Turned up to eleven: Fair and Balanced

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

First, with respect to Lomborg's book, I will note some initial impressions. Although Dr. Lomborg profusely footnotes his work, there are some notable and in my opinion unfortunate trends in those notes. The first is a lack of peer-reviewed sources. The bulk of the citations are to either primary documents from various NGO's and UN/CDC type sources, which are of course important, and in no way am I impugning their use. Indeed, to argue against the various extrapolations that Lomborg is opposing, citation of the primary literature is necessary. The arguments that Lomborg is opposing, however, do not appear, for the most part, in peer-reviewed journals. That is to say, they are not widely held within the scientific community, or at least, not in print. In fact, the main bugaboo of Dr. Lomborg in the reprinted chapter is a group called The Worldwatch Institute, a public policy advocacy group. Interestingly, this group is singularly unqualified to comment or analyze the state of the world, although that doesn't stop them. An excerpt from the bio of the director of research, Gary Gardner;

Mr. Gardner holds Master's degrees in Politics from Brandeis University, and in Public Administration from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and a Bachelor's degree from Santa Clara University.

Leaving aside that their director of research doesn't hold a Ph.D., he doesn't even have a degree in Science!!! How is he qualified to direct environmental science research? This is an advocacy group, pure and simple. It is not clear that there is anyone at this institute with even a degree in environmental science, let alone a Ph.D. Now, I may be a bit of a snob about this, but how exactly are you supposed to determine the state of the environment when no one on your staff has the training to do it?
In sum, returning to the subject at hand, I don't know that attacking the "Worldwatch Institute" is very useful, as they don't seem particularly well suited to environmental analysis, and don't appear to have much influence. As an example, in E.O. Wilson's piece in the same magazine, many mainstream environmental groups are mentioned, but this one is not. Draw your own conclusions, I suppose, but it seems a waste of time to argue that a hard-core environmental advocacy group is stretching the truth. Still, it could be argued that this is useful. What disturbed me most in reading Lomborg's book, however, was how often he failed to provide citations for his own assertions that the environmentalists were wrong.

An example, referring to Dr. Pimentel's assertion that environmental changes have caused increased infectious disease rates;

Finally, we get to Pimentel's central claim that infections have increased and will continue to increase. Both of these are false. The reason Pimentel tells use all these (sometimes incorrect) stories and gives examples of many and new diseases is to make us feel that disease frequency must be increasing....(it goes on for a while)

It is not true that death from disease will increase
(end quotation)

This is a classic strawman argument. It conflates two distinctly different notions, that of infection, and that of death from disease. The article uses the tuberculosis incidence as evidence of environmentalist wrongheadedness, noting that Dr. Pimentel made a prediction of increases in TB deaths based on a small sample of the data, rather than the long term trend of reduced death, and the current predictions of steady states of TB deaths. However, both are ignoring the central motif of tuberculosis, which is that a staggering number of people are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and the slowly progressing disease will kill the vast majority of them, because the required antibiotics are scarce and expensive, and most of these people are terribly poor. In point of fact, the rate of deaths from TB is probably going to fluctuate wildly around a steady state that reflects the vast majority of people who don't have access to preventive medicine. In general, however, this is not particularly reflective of the real state of the world in terms of infectious disease.

In fact, I think TB is not a very good example of a disease that is relevant to discussion of environmental issues, because it is much more a disease of poverty, with no known habitat restriction (unlike malarial parasites, for example, pools of standing water do not serve as vector reservoirs for tuberculosis bacilli, which are essentially only human pathogens). The course of anti-TB antibiotics is also very long (~1 year), because the organism is very tough to get rid of. There are any number of diseases that are better examples of direct environmental causes of disease incidence. Just a list off the top of my head; cholera, dysentery, E.coli diarrheal disease (all caused by lack of clean drinking water), yellow fever, malaria, dozens of hemorrhagic virus diseases that have followed the trajectory of their normal host animals, usually rodents or insects, into encroaching human populations. For a great insight into this, read The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett.

What is most interesting about this excerpt of Lomborg's book, however, is the overall strawman that he (and anti-environmentalists, who I do not think he represents) is trying to erect, of an overall environmental establishment that is hostile to good news. In fact, real environmental scientists are proud of their accomplishments, particularly with respect to saving what they view as precious biological diversity. If you want an accurate picture of the real state of the environment, compare Wilson's essay in the same issue of Skeptic with Lomborg's. To summarize, Lomborg is busy trying to discredit fringe environmental advocacy groups, while Wilson is working with mainstream groups like the World Wildlife Foundation and the Nature Conservancy to create economic incentives for Third World countries to create rain forest preserves (for example). In the long run, which do you, gentle reader, think will be more successful?