Why discrediting controversial academics such as Bjørn Lomborg damages science

LomborgAlice Dreger’s new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, tells the stories of various academics whose work is perceived to be politically threatening to one group or another and then as a consequence experience vicious personal and professional attacks. In each of the cases, when Dreger explored the controversy, she found that the claims made to impeach the researchers – such as that their research was fabricated or that they had engaged in academic misconduct – did not stand up to scrutiny.

Instead, Dreger uncovered systematic campaigns to discredit individuals, and even attempts to end their careers. She explains the general dynamics employed by the self-appointed impeachers included: “blanketing the Web to make sure they set the terms of debate, reaching out to politically sympathetic reporters to get the story into the press, doling out fresh information and new characters at a steady pace to keep the story in the media.” For publicizing these cases, Dreger herself became the subject of such attacks.

Dreger’s book focuses on controversies related to sex. But if there is one issue that people seem to enjoy fighting over more than sex, it is the environment. Bjørn Lomborg is not a character in Dreger’s book, but he very well could be.

Several weeks ago the University of Western Australia announced that it had received a $4 million grant from Canberra to establish a Copenhagen Consensus Center on its campus with Lomborg at the helm. The “consensus center” describes itself as “a think tank that researches the smartest solutions for the world’s biggest problems by cost-benefit, advising policy-makers and philanthropists how to spend their money most effectively.” It was originally funded by the Danish government and more recently by private donations in Washington, DC. Lomborg’s use of economic cost-benefit analysis has long been the focus of intense criticism.

In Australia, the reaction to the UWA announcement was no less intense than a New South Wales bushfire. Christine Milne, Australian Greens leader and senator from Tasmania, tweeted: “Giving Bjorn Lomborg $4m from precious research budget is an insult to every climate scientist in Australia.” Tim Flannery, a scientist and former director of the Australian government’s Climate Commission, accused Lomborg and prime minister Tony Abbott’s government of an “ideological attempt at deceiving the Australian public.” Students at UWA joined in the outrage, demanding that the university immediately disassociate from Lomborg: “While Dr Lomborg doesn’t refute climate change itself, many students question why the Centre’s projects should be led by someone with a controversial track-record. Assessing how to achieve development goals is important, but why should Dr Lomborg be involved?”

Whatever you may think of Lomborg as an academic, as a media figure, as a political campaigner, the kerfuffle over his appointment at UWA provides us with a great opportunity to engage together in a discussion about academic intolerance and campaigns to “shout down” unwelcome or inconvenient voices.

Before proceeding, given the nature of such issues, let me take a quick moment to establish my own bona fides.

I have been on opposite sides of many issues from Lomborg, including the time when I first met him on a 2002 panel debate in Italy to 2009 when I took an opposing view from his on the subject of geoengineering. At the same time, I have found Lomborg’s work to be incredibly useful in the classroom. I had multiple generations of graduate students critique The Skeptical Environmentalist from start to finish and later generations replicate the Copenhagen Consensus methodology as the focus of another graduate seminar. I didn’t care whether students agreed with Lomborg’s conclusions or not but rather that they developed skills of critical thinking. Lomborg’s work helped mightily in challenging the students to think, partly because of some of his unpopular conclusions.

As well, in recent years I’ve experienced academic intolerance first hand. There was the ultimately successful social and mainstream media campaign to have me fired from Nate Silver’s ESPN website, FiveThirtyEight. More recently, a member of the US Congress opened an “investigation” of my research because he did not like the evidence that I had presented before the US Senate in 2013. So I know a bit about campaigns to impugn character and damage careers.

Politics can be nasty, and Australian politics can be particularly nasty (just ask Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard). As a famous American political aphorism goes, “politics ain’t bean-bag.” However, the fact that politics can be nasty should not give license to anyone, least of all scientists and researchers, to practice academic intolerance via shout-down campaigns.

Back in 2002, along with Steve Rayner, at Oxford University, I organized a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the controversy over Lomborg’s book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Even then, as we wrote at the time, “It proved difficult to focus attention on the broader issues arising from the conflict because many refused to engage the larger issues, preferring instead to take one side or the other.”

How should academics and others researchers respond when individual researchers become symbols of larger political conflicts, such as those documented in the area of sex and gender by Alice Dreger, or in the case of Bjorn Lomborg?

Here I’ll offer three suggestions to stimulate some discussion:

1. Don’t seek to shut down debate and discussion. This means not seeking to prevent individuals from publishing their views or holding a job where they publish those views. It also means working to create a safe space for the open exchange of ideas, especially when there are social media or other shout down campaigns under way. As Voltaire did not say, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

In Lomborg’s case he and UWA are the recipients of what is called an “academic earmark” – that is, direct government support to a university, typically outside the peer review process. I once tried (and failed) to get my own university to forbid such funds. Globally, such directed funding is fairly common, and sometimes justifiable. Academics should be careful in selectively opposing Lomborg’s earmark, rather than debating the issue of earmarking more generally – sauce for the goose and all that.

2. Don’t use disagreement, or even someone being wrong about a claim, as the basis for suggesting that they be banished from the academic or civic sphere. If making a mistake, or multiple mistakes, in research or advocacy were indeed to be a disqualifier for further participation in civic debates, utter silence would be the result.

Writing in 2002 about a controversial paper published by Science, its editor Donald Kennedy, explained why it is important to air controversial claims out in the open: “That’s where it belongs, not in an alternative universe in which anonymity prevails, rumor leaks out, and facts stay inside. It goes without saying that we cannot publish papers with a guarantee that every result is right. We’re not that smart. That is why we are prepared for occasional disappointment when our internal judgments and our processes of external review turn out to be wrong, and a provocative result is not fully confirmed. What we ARE very sure of is that publication is the right option, even–and perhaps especially–when there is some controversy.”

3. Focus on debating claims and alternative course of action, not individuals. Recognize that competing claims and differing views on action reflect strengths of both science and democracies. We have nothing to fear from challenges to received wisdom or popular causes. Yet, it has become fashionable, particularly in debates about the climate and agricultural biotechnology, to label an opponent as “anti-science” or perhaps a “science denier.” These are readily appropriated terms used to signal that an individual holds view that are toxic, not even worth debating, and a signal that the individual should be shamed or ostracized. Such tactics span the political spectrum, and are used by the right and the left.

Our debates on important issues deserve better. There are legitimate questions to be raised about policies related to, say, energy policy and the regulation of GMOs. Often the highly political nature of the questions leads to them being mapped onto science as a proxy for debate over values. Rather than participate in that transfer of science into politics, we should eschew turning individuals into political symbols and seek to open up a broader discussion of our values, including those that are shared and those in conflict.

Ultimately, scientists and other experts face challenges in helping to move highly politicized issues toward resolution in broader society. That is because politics involves much more than evidence and expertise. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, we experts have considerable power to make democratic decision making more difficult, by exacerbating polarization and making science look like just another arena for political battles. We all share responsibility to elevate the quality of political debates.

We have choices in how we engage policy makers and each other. How we make those choices matters. As Alice Dreger concludes, “If you must criticize scholars whose work challenges yours, do so on the evidence, not by poisoning the land on which we all live.”


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    It’s a simple truth: You can often determine who is losing a debate as they have abandoned facts for name calling and character assassination.

    In science especially, facts and logic rule. Emotion, and vendettas have no place in science. The extent to which they enter the discussion reveals the degree to which science has been contaminated by money, politics, and power.


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    [quote]Giving Bjorn Lomborg $4m from precious research budget is an insult to every climate scientist in Australia.[/quote]

    Christine Milne should try starving, and [i]then[/i] see how she feels about appropriating money.

    Dr Lomborg and I disagree completely over the cause of any alleged global warming. But I respect him highly for understanding priorities, and valuing human life over green agendas, and speaking the truth in order to save lives.


    Thank you Dr Lomborg.


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