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Hold Off On Holdren (Again)

The Latest Distraction from Actual Science Policy

John Holdren speaking at the National Academies of Science SOURCE: Conservatives have found another ludicrous charge to hurl against the president’s science adviser.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

Last year, when we first learned that Harvard physicist John Holdren would serve as president Obama’s science adviser, I wrote a column about some of the baseless attacks that were being flung at him. They were pretty silly charges, easily refuted—but I had no idea what conservatives would come up with once Holdren had taken office.

On Fox News on Monday, Sean Hannity inaugurated a series looking at Obama’s policy “czars,” describing them as “a select group of unvetted, unconfirmed individuals who are now at the helm of a shadow government right here in the U.S.” His first example was Holdren—a very poor choice, as it happens, as Holdren was indeed confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  “[Obama has] skirted the Senate confirmation process and has empowered individuals to see major offices now within the federal government, many of whom operate only under the supervision of the White House itself,” bleated Hannity. Who does his research?

Hannity then went on to describe Holdren as a “radical” and intone that he’s anti-American, wants to shut down our economy, and so on. But that’s really nothing compared to the other attacks that have surfaced online of late—and that have now made their way into the right wing Washington Times.

In 1977, more than thirty years ago, Holdren was the third author (with Paul and Anne Ehrlich) of a textbook entitled Ecoscience: Population, Resources, and Environment. It was a gigantic tome, fully 1,051 pages in length. In one vast 66 page chapter devoted to “Population Policies,” the authors surveyed a gamut of measures that had been undertaken or considered to control human population growth—including the most extreme. Those included coercive or “involuntary fertility control” measures, such as forced abortions and sterilizations.

However, to describe these measures is different from advocating them. And in fact, the Ehrlichs and Holdren concluded by arguing that noncoercive measures were what they suppported: “A far better choice, in our view, is to expand the use of milder methods of influencing family size preferences”—such as birth control and access to abortions. In fairness, their text does read as dated today, ripe for quote mining. They were writing in very different times thirty years ago; but even if they were defending these positions then (and they weren’t), that hardly means that they do today.

But you may as well forget about context—historical or textual—when dealing with attack dogs. A website called Zombietime scanned passages of the textbook online, and intoned, “Forced abortions. Mass sterilization. A ‘Planetary Regime’ with the power of life and death over American citizens. The tyrannical fantasies of a madman? Or merely the opinions of the person now in control of science policy in the United States?” The information zinged around, and eventually made its way to the Washington Times, which wrote of Ecoscience: “Several selections from the book have been highlighted at blogs critical of Mr. Holdren, particularly passages that appear to advocate sterilization, forced abortions and consideration of an ‘armed international organization, a global analogue of a police force’ for population enforcement capabilities.”

Only at the end of an article insinuating that these were Holdren’s positions did the Times actually quote the staff of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, which then refuted all the claims.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich have also refuted the charges—they sent out an email observing that “We were not then, never have been, and are not now ‘advocates’ of the Draconian measures for population limitation described—but not recommended—in the book’s 60-plus small-type pages cataloging the full spectrum of population policies that, at the time, had either been tried in some country or analyzed by some commentator.” In his Senate confirmation hearing—yes, Fox, there was one—Holdren also rejected the idea that he supports government-mandated efforts at population control.

But wait, you may be wondering: How do I know that the Ehrlichs are right about the their 1977 text, and not the conservatives? Well, because I walked over to the Engineering Library on the Princeton University campus, where I’m located, and got the book. And I can see how one could misread a text this old—from such a different time. But nevertheless, the criticism of Holdren today on this basis is exceedingly thin and stretched. The book is three decades old; Holdren isn’t its first author; it takes a stance against such policies; and neither Holdren nor the Ehrlichs support these policies today, either. Couldn’t we talk about something that’s actually important and contemporary?

Holdren was just inducted as a foreign member of the British Royal Society—a huge honor. Oh, and he and other top Obama policymakers just released a critically important report on the impacts of climate change on the United States. Don’t expect Fox News segments on the importance of the latter.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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