The Corner

Obama’s Science Advisor

It looks like president-elect Obama will name John P. Holdren as his science advisor. Holdren is a professor of environmental policy at Harvard and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As Ron Bailey points out, he has been an activist on the ecological left and no friend of free markets. Perhaps more striking is his activism well beyond his own academic specialty, arguing, for instance, that scientists have a responsibility to advance the cause of the elimination of all nuclear weapons and seeking controls on population growth. And he didn’t say all this in the 1970s either—have a good look at the speech he delivered when he assumed the leadership of the AAAS in 2006. It describes a fundamentally activist liberal mentality about the very purpose of science and its place in our kind of society. My favorite part of that speech is his call for ending population growth which, in the published text of the speech, is accompanied by this footnote:

This was the key insight in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (Ballantine, New York, 1968), as well as one of those in Harrison Brown’s prescient earlier book, The Challenge of Man’s Future (Viking, New York, 1954). The elementary but discomfiting truth of it may account for the vast amount of ink, paper, and angry energy that has been expended trying in vain to refute it.

The Population Bomb was the book in which Ehrlich predicted that “in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death,” because all the world’s resources were running out while population was growing out of control, and there was simply no way we could sustain our civilization at modern levels of consumption and growth. Just about every one of the book’s predictions has proven wrong, and its empirical claims and methods have not held up well under later scholarly scrutiny. It certainly made a useful political point for the left, though.

I wonder if all those who complained about the supposed “politicization of science” by the Bush administration will raise worries about Holdren…don’t you?

Yuval Levin is the director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the editor of National Affairs.

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