|Lomborg and the media: USA
|Lomborg and the media The Danish media The British media The international media Conclusions|
`The Skeptical Environmentalist" was published one month later in the USA than in UK.
It was eagerly received by right-wing institutions in the USA. The industry-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), one of the leading right-wing opponents of the Kyoto process and all other efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions, rolled out the red carpet for Lomborg when he came to Washington on his book tour in the autumn of 2001. On October 4, a CEI-sponsored anti-Kyoto group, the Cooler Heads Coalition, hosted a congressional and media briefing for Lomborg at the U.S. Capitol.
It seems likely that the eager support from such institutions also helped Lomborg´s access to the electronic media. In any case, he appeared on TV in such places as `Politically Incorrect´ on ABC, `60 minutes´ on CBS, and on CNN, CNBC and PBS.
At several newspapers, it seems that the editors made sure in advance that the review of Lomborg´s book would be very positive, choosing as reviewer people who surely would agree with him.
The Wall Street Journal chose as its reviewer the Competitive Enterprise Institute's Ronald Bailey, who had earlier written a book called The True State of the World, from which much of Lomborg's claims were taken. No wonder that his review printed on 2nd October 2001 was an excited praise of Lomborg's book, calling it "superbly documented and readable."
The book was reviewed in The Washington Post on 21st October 2001. As reviewer was chosen Dennis Dutton, identified to the readers as "a professor of philosophy who lectures on the dangers of pseudoscience . . . " and as the editor of a web site on arts. The Post did not tell its readers that Dutton's web site features links to the Global Climate Coalition, an anti-Kyoto consortium of oil and coal businesses, and to the messages of Julian Simon - precisely the man whose postulates gave Lomborg the idea for his book in the first place. In the review, Dutton accepted all Lomborg´s postulates without reservation, and further supported the book with comments such as: "Lomborg's calculations are meticulous, his argument compelling: Implementation of the Kyoto Treaty would be an unforgivable mistake." and " . . . here as elsewhere, I followed Lomborg's claims back through the footnotes, traced the sources for myself, and found them to be sound. In fact, since The Skeptical Environmentalist was published last month in Britain, an army of angry environmentalists has been crawling all over the book, trying to refute it. Lomborg's claims have withstood the attack."
So, the book was presented to the readers of these newspapers in a way that left no room for any suspicions that there might be flaws or errors in the book. So much for `balanced journalism´ in two of the most prestigious newspapers in USA.
The New York Times worked on a review already in July of 2001, well in advance of the publication of the book. The review article was printed on 7th August. Part of the article concentrated on the surprise that Lomborg is `not a steely-eyed economist at a conservative Washington think tank but a vegetarian, backpack-toting academic who was a member of Greenpeace for four years´. The main part of the article reviews a series of Lomborg´s points of view and in some cases the journalist makes an effort to interview not only Lomborg, but also the other side. So there is an attempt to write a balanced presentation. It is interesting to study in details why this attempt fails.
The journalist interviews Lomborg who says that the effects of greenhouse gases are modified by four factors, three of which are the variable cloud cover, the amount of aerosols, and variations in the susnpot cycles, and he says that the climate models used by IPCC (the international climate panel) underestimate the effects of these three factors. The journalist then interviews two climate scientists. The one who answers the criticism most directly says that cloud cover and aerosols are indeed still weak points in climate modelse, but the importance of the sunspot cycles is not widely accepted. So because the scientists use careful formulations expressing their insecurity and reservations, the overall effect to the reader is that Lomborg is not very much wrong.
Another point is that Lomborg criticises what The Worldwatch Institute says about the state of the world´s forests in one of their reports. To counter Lomborg´s claims, the journalist takes contact to The Worldwatch Institute. Here is what the institute said afterwards about this contact:
"At Worldwatch, we had direct experience with the failure of the media to check out Lomborg's "facts." In July of 2001, Nicholas Wade of the science section of the New York Times called Worldwatch and asked for our response to Lomborg's book, including his claim that global forest cover was not decreasing.
As it happens, Worldwatch senior researcher Janet Abramovitz is well versed in this area. She explained to Wade that Lomborg was using discontinued data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that was never intended to measure forest cover in the first place. She gave Wade the name and phone number of the official in charge of these statistics at FAO so that Wade could check whether Lomborg's choice and interpretation of the data were correct. But Wade told Abramovitz that he "did not have time to check every original data source."
More than three weeks went by, however, before the New York Times story appeared. Wade wrote that Lomborg had used "the longest data series of annual figures available" from the FAO to show that forest cover had increased slightly between 1950 and 1994--the very data series that Abramovitz had warned Wade was incorrect. After the article appeared, the FAO official confirmed to Worldwatch that Wade never called to check whether Lomborg was using the right data. "
When you read what is actually written in the review, it is a disastrous misunderstanding from the side of the journalist. He writes inter alia: "Janet Abramovitz, Worldwatch's forest expert, said the world forest cover had shrunk significantly in the last 20 years. She based that contention on a different, shorter series of Food and Agriculture Organization statistics but declined to cite a percentage. The institute's figure on Canadian forest loss was an error, she said. " So instead of explaining that the data series used by Lomborg is an error, based partially on an error concerning the forest cover in Canada, the reader gets the impression that The Worldwatch Institute has made an error concerning Canada.
In conclusion, even when the journalist tries to hear both sides, Lomborg wins because the other side expresses itself in a language that the journalist does not understand. The experts always make reservations, point out their own weak points, and refuse to give exact figures. The journalist does not understand that attitude, prefers Lomborg who is cocksure about exact figures, and do not use the time necessary when you wholeheartedly try to understand the subject.
Lomborg has had a close connection to The Wall Street Journal ever since the first contact. Over the years he has had many op-eds published there, in additon to other articles such as interviews with him. This platform has given him good possibilities to spread his views on the accusations of scientific dishonesty, on Copenhagen Consensus and prioritization, on the Stern review, on Barack Obama´s climate policy etc. etc.
Random checks of such articles indicate that they are densely packed with misinformation and deliberately misleading statements. It is not clear to me if such misinformation simply remains unchallenged, or if the newspaper offers possibilities for readers to correct some of the worst errors.
Lomborg has also had articles in other newspapers, for instance Fortune Magazine.
A recent post on a blog on energy policies is very critical of The Washington Post and has the title: "Does The Washington Post have any honor left?" It writes: "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). . . . 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".
When the book `Cool it!´ appeared in 2007, it was reviewed in many newspapers. The Washington Post allowed Lomborg to write a lengthy article `reviewing´ his own book (7th October 2007). It contained several directly erroneous postulates, such as the widely quoted statement: " the Kangerlussuaq glacier is inconveniently growing", which is misleading and wrong (see here) and " In fact, the IPCC has factored in the likely melt-off from Greenland". Proving that it did have at least a little `honor´ left, the post did publish a smaller article by Judith Curry three days later which partially corrected a few of the errors, but in a rather weak voice which did not stop the urban myth about the Kangerlussuaq glacier from circulating.
In chapter 13 of his book, `The Lomborg Deception´, Howard Friel goes into details with the reviews of `Cool it!´ in The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Friel´s overall conclusion has two main points. 1) The newspapers try to present Lomborg as a person with moderate points of view in the middle of the political spectrum, placing him in `the practical middle´ or `the pragmatic center´. 2) The journalists all take Lomborg´s factual assertions at face value and neither pose any critical questions, nor check the facts, nor seek to hear independent views.
Having had a closer look at the reviews, I agree with Friel´s conclusions. At The Wall Street Journal, a member of the editorial board, praises the book and writes: "Mr. Lomborg starts by doing what he does best: presenting a calm analysis of what today's best science tells us about global warming and its risks. Relying primarily on official statistics, he ticks through the many supposed calamities that will result from a hotter planet . . " The idea of posing critical questions is certainly very romote here. At The New York Times, the first review uncritically reproduces a series of Lomborg´s assertions, such as "winter can be deadlier than summer". The reviewer is John Tierney who elsewhere has expressed the opinion that the criticism of Lomborg is not fair (see below). A few months later, when Andrew Revkin has an article about three books, one of which is `Cool it!´, he writes: " He [Lomborg] tries to puncture more of what he says are environmental myths, like the imminent demise of polar bears. (Most bear biologists have never said the species is doomed but do see populations shrinking significantly in a melting Arctic.)" This is very misleading, if not directly wrong (see here on Lomborg-errors). So indeed, Lomborg´s assertions are accepted without questions again and again. When reviewing Lomborg´s first book, The New York Times at least attempted to write a balanced presentation. Now, in 2007, neither they nor any other newspaper attempt that. So much for the jounalistic principles of hearing both sides.
In 2007, Roger Pielke Jr. published the book `The Honest Broker´, a book arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they are jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.
In this book, Pielke discusses the controversy in 2002 when Scientific American printed a harsh 11 page criticism of Lomborg´s first book (see here). One of the scientists that contributed to the criticism was John P. Holdren, an expert on energy resources. Pielke quotes Holdren for having said "To expose this pastiche of errors and misrepresentations was not a political act but a scientific duty." For Pielke, this implication that science must be "got right" before policy comes into play is a red flag. To him, there is no simple truth. After reviewing the criticisms, he concludes that a more accurate headline would have been, “Our political perspective defends itself against the political agenda of ‘The Skeptical Environmentalist.’
When Pielke´s book is reviewed by John Tierney in several media, including The New York Times, this episode is suddenly politically relevant, because of the hearing in the Senate to confirm John Holdren to be the president’s science adviser. Tierney asks: "Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats? To borrow a term from Roger Pielke Jr.: Can these scientists be honest brokers?" Tierney answers indirectly `no´ when he cites Pielke for this passage: "Some scientists want to influence policy in a certain direction and still be able to claim to be above politics; So they engage in what I call `stealth issue advocacy´ by smuggling political arguments into putative scientific ones." and adds: "One example of this stealthy advocate is the nominee for White House science adviser, Dr. Holdren."
Others disagree with Pielke. One review of his book partially defends Holdren and says "Yet there may be enormous virtue to the kind of dispassionate, informed inquiry into scientific facts that takes place in expert committees, even if the reasoning process necessarily involves knowledge, judgment and values . . . ". But those who read the review in The New York Times get the impression that Holdren went beyond his authority when he criticised Lomborg and therefore is no neutral adviser. Essentially this means that if Pielke is right that there is no absolute truth, then any scientist postulating that Lomborg´s assertions are untrue is being political, and therefore untrustworthy. This very awkward argumentation in essence leads to the contention that anybody saying that Lomborg lies is himself untrustworthy. If we were to accept this view, then it would be impossible ever to uncover lies.
Lomborg is at his strongest when he speaks or participates in oral debates. Such situations give optimal opportunities to communicate with body language, with subtle suggestions and messages targeted at the subconscious. It also allows you to present information which cannot readily be checked by the other part.
In practice it turns out that it is extremely difficult to win over Lomborg in any oral debate. There are a small handful of persons who claim they are able to win a debate at some occasions on a one-on-one basis with Lomborg. But that is unusual. The main rule is that no matter who is right as a matter of fact, in the eyes of the audience Lomborg will always win or at least not lose. One of the reasons for this is that whereas most persons will admit if the other person is right, Lomborg will never admit anything, and so, if the audience themselves do not fully understand the subject matter, they will recognize that Lomborg never gave in, i.e. he did not lose a single time.
The American TV organisation NPR has a series of debate programmes where arguments pro et con are presented by two opposing parties. It is called the IQ squared series and is produced in New York City by The Rosenkranz Foundation.
The audience indicates its points of view at the start of the debate and at the end of the debate, and the interesting thing is if any significant number of persons in the audience have changed their opinion.
One such programme, sent on 13th January 2009, debated the issue: "Is reducing carbon emissions worth the cost?". Three persons defended this point of view, whereas three others, among them Bjørn Lomborg, defended the opposite view. Of course the Lomborg side won. At the start many were undecided, and only 16 percent were convinced that paying to cut carbon is not worth the prize. After the debate, these 16 percent increased to 42 percent. But in an official press release after the debate, a person on the winning side suggested why his side succeeded: many of his suporters voted strategically, pretending to be undecided at start. So one may wonder why a serious media outlet like NPR would bother to send such a programme.
Lomborg has also had a filmed talk at a TED conference in 2005 (TED = Technology -Entertainment - Design), available on the internet, he has been interviewed for the satirical programme Colbert Nation, on NPR interviews etc. etc.
Go here to read the conclusions concerning Lomborg and the media.