Flawed Science Advice for Obama?
By John Tierney
Does being spectacularly wrong about a major issue in your field of expertise hurt your chances of becoming the presidential science advisor? Apparently not, judging by reports from DotEarth and ScienceInsider that Barack Obama will name John P. Holdren as his science advisor on Saturday.
Dr. Holdren, now a physicist at Harvard, was one of the experts in natural resources whom Paul Ehrlich enlisted in his famous bet against the economist Julian Simon during the “energy crisis” of the 1980s. Dr. Simon, who disagreed with environmentalists’ predictions of a new “age of scarcity” of natural resources, offered to bet that any natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked Dr. Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and
resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources would become scarce.
In 1980 Dr. Holdren helped select five metals " chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten " and joined Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harte in betting $1,000 that those metals would be more expensive ten years later. They turned out to be wrong on all five metals, and had to pay up when the bet came due in 1990.
Now, you could argue that anyone’s entitled to a mistake, and that mistakes can be valuable if people learn to become open to ideas that conflict with their preconceptions and ideology. That could be a useful skill in an advisor who’s supposed to be presenting the president with a wide range of views. Someone who’d seen how wrong environmentalists had been in ridiculing Dr. Simon’s predictions could, in theory, become more open to dissenting from today’s environmentalist orthodoxy. 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?