Thursday, December 10, 2009

Who Could Have Predicted?

A year ago I was gloating about President-elect Obama's choice of John Holdren to be his science advisor. And I'm still quite pleased with the choice.

But it appears that Holdren is in the cross-hairs of the anti-science crowd:
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.
But the reality isn't quite like that:
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.
The article does a good job talking about the nature of scientific investigation, and how politics doesn't handle that well. For example:
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.
And this:
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.
Good article, especially for the local alt-weekly. It does a good job of comparing Holdren's situation with that of Van Jones, who shares local roots.

Anyone who has actually met or talked with John Holdren, even a little bit, knows that he's not a crazed, genocidal, eco-terrorist. He's a calm, thoughtful, and intellectually honest man who doesn't shy away from the findings of science or the hard policy choices they might dictate. At the same time, it's easy to envision him dispassionately evaluating even extreme policy options and dismissing them without getting riled up. He's a scientist. That's what they do.

One of my favorite memories of Holdren's class at Berkeley was his lecture on carcinogens. Instead of either dismissing or hyping the risks, it was all about evaluating the research and the numbers, even if it meant that peanut butter or tasty, dark beer might turn out to be seriously dangerous. He was trying to teach us to think like scientists and evaluate the evidence.

But our current political discourse doesn't have much room for nuance or dispassion. It's all about sound and fury, which has no place in scientific discussion.

I know Holdren is capable of handling the storms that are already swarming around him. I just hope the same is true of those around him, because I think he can be a tremendous contributor to solving some of the key issues facing the country and the world.

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