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Why is Lomborg so successful ?

Lomborg has been unusually successful in spreading his so-called "skeptical environmentalism". How has he managed to do so ? For many reasons, it is of great interest to study how a person is able to get so much access to the media all over the globe, in spite of the very doubtful validity of his statements, and prevent his audience from listening to those who reveal the flaws and errors. Machiavelli would have been proud of such a person who is able to manipulate the public opinion world-wide.

It is not simple to explain how this has been possible. Lomborg´s strategy involves a whole range of methods and approaches.

Riding on a wave

The young rebels of 1968 managed, within a few years, to monopolize large parts of the public and academic discussion. A lot of assertions became "politically incorrect", and it became difficult for people with right-wing opinions to say what they thought. The lack of concern for environmental problems in the 1960s suddenly shifted into a massive concern for the environment, for all kinds of pollution, for threatened species, for limited resources, and so on. Although there were right-wing opponents to this trend, they were overruled by the overwhelming majority who distrusted the evil capitalists that shortsightedly destroy our children´s future - at least in Europe. In this mental climate, many persons felt suppressed.

Since then, the environmentalist wave has lost momentum. A lot of measures have been taken to remedy the environmental problems, and the most impending dangers have been counteracted. The new generations therefore give priority to other issues. The former activists have become older, are busy with their permanent jobs, and have no longer the energy to man the barricades. In the environmental camp, relative peace lasted for so long that recruitment for the defence had been neglected.

That is when a new wave rose in the opposite direction. People spoke more and more frankly about the restricted mental climate of the 1970s. "Victims" were found who were not allowed to express their opinion, or not listened to. The 1968 generation became the enemy: Most of what was wrong in society, had become their fault. They were the ones who, now in their best age and in high positions, prevent a stronger effort against drugs, against criminality, against terrorists, against illegal immigration etc. etc. So, the public media started to focus on the opposition against the 1968 generation.

There is not actually in the general population a similar shift in attitude to environmental problems. The concern that arose in 1968 remains here. But when a wave has started against the 1968 generation, and when the "1968-ers" are pro environment, then it becomes possible to ride on the anti-1968 wave and fight the environmentalists. Lomborg is able to do this, because he postulates that the environmentalists are just like all other "1968-ers" - they sit in their well-paid jobs and claim that the environmental problems are still so severe that more and more must be paid to solve them. They are just like all others who suppress freedom of expression and free enterprise. If and only if Lomborg manages to make people believe this, will he be able to let the new wave from the right destroy environmentalism.

Utilising the experience of American anti-environmentalists

In the USA, there has been a long history of industry fighting the environmental movements. A key person in this history is Edward L. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who, like Freud, studied the unconscious. Bernays studied how knowledge on the unconscious may be utilised to manipulate the public opinion. He published a book titled "Propaganda" and is called "the father of spin" (link). He was advisor of many large commercial companies and built campaigns on the following principles:
1) Make your point of view credible by having an independent third party present it.
2) Appeal to unconscious emotions, not to rational thought.
3) Throw suspicion on the motives of the neutral experts.
4) Never make a statement that can immediately be falsified.
An interesting text on the effects of Bernays´ thinking on contemporary American society is in this link. You will understand that Bernays is also the father behind the idea to have industry fund seemingly neutral organisations with names that inspire confidence, like "global climate coalition" or "committee for a constructive tomorrow". The text also describes the origin of the term "junk science", which means all science that is bad for industry, especially all science dealing with public health or the environment.
These principles are also applied when a think tank paid by oil companies offers scientists large sums of money if the will criticize the ocnclusions reached by the international climate panel, IPCC, as was the case in 2007, according to this link. Of course, if a seemingly independent scientist criticizes IPCC, this has a much stronger impact that if the think tank itself criticizes IPCC.

Bernays´ principles are a main explanation why American companies have more strongly and efficiently than elsewhere in the world fought against e.g. preservation of forests, un-leaded petrol, new regulations of chemicals, and the Kyoto protocol.

Several main strategies are apparent. One is to exaggerate the costs of regulations to American business. Another very much used strategy is to undermine consensus on scientific evidence by stressing or exaggerating the uncertainty of the evidence.

As long as you can postulate that claims of purported dangers or risks are uncertain, you may often be able to make politicians postpone planned regulations. As an example, you may study the following links to how the ratification of the Kyoto protocol was counteracted by the American Petroleum Institute (API) in 1998:

API's "Global Climate Science Communication Action Plan"

Article on API´s plan in New York Times

Of special interest is the George C. Marshall Institute, founded in 1984. Led at first by only a few renowned scientists - Fred S. Singer, William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz - it worked to defend president Nixon´s Strategic Defense Intitiative, but soon went on to defend the free market against all impending regulations, on the basis of a strongly anti-communist, "market fundamentalist" ideology. Their main endeavours have been to spread the message that there is no proof that smoking causes lung cancer, and no proof that human activity is causing global warming. A main tactic has been to place articles with scientitic argumentation in influential newpapers, thereby circumventing criticism from scientific peers and gaining maximal impact directly on the public opinion - the same strategy that has been used by Lomborg. A strong criticism of this institute may be heard in this speach by Naomi Oreskes, "The American denial of global warming".

I would also recommend the reading of books about spin and about how spin is used to fight the environmental movement. Here are some titles:

J. C. Stauder & S. Rampton (1995): Toxic sludge is good for you: Lies, damn lies, and the public relations industry. Common Courage Press.
Larry Tye (1998): The father of spin. Edward L. Bernays and the birth of public relations. Henry Holt & Co.
N. Oreskes & E. M. Conway (2010): Merchants of doubt. Bloomsbury Press.

It seems that during his stay in the USA in 1997, Lomborg became acquainted with some of the principles referred to. He also learned other techniques used by anti-environmentalists, such as skimming large amounts of text in order to find quotable sentences. At a later stage, up to the publication of the English version of his book, he had contact to anti-environmentalist organisations in USA, and here he must have learned more about how to counteract the environmentalist movement.

Lomborg´s approach may to a great extent be conceived as `spin´, and even in his first books, he demonstrates much understanding of how to use spin to advance his case and put his opponents in a bad light. Lomborg-errors has special pages about derogation of opponents, about deliberate errors, and about the use of spin to further a hidden agenda.

Lomborg´s principles

We may list a series of principles that more or less characterize the way that Lomborg works:

1) Do not write or say anything that is evidently against the truth. The rationale of this is obvious. If it is easy to demonstrate that you are wrong, you will soon lose attention. This is identical to point 4) in the text on Bernays: Never make a statement that can immediately be falsified.

2) Apart from this, do not let any regards to moral or fairness restrict you. This formulation may seem to be a gross accusation against Lomborg, but nevertheless, it is more or less an apt characterization of what goes on.

3) As soon as you enter a field where the others cannot check up on you, feel free to distort, manipulate and lie.

4) If you get uncovered, do not admit anything.

5) Be always kind, charming and positive to others as long as (and only as long as) they may be of help to you.

Is this about opinions ?

Lomborg tries to maintain that when others oppose against him, it is not his fault. Allegedly, he just presents the facts. When others disagree with him, they disagree with the facts, i.e. the opponents are always wrong. They are victims to their subjectively based opinions. So, according to Lomborg , this is a conflict between an unprejudiced, composed attitude on one side, and a prejudiced, emotional, subjective attitude on the other side.

However, the opposition against Lomborg that is presented on this web site attempts to avoid all prejudice and subjectivity. Although, of course, this is not 100 % possible, this is the intention. Therefore, to the extent that this has been realized, Lomborg´s interpretation of the conflict does not apply to the present case. The web site, hopefully, demonstrates that it is possible to oppose Lomborg, and still be unprejudiced and composed. So, after all, the conflict is not a question of differing subjective opinions. It is not even a conflict between a right-wing and a left-wing way of thinking. And it is not a conflict between economists and biologists, between the natural sciences and the social sciences, or between nature-lovers and politicians. But then, what is it about ?

It is about truth versus lie. The idea behind this web site is that Lomborg is allowed to have whatever point-of-view that he may have, as long as he is able to argue honestly for it. He may be right-wing, he may be left-wing, he may be skeptical or not, he may be an environmentalist or not, all that does not matter. What matters is if he is dishonest.

Thus, one aim of this web site is to expose Lomborgs dishonesty - to uncover him. To demonstrate to everybody, beyond reasonable doubt, that indeed he is not restricted by any regards to moral or fairness. To document the manipulations and the intention to mislead. To explain that the opposition against Lomborg is there because some people deny to accept deliberate lies and manipulations, no matter in what interest they are applied. So, this is not about opinions. It is about lack of moral.

Lomborg´s methods

The list of methods that Lomborg may have applied to obtain what he wants, is long and varied. An attempt to list them has given the following result:

1) The first thing you do, before you make a manipulation, is to accuse your opponent of making just that type of manipulation (this is evident e.g. in chapter 1 of The Skeptical Environmentalist). In this way, you prevent that the public will listen to the accusations that your opponent may come up with.

2) Ally yourself with people in key positions. Thus, Lomborg has very successfully allied himself with editors of large newspapers in Denmark and abroad, with the editor at Cambridge University Press, and, last but not least, with the man who was to become the Danish prime minister.

3) It is important that you prevent people from listening to your critics. Therefore, you must make some sort of character assassination of the people that criticize you or are likely to criticize you in the future. You may cast suspicion on their motives,  or attack their integrity. If the most serious criticism will come from the most prominent scientists, then slate and taunt especially these. Sooner or later, any scientist that receives this treatment, will retreat from the scene, and so those that are left, are no longer the greatest authorities.

4) A supplementary strategy is to insult your critics. Preferably, the insult should be so subtle that the general public will not detect it. In this way, you make your critic react emotionally or even lose his temper, and - which is the clue - without any reason that is apparent to the public. There is little that is so ridiculous as a scientist who has become emotional. This will immediately rob him of his scientific authority. As an example, a Danish newspaper helped Lomborg on this point when they brought a whole-page article with the headline: "When scientists become aggressive."

5) Criticize or attack an expert from whom you might expect criticism. When the criticism comes, you can blunt the teeth that bite you by claiming that the critic has been slated by you already, so he is not a neutral person relative to you. Thus, in Lomborg´s response to Scientific American, he writes (p. 3): "Notice that these four experts have certainly not been chosen randomly - two of the four reviewers are actually directly criticized in my book."

6) Focus on those opponents that are most emotional or subjective. For instance, you can talk very much of what is said by people in WWF, Greenpeace and similar organizations which are not neutral vis-a-vis environmental issues, and then just mention briefly that the scientists say approximately the same. Or give much room to uninformed people who write reader´s letters on the basis of their gut feelings. Then, you can postulate that you do indeed let the critics come with their arguments, at the same time as you reject many well argued letters from informed experts.

7) Method 6 requires that you are able to arrange the debate, e.g. by determining what type of interviews and meetings you participate in, or by coordination with the editor of a newspaper. Actually, Lomborg has been able to govern the debate to some extent, because editors have indeed cooperated.

8) Be imprudent. Newspapers do not like letters that are neutral and balanced. They want letters that reveal the dirty motives of your opponents.

9) When you raise doubt about your opponent´s motives, prevent him from replying in defence. For instance, in a TV debate, you can start your remark with this comment to your opponent: "It seems to me that there are some figures here which you do not want out in the open", and then go on with a lot of other details, so that the opponent will not reply to the first sentence. Or you can slate your opponent in your book, with little opportunity for him to reply, because where should he put his reply ? Or you can phone the person and afterwards claim that he said this-and-this. There is no tape-recording of your talk, so nobody can check it. This, of course, requires that you protest vigorously against the claims made afterwards by the person whom you phoned.

10) Give the impression of being a victim of persecution. Be the innocent, brave young man who is subject to unjust persecution from a clergy of cynical environmentalists. Or present yourself as a kind of Galilei, and your opponents as a kind of Spanish Inquisition.

11) Do not give any credit to your opponents. If they, through a massive or concentrated effort, have managed to remedy an environmental problem, then downplay the importance of this and postulate that the improvement would have come by itself anyway.

12) Create confusion. You do not need to win a debate; it suffices if you create confusion as to who is right and who is wrong. If at a start there is general agreement on an issue, and you then challenge this with an opposite assertion, then you may very well create the impression that "the doctors disagree". And, as long as the doctors disagree, no lay man dares to draw his own conclusion. If you can prolong the duration of the disagreement ad infinitum, you will permanently have brought people away from what was until then the general consensus.

13) Try to present yourself as very scientific, and your opponent as one who has not completely check on the facts. Lomborg does that in several ways, e.g. by the very large number of notes and references. One general strategy is that figures that are defended by Lomborg are presented with many digits, to signal great precision and hence reliability, whereas the figures defended by the opponents are presented as very unprecise - and hence unreliable - estimates. As an example of Lomborg´s absurd precision, in note 767 in TSE he writes that the total forest cover on the globe in 1961 was 4.3750869e9 ha. The expression with an "e" also makes the figure very technical, i.e. trustworthy.

14) Focus on fields and parameters where there is great uncertainty, and where the scientific community has come up with a wide range of estimates. Then, pick out a value at one extreme end of the spectrum, and postulate that this is the true value, and criticize all those that advance other estimates which "obviously" are not the truth. That is, postulate that the most reliable estimate is that which lies furthest in the direction that you want.

15) Utilise that journalists do not generally understand scientific uncertainty. If a journalist asks a scientist what is the true value of a certain parameter, then the scientist will normally say that we do not know the true value - we can only pin down a range of possible values, or indicate an average and a standard deviation. The journalist will be disappointed by this vagueness and see the scientist as a person who is not well updated. In this situation, Lomborg will strike a convincing attitude and offer a very precies figure, from which the journalist will understand that here is a guy who really has a grip of the facts. In this way, Lomborg wins by a far margin over scientists in the public media. 

16) State the main trend very briefly, and then use the main part of the text or the time to deal with that particular opposite trend which you want to stress. This will affect the audience unconsciously - they will remember what was said most of the time, and forget the caveat at the start. But if you are criticized for painting a biased picture, you can always point out that you said the right thing in the beginning. An example of this method is described here in Lomborg-errors. In this way you can both technically say what is correct, and at the same time effectively communicate the opposite message that you want to send.

17) Do not always consider whether trends are significant. If the trend supports you, claim that the trend is there, no matter whether it is significant. If it does not support you, claim that it is not singificant, even if it is.

18) Cite figures selectively. Present those figures that support your point, and omit the others.

19) Figures may be presented as large or small, depending on what you want. You may for instance give the figure as percentage of something very big (e.g. area in percent of the total area of the globe), or you may make a change appear relatively large. For instance, values of 7 and 9 appear relatively similar, but if you speak of deviations of +1 and -1 from the average, they appear much more different.

20) Graphs may be manipulated, as long as it is done sufficiently subtly. For instance, there are several cases in The Skeptical Environmentalist where two curves are compared, but where it is concealed that they have not been adjusted to the same reference level or start value.

21) Quote text selectively. If you read large amounts of text, it will always be possible to find a sentence which can be taken out of its context and be used to prove something, e.g. that the experts agree with you, or that your opponents are not trustworthy.

22) In order to carry out method 21, get help from assistants. On some universities in USA, there are - allegedly - professors who pay students for scanning large volumes of text in order to find just those few sentences that may underpin a predefined assertion. As to Lomborg, he has had his students to scan large amounts of text, whereby it was possible for him to overview the "true state" of the whole world within just one half year.

23) Make sure that it will be time-consuming and tedious to detect your flaws. Do not make obvious flaws that can be detected easily. Manipulate mainly be saying something other than what is in the reference that you cite, or pick a single unrepresentative sentence out of a large amount of text.. Then it will be necessary for your opponents to do the tedious job of checking a lot of your 1,700 references and reading large amounts of text. And better still, include references that it is difficult or impossible to procure. If an error is uncovered, do not admit it - the public does not have access to the original reference anyhow.

24) Make a text that is vague, indirect, inconsistent and confusing. If you make incongruent statements, you can resist any criticism by bringing quotes to document that you actually said the opposite of what you are criticized for saying.

25) As far as possible, write the conclusions between the lines, not on the lines. Present the premises in such a way that the implications "hang in the air". It is then up to the reader to draw the conclusions. In this way, counter attacks are made difficult, because things are not expressed directly.

26) Do not just write about what is correct and incorrect, but draw a number of persons into the text. With subtle shifts in the tone of the text, it is possible to imply what persons are shady, and what persons are sensible. It is then possible to make every chapter become a small drama where the good and the bad guys are in conflict. The readers can relate to such conflicts between persons, whereas purely technical or theoretical stuff is boring.

27) Like every magician, distract the attention of the audience from the point where the trick is made. For instance, when discussing deforestation, Lomborg distorts the data material to get the result that the total forest area is growing. He may hope to distract attention from this distortion by making people focus on the irrelevance of counting Siberian taiga as a substitute for disappearing rain forests. Or when he presents data on the number of starving people in Africa, he may distract attention from the real issue by evoking a discussion on the use of relative vs. absolute figures. See also this example from an interview with the Danish climate minister.

28) If something is a cause of a negative trend, and you want to downplay this connection, then find something else that also influences the trend, preferably something not connected with environmental issues.

29) If you want to disprove a negative trend, then do not just say that there is no trend. Try to stress your point by claiming that the trend goes just in the opposite direction, even if does not significantly do so.

30) Use those definitions that are most suitable for your purpose. For instance, the effect of pollution is strongest close to the source. Then say that the effects seen there is not due to the type of pollution that you talk of, and when you then discuss the type of pollution that you talk of, at large distances from the source, then say that the effects are not the type that you are talking of (example: the chapter in TSE on acid precipitation). In this way, by juggling with definitions, you can prove that the effects seen are not due to the pollution in question.

31) Forget about papers and articles that disprove your point. If this is apparent already from the title, then don´t read them. If you happen to read them, don´t cite them. Unless, of course, they deviate so greatly from your own truth that you can use them to demonstrate how wrong your opponents are.

32) Of course, in general, when you want to prove a point, you may use all types of arguments that support you, and forget all kinds of arguments that do not support you. The art is only to do it discretely. It is most easy in fields with great uncertainty, where there are so diverging estimates that you can usually find at least one that fits you. Therefore, in such fields, it is possible to prove practically anything you want.