The Lomborg Debate Continued

Never let it be said I haven’t done my part to ruin America’s reputation abroad. I now have Danish professors / scientists emailing me to tell me how displeased they are with my website and, in this case, about the damage I’ve done to their reputations. That’s right: the 700 or so of you who read this tomorrow will long remember the name Jeffrey Harvey.

The other day I referenced an entry on Reason’s weblog, Hit & Run, where Ronald Bailey has done some digging to find out why Bjorn Lomborg and his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, have been censured by some Danish scientific panel. The original article I read listed no evidence of any wrong-doing on Lomborg’s part and seemed specious (See: Lomborg Another Bellesiles?).

Using Mr. Bailey’s post as a reference I said it confirmed what I had already suspected: that Lomborg was the subject of a hatchet job and mentioned one Jeffrey Harvey, a Danish scientist, as the culprit (See: Lomborg Vindicated — Danish Research Agency Receives Comeuppance). I received an email from Dr. Harvey which I’m quoting in its entirety:

Dear Mr. Prather,

I found it amusing – nay, hysterical – to read your piece on February 16 in which you, citing incomplete information from old right wing idealogue and CEI hack Ronald Bailey describe me as a “rabid environmentalist”. What makes it even more amusing is that you know nothing about me, about my research programme as a senior scientist, nor about the debate I had with a computer programmer (Mark Wickens) which led Bailey to launch his invective at me in which he described me as “rabid”, “hysterical”, a “harpy” and other kind words usually reserved for spoiled children once they have lost an argument. Moreover, Bailey says that I am “scientifically dishonest” (an obvious and desperate attempt to label me with the same charge of which Bjorn Lomborg was found guilty by the DCSD in January) based on a partial thread of an exchange I was having with Wickens; in fact, most of the exchange was severely edited by Wickens and he failed to print any of the arguments I posted to him in my last two e-mails that he was utterly unable of answering, nor did he attempt to respond to other important pieces of information I submitted to him during our early exchanges (sounds a bit like Lomborg, who is an expert at quoting people out of context in order to make
a point, and of omitting piles of references that do not support his rosy worldview).

One thing is clear: there can’t be that many of you espousing this neolibertarian rhetoric since you are all so well connected and act like a bunch of lemmings in an orgy when you gain even a sniff of some information that you think will vindicate your arguments. If you want to take snippets of information and throw heavy smears around, be my guest, but all this does is more clearly illustrate how desperate (and dishonest) you and your ilk on the far end of the political right are. Obviously, you are trying to resurrect the throbbing corpse of Lomborg’s blatant disregard for scientific protocol, but if you are so certain of his honesty, why not take me and the thousands of other scientists that support me and challenge us on the science? Wickens at least tried and failed miserably (this is why he so severely edited my replies via his web site, and Bailey, who has not published a peer-reviewed paper in his life, is not up to it either). By all means, you might as well try too: what do you want to debate? The relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning? The effects of secondary plant chemistry on the performance of higher trophic levels? Top-down and bottom up regulation in aquatic and terrestrial food webs? The evolution of life-histories of higher trophic levels based on spatial and temporal variation in plant community structure and pathogenic infection? Since you obviously think that a computer programmer and a writer for Reason Magazine “proved” that I am scientifically dishonest, based on their heavyweight knowledge of science, please tell me where and how. I would like to know. Clearly, spending 15 years in the field, with 40 published studies and having spoken at many universities did not prepare me for the deep, intellectually riveting arguments put forward by Wickens, at least this is what you are intimating. This proves that (a) an education in science and an academic career in the field must be meaningless, and that (b) I should have taken up computer programming. Had I done so, I would be better able to debate environmental science. Mr. Prather, your logic is impeccable (as is Bailey’s).

Lastly, I debated Lomborg in Holland last summer. Far from being intimidated by his immense knowledge of environmental science (at least immense in comparison with a mediocre high school student), it was he who has since avoided further debates with me. In truth, I hammered him and his arguments to such an extent that he did not even try and rebut me on any of the points I raised, save for a feeble reply defending his attempt to smear Ed Wilson and Paul Ehrlich. All he could say was, “Yeah, this is interesting, I must look into it!” (this was after squirming around in his chair as I savaged his nonsense). I didn’t expect to be able to bury Lomborg’s dishonesty as easily as I did, but all I came away was the fact that his view of the world is based on the narrowest instrumental understanding of nature, and that he must never publicly admit that he is wrong about anything. This will destroy his street cred and send him back into the academic wilderness from which he emerged. Thus, all he has to do is to stall his opponent, look interested in everything they say, and promise to examine the problem(s) again. Once this is done, he can flush it all down his mental toilet; after all, he is speaking to a new audience tomorrow! He can repeat the same discredited story!

Mr. Prather, if you want to debate me on the anything in Lomborg’s book, go ahead and try. However, I am aware that, no matter what I say, you will run off to your web site, print a heavily edited version of my response against yours, and scream from the hills: “Harvey is a dishonest, rabid, fanatic! I have proven he is dishonest!!!” etc. etc. etc. Sigh. If it makes you happy….

Yours sincerely

Dr. Jeffrey A. Harvey

I don’t know how he is as a scientist but he definitely uses a lot of fifty-cent words and his email does come across as quite rabid. I don’t even know how he found my site, but if he did maybe Lomborg will too and I can get an autographed copy of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”!!

My response, in which I cc’d Ronald Bailey, is below:

Dr. Harvey,

I have to assume you are who you say you are. The internet, particularly email, leaves lots of room for mischief. Based on that assumption, I’m flattered you took time to respond to my post. I’m surprised you even saw my site. I’m also happy I could “amuse” you. You can be assured I will not misquote you or twist your words in any correspondence.

You’re correct that I relied on Ronald Bailey and his contention that you were “rabid” and, given that I’ve been reading him for many years, I trust his word. Also, given the hysteria that accompanies even the mainstream environmental movement, it’s easy to believe the worst. The overheated report from the World Wildlife Fund that preceded the JoBurg summit last year is one example, and I’m not referring to the hysteria about having to move to another planet, etc. that popped up in the press. It’s just that their understanding of economics is pathetic and fails to take technological change into account. In fact, it ignores the most basic concepts in economics such as the ability of prices to communicate scarcity and for people to react to these signals by pursuing alternatives.

Another example would be charges that President Bush was looking to poison children because he sought to reduce the amount of arsenic — naturally occurring as you know — in water less than the Clinton Administration would. Given the state of the dialogue on the environment these days it’s easy to believe the worst.

Regarding Lomborg. I read his book last year and found it a difficult read but wonderful nonetheless. Given that he footnoted it extensively, used publicly available data and is posting corrections on his website as they are found, I still see no reason to distrust him. Just as I must rely on economists such as Milton Friedman because I lack their expertise — I’m not even an economist though I’m studied in the area — I must rely on others to find the truth in environmental matters. Lomborg is one such resource; Bailey another.

Take global warming as just one example. Lomborg believes it’s real but says the cost of living with it is much less than the cost of Kyoto, which won’t even reduce the warming but only delay it. Bailey contests it.

I happen to agree with Lomborg that it’s real but find the idea of adopting Kyoto ridiculous because it does nothing to reduce the concentration of CO2 in the air. For this geoengineering, such as the “Geritol” solution, is needed and environmentalists seem to dislike this alternative. Another alternative, which I guess would fall under geoengineering in this case, is nanotechnology, specifically carbon nanotubes. See here for additional details.

In both cases, the human mind — itself a part of nature — takes a negative and turns it into a positive. When the environmental movement is ready to embrace this type of thinking, as opposed to the precautionary principle, I’ll be ready to join them.

Robert Prather

I did hear back from Ronald Bailey and he seemed unphased by Dr. Harvey’s letter.

UPDATE: Dr. Harvey, being only human like the rest of us, did voice some regret over his email to me yesterday and asked that I publish the following qualification :

Mr. Wickens did publish in full the content of my first two letters and his replies, after which he decided to end the printing of my responses to him on his web site. I feel that the last two responses addressed his points fully, but Mr. Wickens did not feel obliged (as was his right) to print them.

As I said, the guy is human and apparently has been taking a lot of hits from the likes of me based on the decision to censure Lomborg — Dr. Harvey was part of the Danish panel that did so. I still disagree with the decision to censure Lomborg and Mark Wickens does a far finer job of explaining it than I ever could.

Nevertheless, I think it shows character that Dr. Harvey would admit he got a little carried away and look forward to any further dialogue he might wish to have, though I won’t be able to carry my end of a conversation on “effects of secondary plant chemistry on the performance of higher trophic levels”. A bit above my pay grade.

ANOTHER UPDATE: For those who are interested, Dr. Harvey has sent several PDFs of papers supporting his contentions about Lomborg. I read through one of them and it was understandable to the layman, though without Lomborg’s book in front of me it lacked context. The papers can be found here, here, here, here and here.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: The language of the environmental movement has gotten very course and I will make an effort to tone down the rhetoric to see if it will do any good because this *IS* something I care about. Particularly air and water.

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