Wednesday, May 15, 2002

A good piece on the Scientific American site. It's a rebuttal to a rebuttal to a rebuttal (heh) of Bjorn Lomborg's book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which points out the incredible number of errors, misrepresentations, and mixups that were involved in that book. It's an interesting read in that respect, but more interesting (for my purposes) for another reason. Check it out:

The Skeptical Environmentalist was glowingly reviewed, not long after its appearance in English translation, in The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The reviewers for those publications were evidently pleased with the book’s message – "environmental problems are not as bad as we’ve been told, and things are mostly getting better" – but they evidently lacked the background or the inclination to find the flaws beneath the surface of Lomborg’s glib and citation-strewn presentation. Subsequent reviews by natural scientists –which have appeared so far in Nature, Science, Scientific American, and American Scientist – have been blistering.

The Economist is a well known and fairly conservative magazine which doesn't hide its particular ideological bent. There's nothing wrong with that, and I personally find it to be a good read. The problem, however, is that they (and the other newspapers) demonstrate a willingness to buy whatever arguments they can find that happen to illustrate their point, without bothering to research opposing viewpoints. This is especially egregious in the case of a book about scientists and science, but it pops up everywhere. What the hell is the point of peer reviewed, rigorous science if the media (even elite media like the Economist) is only going to pick and choose whatever they want to hear, and ignore peer-reviewed mainstream scientific research in a cowardly attempt to hide the possibility that their arguments might not hold water? Paul Krugman highlighted this problem in Peddling Prosperity when discussing the pseudo-economists pushing supply-side snake oil on one side and "strategic trade" on the other, but it's far more widespread than the field of economics. It's affecting the entirety of academic research, and it only strengthens the position of those selling easy answers in the face of real-world complexity.

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