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Politics Is the Enemy of Science

Three decades ago, John Holdren of UC Berkeley worried aloud about overpopulation. Now, the right-wing talk machine is trying to make him the next Van Jones.



The East Bay has already contributed one scandal to the administration of Barack Obama, in the form of the rise and fall of Van Jones. Once an exuberant, young radical who even dubbed himself a communist for a while, Jones matured into a sophisticated lawyer and motivational speaker, seducing reporters and public officials with sweeping talk of marrying together civil rights, environmental justice, and green jobs. Obama's team brought Jones into the White House as one of his "czars," an advisory role that acquired an unfortunate moniker. But as everyone now knows, his past caught up with him, as right-wing talk jocks and Fox News pundits discovered his history as a Marxist zealot. People may change, but in the Internet era, everything you say or write stays with you forever. Jones discovered this only after it was too late.

Now, the East Bay is serving up another instance of this phenomenon. John Holdren has capped his distinguished career in science by becoming Obama's director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where he advises the president on climate change, among other issues. He's accomplished quite a bit in his life, working as a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, teaching at UC Berkeley from 1973 to 1996, and becoming Harvard's Teresa and John Heinz professor of environmental policy.

Quite a résumé, to be sure. But while Holdren was working at Berkeley, he became alarmed at overpopulation, which was then seen as the worst environmental catastrophe facing the planet. Hooking up with Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford biologist and famed author of The Population Bomb, Holdren co-authored a textbook in which they rather cold-bloodedly discussed theoretical solutions to the problem such as introducing sterilization drugs into the water supply, or forcing abortions on single pregnant women.

Well, people change. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, right-wing blogs, newspapers, and television networks have seized on Holdren's old work and painted him as a wild-eyed environmental extremist — a crazed, misanthropic ideologue bent on controlling our lives and mass sterilization. The campaign doesn't have quite the same legs as the one that ended the career of Van Jones (that Holdren is neither black nor charismatic may have something to do with it), but it hasn't gone away either. Every few days, Holdren is denounced by Rush Limbaugh, The Washington Times, or the countless right-wing blogs.

This anklebiting has proven to be quite an annoyance to Holdren, distracting him from the important work he's trying to do. And now, as the president travels to this week's United Nations summit on climate change, Holdren's name has surfaced in the so-called "Climategate" scandal, in which British scientists have been accused of fudging data on global warming. Holdren won't lose his job any time soon, but there is a steady, remarkably persistent effort to smear his good name. And like Van Jones, he himself helped that effort along.

But how, exactly? By flirting with ideas that didn't seem so crazy three decades ago. The fact is that science changes, and our thinking about population growth and family planning has evolved quite a bit in the last thirty years. But in politics, especially in the Internet era, it's not possible to change. That climatologists once thought the globe was cooling merely proves that they've gotten better data. But to global warming deniers, it actually proves that scientists don't know anything at all. That Holdren once thought overpopulation posed a mortal, imminent threat to the world merely proves that he can change his mind when presented with better information. But to his opponents, it proves he's a dangerous nut.

At a time when populists distrust expertise, every scientific endeavor is politicized, and the Internet preserves your every utterance, it's getting harder and harder for scientists to do what they're supposed to: think out loud.

Here's what Holdren and Ehrlich said. In 1977, while a professor at Berkeley, Holdren co-wote Ecoscience, a long, elaborate textbook on the state of environmental thinking at the time. Ehrlich, of course, is famous as the man who most prominently warned that the world was dangerously close to a catastrophe produced by overpopulation, and his concerns are all over the book. "In today's world ... the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern," he and Holdren wrote. "For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent people from having more than two children?"

Holdren and Erhlich considered a variety of other options for limiting population growth. Perhaps we could slip sterilization drugs into the water or food supply. Or force the mothers of illegitimate children to give them up for adoption. Or force pregnant single women to marry or have abortions. Ultimately, they decided that such options probably won't work. But they didn't exactly recoil from the ideas in moral horror. And therein lies the rub.

Once Holdren was appointed to his current post, he became subjected to the intense partisan scrutiny that is part of the conservative campaign to claim that a sinister cabal of tyrannical czars are gathering absolute power in Washington. Obama's enemies have pored over everything his appointees ever did or said. And this summer, they found Ecoscience. The blog Zombietime published excerpts of the book on its web site, under the heading: "John Holdren, Obama's science czar, says: Forced abortions and mass sterilization needed to save the planet."