie in Lomborg's face last September 5 at a Borders bookstore in Oxford.) Craig Simmons, co-author of Sharing Nature's Interest, takes Lomborg to task on the Oxford site for claiming that 100 years of U.K. waste could be disposed of in a heap "only" sixty-four square miles at its base and 100 feet high. Simmons says Lomborg fails to consider anything besides municipal waste, which makes up just one-fifth of the total refuse generated; Simmons also shows how Lomborg underestimated the waste stream growth rate, because he extrapolates data from the U.S., which, unlike Britain, uses recycling and incineration extensively to avoid landfills.

Most egregiously, say his detractors, Lomborg neglected to consider cause-and-effect. To show that environmentalists are alarmists, Lomborg pointed to recent improvements in certain benchmark statistics, including depletion rates for species, the ozone layer, and a number of closely watched natural resources such as forests and freshwater supplies. But in doing so, Lomborg ignored the possibility that environment-friendly corrective measures may have been responsible for the improvements he cites. In other words, the very vigilance that Lomborg decries as alarmist may already be helping avert environmental disaster.

Lomborg got a rough ride in the U.S. too. "His facts are usually fallacies and his analysis is largely non-existent," Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, told The Economist. Scientific American ran an eleven-page critique of The Skeptical Environmentalist in its January issue.

In response to what it called Lomborg's "pseudo-scholarship," the Washington, D.C.-based World Resources Institute, an environmental research and advocacy group, urged journalists to exercise caution in reporting on or reviewing the book. "Lomborg paints a caricature of the environmental agenda based on sometimes mistaken views widely held thirty years ago, but to which no serious environmental institution today subscribes," the group said in a media alert. "He exaggerates, makes sweeping generalizations, presents false choices, is highly selective in his use of data and quotations and, frequently, is simply wrong."

The success of The Skeptical Environmentalist -- Cambridge University Press says the paperback version had been reprinted seven times by February -- in a market primed by favorable reviews and articles, suggests that journalists may be too easily spun by weighty-looking tomes, and too easily enamored of contrarian insights. The news business loves personality pieces about the new star who has emerged to shake up this or that piece of "conventional wisdom." The New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade liked the fact that Lomborg was not a hard-line anti-environmentalist, but an erstwhile ecologist who had come to see the error of his former ways. "Strange to say, the author of this happy thesis is not a steely-eyed economist at a conservative Washington think tank but a vegetarian, backpacktoting academic who was a member of Greenpeace for four years," Wade wrote in the paper's Science Times section in an article/profile that preceded the book's release. In a brief phone conversation with CJR, Wade said that he would let his largely favorable article speak for itself. But he also indicated that he is preparing a new piece about the controversy that broke out around Lomborg after he wrote his largely sympathetic article last August.

None of this is to say that all of Lomborg's champions have abandoned him. The Economist, for instance, published two pieces in February that examined the controversy and, while conceding some flaws, stuck by its earlier glowing assessment of Lomborg. (Lomborg defends himself on a Web site,

Certainly, one of the more curious aspects of the Lomborg bubble was the enthusiasm for the word of a man from a small European country, untrained in the life and physical sciences, on the future of the world. This seemed to confirm the adage that "an expert is anyone from more than twenty miles away." Indeed, to review this book by a Danish professor The Washington Post chose a philosophy professor from New Zealand. Not surprisingly, the people least impressed with the coverage of Lomborg in the American popular press were the Danish journalists who had been following the story for several years. "While those newspapers wrote such positive things, the scientific journals said the opposite," marvels Hans Davidsen-Nielsen, a reporter at Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest daily, who recently examined international coverage of Lomborg for his own paper -- including highly critical articles in such publications as Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

This credulity gap largely stems from a growing impatience within the mainstream media with what some view as the perpetual pessimism of environmental scientists. In fact, environmental coverage has been dwindling steadily the last few years, including at The New York Times, the arbiter of so many standards. The trend is not surprising: the business tends to tire of the same old problems that won't go away. As we've all heard editors say, "That's not news." Meanwhile, by definition, anything contrarian or unexpected is news.

It's no surprise that books offered as scientific treatises for the general public get a free ride. They carry the clout of science without having to go through the tough scrutiny of peer review. Book review sections tend to be less bound by the strictures of the newsroom. Reviewers are often chosen because of their intimacy with a topic, and typically have their own biases, known or unknown. Also, what impresses a book reviewer -- skill in argumentation, stylish presentation, even poetic license -- may mean little in the fact-checking business. Given these structural limitations of book reviews, news departments abdicate their responsibilities when they fail to scrutinize influential, even surging, theories, particularly works with loaded social agendas. As Winston Churchill said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." When contrarian books come out, newsrooms would do well to have somebody already suited up for quick sleuthing.