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.”

The meme went viral from there. Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin denounced Holdren as an environmental wacko. Sean Hannity went on his prime-time Fox News show and said, “We know, for example, there’s John Holdren, the science and technology advisor, who has advocated compulsory abortion.” Investors Business Daily published an editorial that declared, “Our new science czar, John Holdren, once backed compulsory sterilization and forced abortion as part of a government population-control program. The only thing missing was the Soylent Green recipe.”

Weirdly, this subject had already come and gone during Holdren’s confirmation process months earlier. Louisiana Senator David Vitter explicitly asked him about it, and Holdren definitively stated that he thought that the government should never be involved in any population-control measures. But such is the nature of mass media that suddenly, everyone rediscovered the issue and raised hell all over again. Even now, every few days a different news organ will be shocked to discover Ecoscience and publish a story brimming with outrage.

Holdren’s press representative Rick Weiss refused to discuss the matter, clearly exasperated by the fact that he has to talk about it yet again. But he forwarded a recent public statement from Holdren, in which he says that this was just a theoretical discussion in an academic textbook that was published thirty freakin’ years ago. In addition, Holdren’s office pointed out that he and Ehrlich clearly rejected such schemes in the same textbook, citing “obvious moral objections.”

In fact, most of the tone of book was fairly bloodless when discussing such ideas. And if you talk to Ehrlich today, he still thinks that overpopulation is a serious problem. While he doesn’t advocate putting sterilization drugs in drinking water, he doesn’t exactly reject that strategy, either. “If it were possible, safely, biologically to give everybody something … before they had a child, that would in my view be the most ethically positive thing we can do,” he said in a recent interview. “So, of course, I don’t reject it with moral horror. “

Nevertheless, Ehrlich notes that his and Holdren’s book ultimately rejected coercive population-control mechanisms. “Toward the end, we say the only thing we advocate is gentle government pressure, plus access to contraception,” Ehrlich said. And the field of population studies has advanced tremendously since then, he notes. “John and I wouldn’t write what we wrote in 1977,” he said. “Things change.”

If anyone interested in learning more about Holdren’s views had bothered to call Ehrlich, the latter said he would gladly have offered this nuanced perspective, teasing out the truth from the hyperactive rhetoric and context-free textbook excerpts. But despite all the ink spilled on the subject — all the television and radio segments that have discussed Ecoscience and Holdren — exactly one reporter has ever tried to discuss this matter with Ehrlich. After all, all the journalists and pundits needed was a few words floating in a vacuum.

Just like with Van Jones.

The experience of Jones is relevant not just because he’s from the East Bay, and his situation so perfectly parallels that of Holdren’s. He matters because when the right-wing attack dogs went after Jones as a communist, the ammunition they used came from right here, the pages of the East Bay Express.

In fact, the snippet that ultimately doomed Van Jones was written by my wife, the reporter Eliza Strickland. I remember watching Eliza struggle over the profile of Jones, striving to capture the complexities of a fascinating, occasionally troubling, man. The portrait of Jones that emerged was one of a man who was charismatic, thoughtful, and passionate, but also sometimes manipulative and calculating, capable of hiding his real agenda and betraying his friends if he had to. The story tracked his slow growth from a youthful radical into a more mature and contemplative adult, the same process we all naturally undergo.

After publishing the article in 2005, Eliza watched as Jones’ career suddenly went into overdrive. All at once, the national media positively fell in love with him, and with the idea of a charismatic black leader reframing environmentalism as a matter of civil rights and the empowerment of impoverished urban neighborhoods. That he can also be ruthless or political never made it into, say, Elizabeth Kolbert’s profile of Jones in The New Yorker.

“It was certainly disconcerting to see him being characterized as the embodiment of all we want in society,” Eliza recalled recently. “The article I wrote certainly praised his skills, but also questioned his methods. But that didn’t matter, because he had become an icon. It was a little frustrating to see his character reduced to that.”

But that was nothing compared to what came next. Once Jones made it into the White House, the right-wing media and blogosphere stumbled across Strickland’s story. Out of a 6,100-word article, they seized on one snippet, in which Jones was briefly radicalized when the cops busted him at a Rodney King demonstration and he met some interesting radicals in jail. Suddenly, the right-wing media had a narrative: One of Obama’s czars wasn’t a complicated human being, but a cartoon communist.

For a brief moment, my wife’s story was among the world’s most famous news articles. You couldn’t read The Wall Street Journal or listen to talk radio without some reference to it. “According to the East Bay Express, yadda yadda yadda.” What had been a nuanced portrait of the man was now just a bullet aimed straight at his heart. One of Jones’ supporters even wrote this paper, calling on the editors to repudiate the character assassination — since, after all, we were indirectly responsible for it.

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.

Just ask Van Jones.


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