Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Thursday, December 13, 2001

I think it is time that I "throw down" on The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg (I think that is the spelling). I will do this with the gigantic caveat that I have not read the book!!! I will not read it in all likelihood, either. I did read the review at Nature and several others on Grist magazine, by several prominent environmental scientists. I was pointed to these reviews by Andrew Hofer's great blog, More Than Zero. Now, I do not take their word as gospel, but I would like to make a few comments about the book, and the response. First, lets remind ourselves of what it means to be skeptical. As Carl Sagan said "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Now, who is making the extraordinary claim in this instance. I would argue that Mr. Lomborg is the one making the extraordinary claim, based on his contrarian view to the preponderance of scientific opinion. One point that really can't be stressed enough, Lomborg is not an environmental scientist. We must therefore be careful to take his interpretation of data with a grain of salt. Secondly, and most importantly, THIS IS NOT PEER-REVIEWED WORK. Peer-review has a long history as the best way to ensure that published science is valid. Now, frauds have occured, but the essence of the scientific enterprise is the reproducibility of the work. A synopsis of the scientific process. A process or condition is observed, and a hypothesis is formed. An experiment to test the validity of that hypothesis is devised, and performed. The hypothesis is either validated or falsified. This process is the basis for ALL empirical scientific work. A critical part of this is the process of experimental validation by repetition. The cold fusion example is the canonical illustration of this. Pons and Fleischmann did not publish their work in a peer-reviewed journal, and all attempts to replicate their work. Therefore, the scientific community must reject the notion that they were in fact observing cold fusion. Note that this does not mean that it is impossible, simply that it does not work the way they claimed. The same argument may be claimed in Lomborg's case. He has (apparently) made a case that much of environmental science is false or bogus. He has not, to my knowledge, provided any scientifically valid method for falsifying the hypotheses attacked in the book. This strikes me as similar to the meta-analysis of mammography cited below. In sum, it is easy to be a critic, much harder to actually do something. Sadly, the press in general is incapable of analyzing this work in any detail, and ends up giving him a pass. This speaks to the woefully inadequate science education all over the world. Michael Schermer has a series in Scientific American about having your own "Baloney Detector", which is a good start in learning how to critically read a book like this, or the commentariat's response.