News & Opinion » Feature

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.



Page 3 of 4

And throughout the firestorm, as everyone was citing her story, not one single reporter called Eliza to ask her to expand upon what she wrote. "If someone had called me, I would have been delighted to explain the context of that quote," she recalled. "But only one reporter ever did, and that was after Van Jones had resigned." No one was interested in the possibility of complexity.

But of course, that's politics, and Van Jones lived and died by the very same sword. But science is different. It's supposed to make mistakes; that's how we learn. It's a sloppy, fumbling process, but politics and image management don't allow for mistakes.

Now that Holdren has entered the White House, the rules have changed under his feet. When he and Ehrlich wrote their book, we didn't know very much about population growth, but what we did know scared the shit out of people. Here's what we have learned about overpopulation and the environment since then, according to John Townsend, director of Reproductive Health for the Population Council. Thirty years ago, the average woman on the planet was having six children. While growth rates in Europe and the United States were much lower, countries in the Third World were exploding with people, and there was no end in sight. Holdren and Ehrlich extrapolated the data and saw nothing but disaster.

"The thought was population growth was uncontrolled, it had unknown consequences, and the capability of analyzing data was fairly limited," Townsend said. "So people began projecting into the future. What will this look like?"

What they didn't know — what no one yet knew — was that the rate of population growth was slowly leveling off. Today, the average number of children born to each woman has dropped from six to three. It's not happening uniformly across the globe; Mali and Niger, for example, have deeply troubling population growth rates. But thirty-plus years after Holdren's book, a consensus has emerged that the human population will eventually stabilize of its own accord.

In addition, questions of female empowerment and human rights have trickled into a field that had heretofore regarded population growth as an abstraction. As China and India were caught sterilizing women in the 1980s, experts like Holdren shuddered at the human cost of what had previously been theories about how to solve a very real problem. By the 1990s, the thinking of experts in the field shifted from a global perspective to an emphasis on female empowerment and the availability of contraceptives. According to Michelle Goldberg, a writer at The American Prospect, Holdren sat on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, which provided key funding to women's rights groups that changed the emphasis from population control to human rights and feminism. In other words, Holdren's thinking developed, along with that of the rest of the world.

"In terms of Holdren, I wouldn't hold it against him," Townsend said. "But I wouldn't let him get away with it if he tried it now."

Holdren's not exactly getting away with it. Even now, someone is probably rediscovering his work from the Seventies and denouncing him on the web. Paul Ehrlich has set up a Google Alert for his and Holdren's names, and he says that about seven blogs post something about them every day. Last week, a climate-change skeptic denounced Holdren as a "flat-out communist" on Sean Hannity's radio show.

David Harsanyi is a conservative columnist for The Denver Post and Reason magazine; he wrote what is probably the most sophisticated recent critique of Holdren. When asked whether Holdren was just reflecting the consensus of experts at the time, Harsanyi claims that the scientist actually has a history of exaggerating environmental problems to scare people into following his agenda.

"Even if I was to accept what Holdren's defenders claim, he's not much better today," Harsanyi wrote in an e-mail. "Someone who believes motivating citizenry by using his standing to peddle irrational fear is not someone who should be involved in policy."

And so we come to "Climategate," in which a hacker released e-mails from British scientists that, critics says, seem to suggest some of them were manipulating data to hide the fact that they can't show as dramatic an increase in temperature as they predicted. One of the e-mails was written by Holdren, although there's nothing incriminating in his communication. Nevertheless, conservative activists are claiming that Holdren has been "implicated" in the scandal.

This week, Barack Obama is in Denmark for the climate change conference, and the Climategate scandal is breaking just as the world tries to talk about the future. Holdren is playing a key role in this conversation. And as he does, Ehrlich says, an army of activists are using his old work to denounce and distract him. "On the other hand, John is a big boy, one of the most honored scientists in the world," Ehrlich says. "He knew what he was getting into. But it bothers me."

Nothing is more complicated than the weather, and as scientists try to predict the future of climate change, they're bound to make mistakes. But Holdren is operating in a different world now — a world where complexity is a liability or an irritant, where nuance is ignored, and activists on all sides strip away context as they search for something that can kill your career when framed in the right way.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.