The Infection of Science by Public Choice:

Steven Schneider vs. Bjorn Lomborg and The Skeptical Environmentalist

Full Document Available in PDF

Most everyone who cares about the environment in general and global warming in particular has heard of Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg and his book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which argues that environmental threats, particularly those from global warming, are largely overblown. Furthermore, most people know Lomborg has sent “Big Science” into a tizzy, prompting some scientists to pen shrill screeds against him in publications such as Nature, Science, and Scientific American. Lomborg was even kangaroo-courted by something called the Danish “Committees [sic] on Scientific Dishonesty,” which accused him of (surprise!) “scientific dishonesty.”

The Danish “Committees” attacked Lomborg based on a series of unrefereed (non-peer reviewed) essays published in Scientific American, which hired four well-worn guns to shoot poor Bjørn full of holes. They included

  • John Holdren, a Harvard University energy analyst who, along with his mentor, Paul Ehrlich, lost a $10,000 bet to economist Julian Simon in 1990 when shortages of five metals that Ehrlich and Holdren had forecast ten years earlier failed to materialize.
  • Tom Lovejoy, who used to run the World Wildlife Fund, the biggest environmental lobbying organization in history,
  • John Bongaarts, vice president of the Population Council, an organization that is chagrined that estimates of future population keep going down, and
  • Steve Schneider, Department of Biology, Stanford University.

Both the “Committees” and Lomborg give the most credence to Schneider’s essay, largely because it is the most literate (and vituperative) of the four, and because it concentrates on the core environmental and lifestyle issue of our time, global warming.

It’s not surprising that Schneider’s review is the nastiest. He represents academia, which has the most to lose if the global warming hysteria somehow dies—about $16 billion over the next four years, the sum of money in future federal budgets proposed by President Bush to study this issue.

While the major science journals like Science and Scientific American serve some noble purposes, they are also susceptible to the kind of incentives explained by public choice theory.

It is no accident that the publisher of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), is headquartered in Washington, D.C. AAAS lobbies on behalf of the research community, as do Nature and Scientific American. All three have editorialized on behalf of the Kyoto Protocol or against President Bush’s opposition, and all have published remarkably vitriolic reviews of The Skeptical Environmentalist.

Consequently, Schneider is not alone; rather, he represents a community that recognizes substantial economic gain from an alarmist view of global warming, a view that is simply not warranted by scientific facts.