Man Without Qualities

Thursday, April 25, 2002

Bjørn, This Guy at Scientific American Says You Should Just Shut Up

John Rennie, editor in chief, Scientific American, writes what he calls “A Response to Lomborg's Rebuttal.” Bjørn Lomborg, author of the Skeptical Environmentalist had previously written a rebuttal to his book’s critics which Scientific American published and which Mr. Rennie addresses in his “Response.”

Mr. Rennie opens his tidy and ultimately rather simple Response – which is not without merit – with a snide and totally inappropriate H. L. Mencken's remark: "For every problem, there is a neat, simple solution, and it is always wrong." H.L. Menken was by choice the most acerbic, biting social gadfly thic country has seen, bar none, and it is remarkable that Mr. Rennie would himself choose deliberately to misappropriate Menken's scathing tone and quote onto the pages of what previously purported to be a publication of some scientific detachment. But that is between Mr. Rennie and his board of directors and their readers. Mr. Rennie has chosen to play in Menken's arena and he can take what he has invited to come. Continuing in his Menken tone, Mr. Rennie says that “[t]he story of The Skeptical Environmentalist is one of a political scientist who wades into the vastly complex, unsettled literature of environmental science, scrutinizes a fraction of what is to be found there, and emerges confident that the simple summary he has developed is a fair and accurate representation of the science—notwithstanding the warnings of experts in the disciplines he skims that he is mistaken.”

Now, according to the front page of his book, Mr. Lomborg is an Associate Professor of Statistics in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Aarhus, Denmark who has published in international journals in the fields of game theory and computer simulation. Mr. Rennie’s authoritarian dismissal of Lomborg as “a political scientist who wades” therefore appears to be wilfully misleading or just hostile and ignorant. Perhaps Mr. Rennie knows something not revealed on Lomborg’s front page. But if he does, he doesn’t say what it is – and there is no lack of venom on these pages. In any event, Mr. Rennie's tone and apparent gross error as to Mr. Lomborg's qualifications convey anything but a sense if disinterested scientific inquiry.

Readers are invited to peruse the rest of Mr. Rennie’s opus on their own. At least they have the blessing of the Man Without Qualities. But Mr. Rennie seems to believe that once anointed “experts in the disciplines” (his choice, of course) have spoken, there is nothing for the layman – even an Assistant Professor of Statistics - to add to the matter, lest he be engaged in forbidden “wading.” That the “complex literature” in question is admitted to be “unsettled” doesn’t seem to hinder Mr. Rennie one bit, nor does the fact that Mr. Lomborg marshals his own experts - some unwillingly. So Mr. Rennie may not approve of laymen reading his Response – or, if they must read it, Mr. Rennie certainly couldn’t abide them thinking they thereby came to understand anything from it.

Such concerns of Mr. Rennie do not seem ill founded, at least with respect to his Response, since his arguments sometimes have a very strange texture indeed. For example, Mr. Rennie says:

“Lomborg takes exception to my chastising him for 'literally not seeing the forests for the trees.' He writes that ‘the longest data series actually tells us of very little change in the world forested area,’ but this is misleading. My comment springs from the fact that the data series may describe little change in the forested area, but the actual forests are subject to considerable clearing and replanting. Lomborg thus treats forests of new trees as ecologically equivalent to old-growth forests, which is clearly not true.”

But if Mr. Lomborg’s including new-growth with old-growth constitutes their “equivalence” which is “clearly not true,” then Mr. Rennie’s citing all of the old-growth area as a mass must treat all old-growth forests as “equivalent.” That is probably a lot more untrue than anything Mr. Lomborg is accused of by Mr. Rennie. For example, how likely is it that frozen-almost-all-the-time old-growth Siberian pine forests have equivalent environmental effects as old-growth tropical rain forests? Further, it is hard to find a place in rational scientific discourse for one scientist accusing another of "literally not seeing the forests for the trees" in the first place. As the magazine editor he is, Mr. Rennie should know that "literally" means "literally" - that is NOT FIGURATIVELY. Mr. Rennie's tone seems out of place, hostile and ultimately ignorant.

It is odd that Mr. Rennie picks up this particular hatchet. One might have thought that the entire point of a magazine like Scientific American was that intelligent laymen can understand enough of science to make reasoned judgments about it. But it now appears from Mr. Rennie that such activity would now be prohibited “wading.” It therefore seems that Scientific American must now just fold up shop. After all, if obtaining one’s opinions from reading scientific papers just exposes a layman to withering Menkenisms from the likes of Mr. Rennie, then just think of how awful it would be to be forced to admit that one had extracted one’s opinions from the pages of Scientific American! For that matter, by his own standards Mr. Rennie does not seem to have any authority or right to even write his “Response” – since the story of the Response appears to be one of a magazine editor "who wades into the vastly complex, unsettled literature of environmental science, scrutinizes a fraction of what is to be found there, and emerges confident that the simple summary he has developed is a fair and accurate representation of the science.” Previously, Mr. Rennie had hand picked various scientists to provide criticism of Mr. Lomborg's book, but apparently even those chosen scientists just didn't deliver the wattage Mr. Rennie requires. (Mr. Rennie "explains" that "Because of demands on their own time, most of the authors ... were unfortunately not available to write full responses to Lomborg's reply themselves." Since when does a scientist casitgate another and then refuse to respond to a rebuttal because of "demands on their own time?") Mr. Rennie's decision to write this Response himself has something of the quality of a fertility doctor who, frustrated with the husband's sperm count, just finally decides to take matters into his own hands. Or perhaps Mr. Rennie holds a tenured chair in all applicable sciences at some meta-University I haven't heard of yet? He must be quite a guy.

Comments: Post a Comment