Why I will fight to clear my name after allegations of errors in my work

January 17, 2003

I was very surprised to learn that the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (UVVU) had judged that my book The Skeptical Environmentalist breached "clear norms" of scientific practice. I genuinely thought that the finding would be based only on substantive issues that had been raised by the academics who made up the committee's witnesses.

I answered these allegations, which were, I believe, mostly due to misunderstandings or to not looking at the data clearly enough. I thought I was engaged in a sensible scientific discussion. Instead, I believe the UVVU did not look at the facts but simply said that I was in breach of good scientific conduct. One of our respected legal professors in Denmark said the verdict was like a judge sentencing you and saying: "I am sentencing you because I think you should be in prison and so do some people in the US."

Broadly speaking, I don't accept the criticisms about my book. I have corrected some small points brought up in the Scientific American on my website. I contributed a 34-page answer about other allegations by the Scientific American that I believe are wrong, and the committee saw this, but it chose to cite my argument in just one-and-a-half lines in its report. This only emphasises an apparent lack of even-handedness and an unwillingness to look at the issues. The only witnesses were four academics who are among my strongest critics. This is what surprises and scares me. I believe the UVVU trusted these four because they have finer titles than mine.

But the findings should be based on a discussion of the alleged errors. The issue has stirred up a furore in Denmark - most of the major newspapers and almost 200 professors have said that they find the judgement unreasonable. Some of the most highly ranked social sciences professors have asked what kind of "good scientific conduct" the committee is judging since in Denmark such conduct is not defined for anything other than medical science. There is no basis in our legal framework to make such a judgement.

As I understand it, the UVVU normally deals with cases of plagiarism or with academics who have faked their results - that is, cases of obvious scientific dishonesty. This makes my case pretty much unique and I find it hard to understand how upstanding academics could have possibly put out such a poorly argued and unfounded judgement if it were not to do with politics.

One of the criticisms put forward was that my research had not been submitted to peer review. There are two reasons for this: first, this was never my intention. I set out to disprove the theory of a US economist, but I came round to the view that he was right. I thought people ought to know my conclusions, but I do not have a long-term research interest in this area. Second, although peer review is highly relevant for basic new research, it seems misplaced for overviews such as mine, based mainly on secondary sources that have already been checked.

The committee is trying to impose a natural sciences framework on social sciences. It is like looking at a horse and saying: "This is a very bad cow."

Many social scientists have said that if I can be judged in this way, so can they. Moreover, my book is not a PhD treatise. It is meant to be an accessible overview of secondary sources. That does not mean that it is not true. The committee wanted me to say it was a polemic to start debate, but it is not, and it should be judged on its own merits.

I am the director of the Environmental Assessment Institute and this kind of judgement reflects badly on my reputation. This smear on my integrity must be removed. Either I will make a complaint or the ombudsman will intervene. I would not rule out legal action either.

Bjø rn Lomborg
Director, Environmental Assessment Institute,


Interview by Mandy Garner

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