|Lomborg and the media: Conclusions
|Lomborg and the media The Danish media The media in Britain The media in USA International media|
Lomborg-error´s section on `Lomborg and the media´ contains pages on the situation in Denmark (where the most detailed information is available to me) and also the situation in Britain, in the USA, and elsewhere. On this page I will combine the evidence from these pages and focus on certain aspects of general importance.
It seems unlikely that Lomborg´s success and impact are due merely to his own merits.
His first breakthrough in a Danish newspaper in 1998 was heavily promoted by editor-in-chief T. Seidenfaden - even though Seidenfaden allegedly had up to then never heard about Lomborg and had never met him. In spite of this, it seems that Seidenfaden actively helped Lomborg to avoid crucial criticism from his opponents. The breakthrough had been prepared half a year in advance, and it seems that Seidenfaden´s support and argumentation precisely followed a predefined script. That is, the breakthrough may have been a planned plot. Such plans can hardly have been made by Lomborg as a single independent person. It seems that there must have been persons acting behind the scene to promote him - persons whose identity is completely unknown to the rest of us.
Likewise, it is remarkable how Lomborg was carried into success when he was first introduced in Great Britain. Several articles about his book were printed in newspapers three months before the publishing of his first book, with just the right timing to present arguments for not ratifying the Kyoto protocol when American president Bush visited Britain and needed arguments against Kyoto. This suggests that Lomborg was being actively promoted by persons who defend the interests of the oil companies. But again, the identity of these persons, if they exist, is completely unknown to the rest of us.
In USA, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), one of the leading right-wing opponents of all 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. A CEI-sponsored anti-Kyoto group, the Cooler Heads Coalition, hosted a congressional and media briefing for Lomborg at the U.S. Capitol. This is not in itself wrong - it just shows that people at CEI were right from the start aware of the value of Lomborg for their agenda. What is wrong is that several leading newspapers took care to have Lomborg´s book reviewed by persons who were known in advance to agree with Lomborg, and it was wrong to present the book without any critical questions at all. This biased promotion of the book suggests that persons behind the scene - which may or may not have been affiliated with CEI - worked actively to promote Lomborg.
From the very start Lomborg depended on the media for his success. His extraordinary ability to have the media do what he wanted them to has been crucial to his career.
What Lomborg wrote about the environment was demonstrably wrong, and it would therefore be impossible for him to have such writings accepted in scientitic publications with peer review by experts in relevant fields. Instead, he published his postulates in articles and books that looked extremely technical and scientific to the layman, and had them promoted by the media, without peer review.
This strategy would have failed more or less if the experts in relevant fields had been given suitable options to express their criticism in the same media. That is, if there had been a fair debate pro et con in the media, with full possibilities to present all relevant objections, then Lomborg´s postulates would have been shot down. It was therefore crucial for Lomborg from the very beginning to prevent this from happening. One method to do this was to `drown´ any debate in an absurd amount of details, which nobody would understand. Another very necessary method was to prevent criticism from being published.
Every time Lomborg says or writes something, criticism hails down on him from those who disagree. So one cannot say that there is not plenty of criticism. What is important for Lomborg´s success is that
- the criticism does not appear in those media that most people see or hear
- the most concrete criticism (that which is not easily countered) is blocked
- the critics are not believed
There are examples of all three points. The examples concerning the debates in Politiken in Denmark indicate that the editors, especially the editor-in-chief, in all probability directly helped Lomborg by rejecting precisely those reader´s letters that were most dangerous to Lomborg´s allegations. At the same time, the editors took care to tell their readers, in direct contradiction to the truth, that nobody had advanced criticism that challenged Lomborg´s so-called facts.
In large newspapers in USA, Lomborg´s books were mostly reviewed by persons who were known in advance by the editors to be very favourable to Lomborg´s points of view. As a result, such reviews took Lomborg´s factual assertions at face value and neither posed any critical questions, nor checked the facts, nor sought to hear independent views. The readers would therefore not be confronted with any alternative views, as long as they got their information from only that newspaper.
The situation is even more glaring when it comes to radio or TV interviews. Here, there are no possibilities that the public audience can correct misinformation by sending reader´s letters or the like. There is no feedback from the audience to those who produce the programmes. That puts high demands on the producers and journalists that they live up to ethical standards of balanced journalism and hearing both sides. In most cases, they have betrayed the ideals to a horrible degree. Often, they simply record what Lomborg says without posing critical questions or hearing opponents. If they do hear opponents, these will often take up a minuscule part of the time of the total programme.
It is difficult to explain how come that the journalists to such a degree betray the ideals of sound journalism as soon as Lomborg is involved. Part of the explanation is that Lomborg takes contact to the media in advance and appear as a sympathetic friendly guy whom it is easy to work with. Once Lomborg is in good rapport with the journalists, it is easier for him to speak ill of his opponents as persons that you should not talk with and whose opinions you should not hear. They can be depicted as well-meaning-but-naive, or ridiculous, or dishonest, or as having dirty motives. In any case, Lomborg is remarkably successful at discouraging journalists from doing their duty and hearing the other party. In addition, to a journalist Lomborg is such an unusual and interesting person that it is tempting just to portrait the man with the polo-shirts, rather than reviewing the criticism against him.
In general, Lomborg´s many supporters do not believe what his critics say.
For instance, the reviewer Dennis Dutton writing for Washington Post says: "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."
When the Sunday Times in Britain wrote an article on Lomborg in 2005, they wrote that it is about right to call Lomborg "eager and honest", that his intentions are good, and that there are no reasons not to believe him.
When The Guardian named him one of the 50 people who could save the planet, their motivation was that he has become an essential check and balance to runaway environmental excitement, and that he is one of the few academics prepared to challenge the consensus with credible data. Considering the enormous amount of criticism and thrashing, it is very strange that journalists can call his data `credible´. The do mention that he was accused of scientific dishonesty, but add that he cleared his name (which is not correct).
An example of how Lomborg manages to discredit his critics is a leader in The Economist (31 st. Jan. 2002). Here the editor, accepting Lomborg´s assertions, writes: "Mr Lomborg defends these positions on the basis of official data and published science. Environmentalists typically use the same sources, but, as Mr Lomborg lays bare, are much less scrupulous about setting short runs of data in their long-term context . . . " So the reader understands that the environmentalists are unscrupulous. Later in the same leader, it therefore seems legitmate to directly slate the unscrupulous scientists who dared to criticise Lomborg in Scientific American. Thus, under the title "Leeches of the world, unite", Stephen Schneider is accused of defending necessary lies and the offering up of scary scenarios.
In Denmark, after Lomborg received the verdict from the Committees on Scientific Dishonesty, editor-in-chief Tøger Seidenfaden at Politiken wrote a full page article (3rd Feb. 2002) with the title in large letters: "When scientists get aggressive" [the aggressive scientists are Lomborg´s opponents]. Seidenfaden writes that one should judge Lomborg from whether his data can be challenged and whether he has left out relevant information; he then goes on to say that only one alleged case of this has been brought to light, and whether this is a case of misinformation depends entirely on whether one prefers absolute or relative figures. In other words, Lomborg is innocent. When I wrote a very short reader´s letter to the newspaper to protest against this interpretation, Seidenfaden sent an email directly to me arguing that it was not relevant: " . . . on the face of it, they [your figures] do not make much sense, when one looks at Lomborg´s sources concerning starvation. Concerning the forest fires, I think you ascribe an estimate to Lomborg, which he ascribes to the Indonesian government." So Seidenfaden went into extreme details to maintain his contention that Lomborg is not wrong on any single point (but in the end, he did print that particular letter).
Altogether, the will to interpret any ambiguity in Lomborg´s favour and his opponents´ disfavour is extremely strong in several editors. They use their newspapers as advocates to defend Lomborg through thick and thin. They are very far from using newspapers as sources of balanced information where both sides are heard.
There are cases - although not many - when newspapers try to make balanced reviews or presentations of Lomborg´s points of view. I describe one example, The New York Times´review on 7th Aug. 2001. It was written by a journalist from the science section. Sadly, however, he did not understand very well what scientists said to him. He completely misinterpreted the scientists´ modesty and hesitation to come up with definite facts and figures. When they expressed uncertainty (as a scientist should do) his conclusion was that their contention was weakly founded. And when an expert in forest decline said that he should not take her words for the truth, but check directly at the source of the statistics, giving the journalist the relevant telephone number, he wrote: "she . . . declined to give the percentage". In any case, the journalist claimed to have too little time to go into depth with the details, and the result was an article with several disastrous misunderstandings. A journalist from the science section should have been experienced in talking with scientists and should have done better. The result was that Lomborg´s strategy - never to express uncertainty and always giving the expression that he knows the exact figures for sure - won.
In the page on the media in USA, I refer to a book from 2007 by Roger Pielke Jr.: `The Honest Broker´. The book argues that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result they are jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming (link). Pielke discusses at length the controversy in 2002 when Scientific American printed a harsh 11 page criticism of Lomborg´s first book. Pielke quotes one of Lomborg´s critics, John P. 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. Pielke´s point of view is that politics is not made by any straightforward process on the basis of scientific evidence. Rather, politicians pick whatever evidence they can to support their view. That is, the political agenda often comes before the evidence. When scientists maintain that the evidence should come first and form the basis of political decisions, then they are interfering with the political process and thereby going beyond their authority (Personal note: I am very much against this understanding! - see also my review of The Honest Broker here on Lomborg-errors).
When Pielke´s book was reviewed by John Tierney in several media, this episode suddenly became 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? " He answers indirectly `no´ when he says: "Some scientists . . . 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."
So Holdren´s virtue - that he inquires alleged scientific facts, as any scientist should do - is turned against him. He is depicted as a man with suspect motives, and his criticism of Lomborg in Scientific American is presented as unfair.
A somewhat similar argumentation has been advanced by social scientists in the debate in Denmark, particularly by professor of environmental laws at the Copenhagen University, Peter Pagh. He stated his arguments most clearly in an article in the weekly journal `Ingeniøren´ (no. 6, 2003):
"Concerning `good scientific practice´, it is my point of view that at least within the social sciences it makes no sense to say that you mislead people. Or if you say so, then we all mislead. Of course nobody has written a social science treatise that is not one-sided." . . . "Our general democratic system is based on the idea that people may mislead the public. Of course nobody will maintain that the political process is made up of objectively true statements, or that people do not manipulate the processes." . . . "But part of democracy is, of course, that there is always somebody who kicks in the opposite direction."
So according to this social science view, it is ridiculous to speak of any objective truth. Instead, progress happens when different opinions are expressed in public fora, and different arguments are used to `kick in opposite directions´.
I will oppose stongly against this social science interpretation of what goes on. First, the debate in the public fora has not been free in the Lomborg case. Opponents have been prevented from expressing their strongest or most concrete arguments in the public media - in contrast to scientific media, which always have the obligation to present relevant, well argued opposition. Second, it is possible to state objectively that many of Lomborg´s claims are directly untrue. The main purpose of this web site, Lomborg-errors, is to do precisely that. Third, in the natural sciences it is the duty of any scientist to mention not only the evidence that speaks in favour of his own theory, but also the evidence that speaks for other theories and against his own. The duty to do so is a crucial part of the ethics and the methods that distinguishes science from other types of argumentation. When social scientists do not follow this ethics, they are strictly speaking not scientists at all.
It is extremely difficult to win over Lomborg in any oral debate. 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 Lomborg will never admit anything, and so the audience, reading the body language, will think that Lomborg never lost a single time during the debate.
One of Lomborg´s opponents, Joe Romm, discusses a TV debate between two parties of each three persons, one of which was Lomborg. Of course the Lomborg side won. A person on the winning side suggested that the success was bluff, because his adherents had deliberately presented themselves as undecided before the debate. Still, Joe Romm takes this event as an illustrative example that such debates cannot be won. And he announces this warning to all pro-climate-action debaters:
"It is very hard to win a staged debate with people who make stuff up [i.e. who lie]. It is next to impossible to do so if they are skilled debaters. And you are guaranteed to lose if it isn´t a one-on-one debate. Why? The only way to out-debate somebody who makes stuff up is to call them out on it. And if they keep doing it, you have to keep calling them out. Even the most skilled debater has difficulty publicly questioning the honesty and integrity of [an] opponent again and again (which is why you rarely see anyone attempt it). But you´ll never convince an audience that multiple `experts´ are making stuff up."
Joe Romm also has a post in his blog where he uses the term "smart-talkers" about scientists. "Smart-talkers" are people who know a lot about a subject and utilise this advantage by taking care to appear smarter than the others. They think that this is a winning strategy, whereas people with talents for rhetoric know that it is a losing strategy. This fact has been well understood by winning politicians right from ancient Greece to our days. Politicians win a debate if they can make people feel that "I am just like you". You don´t win a debate by referring to the opinion of a climate scientist. You win a debate by referring to the point of view of somebody whom people usually trust or look up to, like the local priest, an actress, or a sports star. A "smart-talker" is clearly not "one of us", and therefore he is not trusted.
If the clever man is honest, and his opponent is ignorant but a master of persuasive language, the latter will always win an oral debate. This was stated clearly already by Plato (cited by Joe Romm in his post). In his dialogue Gorgias, about the master rhetorician, Plato says:
"If a rhetorician and a doctor visited any city you like to name and they had to contend in argument before the Assembly or any other gathering as to which of the two should be chosen as doctor, the doctor would be nowhere, but the man who could speak would be chosen, if he so wished."
No surprise then, says Joe Romm, that someone skilled in rhetoric can beat a scientist in a debate on climate.
If you agree with Joe Romm, the sad conclusion is that it is imposible to clarify the true state of things in a public debate. And the problem with Lomborg is that he wants to obtain just that. His postulates are so permeated with lies and manipulation that he can never have them accepted by the scientific community. So he evades that community and seeks public fora where he can always win a debate.
where we have for instance 99 % of the scientists
saying that we have a large environmental problem, and 1 % denying
it - then there will be a tendency that the media arrange debates
or interviews where each part is exposed equally. That is, the outsider
point-of-view gets 50 % of the attention, and the mainstream
point-of-view, which nearly everybody agreed to, is suddenly presented
as only equal to the other. This makes people confused.