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Bjørn Lomborg met a professor that gave him back his faith in university

The alumni — If people have a strong case, they will focus on the case. If people have a weak case, they will go for the person, says Bjørn Lomborg. He was labelled an idiot in the media. Now he advises young students to ask the stupid questions.

[This interview is a part of a series of interviews with University of Copenhagen alumni. You can see more of the series in Danish here.]

You shouldn’t be afraid to ask stupid questions. This was the most important thing I learned at university. As a student, you think ‘I don’t want to be the one who asks the stupid question’. But it is likely that everyone else is thinking about asking the exact same thing. Sometimes, sure, it might be a ‘stupid’ question. But it’s mostly the only way you, and others, can learn more. And if we turn it around: Stupid questions reveal whether your teachers understand what it is they are talking about. If teachers cannot say it simply, then it is probably because they cannot explain it.

About

Bjørn Lomborg (born 1965) is a political scientist and debater.

He has become internationally renowned for books and articles that argue that climate change warnings by environmentalists are exaggerated.

In 1998, he authored a book that was released in English in 2001 with the title ‘The Sceptical Environmentalist’

He now runs the think tank Copenhagen Consensus.

Bjørn Lomborg completed his PhD at the University of Copenhagen in 1994.

 

When the taxpayers pay for us to study fun things at university, the least we can do is inform the wider public about what they actually mean. I was extremely focused on this when I finished my PhD on game theory. At one point, I was invited to talk about my research on a Danish radio programme. I had three minutes between two music tracks, and I have to admit I was nervous about whether I would be able to do it.

When I was in upper secondary school, I had huge expectations for university – and then it just turned out to be a bit like a sausage factory, just mass producing graduates instead. When I studied in the United States, I thought: Now it has to be – and then it turned out to be just … a sausage factory. When I did my master’s degree at Aarhus University – yes, I also experienced the university as a sausage factory.

But my disappointment at the time was probably a result of me being influenced by the movie version of what a university is. Pipe-smoking professors, surrounded by only a few students, extremely intellectual, and everyone actively taking part in all of it. But then I met Jørgen Poulsen, a political science lecturer. He was extremely well-read, and he could drive down all the different side streets of an argument, and he enjoyed doing it. He, and his wife also, were absolutely fantastic, and they gave me my faith back in university. Jørgen Poulsen was the quintessential teacher. Everything was analysed and deciphered. He could say things like ‘This was what Pliny the Younger [Author in Ancient Rome, ed.] used to say, but it is wrong for this reason.’ You got carried away.

In a small country like Denmark, you can study along a trajectory and suddenly find yourself with no other people around you.

Bjørn Lomborg

In a small country like Denmark, you can study along a trajectory and suddenly find yourself with no other people around you. As a student, I was very pleased to have the chance to study anything I wanted to study. But it was also extremely lonely. At the time, I was doing my first computer simulations of game theory, and I had what was, at the time, Denmark’s fastest supercomputer set up in the form of ten linked-up Pentium computers in an office. I was allowed to buy some air conditioning to cool it all down. They were not used to this kind of thing at the Faculty of Social Sciences. It must be said, however, that most people understood why I needed it. And I got published relatively quickly, so this also helped. That’s why my advice to students is: If you have a good idea, you just have to pursue it.

It does not mean so much what other people think. What matters is whether it’s right. When I wrote my first article in the Danish newspaper Politiken in 1998, people responded by calling me an idiot. The former chief editor Tøger Seidenfaden said to me that he would not be able to withstand the backlash that I was subjected to. But I didn’t get it, because it didn’t affect me. As they say: If you have a strong case, then focus on the case. If you have a weak case, then focus on the person. That was how I experienced the attacks. And I would like to pass on this on as a piece of advice to students as well. It is extremely important that you focus on the arguments and not on the person.

If I were to start at university today, I would choose the same course of study again. But if you are now forcing me to consider another choice, then I once considered doing computer science, it’s a wonderful subject. And at one point, I would have liked to have pursue music. But I would have been a lousy musician.

[This interview is a part of a series of interviews with University of Copenhagen alumni. You can see more of the series in Danish here.]

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