A New Day for Science?

In his inaugural address, new President Barack Obama said he intended to “restore science to its rightful place” in government. Several days later, Obama again claimed a change in approach, saying, “Rigid ideology has overruled sound science. Special interests have overshadowed common sense. Rhetoric has not led to the hard work needed to achieve results.”

Scientists across the country and around the world are hailing this focus as a bright new day in environmental policy. Certainly, sound policy must be informed by sound science but the new administration, unfortunately, is just as susceptible as any other to the influence of ideology and rhetoric.

For example, Obama named Harvard University physicist John Holdren, a noted scientist with expertise on climate change, assistant to the president for science and technology. Last week, Holdren was also confirmed to the post of director of the Office of Science and Technology. But Holdren is no stranger to ideology. Holdren’s graphs and charts were a key component of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the former vice-president’s 2006 film that may have been compelling but also included plenty of cinematic rhetorical devices – so much so that British courts ruled that major scientific errors in the film, based on “alarmism and exaggeration,” must be clarified by school teachers wishing to show the film as science.

Holdren comes well recommended by author Paul Ehrlich, who commented that in his position in the White House, Holdren will be able to use his brilliance to try to save the world. Ehrlich, an entomologist, is probably best known for his 1968 book The Population Bomb. In this Malthusian manifesto, Ehrlich contended that population growth was outstripping the earth’s ability to support the human race, and predicted famines of “unbelievable proportions.” A ballpark figure for the number of Ehrlich’s prophecies that were actually fulfilled is zero.

Ehrlich has known Holdren for many years. During the “energy crisis” of the 1980s, Ehrlich and Holdren, along with another physicist, John Harte, took up economist Julian Simon on his challenge to wager over the future of resource scarcity. In 1990, Ehrlich, Holdren and Harte had to pay up, since each of the five metals selected for the bet had fallen in price since 1980, indicating that those resources had not in fact become scarcer despite an increase in population of more than 800 million.

Clearly, science is not immune from ideology, nor from exaggeration, alarmism, and rhetoric. Few exemplify this better than NASA climatologist James Hansen, who has repeatedly used his post to advance his own ideological interpretation of the science. In an open letter to the new president, Dr. Hansen warns of climate change “eliminating coastal cities and historical sites, creating havoc, hundreds of millions of refugees, and impoverishing nations” and urges immediate action, including a tax on carbon emissions. Obviously, such a tax is clearly not a science issue.

It is also noteworthy that Carol Browner, President Obama’s pick for Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, a new post being dubbed the “climate czar,” is not a scientist. Browner is an attorney and bureaucrat who ran the Environmental Protection Agency during both terms of the Clinton Administration.

Of course, policy cannot be exclusively science driven. Science can provide us the best answers that our current understanding allows, but can’t provide the comprehensive analysis of social and economic implications. Many of the environmental issues confronting the new administration are ones for which the best science still renders a high degree of uncertainty. By itself, science is insufficient in helping to balance this uncertainty with risks, costs, and benefits.

Environmental policy must be informed by science, but that science should at least be free from alarmism and rhetoric. Despite proclamations to the contrary, it remains an open question whether that will be the case in the Obama Administration.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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