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The Skeptical Environmentalist: A Case Study in the Manufacture of News

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

January 23, 2003

By now, most are familiar with the controversy surrounding Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg and the claims made in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. The latest development took place in early January 2003 when the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty issued a decision that declared Lomborg’s research “to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty,” and to be “clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice.” The committee, however, did not find grounds that Lomborg “misled his readers deliberately or with gross negligence.” Instead, the decision recommends that the book should be properly understood and interpreted as a “a provocative debate-generating paper.”

The Danish decision and the reviews that have appeared in Scientific American, Science, and Nature strongly question the scientific merits of Lomborg’s claims. He remains, however, highly regarded by conservatives and by the financial press. Last year, Lomborg was appointed director of Denmark’s Environmental Assessment Institute by the newly elected right wing government, and among the many kudos emanating from the financial press, Lomborg was named one of the 50 stars of Europe by Business Week magazine.

Clearly, The Skeptical Environmentalist has fueled Lomborg’s personal celebrity. So, how did a book authored by an obscure Danish academic with little or no expertise in environmental science become an international media event? Or more precisely, what was so newsworthy about this book?

Sketchy Science, Heavy Promotion

The critiques of Lomborg’s claims by scientists can be summarized and categorized as the following:

The vast criticism of the book from credentialed scientists contrasts sharply with the early advance hype from the mainstream media. Just how so much glowing enthusiasm and credibility could be thrust upon a single book from an unknown author before experts could even begin to weigh its claims offers an excellent case study in the manufacture of news.

Getting on the Agenda

Lomborg first made his optimistic claims about the state of the environment in a series of newspaper op-eds published in his home country of Denmark. By Lomborg’s count, the op-eds sparked some 400 news articles and commentaries in the Danish press. The vast amount of resistance to his optimistic views on the environment, and his debunking of what he termed “the litany” of extreme claims made by environmentalists, motivated him in 1998 to publish a Danish version of The Skeptical Environmentalist. The fracas went largely unnoticed outside of Denmark, but that would change with the fall 2001 release of an English version of the The Skeptical Environmentalist by Cambridge University Press.

News of the pending book first appeared in the U.K in early June of 2001 when a Sunday Times article by Nayab Chohan featured an advanced report of claims made by Lomborg that London’s air was cleaner than at any time since 1585. Headlined “Cleanest London Air for 400 Years,” the publicity hook was both local and timely, as the tail end of the article linked the book’s questioning of the Kyoto climate change protocol to U.S. president George W. Bush’s visit the same week to Europe, and Bush’s controversial opposition to the treaty. The Times followed up the report the next day with a news article further detailing the book’s Kyoto protocol angle.

With The Times reports, Lomborg and his claims had made the Anglo media agenda. As is typically the case, other media outlets followed the reporting of the elite newspaper. Articles pegging the claims of The Skeptical Environmentalist to Bush’s European visit ran later that week in the U.K’s The Express and Daily Telegraph, and Canada’s Toronto Star.

All this set the stage for news of The Skeptical Environmentalist to hit the U.S. media, and no other outlet could provide a better launching pad than the New York Times “Science Times” section. The publication of national record for the U.S., the paper’s weekly science section is widely regarded as the leading model for quality, depth, and breadth of newspaper science coverage. So in August 2001, when Nicholas Wade put together a 2,000 word mostly positive profile of Lomborg as part of the section’s prestigious “scientist at work” feature, it proved to be a significant publicity coup for Lomborg. Indeed, probably the only thing that kept coverage of the book from completely taking off in the U.S. after the New York Times profile was the September 11 terrorist attacks that dominated the news media’s attention for the next six months.

Dramatizing the Lomborg Affair

Yet beyond what media researchers call the “inter-agenda setting” effect with coverage at elite news outlets setting off follow up coverage by other media (Trumbo, 1995), additional aspects of the Lomborg affair made the story especially appealing to journalists. Previous studies of the news have shown that journalists as a profession are attracted to compelling narratives, with a good story comprised of personalities, conflict, and the odd, peculiar, or unusual (Bennett, 2001). Specific to coverage of science, those issues that receive the greatest media attention are often those that are most easily dramatized, regardless of other more objective criteria (McComas & Shanahan, 1999).

In terms of narrative, Lomborg was a ready-made movie script. Almost every news article about Lomborg made reference to the journey of self-discovery he describes in his book. The narrative as sold by Lomborg and repeated by the media goes something like this:

A former member of Greenpeace, a self-described leftist, a backpacking outdoorsman, and a vegetarian, Lomborg in 1997 was paging through a copy of Wired magazine in a bookstore in San Francisco. He happened across an interview with Julian Simon, a University of Maryland economist known for his optimistic prediction that population growth was unlikely to exhaust the planet’s resources. Later that year, an intrigued Lomborg set about in Denmark with ten of his brightest students to examine Simon’s claims. Expecting to prove Simon wrong, Lomborg and his students were surprised to find that many of the economist’s predictions about the state of the environment were on the mark. This discovery led Lomborg to pen a few op-eds for a center-left Danish newspaper, and eventually to the publication in Denmark of the first edition of The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Not only did Lomborg offer a compelling personal narrative, but his claims were both unusual and controversial. Perhaps tired of the same old “doom and gloom” predictions of environmental scientists, journalists discovered in Lomborg a fresh perspective. His claims were those of a “maverick scientist,” a favorite character in science news dramas (Dearing, 1995).

Moreover, Lomborg’s thesis fit the polarized, black and white style in which most public controversies are covered, with journalists featuring Lomborg’s counter-claims against the most extreme arguments of environmentalists. In other instances, journalists evoked a “dueling scientists” frame, with Lomborg challenging conventional scientific wisdom. Finally, most journalists fell victim to the smoke screen of scholarship that the book projected. Over and over again, as supporting evidence for Lomborg’s claims, journalists made reference to the book’s 515 pages, 2,930 endnotes, and 182 tables and diagrams, as if sheer volume of words and data were proof enough of scientific merit.

Constructing Expert Endorsement

The credibility of the The Skeptical Environmentalist was further promoted by reviews in leading newspapers that were inexplicably glowing, and tributes in the conservative and financial press that were predictably enthusiastic. In several leading newspapers, experts from the environmental sciences were noticeably absent from the crop of reviewers. Instead, the newspapers turned to popularizers, writers with a literary flair that lacked expertise in the environmental sciences, but could be counted on for either an entertaining read or a strong opinion. Technical precision didn’t matter, entertaining storytelling and ideology did.

In a late August review for London’s Sunday Telegraph, science writer Matt Ridley (formerly of The Economist) called The Skeptical Environmentalist “probably the most important book on the environment ever written.” A September review in The Economist opened with the following over-the-top endorsement: “This is one of the most valuable books on public policy—not merely on environmental policy—to have been written for the intelligent reader in the past ten years.”

In an October review for the Washington Post, Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, concluded that the “richly informative, lucid book is now the place from which environmental policy decisions must be argued....It’s a magnificent achievement.” In a review the same month in the Wall Street Journal, Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for the libertarian Reason magazine, judged The Skeptical Environmentalist to be a “superbly documented and readable book,” and referred to the evidence presented as “uncontroversial data.” He ended the review by comparing radical environmentalists to Islamic radicals. The National Review picked John Adler, an assistant professor of law at Case Western Reserve University, for its April 2002 assessment. Adler proclaimed Lomborg “the environmentalists’ Enemy Number One,” and deemed The Skeptical Environmentalist “an encyclopedic assessment of environmental concerns.”

The Skeptical Journalist: Beware of Books

If there is a lesson to be learned by journalists from the Lomborg affair it is to be suspicious of books, especially those by outsiders to a scientific or academic field who make extraordinary claims that counter scientific consensus. The Skeptical Environmentalist is the latest in a line of books over the past decade that present the strongest of arguments supported by a smoke screen of data and end notes. Consider for example Hernstein’s and Murray’s The Bell Curve, or Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado (the jury is still out on Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science). Some of the material in these books mirrors at least some aspect of the truth, but the claims made by the authors are stretched into infinite shades of gray, or just plain error, by their extraordinary nature. If reporters are concerned with getting a story right, then the challenge remains to balance what the culture of journalism says makes for a good story with what a scientist knows about detecting sound science.

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References

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.