Politicizing Science

On Saturday, Barack Obama named Harvard professor John Holdren director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Obama said:

Because the truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources — it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. I could not have a better team to guide me in this work.

The AP seconded Obama’s sentiment, editorializing that Obama was “signaling a change from Bush administration policies on global warming that were criticized for putting politics over science.” Actually, as I’ve noted many times, anthropogenic climate change theory, as espoused by Holdren and others, isn’t science at all, it’s a combination of politics and faith. On empirical grounds, global warming theorists are losing the debate badly to the “skeptics.”

What I want to comment on, though, is something else: Holdren’s history as a politicizer of science, which is by no means limited to climate change. Holdren has long been a leading advocate of the theory that there are too many people, economic growth is unsustainable and the world is running out of resources. In fact, he collaborated on these theories with Paul Ehrlich, one of the most spectacularly and notoriously wrong-headed scientists since Ptolemy.

This is the kind of stuff Ehrlich wrote in 1968:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to ‘stretch’ the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production and providing for more equitable distribution of whatever food is available. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control.

In 1974 he predicted:

…[a] nutritional disaster that seems likely to overtake humanity in the 1970s (or, at the latest, the 1980s). Due to a combination of ignorance, greed, and callousness, a situation has been created that could lead to a billion or more people starving to death…. Before 1985 mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity [in which] the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be nearing depletion.

Ehrlich is best remembered today for the bet that he made with Julian Simon that the prices of certain commodities selected by Ehrlich would rise–a certainty, Ehrlich believed, given his theory of imminent and catastrophic scarcity of raw materials. The prices all fell.

While nowhere near as famous as Ehrlich, Holdren collaborated with him on two books and several articles, and fully shared Ehrlich’s pessimistic theories on the future of the human race. In fact, as John Tierney notes, Ehrlich went to Holdren for advice on which commodities to choose for his losing bet with Simon.

Consistent with these preoccupations, Holdren postures himself today as an expert on “sustainability.” In 1995, he co-authored this article, titled “The Meaning of Sustainability: Biogeophysical Aspects,” with Ehrlich. Since Holdren is listed as the principal author, it sheds significant light on his alleged commitment to the “de-politicization of science.”

Holdren begins by identifying the “ills that development must address.” It’s a pretty plain-vanilla list: poverty, war, oppression of human rights. Next, Holdren purports to identify the “driving forces” behind these ills. This is where we start to get political. First on the list is Ehrlich and Holdren’s old hobbyhorse, “excessive population growth,” which is “a condition now prevailing almost everywhere.” Next comes “maldistribution,” as “between rich and investment poor” and “between military and civilian forms of consumption and investment.” (No one here but us scientists, right?)

This is where Holdren can no longer keep his left-wing politics under wraps. He identifies another “driving force” behind humanity’s ills:

Underlying human frailties: Greed, selfishness, intolerance, and shortsightedness. Which collectively have been elevated by conservative political doctrine and practice (above all in the United States in 1980 92) to the status of a credo.

There you have it! This is the man upon whom Barack Obama is counting to “ensur[e] that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology.”

It could be a long four years.

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