The ’Lomborg case’ on sustainable development and scientific dishonesty

Category Other
Group GSI.IR
Location International Geological Congress,oslo 2008
Author Hansen, Jens Morten
Holding Date 04 October 2008

In 2001 the economist Bjørn Lomborg published a book on the effects of consumption of natural resources, titled The Skeptical Environmentalist (a translation of Verdens sande tilstand, 1998). The English version fed into the worldwide sustainability debate. Lomborg maintained that compared to global problems (e.g. population growth, lack of fresh water), problems of global warming, energy shortages, deforestation etc. were undocumented assumptions. He became a ’TV star’ by saying there was no reason to worry about environmental questions. In Denmark, Rasmussen’s liberal-conservative government closed the National Nature Council soon after the 2001 elections, creating an Institute for Environmental Assessment (IMV) with Lomborg as Director. Cuts were made in the public service and about 200 environmental scientists were dismissed, including ca 50 geologists.
But Lomborg was accused of scientific dishonesty and brought before the Research Council’s Committee on Scientific Dishonesty (UVVU), chaired by Judge Brydensholt. Lomborg was asked if he regarded his text as a ’debate’ book (which could not be adjudicated by the UVVU) or a scientific contribution. Lomborg chose the latter; and so the committee examined his book. After receiving a draft report, Brydensholt decided that there were so many criticisms that argument would be endless; so the dishonesty question had to be handled on a more general basis. Thus, the draft report was not filed. Instead the UVVU considered the statements of environmental experts who’d reviewed The Skeptical Environmentalist in scientific journals. On this basis and the UVVU’s opinion, Brydensholt concluded that one couldn’t prove that Lomborg had deliberately been scientifically dishonest, although he had broken the rules of scientific practice in that he interpreted results beyond the conclusions of the authors he cited. This decision created a storm in Danish and foreign newspapers, and individuals and committees worldwide wrote articles on the case and made submissions to the UVVU. Danish scientists split into two fractions. The smaller group, mainly societal scientists, thought the decision a disgrace to Danish science. The larger one, with prominent representatives from most other disciplines, claimed that the UVVU was entitled to make its decision, and that the UVVU was needed to prevent scientific fraud. Lomborg complained to the Minister of Science. In 2003 the Minister of Science annulled the UVVU and Brydensholt decisions and asked the Committee re-examine the case. The Committee took the annulments ad notam but declined to re-examine the scientific content of the accusations.
In the next 2 years serious errors were found in IMV reports and its scientific board members resigned in protest at Lomborg’s leadership. In 2006 the Rasmussen Government changed its views on global change and the IMV was dissolved. Rasmussen was re-elected in 2007 and erected a new Ministry for Climate and Energy.