Commentary Magazine


Environmentalist Manna

To the Editor:

In “The Mau-Mauing of Bjørn Lomborg” [September], David Schoenbrod identifies Science as a participant in what he calls the “wildly intemperate response of the key scientific journals.” This claim is supported by his assertions that our review of Lomborg’s book “bore the derisive title ‘Manna from Heaven,’ ” and that “Science refused to publish any replies to its attack, not even a brief letter from Lomborg himself.”

When we decided to review the book, Science‘s book editor and I quickly decided to steer clear of the “usual suspects”—scientists who had staked out positions in the environmental debate. The review was written by a distinguished British atmospheric chemist; it was critical but fair. Its title referred explicitly to a strong difference the reviewer had with Lomborg’s position that regulation has had little or nothing to do with environmental improvement. Thus, was it, instead, “Manna from Heaven”?

As to Lomborg’s letter: it is a policy here that we almost never publish authors’ complaints about reviews of their books, though we frequently get them. That is because we think our readers do not benefit from tedious exchanges between offenders and victims.

Donald Kennedy
Editor-in-Chief
Science
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

David Schoenbrod does a masterful job of summarizing the squalid attacks environmentalists have made against The Skeptical Environmentalist, and he rightly notes that environmentalists are upset because Bjørn Lomborg challenges their scientific authority. But he fails to carry his argument forward to explain that the point of their environmental “science” is to maintain their moral authority, which depends on the public perception of a perpetual environmental crisis. If the public came to see the environment as a normal problem rather than an apocalyptic one, the politics of the issue would change overnight; environmental activists would be regarded as just another special-interest group.

Lomborg poses a serious challenge to the few environmentalists who have any intellectual integrity, and has even helped to open some cracks in the environmental monolith. In the heat of a public debate with Lomborg last fall, Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute, for example, felt compelled to say that Lester Brown, one of the leaders of modern environmentalism, was not in fact “a significant figure in advancing environmental concerns.” Brown, it should be noted, has won both a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and the UN Environment Prize, and has been described by the Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” In a similar vein, Michael Grubb of Cambridge University, in his review of Lomborg’s book in Science, wrote that, “To any professional, it is no news at all that the 1972 Limits to Growth study [issued by the Club of Rome] was mostly wrong or that Paul Ehrlich and Lester Brown have perennially exaggerated the problems of food supply.” This may not be news for professionals in the field, but it is news for most of the media and the public, and this kind of admission is a significant breakthrough.

Steven F. Hayward
American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

David Schoenbrod’s article about Bjørn Lomborg’s critics is a welcome comment on this episode of intellectual authoritarianism. The campaign against Lomborg that Mr. Schoenbrod surveys has been continued by John P. Holdren, an environmental scientist at Harvard who wrote one of the attacks on The Skeptical Environmentalist that appeared in Scientific American. After Lomborg responded to the essay, Holdren penned a second attack for the magazine’s website. It concludes with the following:

Lomborg’s performance careens far across the line that divides respectable (even if controversial) science from thoroughgoing and unrepentant incompetence. He has failed thoroughly to master his subject. He has committed, with appalling frequency and brazen abandon, exactly the kinds of mistakes and misrepresentations of which he accuses his adversaries. He has needlessly muddled public understanding and wasted immense amounts of the time of capable people who have had to take on the task of rebutting him. . . . It is a lot to answer for.

The irony is that Holdren himself, as an environmental polemicist, has been wrong time and again regarding resource depletion, pollution abatement, energy reliability, and the threat of climate change. Among other things, Holdren, along with the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, lost a widely publicized bet with the late Julian Simon about the likely course of natural-resource prices. Holdren’s own track record leaves even less reason for him to lose his intellectual composure in the heat of debate with an able adversary.

Robert L. Bradley, Jr.
Institute for Energy Research
Houston, Texas

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To the Editor:

David Schoenbrod’s article was wonderful—a model of dispassionate, careful, and thoughtful writing. I was astonished by the low road taken by the editors of Scientific American and other periodicals. I had thought that political correctness was reserved for the professors of the soft sciences. That it has crossed over to the hard sciences is alarming.

Mr. Schoenbrod notes that the shifting of funds from compliance with the Kyoto Protocol on global warming to simpler and far less costly environmental improvements would save millions of lives. But he mercifully spares the environmentalists by letting a prime reason for their lack of interest go unmentioned. It is a tenet of the movement that there are already too many people on the planet and that environmental steps to prolong or increase human life are counterproductive.

Paul G. Marshall
Morristown, New Jersey

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David Schoenbrod writes:

The mau-mauing of Bjørn Lomborg goes on. Twelve prestigious scientists served a writ on his publisher, Cambridge University Press, demanding that it cease printing The Skeptical Environmentalist, hand the book over to a nonacademic press, and convene a tribunal to investigate its errors. They do not suggest that their own writings be subjected to any such investigation—although, as my correspondent Robert L. Bradley correctly notes, many of Lomborg’s opponents are hardly in a position to be throwing stones. In Denmark, meanwhile, the anti-Lomborg brigade has demanded that he be brought up on official charges of scientific dishonesty.

Donald Kennedy protests that Science, for its part, tried to be fair. The journal does deserve credit for picking, in Michael Grubb, an eminent reviewer who himself tried to be fair. In his review, Grubb acknowledged Lomborg’s “compelling” case for the proposition that “in many respects the environment is getting better rather than worse.” Where Grubb went astray was precisely in asserting that Lomborg would prefer to rely on environmental improvement coming of its own accord without government intervention. It is true that at one point Lomborg cites studies suggesting that some of the environmental improvement popularly ascribed to regulation has actually come from other sources, but this is hardly tantamount to being against regulation altogether. In his introductory chapter, Lomborg makes crystal clear that government has a role to play:

Pointing out that our most publicized fears are incorrect does not mean that we should make no effort toward improving the environment. Far from it. . . . What this information should tell us is not to abandon action entirely, but to focus our attention on the most important problems and only to the extent warranted by the facts.

Grubb’s error here was critical because it gave rise to the review’s derisive and damaging—and inaccurate—title, “Manna from Heaven.”

In any case, my quarrel is not with Grubb but with Mr. Kennedy, who then declined to print Lomborg’s half-page letter pointing out Grubb’s error. Mr. Kennedy justifies this refusal on the basis of policy: “we almost never publish authors’ complaints about reviews of their books.” The policy is of course of his own making; other publications, including the New York Review of Books and COMMENTARY, have no such policy. Nor can space have been a consideration: Science prints over 200 letters annually, and according to its website it publishes additional letters in its online edition.

Mr. Kennedy writes that the real reason had to do with sparing his readers “tedious exchanges between offenders and victims.” The reaction to Lomborg’s book can be characterized in many ways, but tedium is the last quality one would associate with it; surely the readers of Science would have found much interest in an exchange between this upstart author and the eminent Michael Grubb. Besides, “almost never” implies sometimes, and if ever there was a sometime, this was it.

In my article I took pains to point out that Scientific American and Nature were far more egregious in their partisan pursuit of Lomborg than was Science. It is still not too late for Mr. Kennedy to make amends, and thereby distinguish his publication once again from those others.

My thanks to Steven F. Hayward and Paul G. Marshall for their generous comments.

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