December 22, 2008

PICK ANY MALTHUSIAN AND YOU'VE CHOSEN BADLY

Flawed Science Advice for Obama? (John Tierney, 12/22/08, NY Times)

[Barack Obama's science advisor, John P.] Holdren, now a physicist at Harvard, was one of the experts in natural resources whom Paul Ehrlich enlisted in his famous bet against the economist Julian Simon during the “energy crisis” of the 1980s. Dr. Simon, who disagreed with environmentalists’ predictions of a new “age of scarcity” of natural resources, offered to bet that any natural resource would be cheaper at any date in the future. Dr. Ehrlich accepted the challenge and asked Dr. Holdren, then the co-director of the graduate program in energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, and another Berkeley professor, John Harte, for help in choosing which resources would become scarce.

In 1980 Dr. Holdren helped select five metals — chrome, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten — and joined Dr. Ehrlich and Dr. Harte in betting $1,000 that those metals would be more expensive ten years later. They turned out to be wrong on all five metals, and had to pay up when the bet came due in 1990.

Now, you could argue that anyone’s entitled to a mistake, and that mistakes can be valuable if people learn to become open to ideas that conflict with their preconceptions and ideology. That could be a useful skill in an advisor who’s supposed to be presenting the president with a wide range of views. Someone who’d seen how wrong environmentalists had been in ridiculing Dr. Simon’s predictions could, in theory, become more open to dissent from today’s environmentalist orthodoxy. But I haven’t seen much evidence of such open-mindedness in Dr. Holdren.

Consider what happened when a successor to Dr. Simon, Bjorn Lomborg, published “The Skeptical Environmentalist” in 2001. Dr. Holdren joined in an an extraordinary attack on the book in Scientific American — an attack that I thought did far more harm to the magazine’s reputation than to Dr. Lomborg’s.


It's not as if they're going to establish the Cult of Reason as our national church.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2008 3:38 PM
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