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December 21, 2008
Is Obama's new science advisor a close-minded Luddite?
Barack Obama announced Dr. John Holdren, a Harvard University professor, as assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
William Katz of Urgent Agenda takes note of the excellent column by John Tierney-the dissident intellectual and skeptic over at the New York Times-who reveals in his blog (not the opinion section, not the news section) that Holdren has been “spectacularly wrong about a major issue in (his) field of expertise”. This concerned a famous bet made along with gloom and doomster Paul Ehrlich (he of the "The Population Bomb" book that laid the roadmap for all those to follow that there were fame and riches in predicting disasters for Planet Earth and an inspiration for Al Gore, no doubt) that the world’s supply of five minerals would become so scarce that their prices would precipitously rise. He and Erhlich were wrong.
But that never stopped a sense of hubris from Dr. Holdren who has repeatedly attacked critics of his own views. There seems to be a notable lack of open-mindedness- a key attribute one would want in a science advisor to the President.
But I haven’t seen much evidence of such open-mindedness in Dr. Holdren.
Consider what happened when a successor to Dr. Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, published “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2001. Dr. Holdren joined in an an extraordinary attack on the book in Scientific American — an attack that I thought did far more harm to the magazine’s reputation than to Dr. Lomborg’s. The Economist called the critique “strong on contempt and sneering, but weak on substance”; Dr. Lomborg’s defenders said the critics made more mistakes in 11 pages than they were able to find in his 540-page book. (You can read Dr. Lomborg’s rebuttal here.) In an earlier post, I wrote about Dr. Holdren’s critique of the chapter on energy, in which Dr. Lomborg reviewed the history of energy scares and predicted there would not be dire shortages in the future:
Dr. Holdren began his critique by complaining that Dr. Lomborg was “asking the wrong question” because environmentalists had known for decades that there was no danger of energy being in short supply. This struck me as as odd bit of revisionist history, given both the “energy crisis” rhetoric of the 1970s and Dr. Holdren’s own bet that resources would become more scarce. Then, in the rest of the critique, Dr. Holdren faulted Dr. Lomborg for not paying enough attention to the reasons that there could be future problems with energy supplies.
Dr. Holdren’s resistance to dissenting views was also on display earlier this year in an article asserting that climate skeptics are “dangerous.” (You can read about the response to that article at DotEarth.)
Dr. Holdren is certainly entitled to his views, but what concerns me is his tendency to conflate the science of climate change with prescriptions to cut greenhouse emissions. Even if most climate scientists agree on the anthropogenic causes of global warming, that doesn’t imply that the best way to deal with the problem is through drastic cuts in greenhouse emissions. There are other ways to cope, and there’s no “scientific consensus” on which path looks best.
Roger A. Pielke Jr., a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and the author of “The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics,” discussed Dr. Holdren’s conflation of science and politics in a post on the Prometheus blog:
The notion that science tells us what to do leads Holdren to appeal to authority to suggest that not only are his scientific views correct, but because his scientific views are correct, then so too are his political views.
AT the Reason Hit & Run blog, Ronald Bailey reviews some of Dr. Holdren’s work and notes that in a 1995 essay, he and his coauthors (Gretchen C. Daily and Dr. Ehrlich) “acknowledge ecological ignorance about the principles of economics, but don’t express any urgency in learning about them.”
At OpenMarket.org, the Competitive Enterprise Institute blog, Chris Horner criticizes the reported Holdren appointment and suggests that Dr. Holdren got in to the National Academy of Sciences through a “back door.”
What kind of White House science advisor you think Dr. Holdren would make?
A politically correct pick, perhaps. Another Ivy Leaguer to add to his roster. But was Dr. Holdren the best vetted choice/ Is it the media’s job to subject Dr. Holdren to the same level of review that George Bush’s picks were subjected to?