Newtonian facts
Apr 30, 2014
Bishop Hill in Lomborg

A gentleman named Steven Newton of the US "National Center for Science Education" has been taking a pop at Bjorn Lomborg today, bringing up all those canards such as the Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty with which greens like to assail him. (As an aside, greens' enthusiasm for this particular kangaroo court is yet another reason for doubting their attachment to a free and - in the UK sense - liberal society).

Still, Bjorn is quite capable of defending himself and he has pointed out one fairly glaring issue with Mr Newton's critique. This concerned what Mr Newton alleges was the fact-checking to which he and his students subjected Lomborg's magnum opus, The Skeptical Environmentalist.

In about half the cases, Lomborg’s citations either could not be found (for instance, they linked to non-existent websites) or did not say what he said they did.

Some examples:

In citation #596, Lomborg claims that lethal work-related accidents have declined 85%; his source claimed 46%.

Now one might have expected Mr Newton to offer up quotes from both Lomborg's book and the source book so that we can judge for ourselves, but he does not. Fortunately, Lomborg has now done so:

I would have liked a more extensive quote, but fortunately the source is online here and seems to check out. I don't understand why Lomborg says "more than 85%" when the source says 90%, but I can't see the 46% mentioned by Mr Newton at all. Lomborg may have erred on the side of caution. I'm not sure what the story is for Mr Newton's 46% though. I wonder if he does?

After this, I thought I'd look at the next of Mr Newton's allegations:

In citation #863, Lomborg talks about a 1972 book, Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, and notes that, “Once again, we were told that our resources would soon run out.” But what Limits to Growth actually said was, “The point is not that the world is about to run out of natural gas” [italics mine].

Once again I checked to the text of the Skeptical Environmentalist. On p. 121, having explained that Limits to Growth predicted that oil would run out in 1992, Lomborg discusses the 1992 revised version of that book, which is entitled Beyond the Limits, noting that it predicted that oil would run out in 2031, while gas would be gone in 2050. 

We might be able to postpone the pain somewhat, but gas consumption grows by 3.5% a year, i.e. consumption doubles every 20 years. Thus every 20 years we have to find as much new gas as our entire cumulated consumption up till now. "Thus is the nature of exponential growth" as the book puts it.

The citation is to p. 74 of Beyond the Limits. Unfortunately (or, more accurately, "mercifully") I don't have a copy, but some of the text can be seen online at Amazon here (search inside for "gas"). Here we  see that a discussion of depletion of oil and gas reserves covers pretty much the ground that Lomborg does:

Later on, we see Mr Newton's quote:

I don't know about you, but I read this as saying gas is not going to run out imminently, but in a few decades time. Unfortunately, that's where the Amazon extract ends. If anyone has access to this tome then I'd be glad to know what is on the next page.

But in the meantime, it looks as if Mr Newton is skating on very thin ice.


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