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March 12, 2003

Free Reads -- Denis Dutton

Friedrich --

Did you know that Denis Dutton, the very brilliant and resourceful philosophy professor who's also the publisher of Arts & Letters Daily, writes a semi-regular column for the New Zealand Herald? I didn't either until recently. He's terrific. Here's a sample passage from a recent piece about Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist":

Lomborg also analysed trade-offs that have to be faced in dealing with environmental problems. Suppose, for example, that pesticides hypothetically cause a handful of cancers in countries the size of the United States or Britain every year. If, as many Greens advocate, we ban pesticides, we will inevitably drive up the price of the fruits and vegetables that have the property of warding off cancer.

This, in turn, will cause a decrease in consumption, especially among the less well-off, and hence force a corresponding rise in cancer incidence. In fact, banning pesticides may end up causing perhaps a thousand times more cancer than it cures.

The piece can be read in its entirety here. He has also written recently on terrorism (here), Saddam Hussein (here), and copyright and the internet (here).

Although they were written for a New Zealand audience, the pieces are all bracingly good reads because Dutton is a rare (if very robust) bird: someone with tons of intellectual sophistication but also a down to earth temperament. A philosopher who respects common sense and common experience -- good grief!

Which raises a question: Why hasn't one of the publications with a world-scale brand name -- the NYT, the London Times, The Economist -- given Dutton a regular column?



posted by Michael at March 12, 2003


Dutton is doubtless an excellent philosopher, but he doesn't seem to know much about science.

I was very disappointed by Lomborg's book. There's an important point to be made, that a lot of environmental problems have lessened or disappeared due to technological advances, and that environmentalist advocates often fail to take this into account in their descriptions of the present and their predictions of the future. As an environmental scientist with an interest in environmental policy, I was looking forward to reading a book which made this important point.

Unfortunately, Lomborg was unable to content himself with such reasonable argument. Instead, he produced a highly political polemic whose scientific content can reasonably be described as bollocks. No doubt his lack of concern for good science aided his book sales and his partisan politics, not to mention getting him a nice job, but it fatally wounds his credibility amongst people who know something about how nature works.

Dutton's piece in the NZ News could have been written by Lomborg himself. I guess this is what happens when you get a philosopher to review a science book.

Posted by: Iain J Coleman on March 12, 2003 6:45 PM


Could you be a bit more specific in your criticisms of Lomborg's book? Merely describing it as "bollocks" just kind of adds to the noise level here, and that's already pretty high. While aware of the controversy over Lomborg's book, the way the criticisms have been couched has obscured--to at least my view--the merits of the case. I would love a low key discussion of this if you would care to provide it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 13, 2003 10:38 AM

Hey Iain

Eager to read more of your thoughts about Lomborg. I'm a sadsack lit-and-art type myself, but read Lomborg's book and followed the ensuing dustup eagerly. Did you think the book was a worthwhile contribution to the general discussion about the environment?

For what little it's worth, I did come away from the brouhaha feeling that the enviros had mistreated Lomborg at least in some respects. I saw him speak (before a conservative audience), for instance. And while the enviros would love the public to think that Lomborg's a political animal and a sellout, and that the message he's selling is "don't worry, be happy," he didn't strike me that way at all. He's basically leftish, he's gay, he's very pro-environment; he goaded the conservatives in the audience and took a few pokes at the Bush administration. He's also quite modest about his qualifications as a scientist, and is perfectly upfront about what he set out to do, which was to use his skills as a statistician to examine (and extrapolate) from the scientists' own data. His only goal seemed to be to take a rational look at the evidence so that more rational choices about how to approach environmental problems might be more easily reached.

So I did wind up feeling that the enviros had tarred him unfairly. He may be wrong or right, I'm not qualified to say, but there seemed to be nothing -- zilch -- about him that corresponded to how the enviro press portrayed him.

What did you find were the main problems with his work?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 13, 2003 1:25 PM

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