Obama’s Political Science Adviser
John Holdren is unlikely to usher in an age of free and open scientific inquiry.


Jonathan H. Adler

After Lomborg’s book was published, and received substantial (and positive) attention, Scientific American organized an attack on Lomborg in the form of four essays by noted scientists with sterling environmentalist bona fides. Holdren was tasked to assess Lomborg’s energy chapter –less than 20 pages of a 500-plus-page book — and he was unrelenting. The episode was not Scientific American’s finest hour, and Holdren’s contribution was particularly regrettable. Holdren failed to identify any meaningful errors in Lomborg’s work, yet misrepresented his argument and lambasted him in the strongest terms. He also failed to disclose he was among those Lomborg critiqued by name in his book.

Holdren is equally intolerant of those who dispute his views on climate change. Holdren believes the media attention given climate skeptics is a “menace . . . insofar as this delays the development of the political consensus that will be needed before society embraces remedies that are commensurate with the magnitude of the climate-change challenge.” According to Holdren, “the science of climate change” dictates urgent action, and contrary views are “dangerous.” Science tells us what to do, so there is nothing to debate.

The strongest defense of Holdren has come from liberal science writer Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. Some of Holdren’s critics don’t like his support for steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as Mooney notes, Holdren’s position in this regard is the same as the president he would serve, so it is hardly a disqualification for the job. Indeed, it would have been quite a surprise had Obama picked a climate-policy expert who did not agree with the policies he advocated during the campaign. But Holdren’s climate policy views are not the issue. Rather it’s his tendency to blur the lines between science and policy in pursuit of his agenda.

On this latter point Mooney quotes Holdren saying “I don’t think there are very many scientists naive enough to think that science should always determine outcomes, but you shouldn’t defend outcomes by distorting the science.” That’s hardly reassuring. Nobody believes that “science should always determine outcomes,” and there’s plenty of reason to believe that on climate change, as in other areas, Holdren mistakes (or ignores) the line where science ends and policy begins. This worldview is a leading source of science politicization. For if policy is to be dictated by scientific conclusions, controlling the science is the only way to control policy.

The left regularly complained the Bush administration was “anti-science.” Not only did the administration show little interest in scientific questions, it marginalized the role of scientific analysis in contested policy disputes and distorted scientific conclusions for political and ideological reasons. Some of these complaints were warranted, such as when an unqualified political appointee at NASA scrubbed discussions of the Big Bang on the agency’s website or when administration officials hyped a scientifically dubious link between abortion and cancer. Yet many other complaints were overstated or completely off target.

Many of the administration’s critics had their own politicized view of science. In their view, certain policy positions — such as opposition to stem-cell research or to strict limits on greenhouse-gas emissions — were necessarily “anti-science” because many (or perhaps even most) scientists disagreed with the Bush administration’s position. What these critics ignored was that their real disagreement with the Bush administration was over policy rather than science. Whether to reduce greenhouse gases by 80 percent or some other figure over the next several decades is a complex policy question for which science can inform, but not dictate, the answer.

Many who decried the alleged politicization of science celebrated Obama’s election. The new president would both elevate and insulate the role of science in the policy-making process. Whereas the Bush administration allegedly silenced scientific perspectives they did not want to hear, a President Obama would ensure scientific analysis informs relevant policy decisions.

No doubt Obama had the “Bush is anti-science” meme in mind when he explained that his commitment to science means “ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology” and “listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient — especially when it’s inconvenient.” Yet the underlying causes of science politicization are far deeper than who sits in the Oval Office. Even so, President-Elect Obama’s choice of John Holdren for his primary science adviser suggests political misuse and abuse of science will continue in the Obama administration, pledges to respect science notwithstanding.

NRO contributing editor Jonathan H. Adler is professor of law and director of the Center for Business Law & Regulation at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law.