The seductive statistician, or how controversy sells nooks

Rod Lamberts, Australian National University

Bjorn Lomborg The Skeptical Environmentalist: Cambridge University Press, 2002 ISBN 0-52101-068-3 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

The Skeptical Environmentalist is a reviewer’s dream. There are so many things worthy of comment that it’s hard to know where to begin. But after much consideration, my comments in this review are inspired by one nagging question: what motivated Bjorn Lomborg to write this book?

After reading The Skeptical Environmentalist, I too became somewhat sceptical, sceptical that a professor of statistics could present arguments based on such fundamentally flawed statistical reasoning by accident. While touched by the quaint assertion that statistical analysis will, in and of itself, reveal the ‘facts’ lurking within any dataset, I find it hard to believe that Lomborg himself could possibly think this. He is even of the opinion that not knowing about the sciences involved is one of his strongest credentials, making him an analyst of pure enough vision to assess the data, the whole data, and nothing but the data. But could he honestly believe that his ignorance of the details of the sciences he reviews is somehow advantageous, facilitating a ‘true’ interpretation of their numbers?

As any informed wielder of statistics will tell you, the statistical manipulation and interpretation of numbers is meaningless without an appreciation of how the numbers relate to the concepts in the world they represent. For example, understanding the procedure for correlating a set of variables is not necessarily related to understanding how well those variables were measured, how they conform to accepted theory in the discipline, nor how they may interrelate in the world. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Skeptical Environmentalist has inspired a myriad of reviews addressing the research Lomborg attacks, with many domain experts rebuking his arguments in great detail. Type ‘Lomborg’ or ‘Skeptical Environmentalist’ into any major internet search engine and you will be returned pages upon pages of reviews, comments, rebuttals, points, and counter-points in response to Lomborg’s treatise on what he astoundingly subtitles ‘the real state of the environment’. Consequently, I do not focus on the scientific details, for this has been well and truly handled by people more qualified and experienced than I. I prefer to take a different perspective, considering Lomborg’s rhetorical strategies, and the influence his techniques of persuasion may have on the scientific laity, and on public opinion and public policy in general. It is intriguing to look at how statistics, multiple references, implied authority, and other trappings of institutional science (and publishing) can lead and mislead the unwary.

You don’t have to look far or wide to conclude that many scientists are angry about this book. In fact, they are very angry. The Skeptical Environmentalist suggests—via the value-free magic of ‘pure’ statistical analysis—that we can reveal the truth about the Earth’s current environmental state, and from there safely, accurately, and very optimistically predict how this state may change in the future. We hear how the state of the world today has never been better (at least, statistically). We are told how ‘The Litany’ of environmental woes that green-types allegedly propound is actually just a product of a fundamentally pessimistic human nature, not proper scientific (or statistical) analysis. Statistics, it seems, are the key to a clear and unbiased re-analysis of previously hysterical environmental research and reporting, and therefore, the key to ‘the real state of the world’. This stance is at best naïve, at worst, downright manipulative. It is for this reason that I consider (and in some sense hope) that The Skeptical Environmentalist is more an exercise in persuasive, indeed seductive, polemic.

You don’t have to look far or wide to conclude that many scientists are angry about this book.

Lomborg’s seduction begins with the subtitle of his book: ‘measuring the real state of the world’. To the undiscerning or uncritical eye, this is an attractive offering. Here is a man who isn’t going to frustrate us with uncertainties, with the pros and cons of different modelling techniques, with nebulous and contestable timelines for the destruction of forests, with cries that we must reduce, reuse, recycle and change our lifestyle. This man gives it to us straight. Promises of certainty, especially from science (and even more so, from environmental science) are timely and appealing to the general public. But they are also meaningless. From a survey of the reviews of the scientific evidence Lomborg presents, it quickly becomes clear that a ‘real’ state of the world is at best contestable, at worst unknowable.

But the subtitle is just the start of the seduction. The first 80 odd pages tell a story of how good the state of the world is now—how wonderful mankind has made things for itself over time. This rhetorical artifice will lull the uncritical reader into a receptive state of mind in preparation for the discipline-specific, ‘fact-avalanche’ to come. What is more, to argue that ‘things are getting better’ is not the same as ‘things are good enough’, or, that ‘things won’t get worse’. That we are allegedly doing better now may be an endorsement of our advances in technology and global politics, but is at best only peripherally relevant to an analysis of where the environment may be heading.

This ‘things are great now’ stance, setting aside its irrelevance, also reflects a classic problem with statistical reasoning. It encourages interpretations of information/ data based on the big picture at the expense of considering the experience of the individual. For example, his (contestable) fact that 108 million Nigerians are better off now than they were, but that the 6.5 million people of Burundi are not, is of no use to those who are still starving in either country. But in a global sense, because there are more Nigerians than Burundis, this means things are better overall. According to Lomborg’s synopsis, this ‘…really means 17 Nigerians eating better versus 1 Burundi eating worse—that all in all mankind is better fed. The point here is that global figures can answer the question as to whether there have been more good stories to tell and fewer bad ones over the years or vice versa’ (p.7). To this I say, ‘tell the one Burundi’.

This example also focuses attention on Lomborg’s assertion that ‘global trends’ are required to measure his ‘real state of the world’. Global figures, aside from failing to consider the experience of the individual, are frequently cobbled together from very diverse and at times notoriously unreliable sources. National population estimates from countries without the infrastructure to gather accurate data in the first place, for example, aren’t particularly informative. When combined with other similarly unreliable guesstimates, to be summarised in brief reports and papers, we have to ask how useful such numbers really are.

Lomborg’s presentation is a wonderful example of how to sweep the uncritical reader away in a tide of ‘information’.

Lomborg relies heavily on the power of his rhetoric—both his prose, and the way he presents his arguments and supporting evidence—to sell his ideas (or his book…). This is ironic, especially given his early point that ‘…to a certain extent all argument relies on metaphors and rhetorical shortcuts. However, we must always be very careful not to let rhetoric cloud reality’ (p.27). Let’s take as one example of this strategy of bombarding the reader with ‘facts’; and not just ‘facts’, but ‘facts’ in many forms. The abundance of endnotes—nearly 3,000 of them spread over some 150 pages—has already been noted by a number of reviewers. For many readers, the sheer number of endnotes alone may add an unjustified sense of authority to his claims.

Reviewers quite rightly criticise Lomborg’s voluminous, scientifically impoverished, and biased selection of references. He rarely uses primary sources of scientific information, frequently citing news and popular media—and even the opinions of science fiction authors—as supporting evidence for many of his environmental counter-claims. Lomborg also contradicts his own caveats. For example, despite the brief disclaimer early in the book that UN and other such global agencies don’t always have the best, most reliable data/information, ‘facts’ and figures from exactly these sources comprise a noteworthy proportion of the endnotes he unproblematically and copiously flings at his subject. But worse, he accuses others of basing their pro-environmentalist assertions on these same ‘unreliable’ sources, thereby denouncing their assertions as flawed. Confusing, really.

But the seduction doesn’t stop with the profusion of endnotes. Brief, emotive and ‘fact’-rich paragraphs—often supported by graphs from apparently official sources—also lend an inflated air of credibility to his arguments. For readers unfamiliar with scholarly critique, the sciences under scrutiny, the logic of statistical reasoning, or literature searching, Lomborg’s presentation of facts and figures is a wonderful example of how to sweep the uncritical, inexpert, or skimming reader away in a tide of ‘information’. And this doesn’t even take into account the problems that many people have reading and interpreting graphs and figures at all, let alone judging whether they are accurate and representative. I imagine many among the scientific laity will count the mere presence of so many graphs as testament to the credibility and authority of both the man and his assertions.

Lomborg even resorts to what I would call ‘sandpit tactics’ to convince the reader that he is a good and credible critic and that environmental movement representatives are not. He goes so far as to suggest that people such as the president of the WWF in Denmark are environmentalists only as a means of gaining and maintaining employment; that improvements in environmental conditions would not be in their interests because they would be out of a job! This is cynical in the extreme, and detracts markedly from his position as a value-free commentator and ‘factual’ analyst of the ‘real state of the world’.

Lomborg also points out that he was once a member of Greenpeace himself, and that by implication he was once as deluded (and as naïvely committed) as those who believe we live in a time of potential environmental crisis. As I understand it, his commitment consisted of paying a basic membership fee: that’s it. However, to imply he in some sense had a strong affinity with the environmentalist movement due to this membership of Greenpeace is akin to me claiming to be a committed member of the Salvation Army because I donate money to them at their yearly doorknock.

Rebuttals of Lomborg’s arguments need to be made intelligible to as many outside the scientific community as possible.

Unfortunately, Lomborg’s highly human-centric view will also be attractive to many. He says that we all need to be richer before we should be prioritising such trivially misrepresented matters as pollution, global warming, waste disposal, etc. However, there is a body of evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, demonstrating that the creation of wealth is not infrequently linked to accelerated environmental degradation (see for example, Lowe, 2001; Eckersley, 2001; and Hamilton, 1999). He also says that ‘…the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’ (p.11). Seductive again, but dangerous if not properly considered. He is suggesting that it is not just our needs, but our desires that must come first, as though the two are indistinguishable. Are we to judge the environment to be a priority only when everybody’s desires are met? The danger here is that while needs can be defined in some objective, culture-independent sense, desires are potentially infinite and culture-specific, unlike our resources.

These are just some of the many criticisms that can be levelled at The Skeptical Environmentalist. But what effects might this book have in the public arena? Of greatest concern, I believe, is that people who make real policy decisions will be seduced by Lomborg’s rhetoric, rather than informed by the critique of the multitude of scientists who discredit him. Or, that those decision makers already irked by ‘pesky environmentalists’ will use Lomborg’s shallow polemic as a justification for poor, short-sighted, and potentially destructive environmental and economic policy. Even though the international scientific community is justifiably vocal and angry, the majority of the rest of the world’s voting and legislating public probably don’t know it. Rebuttals of Lomborg’s arguments, therefore, need to be made intelligible and available to as many outside the scientific community as possible.

I would be remiss in closing a commentary on The Skeptical Environmentalist without a brief consideration of the book’s good points. As we discovered in Australia a few years ago, one radical voice, however ‘creative’, can reveal just how many other people actually think the same way. When Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party were serious contenders in Australian politics, we found out just how many angry, confused and prejudiced voters there were in a country that prides itself on openness and giving people a ‘fair go’. It exposed flaws in the way some of our people were thinking about Australia’s place in the world, and showed that public and economic policy had been poorly explained to a significant minority of the community. Lomborg’s treatise may well be doing this in the arena of environmental science and policy. At times it is good to ‘rattle cages’ or ‘subvert the dominant paradigm’ to keep people on their toes: complacency can be dangerous. The Skeptical Environmentalist perhaps helps do this. It gave me, for one, a far greater incentive than I’ve had for a while to consider the science behind environmental movements. For this I must thank Professor Lomborg.

Moreover, if this was his goal, then he is a strong, almost saintly, man. To deliberately set oneself up as a pariah, to fly in the face of the basic tenets of one’s profession and selflessly remind people that environmental issues need consideration, is an act of global public service. But let us not forget that it is also potentially an excellent and highly expedient way to sell books and interviews, and climb aboard the lucrative international speaking circuit to boot. So, I return to my opening question: just why did Lomborg write The Skeptical Environmentalist? And why would a professor of statistics make mistakes a clear-headed statistical novice could spot? Perhaps it is simply as Oscar Wilde once proclaimed, ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about’.


Eckersley, R (2001) ‘Postmodern Science: The decline or liberation of science?’, in Science Communication in Theory and Practice, eds. S.M. Stocklmayer, M.M. Gore & C. Bryant, Kluwer, Dordrecht, pp. 83–94.

Hamilton, C (1999) Greenhouse Gas Revision To Deliver Massive Financial Bonus For Australia, says Institute. Accessed 30/4/02.

Lowe, I (2001) Skeptical Environmentalist Debates Critics. Earthbeat debate, ABC Radio Accessed 27/4/02.

Rod Lamberts is a lecturer in Science and Public Awareness at the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University. He also convenes the Engineering and Public Policy course for the ANU's Department of Engineering and is a UNESCO science communication consultant in the Pacific.